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Lobby value hit or miss

ST. PAUL - Moorhead officials say they received a good return on their $63,000 investment for lobbying state officials last year. But without naming cities, the state auditor and a key legislator say some cities may spend too much tax money on lo...

ST. PAUL - Moorhead officials say they received a good return on their $63,000 investment for lobbying state officials last year.

But without naming cities, the state auditor and a key legislator say some cities may spend too much tax money on lobbyists. An auditor's report shows local Minnesota governments spent $3.3 million to lobby state officials last year, 2.9 percent more than in 2003.

State Auditor Pat Anderson questions whether she received accurate information about how much lobbying really costs, so the amount spent may be more than reported.

"Local governments need to explore whether their level of expenditures on lobbying services hinders their ability to fund other priorities," her report says.

Spending on lobbyists varies widely across the state, although cities typically outspend counties, schools and townships.


Moorhead's cost for lobbying is among the highest for a community outside the Twin Cities. Nearly $40,000 was paid to associations such as the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and League of Minnesota Cities to lobby on statewide issues. Most of the other $23,000 went to a St. Paul-based lobbying firm to handle Moorhead-specific issues.

Taxpayers in Moorhead also funded part of Clay County's $4,240 and Moorhead schools' $996 in lobbying costs.

The spending is needed, Moorhead City Manager Bruce Messelt said.

lobby jump

"Moorhead is four hours away from the state Capitol and it is impossible for us to get there in a timely manner," he said.

Paid lobbyists are important, added Republican Rep. Morrie Lanning, who was president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities near the end of his 22-year tenure as Moorhead mayor.

"Local units of government can't park themselves down here," he said.

Anderson and Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said such arguments are valid, but in a time when cities complain that Local Government Aid cuts are hurting their budgets, they question rising lobbying costs.


Messelt said Moorhead's lobbyists more than paid for themselves. For instance, he said, 2004 lobbying helped Moorhead get:

- $1 million to help repair the roof and do other work at the Hjemkomst Interpretive Center.

- Most of a $1.5 million border cities tax break package in a pending tax bill.

- No further cuts in Local Government Aid.

The current special session still is considering other items that could help Moorhead, Messelt said, including allowing the city to retain tax breaks that help attract businesses.

Lobbyists don't limit their work to twisting legislators' arms. Moorhead often is overshadowed by the much larger Fargo, the city manager said, so lobbyists continually remind economic development officials about Moorhead's potential.

One of the city's lobbyists recently helped make sure permits were in order as Moorhead prepares an economic development deal involving a gasoline station, Messelt added.

In looking at potential laws, Seifert said one question needs to be answered first: "How much (lobbying) is enough is the real key."


Seifert said one idea is to lower cities' Local Government Aid payments if they spend too much on lobbying. Or maybe a cap could be placed on lobbying expenditures, he said.

The easiest bill to pass would be giving the public more details about lobbying costs, Seifert said. But getting anything passed will be hard, he admitted.

"It's a tough nut to crack," Seifert said. "A lot of the members have friends in the lobbying community."

Lanning said he does not "foresee any significant or substantial changes."

Tim Flaherty, who heads the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities' lobbying efforts, said he agrees with Anderson and Seifert that some law changes are needed. The coalition is an organization that lobbies for 72 cities and provides services such as labor relations. His company also is the one Moorhead hires for its own lobbying.

Flaherty is concerned that Anderson is trying to count more of his expenses as lobbying than does the board regulating lobbyists. Some of his work for the coalition, for instance, is not connected to lobbying, he said, but Anderson would lump that non-lobbying work in with lobbying-specific expenses.

"There probably should be more clarification on what is reportable and a consistent system of record keeping so someone can actually audit it and tell if you are doing it correctly," Flaherty said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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