Taxpayer-funded lobbying by local MN governments doubles in pandemic

The pandemic may be over but the quest to continue the seemingly unlimited amounts of federal cash doled out to state and local governments the last two years has only begun. The number of Minnesota counties and cities with taxpayer-funded lobbyists on the lookout for more handouts in DC doubled during the pandemic. But MinnPost points out it’s something of a crap shoot at taxpayer expense.

After the avalanche of pandemic money poured into state and local coffers, the approval of a massive federal infrastructure bill intensified the desire for a hired gun in Washington. In the first quarter of 2021, about a dozen Minnesota cities and counties had Washington representation. According to financial disclosure forms filed in the U.S. Senate that nearly doubled a year later. In the first of quarter of 2022 nearly two dozen Minnesota counties and towns had hired lobbyists.

Julia Payson, an assistant professor of politics at New York University and author of “When Cities Lobby,” called the phenomenon a double-edged sword.

“Lobbying is a little bit like gambling; it will get your feet in the door but there’s no guarantee you’ll win,” Payson said.

The return of earmarks after being banned by a Republican Congress a decade ago epitomizes the spending free-for-all that local governments hope to keep flowing and capitalize on. The Twin Cities suburb of Lakeville has even teamed up with Dakota County to use the same lobbyist in hopes of increasing their odds.

“There’s a lot of federal money going through the system,” [Lakeville City Administrator Justin] Miller said. “We need more understanding of that system.”

He also said his city decided it was time to hire a lobbyist because Congress had reinstated earmarks after a near 10-year ban on these projects. Since lawmakers are limited in the number of special projects they can ask for, there’s plenty of competition. So, Lakeville hopes its new lobbyist is persuasive.

Miller said he wanted his Washington lobbyist to identify programs that could benefit Lakeville and help with the complicated applications for those programs. At the top of the city’s agenda is money to expand an interchange between County Road 5 and Interstate-35 and a new freight storage yard, Miller said.

Taxpayers get hit coming and going. Tens of thousands of public dollars go to lobbying firms contracting with local governments to secure taxpayer-funded projects that run in the millions of dollars or more.

Lakeville is paying $10,000 a quarter for its D.C. lobbyist.  Dakota County is paying $20,000 – $10,000 to Downs and $20,000 to Aurora.  Most of the Minnesota cities and counties that have Washington representation are paying about the same, although some, like Washington County paid Downs Government Affairs $20,000 a quarter. That’s not a lot of money in the Washington lobbying world, but could, over time, strain a town budget.

In fact, one political science professor from American University expressed doubts as to whether many local governments ever get their taxpayers’ money’s worth.

He said cities and towns “hire people to tell them what’s going on and what to do.”

“But much of that money is wasted,” said [James] Thurber, who led a four-year study analyzing lobbying and ethics for the Committee for Economic Development and worked on lobbying reform in the Obama administration.

Thurber said cities and towns that hire lobbyists feel they are going to get back more money than they pay out.

“But nobody is measuring whether it’s worth it,” he said.