Lobbyists spent $67 million in Minnesota last year, Dayton says it ‘skews legislation’

By Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
St. Paul Pioneer Press

Lobbying interests spent nearly $67 million last year trying to sway Minnesota officials, according to reports released Thursday.

Lobbyists  have been on the rise over the past decade, according to state reports. State and local hearings are rife with those seeking to make their clients’ voices heard.

“I know that all you have to do is walk down the corridors here, you’ll see a lot of people here that are not volunteering,” Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton said from his Capitol reception room. “It’s a question of balance. Do people have the right to representation? Yes. But if the only people who are represented here are the people who have the money to pay somebody to do it for them, then that becomes a problem and it skews legislation.”

According to data from the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board on March 16, the groups that spent the most on lobbying were business interests.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $2.8 million and the Minnesota Business Partnership spent $1.3 million. Both represent employers across the state.

The chamber’s spending was not only the most spent by any single group last year, it was perhaps the most any group has ever spent on lobbying in Minnesota, according to records going back to 2002.

Laura Bordelon, a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce senior vice president, said the chamber had a few extra expenses last year — including the purchase of a database, some of the cost of which counted as lobbying spending. Despite the big spending, she said the lobbying team is largely just five people, who cover a large swath of issues from regulations to education to transportation to energy.

“I don’t consider us a big kahuna,” she said.

Utility businesses were also big spenders last year. Xcel Energy spent $2.1 million, Otter Tail Power spent nearly $1.3 million and Enbridge Energy Partners, which has been seeking to build a Minnesota pipeline, spent nearly $1.2 million. Most of the energy companies’ cash paid for their interaction with the Public Utilities Commission or legal action related to the commission’s regulatory work.

Enbridge, for instance, spent 77 percent of its lobbying funds in 2016 on PUC-related work. Its spending was down from 2015, when it laid out nearly $2.2 million. The dip was the result, a spokeswoman said, of  its decision to end its effort to win approval for the Sandpiper Pipeline, planned for northern Minnesota.

Lobbying on behalf of cities also cost big bucks last year. In 2016, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities spent about $700,000 and the League of Minnesota Cities spent nearly $660,000. The two groups represent shared interests of the state’s cities and have consistent appearances in front of the Minnesota Legislature.

Education Minnesota, the teachers union, also perennially leverages funds to sway lawmakers and others. In 2016, it spent $440,000 on lobbying, according to reports filed this week. In years when the Legislature and the governor craft budgets, like 2017, the union group’s spending tends to double.

Many lobbying groups also spend significant sums to influence the outcome of elections.

Education Minnesota spent about $3 million on last year’s election, and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce spent at least $1.9 million related to the 2016 Minnesota campaigns. Those campaign-related dollars are not included in the lobbying reports filed this week.