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Observations by a veteran greater Minnesota lobbyist

Tim Flaherty speaks at a meeting years ago. In 2019, he is retiring as Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities lobbyist. Courtesy of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities

ST. PAUL — Some thoughts through the greater Minnesota lens of lobbyist and lawyer Tim Flaherty, who is retiring after 35 years lobbying at the Minnesota Legislature:

Dysfunctional system

Today’s Legislature is a far cry from when Flaherty became the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities' first lobbyist in 1984.

“The system is more dysfunctional,” he said, in part because rank-and-file lawmakers have less say as power becomes concentrated in a few leaders. “That is really unfortunate.”

The increased power in a few legislators comes because parties now are rigid in their stances on issues, Flaherty said. “Part of it is Washington-style politics seeping down to the state.”

News media failing

Flaherty said the news media used to do a better job spreading the word about greater Minnesota needs, but that is changing as many newsrooms shrink.

“I think one of the things that has hurt is the lower coverage by newspapers and television stations,” he said. “It is all about sound bites. There is not the coverage we used to have. … I just don’t think there is the in-depth reporting that we used to have. Press releases are just picked up and not investigated.”

One Minnesota?

Flaherty supported Democrat Tim Walz for governor because of his call for “one Minnesota.”

“I liked his message of ‘Let’s try to work together more,’” the lobbyist said. “That is how we have accomplished things.”

Not just out front

Flaherty has not been out front on all the issues, often preferring to be in the background.

However, he frequently stepped to the microphone when reporters at a news conference asked specific questions city officials could not.

He has not been at the Capitol this year, a first for him. “I enjoy now more of the indirect lobbying, advising some of the other people in the office background on the legislators and some of the issues.”

Besides, the 69-year-old said, looking from his office conference room to the Capitol a block away: “It is very physically demanding over there.”

Lobbying tactics

A lobbyist cannot quit trying to educate lawmakers.

“You just never give up,” Flaherty said. “You talk to legislators. They may not agree with you this week or next week,” but probably will eventually. “That served us well. We were able to change many people’s minds on many issues.”

Part of that never-give-up effort includes computer runs that show legislators how a proposed change could affect their districts. For instance, if a proposal would raise farm property taxes, rural lawmakers might oppose it.

Lobbying ethics

Lobbyists may not have the best reputation when it comes to ethics, but Flaherty said he likes to do things the old way.

He said he continues the old style of letting lobbyists who may oppose one of his proposals know when a committee plans to hear the legislation.

“That is how things worked back then,” Flaherty said, unlike the way some lobbyists work today when legislation just pops up out of nowhere. “That was such a much better way than when everything is secret.”

Making a difference

Flaherty wanted to work for the underdog.

“I wanted to do policy work that would impact the state,” he said, with that happening when he became the coalition's first lobbyist.

City leaders feisty

Flaherty is known as being a hard-driving lobbyist, but he said that really came from city leaders.

“They challenged some of these governors…” he said. “It got pretty confrontational some of the time. … They were very forceful people.”

Committees change

How committee members learn about issues is changing.

“Less is done by testimony these days,” Flaherty said, with small-group and one-on-one meetings behind closed doors with legislators more common.

And it appears fewer average citizens testify to committees, but Flaherty does not know why.

“Is it because the Legislature is so unwelcoming now?” he asked. Do they fear “they are going to get pummeled if they come down and testify?”