Note: This blog originally appeared in Politics in Minnesota on August 28, 2014. Please consider subscribing to that publication.
Many of us learned about government and how it works by watching “I’m Just a Bill on Capitol Hill.” Part of the ABC School House Rock series, it depicted the process of how a bill becomes a law in Washington, D.C. It describes the role of citizens, members of Congress, and the president in legislating. Yet it left out an important actor–lobbyists. In so many ways, legislating would be impossible–good or bad–without lobbyists, and that is equally true in Minnesota.
Looking back at the 2014 Minnesota legislative session we know what was passed or not. Among the notable highlights, the legislature raised the minimum wage, passed anti-bullying legislation, cut taxes, passed a massive bonding bill, enacted the Women’s Economic Security Act, adopted smartphone theft and medical marijuana laws. It also debated but did not pass the Toxic Free Kids Act, dealt with the constitutional defects in the sex offender treatment program, or do more to address the ailing state infrastructure.
One can catalog the what was passed or not, but the more interesting question is the why. Why did some bills pass and others fail? One explanation offered by political scientist David Mayhew is that it is all about the electoral connection. One can explain why legislators do what they do by looking at whether such actions enhance their election prospects. Yes, the quest for reelection explains the motivation for many actions, but missing from that explanation is an analysis of the structural forces that shape election prospects and motivations when legislating. This is where lobbyists come in.
To a large extent legislation in Minnesota is debated and shaped under the structural influence of lobbyists and the associations they represent. Depending on how you look at it, they perform one of two roles. In the first lobbyists and associations like to describe themselves as simply information brokers providing valuable knowledge to legislators about bills. They additionally represent key constituencies, insuring that legislators take them into account when acting. The contrary role is that lobbyists and associations pollute the legislative process. They are special interests who use personal connections, insider relationships such as friendships, and even gifts, food, and money, to affect the legislative process. Both images are correct in Minnesota.
First, let’s consider some basic numbers. There are 201 Minnesota legislators who make a base salary of $31,140. Because of per diem, some make more than that. There are 1,316 currently lobbyists and 1,351 associations registered in Minnesota. This means there are approximately 6.5 lobbyists and 6.7 associations per legislator in the state. During the 2014 session lobbyists spent $5,404,778 to influence the legislative process, or $26,889 per legislator. Lobbyist disbursements include gifts, meals, telephone, and other costs associated with seeking to affect legislation. This spending does not include the salaries of lobbyists. Add these figures in and based on past trends, associations spend upwards to $40 -$50 million to affect legislation. The sheer number of lobbyists, associations, and the amount of money they spend is enormous, eclipsing the salary and number of legislators many times.
But not all lobbyists are equal. This is not a level playing field where all lobbyists and associations are of equal weight and influence. Some are more powerful than one another, giving some a greater voice. Consider the $50,000 club. These are the 29 lobbyists who disbursed at least $50,000 during the session. These 29 lobbyists spent $2,609,557, or nearly 50% of what all the 1,316 lobbyists spent. These 29 lobbyists represented 103 associations. There are some lobbyists who work for a specific organization and only represent them, such as David Olson for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce or Brandon Rettke for Education Minnesota. But Ted Grindal represented 44 groups including Ebay, Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians, DaVita, and the Boys and Girls Clus Association, and Andew Kozak works for 25 groups that include the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Community, the University of Minnesota, OPUS, the Mayo Clinic, and AT&T. They are part of the mega-lobbyists, the ones who really are the major players in the legislative process.
Consider the top ten spending lobbyists and who they worked for in the 2014 session. These ten alone spent $1.28 million, or 24% of total lobbyist disbursements.. At the top of the list was the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce at $348,000, followed by the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota at $110,939, and then Education Minnesota at $110,178.
While these dollar figures tell us something about their efforts to influence legislation, they still miss a lot. Minnesota has some of the weakest lobbyist reporting laws in the country according to the Center for Public Integrity. Missing from the raw numbers is an ability to link directly expenditures to particular bills or legislation. There is a transparency problem–lobbyists are not required to state whom the lobbied or what specific bills they worked on. One can presume that the Chamber of Commerce spent a lot of money on the minimum wage and tax bills and the Education Minnesota did the same for the anti-bullying legislation, but we cannot be sure. It is next to impossible to connect dollars to legislation and influence based on the what the law requires to be reported.
But there are even more problems here. In 2013 the legislature strengthened the hand of lobbyists. First, it weakened the gift ban law, again making it possible in some circumstances for lobbyists to wine and dine legislators. Second, they increased the amount of money that lobbyists may contribute to candidates while simultaneously decreasing disclosure requirements. Put simply, lobbyists can give more money and goodies to legislators but with less transparency and accountability.
What does all this mean? Lobbyists have a major presence in the Minnesota legislative process. They expend significant resources to affect law making. The public has limited information to know what they are doing. Some of the lobbyists and the groups that they represent are far more powerful than others, thereby creating a structural bias in terms of how legislation is debated or whose interests are considered. The legislative process may be stacked to favor a few interests or it simply might be so engulfed by lobbyists, associations, and money that one wonders whether the public interest is actually being considered when bills are debated. The 2014 legislative session then was yet another one where one has to ask whether and how the debates on minimum wage, taxes, and other topics were shaped by lobbyists. To know the answer to that question is really to know how a bill becomes a law.