The voters have spoken, and for the first time in 20 years, Minnesota — for good or for evil — will be under one-party rule. Come New Year’s, the DFL will dominate both the state House (73 to 61) and the Senate (39 to 28). Presumably, Gov. Mark Dayton, also a Democrat, will sign whatever legislation they pass.
With this degree of unity, our lawmakers should be able to get something done. In recent years, austerity, tax cuts, one-time budget fixes and stalemate dominated legislative sessions. A projected $1.1 billion budget deficit still looms, though Democrats look poised to boost taxes, perhaps creating some wiggle-room. And the state still has plenty of borrowing power, which could help to underwrite new projects.
In addition to loosening the purse-strings, the Democrats could also take a stab at trying something new. “This could be a kind of Nixon-goes-to-China opportunity for the DFL,” says Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League. “They already have a basis of trust [with unions and cities]. They would have the credibility to make major reforms.”
In the not too distant past after all, Minnesota had a reputation for urban innovation — think Nicollet Mall, Metropolitan Council, Fiscal Disparities Act. Maybe we could get back our chops.
So what should be on the legislative agenda for the Twin Cities? After talking to some policymakers and looking through the wish lists of various advocacy groups, here’s what I came up with:
Wish No. 1: government aid
Increase aid to local governments — but with a caveat. Since the onset of the recession, states, desperate to balance their own budgets, slashed aid to localities. Minnesota has been no different. In the last five years, aid dropped by 12 percent to $425 million. Many cities in the metro saw larger cuts: St. Paul lost 16 percent, Minneapolis 23 percent, Brooklyn Park 20 percent and Richfield 39 percent. As a result, we’ve seen bumpier streets, less police protection and more infrequent trash pick-up — along with higher property taxes.
Kershaw says, however, that “it would be a mistake to refill those aid buckets” without working toward improvement in the delivery and efficiency of government services. He suggests that counties might be able to perform some functions more efficiently than small towns and hamlets; some towns may be able to get together and consolidate back-office functions like record-keeping or tax collection. Health care and social services, he believes, could be redesigned to be more efficient and humane at the same time.
How? The ideas, he claims, could come from localities themselves with an incentive fund like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, which rewarded money to school districts that created innovative programs.
Wish No. 2: transit
Get moving on the Southwest Corridor LRT. Light rail and bus rapid transit has to be built out so that it reaches all areas of the metro, says Mike Greco, a program manager for the Resilient Communities Project, a program of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Adding more roads at this point will not ease congestion or make travel easier.
Planners aren’t the only ones who want mass transit; the three largest local business groups — the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce — have all declared their support. The federal government will pay 90 percent of the $1.25 billion cost; the state has to come up with the other 10 percent. So far, the Legislature allocated a mingy $7 million.
Wish No. 3: infrastructure
Provide funds to fix up our crumbling infrastructure. “Roads, sewers, bridges, they’re all a huge concern,” says Lance Bernard, president of the American Planning Association of Minnesota. His biggest worry right now is water. “People can see potholes and understand them, but they don’t have a sense of a failing water system.” If you don’t believe that our pipes and sewer lines are falling apart, take a gander at “Liquid Assets MN,” a tpt documentary.
Wish No. 4: Met Council
Prod the Metropolitan Council to be more aggressive about doing its job. In the last 20 years, the Met Council has been too forgiving about allowing communities on the edge of the metro to expand, requiring construction of new sewers, roads and other costly infrastructure, says Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota.
Of course, the recession itself has slowed development already, but spending should be focused, he adds, on improving the infrastructure in older, denser and more efficient first ring suburbs. Orfield also insists that the council work to on a plan to scatter affordable housing throughout the metro rather than allowing it to concentrate in areas that are already poor and segregated, “especially now,” he adds, “when many suburbs want affordable housing.”
I’m not exactly sure what the Legislature can do in the way of prodding or encouraging. Carrots? Cupcakes?
Wish No. 5: Nicollet Mall
Fix up Nicollet Mall. Last year the governor proposed $25 million in bonding toward a $60 million reconstruction of what he calls “Minnesota’s Main Street.” But the Legislature dropped the item from the final bill. The project would pay for better lighting, integrated transport and repair of pavers, which have been beaten up by taxi and bus traffic.
At its inauguration in 1965, Nicollet Mall was a first in the U.S., an exciting pedestrian street. The last spiffing up took place 20 years ago, and we’ve let it get frowsy. Downtown businesses are struggling enough without sending them the entire bill.
For my part, I would like to see the Legislature throw in another $20 million for Hennepin, which also needs some help. What should be done? Well, maybe the Legislature should set up a design contest for architectural and/or planning firms.
Wish No. 6: MNPass
Expand MNPass. This program allows solo drivers to use HOV lanes — if they pay a toll. “It reduces congestion, and the tolls bring in money for transit,” says Kershaw. Right now, the passes are available only on 35W and 394. A University of Minnesota study of MNPass on 394 found that the benefits in time-saving ran about double the cost of the program.
Wish No. 7: renters’ tax credit
Restore the cut to the renters’ property tax credit. This so-called circuit-breaker provides a refund to the poor who pay property taxes via their monthly rents. Nan Madden, director of the Minnesota Budget Project, explains the theory: “Low-income families shouldn’t have to pay more than a certain share of their income in property taxes.” Last year, Lhe legislature cut the credit by 13 percent.
No doubt, there are dozens of other programs or projects that the Legislature could take on, and I’d love to hear readers’ ideas.