Lobbyists can look forward to coping with continuing construction-related complications in their day-to-day work when the Minnesota Legislature convenes next year.
With the Capitol building now completely closed, lobbyists are preparing for more adjustments.
“It will be an even more unique legislative session in 2016,” promises Sarah J. Psick, board president at the Minnesota Governmental Relations Council (MGRC) and director of government relations at McGrann Shea Carnival Straughn & Lamb.
A key concern is access to the House of Representatives during floor sessions, which will be held in the House chamber in the Capitol. Lobbyists and members of the public are accustomed to gathering in the hall outside the chamber, where they can send notes to representatives and catch them on the way in or out.
“Everything outside the House chamber is a construction zone,” said Wayne Waslaski, director of real estate and construction services at the state Department of Administration. The Capitol’s load capacity — the number of people permitted inside — is still being hashed out with code officials, he said.
The MGRC is also asking the Legislature for more online livestreaming of committee hearings, more committee documents posted online, and more information disseminated through social media and email.
Perhaps more than legislators, staff and the public, lobbyists rely on a variety of spaces where they can hold conversations, prepare for a hearing or simply rest up for the next hearing.
The Capitol has “a decent number of alcoves,” said Zander Danielson, who is not a registered lobbyist but has worked the halls of the Capitol since 2013 on behalf of organizations including Can’t Convert Love and Outfront Minnesota. Without access to the rotunda and other such spaces, Danielson said, lobbyists wonder, “Where are all the [legislative assistants] going to be? Where are all of us going to be?”
Elizabeth A. Wefel, a lobbyist and attorney at Flaherty & Hood, concurred: “Sometimes you need to talk to other lobbyists.” Places to sit, wait and recharge are also essential. “You can’t be in meetings all day,” she said. Lobbyists like her with offices nearby can beat an easy retreat, but no one, she said, can spend “eight hours on your feet — or more than eight-hour days, in our case.”
To that end, MGRC leased a room for members last session at the nearby Centennial Building in place of a similar room the group had at the Capitol, with lockers, TVs, a copier/scanner and places to work. “It was a little farther away, but I think our members appreciated it,” Psick said. However, MGRC has not made the same arrangement for 2016.
Ben Gerber, lobbyist and director of energy and labor/management policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said he had a hard time finding a quiet space to work where he wouldn’t be interrupted. He tried the lobbyists’ room at the Centennial Building but preferred the library in the Minnesota Judicial Center.
Other places lobbyists set up shop include the Legislative Reference Library in the State Office Building, the Minnesota Department of Transportation building’s cafeteria (where MGRC has provided Wi-Fi for members), and the Capitol’s Rathskeller cafe (now closed for construction).
At least one annual Day-on-the-Hill lobbying event for cities, counties, townships and school boards won’t take place next year, according to Patrick Hynes, lobbyist and intergovernmental relations counsel at the League of Minnesota Cities. Lack of access to gathering spaces like the Capitol rotunda is among the reasons for scaling it back. “We’ll still bring people in, but not as many for not as formal” an event, he said.
Rolling with changes around the Capitol is “part of my job,” Hynes said. “I don’t complain.” But he feels for League members who travel as many as five hours and then sit around for five hours. “They take a day away from work to come sit here on the floor” waiting for overbooked hearing rooms or to see “senators jammed into overflowing suites,” he said.
Psick said she hadn’t heard of other groups’ lobbying days being called off. Mankato booked its Day on the Hill for the Senate’s new building, scheduled to open early next year, according to Vic Thorstenson, project manager. He said the new building boasts “lots more” public seating and open areas than the Capitol, with pleasant locations for Day-on-the-Hill events. “It will be very accommodating,” he said. “People can congregate in large areas and disperse to canvass very quickly.”
The opening of the new building will relieve some stress for professional lobbyists too, Gerber said. Still, 2015 was daunting enough for Danielson, who suffered from allergies from Capitol construction dust, to consider a change: “The more I hear how the Capitol is going to work next year, the more I think, ‘Campaigns are next year. Might be a nice thing to not go to the Capitol.’”