News

Lobby money flows in Minnesota

http://www.startribune.com/stories/587/5556119.html

Pat Doyle,  Star Tribune

August 12, 2005

Minnesota ranked fourth in the nation last year in reported spending by corporations, unions, Indian tribes and other groups seeking to influence state or local governments to protect their interests on issues such as taxes, gambling and health care, a government-watchdog group reports.

Only California, Texas and New York -- states with much larger populations and government budgets -- reported more money spent on lobbying than did Minnesota in 2004, according to the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, the group gave Minnesota a "barely passing" grade in the effectiveness of its lobbyist disclosure laws, saying the state provides the public with less information about lobbying than do many other states. It ranked Minnesota 20th on disclosure.

"We are behind a lot of states and were at one time at the forefront," said David Schultz, a professor as Hamline University in St. Paul.

Schultz teaches the legislative process at Hamline and is a former president of Common Cause Minnesota. "We've stood still and the world has passed us," he said.

The Center for Public Integrity released its analysis of lobbying expenses this week with some caveats. Eight states did not provide usable spending reports on lobbying in 2004. Massachusetts -- ranked seventh -- reported only half a year of expenses and might have passed Minnesota if it had made more figures available.

And some of the states that did report omitted some of their lobbying expenses, such as the salaries of lobbyists -- usually the single biggest item. But only Florida and Illinois would be likely to move into the ranks of the top-spending states if salaries were included in their total lobbying expenses, said Leah Rush, director of state projects for the center who helped analyze the results.

Spending on lobbying in Minnesota reached $50.2 million in 2004. California, which has seven times the population and a much bigger budget than Minnesota, led all states with $212.7 million in spending, followed by Texas at $162.1 million and New York at $144 million. Trailing Minnesota among the top 10 states were Maryland, at $38.6 million, Washington at $34.9 million, Massachusetts at $31.1 million, Connecticut at $27.6 million, Michigan at $27.2 million and New Jersey at $25.1 million.

The center said all of the states in the top 10 included salaries when reporting their lobbying expenses.

Part of the process

In Minnesota, the closely divided Legislature of recent years -- where DFLers control the Senate and Republicans the House, both by narrow margins -- may help explain some of the heavy spending.

"Lobbyists probably think they need to do more lobbying than if one party dominated," said John Brandl, a professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and an ex-legislator.

Schultz also cited the diminished influence of parties on the political process as an explanation for heavy lobbying.

"Where interest groups are strong, parties are weak," Schultz said. "One of the arguments you can make in this state is that in the last 10 or 15 years the strength of the major parties has weakened. That has really created opportunity for interest groups to become that much more powerful in the state."

Interest groups may be spending more by putting more emphasis on hiring lobbyists to counter restrictions on spending for meals and other gifts for legislators, said Gary DeCramer, a former state senator who teaches a course on political advocacy at the Humphrey Institute.

Brandl said lobbying is an important element in the political process, often helping inform legislators on complicated issues. But the spending level and limited transparency could be problems, he said.

In grading states on lobbying disclosure, the center scored them on eight major criteria, including how they defined a lobbyist, how lobbyists had to disclose spending, the level of disclosure required of their clients, the degree to which documents are available electronically, overall access to the public and enforcement.

Minnesota scored 62 out of a possible 100. A score lower than 60 was considered a failing grade.

Pat Doyle is at pdoyle@startribune.com.

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