Minnesota Public Radio News examined reports by 467 organizations that spent more than $1,000 lobbying at the state Capitol over the past six months. Those organizations spent nearly $7.8 million.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce spent the most, just over a half million dollars. The Minnesota Business Partnership was second, spending nearly $334,000. Add in $223,000 spent by the the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses, which is funded by the Chamber and the Business Partnership, and the two business groups spent more than $1 million.
Charlie Weaver, who heads the Minnesota Business Partnership, said it was money well spent because efforts to increase taxes were defeated.
"This is couch change just for the tax increases that Minnesotans individuals and businesses pay," he said. "This is nothing compared to what could have happened."
Third on the lobbying list is the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, which spent more than $320 thousand to advocate a multi-billion transportation funding bill. The group, made up of unions and construction firms, spent most of their money on radio ads to convince the Legislature to pass the package.
"Everyone agrees that waiting to cure our transportation ills will cost us more money in the long run," the ad said. "But if we don't act now, the long term risk to our economy could be fatal."
Margaret Donahoe, with the Transportation Alliance, said the group's efforts proved successful when the House and Senate voted to override Gov. Pawlenty's veto of the bill, which increases the gas tax and creates a new metrowide sales tax for transportation projects.
Donahoe said the I-35W bridge collapse, increased attention on the condition of other bridges, and their ad campaign helped convince the public and their elected representatives that the bill needed to become law.
"Legislators are elected by the public and are accountable to the public," she said, "and it does take a certain effort to get the public on board in order for legislators to feel comfortable about raising revenue and making those kinds of investments."
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce also supported the transportation funding bill.
Lobbying by the cell phone group MyWireless helped defeat attempts to increase regulation of cell phones. That organization spent $291,000. Enbridge Energy Association was the fifth highest spender, but a lobbyist for that group said all of their money went to lobby the Public Utilities Commission.
The insurance industry, which was unsuccessful in attempts to defeat a bill that allows consumers to take insurance companies to court over claim disputes, was another top spender.
Other big spenders included a group that worked to allow chronically ill patients to use marijuana to treat their pain, an oil refinery, and the Minnesota Nurses Association.
"It does deliver. It does have a pretty big impact," said David Schultz, a Hamline University Law Professor who studies money in politics.
He said the money spent on lobbying at the Capitol amounts to more than the money contributed to candidates for statewide office and the Legislature. He said it's also the most effective way for an organization to influence legislation.
“What lobbying buys for you more than anything else is not just access but repeated access.”David Schultz, Hamline University
"What lobbying buys for you more than anything else is not just access but repeated access," he said. "It's that constant presence of lobbyists at the Legislature of building up relationships with legislators that is really the big value."
One surprise, Schultz said, is that nine of the top 10 spenders in 2008 spent more than they did for the same period in 2007. He said money spent on lobbying typically decreases in non-budget years.
David Olson, with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said his organization is already preparing for how it will handle an expected state budget deficit next year.
"There's a lot of worry that the budget deficit will be solved on the back of businesses which will lead toward the impact on the number of the type of jobs that we have in Minnesota," he said.
Olson may face some stiff competition. Groups representing schools, the courts and subsidized health care will also work to protect and spend more on existing programs.