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The Importance of City Advocacy at the Capitol

By David Unmacht

Throughout my career, I’ve observed at least two cyclical actions of local government that consistently garner news coverage. In May, the Office of the State Auditor releases its report on local government lobbying expenses, and in November, city councils set their preliminary property tax levies. Both actions are newsworthy. Yet, to fully understand the meaning, a deeper dive is needed and, as we know from experience, that rarely appears in a news story.

This column offers perspective related to the first of these two cyclical actions. Full disclosure: I am a registered lobbyist, not by profession or intent, but because it’s required in my position as executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Only a small portion of my time is spent on this work, however, because the League has a strong and capable team of staff that handles lobbying duties exceptionally well. My primary contributions are discussing strategy, reviewing policy options, and staying current on legislative issues.

The League lobbies on behalf of our member cities for several reasons, including the following:

  • Advocacy is a common and expected role within member-based municipal associations, because state decision-makers develop laws and policies that directly affect city government.
  • The political system creates a demand for representation (the issues are highly complex, and organizing and synthesizing information is important to legislators).
  • We know from years of experience that legislators value the information the League provides.

Gary Carlson, the League’s respected long-time director of intergovernmental relations, says it best: “We provide legislators the facts and information they need to fully understand the issues before them.” In news parlance, the headlines about lobbying focus on spending money, yet there are fewer headlines about the hard work lobbyists perform to provide information essential to establishing good public policy.

The League is nonpartisan. We do not have a political action committee, we don’t contribute to campaigns, and we don’t endorse candidates. We are who our members are. It is true that our members’ opinions vary around League legislative policies. That’s expected when we have close to 200 policies that our members propose, and our Board of Directors adopts, each year based on the input of hundreds of members. The Board, comprised of elected and appointed city officials, ensures that League legislative priorities are an aggregated reflection of all members.

This issue of Minnesota Cities magazine includes our annual legislative session preview, where we feature information about the League’s legislative priorities for the session (see Session 2020: Representing Minnesota Cities at the Capitol). This session is the second of the biennium, often referred to as the “short session” or the “bonding session.”

But the words that frame expectations of the session mask the importance of the many topics that we know will be on the table. For our cities, we have many important priorities, including street funding, infrastructure fees, water, telecommunications and broadband, housing, aid to cities, local control, and police and fire disability issues. We divide the work of our lobbying team by subject matter; their contact information is available at www.lmc.org/igr-staff.

As we approach the 2020 legislative session, an interest group recently renamed Housing First (commonly known as the Builders Association of the Twin Cities, or BATC) is openly criticizing cities for the fees charged for permits and development. The group is implying that the fees charged by cities are directly responsible for the housing affordability crisis in our state.

We know that claim is meritless. The League continues to aggressively defend cities’ rights to charge fees to support the policy of growth paying for itself (see story on page 8). Unfortunately, the alternative is a loss of local control with the costs of development being directly placed on the backs of existing residents through increased property taxes. This issue has the potential to touch all our cities, regardless of size or location. I strongly encourage you to pay close attention to this issue during the session.

And as we prepare for the session, I ask for your help. This is not a new message nor a wishful ask. In our legislative work, League staff commit many hours to represent you, but more advocacy is needed.

Legislators want and need to hear directly from city officials who work in the trenches; that conversation can be far more impactful and meaningful. You can make a difference. The League stands ready to assist, and you won’t need to register as a lobbyist (unless you really want to).

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dunmacht@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.