Lobbyists: Information & Influence at the state capitol

This is the first part of an ongoing series that will look at the impact of paid lobbyists on state politics in Minnesota.

By Jon Collins
Legislative Correspondent
Published: Feb. 6, 2009
Source: Mesabi Daily News

Amidst the showy press conferences and political three-ring-circuses of the Minnesota state Capitol, lobbyists are an almost invisible presence.

But, according to state data, registered lobbyists outnumber legislators by at least 4-to-1.

Their job is to provide information, advocate for legislation and exert pressure on lawmakers for decisions that benefit their employers.

Following Jack Abramoff and other high-profile lobbying scandals, even lobbyists admit they often rank below used car salesmen in the public’s estimation.

However, lobbyists also give lawmakers feedback about the perspectives of particular groups and industries — which helps to inform and influence lawmakers’ decisions.

In addition to representing huge, faceless industries, lobbyists also represent charitable organizations, or even groups that want to restrict lobbying.

But even on the state level, the connection between money and influence often arouses suspicion from the public.
In the last election cycle, it’s likely at least $50 million was spent on and by Minnesota state lobbyists for their salaries, political donations and association expenditures, which critics say can undermine the influence of normal citizens on their lawmakers.

Indiscretions…

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the national consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said people’s perception of lobbyists is exceedingly negative, largely due to many of the recent scandals that occurred on the federal level.

“Most people perceive lobbyists as being these cigar chomping moneybags, and quite frankly a lot of us were,” he said, “Most lobbyists are good people, who do try to provide information, we just have to change the way in which lobbying is done.”

But the original concept of lobbying — which is protected by the Constitution — allows citizens to interact with their elected representatives.

That sort of lobbying could be seen at the capitol last Wednesday when Minnesota motorcyclists flooded the building for the 6th annual Improve Motorcycle Safety day.

“You want that type of interaction without having to force the motorcyclists to register as lobbyists,” Holman said.
“You don’t want to get in the way at all of citizens being able to protest or make contact with officials.”

But lobbying gained its real reputation in recent years when politicians were plied with gifts, campaign donations and the prospect of highly-paid future employment in exchange for influence.

“The more effective lobbyists would use money to pedal their wares on Capitol Hill,” Holman said.

In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama was instrumental in pushing through lobbying reforms on the Congressional level that Holman says transformed the profession.

“We’ve required lobbyists and lobbyist’s organizations to file any campaign contributions they make or fundraising events they host…and all that information gets posted online,” he said. “We’ve opened up the books on lobbying activity and we have really severely cut off all the ethics abuses that were common.”

Information…

A joke circulating the state capitol asks how to distinguish lobbyists from the hordes of legislative assistants and journalists who abound in the building. The answer: Lobbyists dress better.

Lobbyists in Minnesota are defined as those who make over $3,000 from trying to influence the legislative process. They must register with the Minnesota Secretary of State and declare their political contributions and expenditures.
Lobbyists at the state Capitol represent interests as diverse as the town of Chisholm or the United Steelworkers of America.

Their goals can range from protecting the profits of pharmaceutical companies to helping Mountain Iron build a new water treatment facility.

House majority leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said the public’s negative perception of lobbyists in Washington D.C., often trickles down to state lobbyists.

“It’s safe to say that in northeastern Minnesota, that whether you work in a mine or school or small business or anywhere, most organizations or businesses have a lobbyist,” Sertich said. “Mining interests have a voice, but so do the steelworkers.”

The lobbyists bring perspectives from local industries that help make the political process more efficient, Sertich said.

“Where they’re good is providing information, impacts of decisions we make back home,” he said. “They keep those lines of communication open.”

Elected officials hear from a variety of sources, Sertich said, but inevitably make their own decisions.

“Lobbyists come in and the very good ones tend to give you both sides of the story,” Sertich said. “Then you’re left to make your own decision, but you get more facts and information, which is always helpful.”

Influence…

David Schultz is a professor of law at Hamline University and has studied the state’s political system for about a decade.

He said lobbyists exert undue pressure over politicians through informal relationships, campaign contributions and the “revolving door” that offers retiring lobbyists highly-paid positions at lobbying firms.

“In some cases, it may be very good, it may be very healthy to have them involved,” Schultz said. “But there’s no question that lobbyists are a critical and important component of the legislative process in Minnesota.”

The problem with lobbyists, Schultz said, is that the public has very little idea what actual influence they exert on political decision-making.

“The public is entitled to know the factors that influence their elected officials decision-making on health care, on the budget and on a whole host of issues,” Schultz said. “That way, they can use that information to decide whether the legislature is listening to them as a citizen or listening to (lobbyists) instead.”

In Minnesota lobbyists are forbidden to spend more than five dollars on legislators, an amount that was recently revised from a total ban.

Campaign donations for legislators are capped at $500 during an election year and $100 during a non-election year.

But there is no limit on the “revolving door” in Minnesota.

Schultz said Minnesota’s lobbyist disclosure laws were once some of the strictest in the nation, but have fallen to the middle of the pack nationwide since the mid-90s. Legislation asking for more restrictions on lobbyists fails each session.

“My friends who are lobbyists always say they are much happier to be hidden from public view than to be seen,” Schultz said. “They don’t want this type of legal exposure to their relation — quite frankly I don’t think a lot of legislators want this type of discussion either.”

Schultz doesn’t argue that all lobbyists should be banned, just that the political playing field needs to be leveled so that normal citizens can compete.

He said lobbyists often represent themselves as information providers, and should limit themselves to that role.
“Let’s take away your ability to give political contributions, take away your ability to give gifts to legislators, and full disclosure in terms of who you’re talking to,” he said. “We have to place the lobbying behavior within a context and parameters, so that it really is about the quality of their ideas and the merits of their proposals.”

He said the current system is flawed because it largely relies on self-policing of limits.

“People say, shouldn’t we trust legislators and lobbyists,” he asked. “The whole premise of government and laws is that we don’t always trust people and we need to have laws in place to address these kinds of problems.”

Sertich said he hasn’t seen any improprieties during his time at the capitol and that most legislators give equal access to everyone.

“Today, for example, I had a lobbyist come through, but also had people from Northern Minnesota,” Sertich said. “The mayor of Floodwood was just here — he just showed up and said, ‘Hey, I want to talk to Tony.’”

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