Aggressive grassroots strategy puts pressure on rural legislators
With just days left before the adjournment of the 2011 regular session, eight Chamber of Commerce leaders from greater Minnesota came to the Capitol Monday to blast the Republican Legislature’s budget proposals. The business leaders — many of them from GOP-represented areas like Crookston and Albert Lea — were upset by proposed cuts to the state’s local government aid program (LGA), which they said would result directly in increased business property taxes.
The event — organized by the powerful local government lobbying group Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) — is just one of many efforts on the part of the coalition this session to fight cuts to city aids and credits. CGMC is a more than 30-year presence at the Capitol, hell-bent on preserving services for cities that lie outside the seven-county metro area. In the face of a Republican tax bill containing more than $600 million in proposed cuts to LGA — mainly through the phase-out of aid for Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth — the coalition has put city mayors, council members and business leaders to work, sending them out en masse to coffee shops, local events and the Capitol to put pressure on GOP legislators.
“There’s a broad coalition of people supporting local government aid,” said Glen Fladeboe, a senior media adviser with the coalition, “and they’ve been critical to our success.” He described the organization’s style as “retail politics:” meeting residents in local restaurants, diners and rotary clubs, and sitting down with local editorial boards, business leaders and legislators to push their pro-LGA message.
But the group’s emphasis on applying grassroots heat has rubbed some Republicans the wrong way. There has already been one dust-up between the coalition and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch this session over the way the group coaches local officials, and some Republican legislators talk about CGMC as if it were a powerful mob operation using local officials to punish legislators in their home districts.
“They raise the political temperature around here,” GOP Rep. Linda Runbeck said. “City and local spending should be largely nonpartisan, but when they enter the fray, it becomes partisan. And to make mayors a tool in this battle, to put local mayors right in the middle of this fight, is, well, kind of nasty. It makes local politics more partisan.”
A data-driven group
The coalition has existed since the early 1980s and became a powerful lobbying group through its early use of computers and data-driven presentations to show the impact of LGA in cities. The model, developed by CGMC Executive Director Tim Flaherty while he was lobbying for the city of Minneapolis, has marked the coalition’s work over last 30 years.
The group’s members work on a spate of issues important to greater Minnesota cities, including transportation funding and water quality, but their primary role has been to lobby for LGA at the state Capitol. Their defensive role in fending off cuts ramped up under the tenure of former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who proposed deep cuts to LGA over the years as a budget-balancing tool.
“Our whole program has gotten much more active because of the stakes and the risks involved here,” said Flaherty, who has been with the group since 1984. “The coalition has become proactive and media-oriented. [Media] has just become a fact of life; that’s out of necessity. This is a matter of survival for some of these cities.”
As years went by and cuts to aid became a recurring budget theme, the divide between the former governor and the group became more distinct. “Someone once said to me that Pawlenty debates gubernatorial candidates during an election year, and he debates the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities in nonelection years,” a DFL lobbyist said. “They really railed on him.”
Pawlenty fired back at the group. The former governor called city officials “whiners” and specifically labeled former coalition head and Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden “one of the leading advocates of ‘Don’t touch my aid.’” Pawlenty also singled out the city’s “million-dollar reserve.” Wolden remembers being targeted by the governor. “I did feel sometimes like I was getting heat more than any other head of a particular [lobbying] group,” he said.
The coalition was one of the main proponents of filing a lawsuit against Pawlenty after he used a seldom-invoked gubernatorial power called unallotment to balance the budget. The coalition filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the ultimately successful 2010 lawsuit.
“It was one of those bittersweet things,” Wolden remembers. “We won the lawsuit, but then the cuts stayed anyway, so our thing became, we’ve done our share, no more. The cities have always been the low-hanging fruit.”
Pawlenty wasn’t the only politician who had a beef with the group in those days. Legislators who supported reforms to the LGA formula often criticized CGMC and attacked the data it provided to legislators. Former Republican Rep. Dan Dorman — who now works for the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency — supports the coalition’s position on LGA. But within his own caucus during his time at the Legislature, he said, there was widespread skepticism about the information provided by lobbyists from the coalition. One former GOP senator, he said, tried to stop the Republican caucus from using any information provided by the group.
“I think there has been some resentment, primarily because it’s easier to attack the messenger than the message,” Wolden said.
Tensions with GOP majorities
The tensions between CGMC and the new Republican majorities in the House and Senate manifested themselves almost immediately this session. In February, Koch asked the Minnesota Government Relations Council (MGRC) to investigate coalition lobbyist J.D. Burton. By her account, Burton had asked Redwood Falls’ city officials to give false information to legislators. Koch said Burton sent an email message to Redwood Falls Mayor Gary Revier, urging him to not tell lawmakers that they had planned ahead for cuts to LGA. “At the state Capitol, we take people at their word and expect them to be honest with us, as we are with others,” Koch wrote to the council.
Burton delivered a letter to all 201 legislators apologizing for what he called a poorly worded email. “The intent of my email to our clients was to ask them to communicate to legislators their opposition to HF 130, which would negatively impact communities, regardless of whether their cities budgeted for them or not.”
Flaherty said the dust-up was due to a “misunderstanding.” “It was clear that there was no effort to mislead anybody, so it just blew over like it should have,” he said. “Obviously we are going to disagree over some issues and speak pretty forcibly about them. I think [the leadership] understands that.”
But rank-and-file legislators have gripes with the group, too. Of all of the lobbying groups for cities, Runbeck said, the coalition is the most “unreasonable.” “They become partisan, they don’t see beyond their issues, they are wedded to local government expenditure levels rising, and they are never satisfied,” she said. “I think that they choose to portray the facts in a certain way to advance their cities. To me, it’s not professional when they advise city officials to cry wolf and say that your city is going to go down in flames without this additional funding. That’s below the belt.”
By Runbeck’s account, some cities are choosing to opt out of the coalition for the first time in years because of the “nature of the way they choose to play the game,” she said. “They are getting close to the line in terms of what’s acceptable.”
A new strategy
The group has had to take a new approach this session with a freshman-filled Legislature standing as the latest threat to LGA. This time around, Flaherty said, CGMC’s role has been to educate new members — many of whom, he said, “probably hadn’t even heard of LGA before” — about the program.
Their efforts have produced results so far. When the House took its first floor vote on the phase one budget-cutting bill, four Republicans voted against it. Two of them, freshman Reps. Rich Murray of Albert Lea and Debra Kiel of Crookston, voted against the bill after their local chambers and mayors publicly opposed LGA cuts. Much of the push came from the coalition.
And there are more freshman and senior Republicans sympathetic to rural cities’ cause, Flaherty claimed, including new Sens. Jeremy Miller and John Carlson, and veteran members like Sen. Doug Magnus and Reps. Rod Hamilton, Greg Davids and Morrie Lanning.
But while Murray voted against the phase one bill, he insists that the coalition and local governments are going to need to make a change sooner rather than later. “Government is going to look a whole lot different in the future, and the coalition and the local officials need to address that,” he said. “LGA and other things need to be looked at. They’re going to have to rethink how to make government run more efficiently and more effectively, and it’s not going to all be about how much can I bring home to the district.”