Lobbying law could squeeze some Minnesota legislators

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
Republican Rep. Kurt Daudt was the target of a new law designed to prohibit sitting lawmakers from serving as lobbyists, but the law could impact other legislators as well.
Glenn Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

A new lobbying law could put some Minnesota legislators in a tight spot and also raise problems for regulators in determining who must register as a lobbyist.

The law approved in 2021 is set to take effect in January. It aims to bar legislators from working for entities that exist primarily for lobbying or government affairs work. The same prohibition would apply to legislators who take on certain roles at organizations that employ or contract with lobbyists.

State Rep. Kurt Daudt, a former Republican House speaker who was just elected to a seventh term, and DFL Rep. Ruth Richardson, who will begin a third term soon, are just a couple of legislators whose jobs away from the Capitol have drawn scrutiny.

Depending on how the statute is interpreted and enforced, it could require some lawmakers to choose between serving in the Legislature or continuing in their outside occupations. 

While the effective date is Jan. 3 — the start of the new session — the law won’t carry any real teeth until the House and Senate adopt enforcement rules. Both chambers traditionally police their own membership and are historically reluctant to challenge an elected official’s qualifications to serve.

Daudt isn’t registered as a lobbyist in Minnesota and hasn’t been previously. But he is employed as director of public affairs for the Virginia-based Stateside Associates, a government relations firm that says it operates in all 50 states. The company lists issue management, legislative tracking and lobbyist referrals among its client offerings. 

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Since the law came into focus, Daudt has declined to answer questions about the possible impact on him or whether he’ll somehow challenge it. He acknowledged but didn’t respond to questions posed in a text message earlier this month.

Rep. Ruth Richardson speaks about her proposed "red-flag" bill.
Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, is the new CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States. She will begin her third term.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Republicans have pointed to Richardson, who was named chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood North Central States in September and won a new term in the House in November representing a suburban district. She insists there is an established separation between health operations and the political involvement of the organization, including at the Capitol and in campaigns.

She told MPR News earlier this year that she won’t oversee lobbying or political activities and would recuse herself from voting on policy where necessary.

“There is already a firewall between the nonprofit healthcare side and the political side,” Richardson said of Planned Parenthood. “And that will continue.”

The lobbying law passed in the closing hours of a 2021 special session as an amendment to an expansive tax-and-budget bill. The amendment brought by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Republican recently elected to the state Senate, passed on a 119-1 vote; the Senate accepted it as part of the broader package.

Drazkowski, of Mazeppa, said the law is an attempt to keep lawmakers from trading on their posts by taking paychecks from entities seeking access. He said flatly that Daudt’s situation was his impetus for pushing the law.

“There's a gazillion other jobs out there. Why should a legislator be focusing on lobbying no matter what state or country or where they're located?” Drazkowski said in an interview. “Why would we in our rhetoric or discussion want to protect the ability of a legislator to do lobbying activity at the same time they’re a legislator, wherever they're located.”

Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R) debates and amendment
Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R) was the author of a law that will ban sitting legislators from also working as lobbyists.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Some Republicans challenged the nature of the proposal and worked to temper it, saying other lawmakers could find their jobs under the microscope. 

“I assure you I have a list and I don’t think you want me to start going through that list,” Rep. Ann Neu, R-North Branch, warned during the late-night debate in June 2021. “I suspect this amendment would get real uncomfortable, real quick.”

Among the Legislature’s incoming class is Sen.-elect Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley. She was a registered lobbyist for the group Gender Justice until the day before her election last month. She said she is shifting to a role as a special projects adviser that doesn’t intersect with the Legislature, but added that she hadn’t planned to lead the group’s Minnesota policy efforts anyway.

“I would never do that as a state legislator — new law or not. And so I terminated it just to make sure that my job was coming to an end,” she said. “At no point will I engage in policy work on behalf of Gender Justice. And so I didn't need to be registered anymore.”

The new law won’t practically apply until the rules are adopted. If lawmakers balk, Drazkowski said he’s prepared to build public pressure and potentially sue. It’s also possible that lawmakers who are affected by the law could sue over the new standard for serving.

Minnesota’s House already has a revolving-door rule that prevents members from registering as lobbyists within a year of leaving the Legislature. But that’s sometimes ignored and there is no way for the House to enforce the ban on former lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the state’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board has its own concern about the pending law. During a board meeting Thursday, executive director Jeff Sigurdson said one aspect of the law redefined who could fall under the lobbyist umbrella.

Currently, people must register with the board as a lobbyist if they spend at least $3,000 contacting public officials or getting others to take steps to influence official acts. But the new law raises the prospect that the registration requirement could also apply to anybody employed by a company that provides government relations or government services whether they  communicate with a public official or not.

Sigurdson said administrative or even building maintenance staff could find themselves listed as lobbyists.

 “Under that definition, it could be read that if you're compensated more than $3,000, that you should register as a lobbyist. That doesn't seem consistent with what the goal of lobbying disclosure is,” Sigurdson said. “And I think the unintended consequence is that you could see people who simply aren’t lobbying being required to register.”

Sigurdson told the campaign board he intends to seek a revision to the law next year, while stressing that he’ll stay out of the debate about whether the Legislature keeps the lobbying prohibition for its membership.

“The whole point here was to make it clear that there are certain activities they don't want members of the Legislature to participate in,” he said in a follow-up interview. “But as drafted, it ended up having a wider net.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the number of terms Reps. Daudt and Richardson have served in the House.