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What are Minnesota's cities, counties getting from lobbying in Washington?

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Minnesota's longest serving member of Congress is Rep. Collin Peterson. He represents Minnesota's 7th Congressional District and  was sworn in 1991.

However, Minnesota's second longest serving representative in Washington might be Barbara Rohde. Rohde is a lobbyist with long ties to both Minnesota and Washington.

"I was hired by the city of Moorhead [and] was interviewed in April of 1992," Rohde said.

Rohde worked as a congressional staffer and was former Gov. Rudy Perpich's representative in Washington D.C. for years.

"I think that if you have a mayor of a town and they have to hire a lobbyist to get funding or get support and help from a lawmaker, you either have a very ineffective mayor or a very ineffective lawmaker."

Cities and counties in Minnesota spent at least a million dollars lobbying Congress last year, even as local budgets remained tight. So what do they get in exchange for the money they spend on lobbying in Washington? 

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland was on the City Council when the city hired Rohde nearly 20 years ago.

"We understood from the Minnesota Department of Transportation that, because we're in a rural area in Minnesota, that we probably aren't going to be real high on any of their lists of projects to get done in the near term," Voxland said. He said that's why the city had to do its own lobbying to get funding for the projects it needed.

Rohde and Moorhead started off small, securing a railroad overpass. Over the years, Rohde has brought in millions for the city, mostly in the form of now-banned Congressional earmarks.

"Roughly about $20 million over the years and that's just hard cash that we bought in," Rohde said.

That federal money has brought more railroad crossings, Interstate highway interchanges and improvements to the area's roads. 

Last year, Rohde earned $140,000 for her lobbying work on behalf of Moorhead and surrounding Clay County. That works out to nearly $2.40 per resident in the sparsely populated area — the most spending on federal lobbying per capita of any community in Minnesota.

Some small communities in other parts of the country have spent much more on a per capita basis, according to a recent study by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Alaskan town of Akutan (population 1,027) spent $100,000 on federal lobbying in 2010, which equals $97.37 per resident.

Steve Ellis of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense isn't sure it's money well spent.

"The lobbyist is really some sort of intermediary, and the question is: is it superfluous or is it really worth the money?" Ellis said.

But Moorhead's Mayor Voxland said hiring a lobbyist saved his constituents — and state taxpayers — money.

"I really believe what we've done is we've helped out the Minnesota Department of Transportation by getting some of these projects done that are on their list but they're way out there," Voxland said.

At least a dozen Minnesota cities and counties spent more than $20,000 each last year on federal lobbying — which is the disclosure threshold required by federal law. 

More communities also hire lobbyists but fall under the disclosure thresholds. They spent at least a million dollars of taxpayer money and probably much more on lobbyists.

COMMUNITY SPENDING:

CommunityAmountSpending per capita Minneapolis $190,000$0.50 Anoka County$176,000$0.53 Moorhead/Clay County$140,000$2.37 Scott County$120,000$0.92 Hennepin County$70,000$0.06

Minneapolis law firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen represents at least 14 Minnesota cities and counties, as well as the Minnesota Association of Counties. Lockridge earned at least $340,000 from municipal clients last year. 

The firm's Washington lobbyist Dennis McGrann said it id hard to get your voice heard in Congress without professional representation.

"In Washington, you have 435 House members, 100 U.S. senators, their days are pressed, time is limited," McGrann said. "There are a lot of great issues that they have to deal with and what we do is that we serve as an auxiliary for those clients that we represent to help them advance their interests here in Washington."

Minneapolis paid $190,000 dollars to federal lobbyists last year, most of which to hire the powerhouse lobbying firm Patton Boggs, whose clients range from the American Beverage Association to Wal-Mart. Neither the city nor the firm responded to requests for more information.

On its disclosure forms, Patton Boggs said it is helping Minneapolis seek federal grants for things like housing, roads and job creation.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, other cities and counties spent much more. Los Angeles County spent $720,000 lobbying the federal government last year; Phoenix spent $492,000.

Steve Ellis with Taxpayers for Common Sense said having private firms do this kind of work represents a failure of elected leadership.

"I think that if you have a mayor of a town and they have to hire a lobbyist to get funding or get support and help from a lawmaker, you either have a very ineffective mayor or a very ineffective lawmaker," Ellis said.

Ellis said lobbying firms have expanded their municipal lobbying practices over the past decade by exploiting the rivalries that sometimes crop up among neighboring communities.

With earmarks now banned and Washington focusing on cutting spending, the calculus may have shifted for some.

Scott County recently ended its very long association with the lobbying firm Cassidy and Associates.

"We don't know that we were getting a lot, and that's why we decided to cut it," said Tom Wolf, who chairs the Scott County Board.

The commissioners decided Scott County could get what it needed from the federal government through its membership in the statewide association of counties.

"Right now, money is so tight and every dollar, we scrutinize every nickel and every dollar [and] we're trying to save as much as we can," Wolf said. "Some of the stuff has got to go, you can't keep everything."

But the lobbyists argue that in these times of austerity they're even more important than before.

Moorhead and Clay County have decided Barbara Rohde's services are worth the expense. They've renewed her contract and are paying her $165,000 a year to secure more money for road projects.