Education group cuts lobby force; well, sort of

/ 28 April 2012 / jennifer

Star Tribune, April 28, 2012 –

In early March, Education Minnesota dumped 50 State Capitol lobbyists from its roster in just a couple of days.

Several of them had been advocating for the teachers union for more than a decade.

It is common for a group to release a handful of lobbyists at a time. In January, the Association of Minnesota Counties got rid of three in one swoop. The city of Red Wing ditched four at once. A week later, Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, which advocates for convicted felons, unloaded four lobbyists.

But 50? No group has come close to Education Minnesota’s purge. That’s nearly one lobbyist for every four legislators, the kind of team coverage most other groups would envy.

Turns out, nearly all of the 50 are actually Education Minnesota field staffers, who occasionally helped teachers do some persuading at the Capitol. The organization did a review and decided these staffers did not need to be registered as lobbyists, said Chris Williams, a spokesman for Education Minnesota. “It doesn’t signify a large change in how we do business day to day,” he said.

There are few areas at the Capitol that have a bigger arsenal of lobbyists than education.

There are lobbyists for educational computer use, K-12 schools, K-12 funding, higher education, education policy, testing, transportation and, more generically, education issues. Even individual school districts have their own lobbyists.

Now Education Minnesota has two designated Capitol lobbyists, with a handful of other top staffers registered to be lobbyists. The organization itself has a nearly $30 million annual budget.

Education Minnesota, which represents roughly 70,000 teachers, has been in the cross hairs of some state business leaders and Republicans who control the Legislature.

At the Capitol, GOP legislative leaders are close to sending a proposal to the governor that would end the state’s teacher tenure system — a change business leaders have pushed and which Education Minnesota has fought hard against.

These days, Education Minnesota’s best defense might just be the DFL governor, Williams said.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he does not support the GOP-led changes to tenure, which would allow schools to fire teachers based on skills and success rather than time of service.

But some DFLers have said privately they worry that Dayton might agree to the teacher tenure changes in exchange for a crucial vote or two on a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, one of the governor’s top priorities.

A former schoolteacher, Dayton has said he would never agree to such a deal.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, is more confident that Dayton will sign the bill, with or without a stadium. Garofalo is a key backer of the proposal to scrap teacher tenure.

“I believe he is going to sign it,” said Garofalo, chair of the House Education Finance Committee. “Everybody is in favor of this, except the teachers’ union.”

If Garofalo is wrong, Williams’ assessment will prove correct: A governor who agrees with your point of view can be more powerful than an army of lobbyists, no matter how big the army is.