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Local governments spent more on lobbying in 2016

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ST. PAUL — Local governments spent more than $9 million on lobbying at the Minnesota Capitol last year, according to a new report .

The Minnesota State Auditor's Office found that local government spending on lobbying rose by 2 percent in 2016 compared to the previous year. The city of Rochester spent more than $107,000 on lobbying in 2016 compared to just under $100,000 in 2015.

Most of Rochester's lobbying dollars were spent via their memberships in various organizations that lobby the at the Capitol. For instance, the city spends more than $96,000 to be a member of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. Of those dues, more than $60,000 goes toward lobbying, according to the state auditor's report. Rochester belongs to six different government associations that lobby in St. Paul, including the U.S. Highway 14 Partnership and the League of Minnesota Cities. Dues for those memberships totaled nearly $158,000. Rochester Assistant City Administrator Gary Neumann said those organizations keep close tabs on the hundreds of bills introduced that would impact cities.

"I think it's a worthwhile investment and our council has found them to be that way," Neumann said.

The city also spent $22,500 to hire a lobbyist to push for nearly $5 million from the state to expand the U.S. Customs facility at Rochester International Airport. The funding made it into last year's bonding bill but the measure failed to make it to the governor's desk in the final minutes of the session. Efforts are underway to get funding this session.

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Olmsted County spends less on lobbying

Olmsted County spent more than $84,000 on lobbying last year. That is a drop from previous years. In 2014, Olmsted County spent nearly $145,000. In 2015, the county spent nearly $92,000.

Olmsted County Administrator Richard Devlin said one reason the county's lobbying bills have dropped is that the county is no longer lobbying in support of a proposed high-speed rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities at the Capitol. Last year, the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced it suspending work on the proposed Zip Rail line due to a lack of money and political support. The county had also spent money in the past lobbying for road and bridge funding.

Oronoco spends money for sewer help

The small city of Oronoco paid a lobbyist $20,000 to advocate for the city's request of $19 million from the state for wastewater infrastructure. Oronoco, which has a population of 1411, is the largest unsewered city in the state of Minnesota. Oronoco Mayor Ryland Eichhorst said city officials decided they needed to hire a lobbyist to advocate for those dollars in St. Paul. Adding to the pressure is a deadline to get the sewer situation fixed. Olmsted County and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding that requires all noncompliant Subsurface Sewage Treatment Systems to be brought into compliance or connected to a municipal wastewater system by 2020.

"It was quite a discussion the amount to spend for a lobbyist, but we recognize the seriousness," Eichhorst said.

The city was poised to get $500,000 for a study of its wastewater needs in last year's bonding bill but the measure stalled in the final minutes of the legislative session. Eichhorst said the city is hoping to get some dollars this year.

Spending on lobbying out of hand?

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Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said he is concerned that local government spending on lobbying has gotten out of hand. This year he introduced a bill that would reduce state aid to cities and counties by $1 for every $1 spent on lobbying. He said local lawmakers generally do a good job advocating for the local governments in their districts.

"Our municipalities are spending way, way, way too much of the property taxpayer money simply to go to St. Paul to try to chase more taxpayer money with it. And that's the problem I think that I and a number of other legislators have," he said.

Drazkowski's state aid reduction bill has failed to advance this session.

Explaining complex issues

Some lawmakers argue it is important for local governments to invest in lobbying given the high stakes in St. Paul. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said local government issues are often complex and lobbyists help explain them to lawmakers.

She added, "This session we are seeing attempts by some legislators to take away local government control, which makes professional assistance even more important."

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