Minnesota’s local governments spent $8.7 million on lobbying activities in 2018, according to a report from the Minnesota state auditor's office.
The 2018 Local Government Lobbying Services report said this is a decrease of about $50,000, or 0.6%, from 2017.
“It’s efficient to be represented by someone who is there (at the Capitol) every day,” said Joel Carlson, who owns a legal research and government affairs business.
Carlson, who has been working as a contracted lobbyist since 1989 and has worked with local government throughout his career, said lobbyists help legislators hear local municipalities' voices when bills come through that would affect them. His employers have included West St. Paul, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, Inver Grove Heights and Fergus Falls. He also has worked for companies such as Comcast, Uber, DraftKings and FanDuel. He earned $124,411 from working with local governments in 2018, according to the report.
Local governments paid dues of about $12.5 million to local government associations. These government associations represent the interests of dues-paying members before legislative, administrative or other governmental bodies. Of this $12.5 million paid to these associations, about $4.1 million was spent on lobbying.
Other lobbying expenses resulted from hiring contracted lobbyists or from directly employing staff lobbyists at a cost of $4.6 million. Of this $4.6 million, 37% was spent by cities, 29% by counties, 8% by education entities and 26% by other local entities, such as metropolitan agencies, towns and other special service districts.
Carlson said local governments often choose to hire lobbyists rather than directly employ them because the employees don’t always have the time.
While contracted lobbyists are more common, 11 entities in Minnesota rely solely on staff lobbyists or both staff and contracted lobbyists. According to the report, ThaoMee Xiong, the director of intergovernmental relations for St. Paul, was compensated the most out of the staff lobbyists with almost $140,000 reported.
Xiong’s salary is less than $100,000 according to Liz Xiong, the press secretary of St. Paul's mayor's office, but she said the business office includes employee deductions and employer-paid benefits, including health insurance, when reporting lobbying expenses.
Liz Xiong and ThaoMee Xiong were reluctant to discuss ThaoMee’s experience as a lobbyist or her lobbying duties. However, ThaoMee did say that infrastructure issues were very important in the 2018 legislative session. The second year of the biennium is when the Legislature provides funding for infrastructure projects, ThaoMee said. Two major projects included a $58 million ramp and $46 million improvements to the Kellogg Boulevard-Third Street Bridge.
“If we don’t have the resources to fund the infrastructure, nothing will be done,” ThaoMee said.
North Dakota, unlike Minnesota, does not release a full report on local government lobbying expenses, and local government lobbying expenses are not available on government websites.
Freedom of Information Act requests on lobbying expenses to Grand Forks, Grand Forks County and the Grand Forks School District were answered within a week. None of these entities have employed staff lobbyists or hired contracted lobbyists.
All three entities paid dues to government associations. Grand Forks paid $24,399 to the North Dakota League of Cities, and Grand Forks County paid $11,755 to the North Dakota Association of Counties for legislative support. The school district paid the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders $22,400 and paid the North Dakota School Boards Association $8,510.
Tracy Jentz, of the Grand Forks school district, said that Larry Nybladh, the former superintendent, may have testified on behalf of school district-related bills but did not during the 2017 legislative session. In 2017, the school district reimbursed Nybladh for a little over $400 for attending NDCEL and NDSBA conferences in Bismarck.
East Grand Forks spent a total of $24,322 on dues to government associations, of which $8,867 was used for lobbying. The East Grand Forks school district spent $8,603 on association dues, of which $2,438 was for lobbying. Polk County spent $12,272 on association dues and $3,244 of that money was spent on lobbying.
The local government entities that spent the most in Minnesota were in Hennepin County. Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board ranked high in spending, followed by Saint Paul in the No. 4 spot.