Three years of negotiations between the state’s leading government transparency agency and people who lobby the Legislature has produced a “peace-in-the-valley” agreement to tighten disclosure rules.
The deal between the Campaign Finance Board and an association of legislative lobbyists is found in Senate File 2121 that has bipartisan sponsorship. It would update decades-old rules that required lobbyists to disclose how much they spent on phones and postage but did not require them to disclose many details about which issues they were trying to influence.
Jeff Sigurdson, the executive director of the Campaign Finance Board, said the lobbying program was one of the disclosure areas he supervised when he joined the board in 2000. Since becoming the agency head in 2016, he has been trying to make the information provided to the public more meaningful.
“Disclosure is important,” he said Wednesday. “But the disclosure we’re currently getting doesn’t mean anything. I do hope the Legislature takes action.”
A 2021 attempt faced opposition from the Minnesota Government Relations Council, which kept it from advancing. The current bill is sponsored by Senate Elections Committee Chair Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan and Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch. Koran called it a peace-in-the-valley agreement, legislative parlance for deals struck by previously disagreeing parties.
Sigurdson said the current lobbying reporting falls heavily on administrative expenses — office rent, phone and telegraph charges, travel costs — but even that might be divided up among many clients that hired the lobbyist. As such, “nobody goes to our website to look at lobbyist reports,” he said.
The bill requires more specifics in twice-a-year lobbyist reports and the annual reports by the companies and organizations that hire lobbyists. It would enhance the requirement for lobbyists to say which legislative issues they worked on for which clients. It would first require general categories such as K-12 education and then narrow that down to more specific subjects of interest such as charter schools or the funding formula, Sigurdson said.
Sigurdson explained the purpose of the bill during a meeting of Carlson’s committee. “The point is you could go to the website and say, ‘show me all the lobbyists who are interested in K-12 education and within that, who cares about charter schools. For the first time, the public will be able to access the topics that are being lobbied on by these associations instead of just seeing how much they paid for paper clips.”
Unlike the 2021 version, it does not require lobbyists to list the bill numbers of bills they are actively lobbying, another casualty of the Minnesota Legislature’s tendency to combine many bills into large omnibus bills.
The bill would also require lobbyists to list when they lobby state agencies, including the Public Utilities Commission, and on what topics. While current law requires lobbyists to check a box saying they are lobbying a state agency or one of the local governments in the seven-county metro area, it doesn’t require them to say which agency or which local government and on what topic. That would change.
A separate bill, Senate File 2107, would add to current law that requires elected officials to report income, property and investments as a way to patrol conflicts of interest. The bill would require elected officials to report property and investments owned separately by a spouse. That broadens public knowledge about potential conflicts of interest between the official and their official acts, Sigurdson said.
“It’s unlikely that the public official would be unaware of property or investments held by a spouse,” he said. “If they had an issue in front of them that might impact those investments, the public at least has to consider whether or not they need to recuse themselves and whether or not the public should be alarmed by them taking a vote on that issue.”
A deal, but sticking points remain
Abbey Bryduck, the immediate past president of the Minnesota Governmental Relations Council, endorsed SF2121 that her group of about 500 members had helped negotiate after opposing a similar bill in 2019.
But one key legislator who has often been the sponsor of government transparency bills thinks the deal doesn’t do enough. Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, has his own bill that would go further. His Senate File 1580 would require lobbyists to report how much they are being paid by the organizations that hire them. It would also close what Marty called “the biggest loophole” in state disclosure law: the failure to require lawmakers with paid consulting contracts with lobbyists to have to report that income.
“While a lobbyist or an interest group could not give you so much as a small gift, they could hire you to consult with them,” Marty said of current law. His bill would require elected officials to report consulting gigs.
“Maybe nobody in the Legislature has ever done this, but you could be working as a consultant or an independent contractor making 100,000 bucks a year and nobody has any way of knowing it,” Marty said. The bill also would require both lobbyists and candidates to report campaign contributions. Now, only the candidate makes those reports.
Finally, Marty’s bill would require the total amount a lobbyist received from each association or employer to work on an issue. So if an association hired a contract lobbyist to work an issue for $100,000, that total would be reported. Now, only money spent in the handful of expenditure categories is detailed.
“If someone is hiring lobbyists to come here and lobby us, it seems to me the public has a right to know what is going on,” Marty said. “The reason we have disclosure is so people can figure out who is working on what and what connections there are.”
While Bryduck, who lobbies for the Minnesota Asphalt Pavement Association, supported SF 2121, she opposed Marty’s bill, especially the new requirement that lobbyists would have to report total compensation from each client, not just those specific amounts such as travel, entertainment and support staff.
“This is a significant new reporting requirement that would cause serious disruption to the contracting lobbyist community,” she said. “Clients and colleagues alike would see the actual personal income of this group of people and it could upend many contractual relationships.”
She said if potential clients know how much existing clients are paying a lobbyist, they would be able to use it in negotiating their own payments. “Lobbyists are not elected officials, nor are they public servants. There should be a compelling public interest to require disclosure of terms between private entities, which we do not believe has been demonstrated.”
Eric Hyland, who represents a handful of clients before the Legislature, said the Marty bill, which is presented as an exercise in the public’s right to know, could infringe on the constitutional right to petition the government.
“Our clients hire us to exercise some of those rights here at the Legislature,” Hyland said. “There ought to be a pretty significant bar when the Legislature is thinking about imposing more duties on those people who are here exercising their rights.”
None of the bills were passed by the committee and were instead held over for when the committee prepares an omnibus bill later in session. Koran, however, said he favors the campaign finance board bill because it resulted in talks between the agency and the lobbyist groups.
“There’s a little more peace in the valley on that bill,” Koran said.