By Frederic J. Frommer, Associated Press
Minnesota sugar beet growers set a fast political pace last year, giving nearly $700,000 in political action committee donations as part of an unsuccessful fight to defeat a free trade agreement.
Leading the pack was American Crystal Sugar Co. of Bloomington, which made $531,000 in PAC contributions, more than any other business in the state, an Associated Press review found. Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative of Renville was fifth in the state with $143,000 in donations.
PACs for UnitedHealth Group, U.S. Bancorp and Target were the other three in the top five. PACs are vehicles that businesses and other organizations use to make contributions to federal candidates. Often, they are funded by employee donations, or in the case of trade groups, by members.
A big issue for the sugar industry last year was the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which passed by just two votes in the House last summer. The sugar industry opposed the deal because of concerns of the impact of cheap imported sugar on U.S. sugar growers. Minnesota is the nation's leading producer of sugar beets.
Most Democrats voted against the deal, and American Crystal's PAC made contributions to nearly every Democratic member of the House Agriculture Committee. The PAC also gave to about half of the Republican members on the committee.
Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, meanwhile, gave to about half of the House Agriculture Committee members of both parties.
"We have a very large and politically savvy foundation of growers and employees, who believe that being politically active is important for their future," said Kevin S. Price, a lobbyist for American Crystal.
"We have 3,000 shareholders and 2,000 employees," he added. "There's an understanding of the need to be engaged in politics. And speaking with one voice with a PAC is firmly embedded in our cooperative."
Besides backing members of the House Agriculture Committee, American Crystal also tended to its home base, contributing to every Minnesota House member seeking re-election with the exception of Republican Jim Ramstad and Democrat Jim Oberstar.
Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative officials did not respond to repeated phone messages left this week. Officials with Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group, an insurance company which was second in the state with $253,000 in PAC donations, also failed to respond to phone messages.
Third on the list was U.S. Bancorp of Minneapolis, which made $214,000 worth of PAC donations last year. That's almost as much in one year as the PAC made in the last two-year election cycle ($259,000).
"We decided the PAC was underutilized, and we had a significant balance, and we just wanted to start utilizing that resource a little bit more," said Deb Burke, a lobbyist for U.S. Bancorp.
All of the PAC's donations come from employees, Burke added.
Fourth on the state list was Target Corp., with $167,000 in PAC contributions. The company declined an interview request, but issued a statement saying: "Target contributes to state and federal political candidates based strictly on issues that directly affect our retail and business interests."