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Kyle Potter, Published August 04 2013

Moorhead lobbyists pay off at Capitol, mayor says

MOORHEAD – Need $2.40?

That’s how much Moorhead spent per resident last year to pay for lobbyists to woo Minnesota legislators, according to an analysis of the state auditor’s most recent report on local governments’ lobbying expenditures.

Your $2.40 in taxes paid several lobbyists to fight for Moorhead at the Capitol – from securing more flood protection funding to enacting laws that help the city compete for business with neighbor North Dakota.

Mayor Mark Voxland said the city’s lobbying bill – more than $300,000 since 2010 – has more than paid for itself in the form of increased local government aid (LGA) and preferential treatment for border cities throughout Minnesota.

“It’s been a multi- to one-return on the investment alone, just for that,” he said.

All told, Moorhead paid lobbyists nearly $94,000 in 2012, outspending cities and counties several times its size, including Duluth, St. Cloud and every Twin Cities suburb. Moorhead’s population could fit into Washington County six times – with room for thousands more – but the east metro county paid lobbyists 21 percent less than Moorhead did that year.

Among the top-spending cities and counties larger than 10,000 people, only Red Wing in southeast Minnesota spent more per resident ($2.67) on lobbyists than Moorhead in 2012. Moorhead was in the top five for lobbying expenditures per capita in both 2010 and 2011.

While mayors and staff from suburban cities can make it to the Capitol in time for a legislative hearing scheduled at a moment’s notice, the four-hour drive from Moorhead to St. Paul can make it impossible, Voxland said. That calls for a constant presence at the Legislature, and it’s been that way for more than 25 years.

“We need to have someone at the Capitol to keep the pulse on what’s going on and make sure that our interests are being taken care of,” Voxland said.

Last year’s $93,847 lobbying tab was split between contracts with firms dedicated to Moorhead-related work at the Capitol and the lobbying costs with larger organizations like the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, of which Moorhead is a member.

Monitoring issues

The city contracts with two firms to focus on different Moorhead concerns. Lobbyists from the St. Paul-based firm Flaherty & Hood work primarily on local government aid funding and environmental issues, Voxland said. Fredrikson & Byron, out of Minneapolis, focuses on border problems and flood mitigation for Moorhead.

Moorhead currently has six lobbyists registered with the state’s Campaign Finance Board, including Flaherty & Hood lobbyist Bradley Peterson.

Peterson said a number of factors may drive the city’s lobbying expenditures: annual flooding issues, its status as a population center in an otherwise rural area and its place on the border next to North Dakota.

During this past legislative session, Peterson said he and other lobbyists worked on border issues like property tax credits for certain housing near the border and appropriations to help businesses. Those are both long-standing programs, he said, but ones that require continual monitoring.

“We’ve got issues facing us that are unique to other cities in Minnesota, because we’re competing with North Dakota on a variety of fronts,” said Morrie Lanning, a former Republican House member who retired in 2012 after representing the Moorhead area for 10 years in the Legislature.

“I think that complicates the lobbying effort,” Lanning added, “because your lobbyists have to be well versed in … the competition. That requires some extra effort that other cities don’t have to engage in.”

Eye on costs

Moorhead’s lobbying bill last year dropped 12 percent from 2011, when it spent $106,682 to keep up a presence at the Capitol, according to Office of the State Auditor records. Statewide, local government lobbying expenditures decreased 6 percent.

Voxland said he thinks its spending will hover around the $94,000-mark in both 2013 and 2014.

Lanning, who also served as Moorhead mayor for two decades, said Moorhead used its lobbying money efficiently at the Capitol during his time. But he warned city officials to keep their eye on those costs.

“I think the city needs to be real careful with those expenditures and make sure they’re well-justified,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502