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House GOP floats plan to restructure regional planning

Rep. Mike Beard
Rep. Mike Beard

Who would have imagined that Republican legislators, those champions of government efficiency and effectiveness, would come up with a plan to create multiple boards and commissions to do the work now performed by one agency?

But that’s what state Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, chair of the House Transportation Committee, and some of his colleagues have in mind.

They are circulating a proposal to strip the Metropolitan Council of its powers over transportation, weaken its authority in other areas and create two new boards – one for transportation planning and funding, and one for transit operations. The bill has not yet been introduced in the Legislature, but parts of it have been offered as amendments in committee.

“They are just rewinding the clock to 1994,” says Curt Johnson, former chair of the Met Council and a public affairs consultant/writer who has helped lead studies of urban problems in more than 25 metro areas.

Johnson was referring to legislation in 1994 that eliminated the Regional Transit Board, Metropolitan Transit Commission and Metropolitan Waste Control Commission, and consolidated their operating functions under the Met Council, the region’s planning agency.

“People have a nasty problem with amnesia,” Johnson says. “All that fragmentation didn’t work very well. We widely came to the conclusion that we had to consolidate all of these boards into one agency and hold it accountable for results.”

Myron Orfield
Myron Orfield

Myron Orfield, a former DFL state senator from Minneapolis who helped write the legislation, says it was a bipartisan effort and that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, then a Republican legislator, was one of its cosponsors.

Orfield also is a University of Minnesota law professor who has written several books on regional planning and governance.

“It has worked pretty well,” Orfield says of the consolidation. “I would be surprised if the business community is supportive of this [Beard plan]. It would give us a system much closer to what they have in Detroit and Milwaukee, not very successful cities.”

Clashes with suburban counties

Beard’s proposal grew out of clashes between the Met Council and officials of several suburban counties, most notably Scott, who don’t feel they are getting their share of the regional pie and don’t buy into the need for regional solutions to regional problems.

However, in the view of Johnson, Orfield and others, the Beard proposal has several serious flaws.

First, Beard would create two new boards along the model of COGs – councils of local governments made up of local elected officials -- that have not worked well in most other metro areas.

He would create a Regional Transportation Governance Board of more than 30 members – including two county commissioners appointed by each of the several metro county boards and 16 city elected officials appointed by the governor.

Become a sustaining member today

They would take over the Met Council’s responsibilities for long-range transportation planning and transportation funding. This would include serving as the “metropolitan planning organization” designated under federal law to allocate federal highway and transit dollars that flow to the region. The Met Council now handles this function with the help of a Transportation Advisory Board, made up primarily of local officials and transportation experts.

(One positive for the Beard proposal: He would eliminate the regional rail authorities established by the seven metro areas and fold them into his new transportation board. Not infrequently, the county rail authorities have spent money promoting rail transit lines that have little potential for ridership and are not a part of the Met Council’s long-range plan for the region.)

Beard also would establish a Metropolitan Transit Commission, consisting of five local officials, to run Metro Transit, Metro Mobility and other regional transit services.

Jim Solem, a former regional administrator of the Met Council and state planning official, says employing the COG model would be a huge mistake.

“We had a COG for 10 years – the Metropolitan Planning Commission – that existed from 1957 to 1967,” Solem recalls. “It did a lot of good research and planning, but it was singularly unsuccessful at resolving any major regional issues.”

Says Johnson:  “COGs are a piece of government apparatus that I would classify as the unburied dead. In most regions, they don’t work very well.  Everything they do is advisory and they are widely ignored.”

Reduce accountability

Beard’s proposal also is likely to reduce government accountability, rather than enhance it.

The Met Council, whose 17 members are appointed by the governor and serve at his pleasure, is accountable to both him and the Legislature. Its budgets and activities are regularly reviewed by multiple legislative committees, as well as a special Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Governance. In contrast, Beard’s new commissions would not be clearly accountable to anyone.

Curtis Johnson
Curtis Johnson

Orfield fears a return to the regional infighting that took place before the 1994 consolidation. “We had  multiple boards that were not cooperating with each other at all – they were competing. It was pretty dysfunctional.”

Finally, Beard’s proposal would sever the important link between transportation and land use planning, which now are joined at the Met Council. Under his plan, the council would retain responsibility for land use planning, though its powers would be weakened, while transportation planning would become the province of the new Regional Transportation Governance Board.

Johnson says that would be a mistake. Land use and transportation are “so interrelated,” with land use decisions affecting the demand for roads and transit, and transportation decisions helping to promote orderly, efficient land use.

In recent years, the Met Council has won $21 million in federal and foundation grants to help promote and leverage sustainable development in seven regional transit corridors while increasing ridership and expanding access to jobs, affordable housing and essential services.

Beard’s draft bill also would weaken the Met Council by making its long-range plan for regional growth – called the Regional Development Framework – “advisory” only for metro cities, and by requiring legislative approval of the council’s annual budget.

Johnson says it is “sheer irony” that the Met Council is looked upon with such scorn by some officials in this region, while delegations of governmental, business and civic leaders from other regions frequently come here to look at the Minnesota model.

“They travel here to look at this set-up and go away envious, wishing they could have this kind of regional structure in their community,” he says.

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Comments (11)

This Would Be Disaster for Regional Business and Transportation

I can't imagine that existing regional businesses would be in favor of such a disorganized, piecemeal approach to these issues. It would be a nightmare for legitimate business concerns to try to keep track of what was required and allowable in all the various locations around the metro region since, under such a system, the rules would rapidly diverge from those now kept by the Met Council.

So what would be the goal of such a fragmented, inefficient system? Since the metro council is quite powerful and quite difficult for our region's wealthy and would-be wealthy (no matter what the cost to others) citizens to manipulate, I suspect the sponsors believe there's a good deal of money to be made by themselves and their supporters through gaining influence and winning favorable treatment and contracts for themselves in the smaller, far less visible, far less powerful planning and regulation entities this approach would create.

In other words, they're hoping to set themselves up to pad their own pockets at the expense of the public and the environment by positioning themselves to dominate, by hook or by crook, one or more of these smaller planning entities and thus to set up a wide variety of fly-by-night, environmentally disastrous enterprises where no one will have the power to stop them and, enterprises which allow them, once they've maxed out their profits, to disappear leaving the local citizens holding the bag for cleaning up the mess they've left behind.

Of course we would also be likely to see a race to the bottom as various areas competed for businesses to locate in their area by wiping out any and all requirements that those businesses be responsible to their investors, their employees, the citizens around them, and to the environment.

At least they're consistent

"It would give us a system much closer to what they have in Detroit and Milwaukee, not very successful cities.”

Using unsuccessful models for their policy proposals is par for the GOP course.

Metro mischief

There are companion bills moving through to curb the powers of metro watershed districts
to do the same in service of the same interests.

Ideological motivation

It's interesting that Orfield says of the pre-1994 boards that "they were competing. It was pretty dysfunctional." Likely that competition is what Beard is going for, misapplying a Bushite (i.e. double-standard) "free market" model to government. In the March 7th House Transportation committee hearing on several bills that would allow further transit opt-outs and reallocate Metro Transit funding to opt-outs, Beard commented several times that his intention is to allow local money to be controlled by and spent in the communities where it originated. This is an ideologically-based misunderstanding of transportation networks and how they function. How would it work if every gas tax dollar had to be spent within 5 miles of the gas station is was collected at? Similarly, evenly distributing transit dollars despite vast differentials in transit need doesn't work, which Beard and his colleagues will never understand, since they are blinded by an ideology that somehow transit is subsidized but roads aren't.

No Good Can Come Of This

I continue to be amazed at Rep. Beard's stubborn refuse to accept that the Twin Cities is a bona fide metropolitan area that requires both planning and policy making as well as some governance on a regional basis. The Metropolitan Council with its focus on regional planning and policy issues together with the teeth to enforce has freed the Twin Cities metropolitan area from many of the metro planning and policy sanfu's that have plagued other large cities.

Transportation is perhaps one area where the Met Council has been most successful. Undoing regional transportation planning and policy should only be done if one could conclude that the present model has failed and there is simply no credible case to be made that it has.

COG's are virtually incapable of addressing regional issues becasue the elected officials who make a COG are accountable to their municapal or county constituencies - not the Twin Cities metropolitan region. They have no incentive to "think regional" since they are nearly always elected to "think locally". It is the inherent nature of COG's comprised of local elected officials to put the needs of their constituents ahead of the needs of the larger Metro area - that is not unreasonable. But, it makes for lousy regional planning and policy making.

Expand

The Met Council should be expanded geographically not diminished. It was a mistake not to have a mechanism that tracked growth and included more areas within the scope of the council. That is how we got ex-urban growth-sprawl- and the new St. Croix bridge which will increase sprawl.

GOP = Going Obsolete Party

Going backwards emulating the worst of the mid to early 20th century seems to be the "plan" the GOP has for the state and the country in the 21st century. Since they want to substitute disorganization for organization in metro transportation planning and they did not support saving the auto industry, will they next propose that we all start riding horses and driving horse drawn buggies? That seems to be the "future" they propose in their legislation for the state and the country.
And that doesn't even mention their other backwards, controlling legislation like voter suppression, marriage inequality, consenting adults' bedroom behavior and redominate women initiatives along with disorganizing government in many areas.
November 6, cannot come soon enough. Get active, get informed and vote for a real 21st century "future." Vote out the T-Party GOP!

What Rep. Beard Wants

Unfortunately, as some others have hinted at, the kind of dysfunction that you, Steve, and Myron Orfield are concerned about is exactly what Rep. Beard wants in regional planning, especially in regards to transit. Rep. Beard has had no contentions about openly endorsing the interests of his "friends" in SW Transit over and above the interests of the Metro and the state. He continually attempts to wield an axe to Metro Transit and the Met Council on their behalf. There are ideological reasons for this, true, but it ultimately comes down protecting the interests of a small group of Scott County businessmen.

This Is No Surprise

Republicans have sought to take the reins of government and prove that government doesn't work. This is part and parcel of the way they operate. Of course this plan will not work. It's in the design.

Back to the future

Based on my 6 years as a planning commissioner elsewhere, and a continued interest in local and regional planning, I have to say that Mr. Beard's idea is terrible. It has neither efficiency, nor local control, nor regional vision working in its favor, and essentially seems like a case of dropping back a generation – from which the region would eventually have to recover, again, the ground lost.

If the objective is to render regional government completely dysfunctional in order to prove a point about dysfunctional government, this is a fine way to go about it, but creating a slow train wreck shouldn't be, I'd argue, a goal of legislation. Plenty of savvy businessmen will recognize this testament to the parochial as bad policy, with seriously negative repercussions for everyone in the area.

Met Council Restructuring for the 21st Century

What is going on in the Legislature and MN GOP? How can a supposed enlightened state government like ours come up with these monstrous gutting changes to the Met Council? Whatever happened to restructuring, streamlining, and the rebuilding the Met Council for more modern times and issues? What happened to the progressive Minnesota political ethic and forward thinking when it comes to saving money or having beneficial governmental efficiencies?

Looks like the Met Council has become quasi-government that gets bogged down with bureaucratic machinations, political correctness, and Washingtonian gridlock. Now, the GOP controlled Legislature wants to create the Hydra-like bureaucratic local nightmares they were fighting when the Met Council was formed in the 1960's. Is this what you call Minnesota progress?

As you can see from my comments, I have questions, as a citizen, that deserve answers but in the present political climate I will be long gone to Fort Snelling before this state ever sees the future and the wisdom of enlightened governance. Can anyone tell me why this state seems on the collision course to self-destruction? Is this the new MN way of progress? Please enlighten me!