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State board proposals would change how lobbying activities are reported in Minnesota

Among other reforms, one proposal would require lobbyists — and groups that hire them — to say how much they spend on television or radio ads advocating for or against particular legislation. 

The Campaign Finance Board meets Friday to consider changes that would make reporting by lobbyists more useful and more transparent.
The Campaign Finance Board meets Friday to consider changes that would make reporting by lobbyists more useful and more transparent.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The Minnesota board that oversees the lobbying of state and local governments is considering changes that would make reporting by lobbyists more useful and more transparent.

Both the current rules and the proposed rules are complex, but here’s one summary: lobbyists would no longer have to report overhead costs (including “telephone and telegraph” expenditures), but they would have to report the actual bill numbers and ordinances they pushed for, as well as which clients they worked for and what they did to influence the result.

In addition, for the first time, lobbyists — and groups that hire them — would have to say how much they spend on grassroots lobbying, such as TV and radio ads that urge residents to call their legislator and tell them to vote yes or no on particular bills. Also for the first time: lobbying of the Public Utilities Commission would have to be broken out from lobbying of other state administrative agency’s rule-making. That’s in response to the large lobbying efforts over permits for the Line 3 oil pipeline project.

The Campaign Finance Board meets Friday to consider the changes. But the board only recommends; legislation is required to make any changes to the rules that determine how much information residents of the state get about who spends how much to influence legislators, administrative agencies and local councils and boards. (Update: The board Friday morning approved the recommendations on a 5-0 vote.)

Gaps in reporting

In a memo to the Campaign Finance Board last year, board Executive Director Jeff Sigurdson said the current rules are “both limited to financial information and focused on reporting details that do not help the public understand the relationship between lobbyists and the making of public policy.”

Sigurdson wrote that lobbyist reports have little connection between what lobbyists do, what their employers spend and the public decisions that are made. He said the current reports “may even promote the false narrative that those lobbying disbursements are just a big pot of money thrown at elected officials, which fuels public cynicism of government decision making.”

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Sigurdson has been with the state Campaign Finance Board since 2000 and has been executive director since 2016. He said in an interview this week that while campaign finance reporting is more clear, “I don’t understand what is being gained by lobbying disbursement reports. The big questions, or even the smaller questions, are simply not being addressed.”

One gap, he said, at the local government level. A lobbyist is required to disclose that they did something at that level — but not at which city or county, or what issue, or even when. “That makes it pointless for us to say that we have lobbying reporting for metropolitan governments,” he said.

Jeff Sigurdson
Jeff Sigurdson
Jeremy Estenson, a registered lobbyist and the immediate past president of the Minnesota Government Relations Council, the lobbying industry’s professional association in the state, said the group has been working with board staff on the changes.

“Some of the changes I would consider as modernizing — having to report your cellphone bill and things like that — we have no objections,” Estenson said. But there are also some more contentious issues, such as the definition of who is a lobbyist and therefore subject to the reporting law.

One is a change in how so-called citizen lobbyists are treated. Now, someone who isn’t paid by another entity and spends more than $250 of their own money must register. The board wants to increase that threshold to $3,000.

“There are a lot of people now whose profession or full-time hobby has turned into advocacy such that they want to modify legislation,” Estenson said. “From our perspective, we want to put everyone who is doing what we’re doing on an equal foot. It may make reporting easier for some people,” he said of the citizen lobbyist change. “However, I’m not sure it’s consistent with the goal here of putting some daylight on how an idea becomes a law and who is responsible.”

The biggest objections surround the campaign finance board’s proposals to require bill-by-bill, client-by-client reporting of an individual lobbyist’s day, especially given the use of omnibus bills at the Legislature. Those are the end-of-session bills where dozens or even hundreds of bills are rolled a single large bill.

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“Here’s an example,” Estenson said. “I work for a client. I get bill X introduced. Bill X goes through the committee process, is modified in such a way that my client is now neutral on the bill and then it gets merged into the omnibus bill and at this point I don’t care anymore.

Jeremy Estenson
Jeremy Estenson
“The more granular you get, the more difficult it is to accurately represent any given conversation. Interpreting the world of the capitol in a binary, ones and zeros way, is the most-certain way to misrepresent what actually goes on. It’s not zero and one, it’s every single number.”

“We are all for coming up with something that works,” he said. 

But the council members don’t want to face punishments when they act in good faith. “This is a reputation business,” Estenson said. “Nobody wants to be accused of not following the rules, particularly when they intended to follow the rules.”

What’s being proposed

The current system requires two types of reports that often do not mesh very well. Twice a year, lobbyists report each client they represented and breaks down what they spent by category. This is where the cell phone, office rent and travel are reported, divvied up by multiple clients. 

“I am unsure of the meaningful disclosure gained from knowing the cost of a lobbyist’s cell phone plan, much less from a calculation that splits the cost of the plan among multiple clients,” Sigurdson wrote the board last year.

A second batch of reports comes from lobbyists’ employers, such as companies, unions or trade associations. These reports say how much an organization paid lobbyists in general, but they aren’t broken down by individual lobbyists. 

Sigurdson reported that the two reports often arrive at vastly different sums. In 2018, for example, the total reported by all the individual lobbyists for their work was $9.57 million, while the total reported by all of the employers was $78.8 million. 

Three main changes

Currently, paid lobbyists have to register the issues they intend to work on. But the categories are either so general or so specific that they don’t provide much help for anyone trying to watch who is trying to influence decisions, Sigurdson said. 

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For example, the staff has to remind applicants that simply listing “general legislation” on the form is not sufficient in reporting subject matter. At the same time, Sigurdson’s database contains 2,326 different issue subjects and 1,449 different associations trying to affect policy. 

Instead, he is proposing a two-step method. A lobbyist would pick one of the general categories provided by the board— education, civil law, taxes or energy, for example — and then provide a more-specific topic: charter schools, tort reform, commercial property taxes or wind power, for example.

When it comes to reporting requirements, paid lobbyists must now report activities to which they devoted 25 percent or more of their time. But the current rules do not require them to say which bills or rules or local ordinances they worked on for a client. The latter would change under the proposed rules.

The campaign finance board staff recognizes that the accounting of time spent for lobbyists who represent multiple clients can be difficult. And Sigurdson recognizes that the Minnesota Legislature’s use of massive omnibus bills is problematic. So the proposal would ask that lobbyists use a “reasonable good-faith estimate” and acknowledges that the process relies on “the integrity of lobbyists to provide accurate reports on lobbying activity on behalf of their clients.”

Another proposal would affect how media expenditures are tracked. The current law requires individual lobbyists to report the purchase of advertising or other media on behalf of a client meant to influence legislation. That would continue, but the proposal expands the reporting to include the cost, a description of the media used and the specific subject of the ads.

“It’s an attempt to influence the opinion of the public on the issue. It seemed appropriate to give a little bit more direct information on how much was being spent on a TV ad or a series of radio ads,” he said.

‘Facilitating access’ changes off the table

A fourth area of change proposed by Sigurdson last year has been taken off the board agenda for now. That was a new rule — “facilitating access to public or local officials” — that would have expanded the definition of “lobbying” to include someone who only makes introductions or sets up meetings between lawmakers and those who want to meet with them. Currently, that is not considered lobbying and the person doing it does not have to register as a lobbyist. 

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Sigurdson considered that a gap in reporting. “For example, a former legislator is paid to make introductions and arrange meetings between public officials and lobbyists,” he wrote last year. Under the current rules, if the former legislator doesn’t attend the meeting or doesn’t speak on the issue at the meeting, they aren’t legally a lobbyist.

Some states have rules that require two years between those two activities, called revolving door bans. Minnesota does not. So a legislator can lobby the day after leaving office, providing less reason for them to restrict their activities to “facilitating access” in order to slip under the definition. 

Sigurdson said there was also confusion among some current lawmakers and staff members who thought the rule would require them to register as lobbyists if they set up meetings. It does not, but Sigurdson said he didn’t want the issue to distract the staff and board from working on the other lobbying changes.

“The reality is, especially in this session where all communication with members is probably either going to be on the phone or some sort of Zoom call, if I get 15 minutes I’m lucky,” Sigurdson said in an interview this week. “I’ve spent too much time talking about that proposal” rather than the more-substantive lobby reporting changes.