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Post-election wish list for Twin Cities metro area

In the not too distant past after all, Minnesota had a reputation for urban innovation — think Nicollet Mall, Metropolitan Council, Fiscal Disparities Act.

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.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 11/09/2012 - 10:12 am.

    Non-Metro Minnesota?

    So will your next column be a Wish List for the areas of Minnesota that fall outside the seven county metropolitan mosquito control district? Were it not for the votes of many parts of rural Minnesota, the DFL would not be in control of the legislature.

  2. Submitted by Daniel Olson on 11/09/2012 - 11:12 am.


    Marlys wrote: “The federal government will pay 90 percent of the $1.25 billion cost; the state has to come up with the other 10 percent.”

    Not true. The feds will pay 50%, not 90% of SW LRT. The state pays 10%, CTIB (regional sales tax) pays 30%, and Hennepin County pays 10%.

  3. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 11/09/2012 - 11:25 am.

    I think you’re dreaming

    I don’t think most Minnesotans understand what a big mess the budget is. Certainly most media have bought into the Republican lie that they “balanced” the budget. They “balanced” the budget for the last 10 years with a series of one-time fund raids, budget shifts and other balancing gimmicks. Minnesota has been buying groceries on a credit card. And that bill’s coming due.

    And fixing this is going to be painful. Public employees shouldn’t get excited about making up for a decade of no raises. Schools shouldn’t plan on hiring a bunch of teachers back. And new projects outside of a larger, more normal-sized bonding bill are unlikely. Nicollet Mall and infrastructure might happen in a bonding bill, but a lot of what is listed here doesn’t fit into the bonding bill. And because Republicans have been whacking stuff out of the bonding bill for six years, there is a lot of pent up demand. Fridley’s been waiting for money to shore up Springbrook Nature Center for six years before it is loved to death. If the Democrats “loosen the purse strings” too much they’ll find them selves no longer holding those strings in as little as two years.

    If the press – and MinnPost was among the best in covering it – covered this budget issue the way it should have been covered, with real numbers, not some he said/she said, trying-to-be-pseudo-objective casual stories, Minnesotans wouldn’t have put up with this nonsense. It is not fiscally conservative to buy now and pay later with no plan to actually pay.

  4. Submitted by Emily Mn on 11/09/2012 - 11:47 am.

    My wish list

    I wish that my state would not take more of my money that I spend 50 hours a week away from my children for. That way I’d be able to pay down my debt, get out of my underwater mortgage on a 2 bedroom condo for my family of 4, afford my groceries and gas and MAYBE be able to save something for retirement or my children’s education. I could care less about NICOLETT MALL and MASS TRANSIT! This article is the most out of touch thing I have ever read! You should be ashamed of yourself.

    • Submitted by Nick Magrino on 11/10/2012 - 11:08 am.


      “How dare you suggest we spend money on public transit, I need money for gas!”

      That’s gotta be like at least an 8 out of 10 on the cognitive dissonance scale.

  5. Submitted by Bruce Bruemmer on 11/09/2012 - 12:21 pm.

    Wish no. 8

    A constitutional amendment to make it more difficult to pass constitutional amendments. Perhaps a supermajority. $16 million spent pro and con on amendments this year was just obscene. Constitutional amendments should not be an alternative to legislation regardless of which party is in power.

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/09/2012 - 12:54 pm.

    That’s a lot of money

    you’d like to spend.

    While I agree on some of it, I really can’t see a statewide rationale for investing $45 million for upgrades/repairs to Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Ave. Nor do I buy the idea that we should invest in additional light rail, simply because the Feds will pick up 90%. 10% is still $125 million, a figure which we can readily assume will increase as the recession fades. I’d like to see the numbers on MNPass – it may save time (and money) for those able to pay the tolls, but does it pay its own way from infrastructure and operational angles?

    I agree that we can’t simply roll back the clock on local aid and that we should equalize property tax relief among homeowners and renters. ( I never understood the rationale for the latter, other than to save money on the backs of a group with little power at the ballot boxes.)

    Infrastructure is a must and likely to find favor with both the legislature and the governor, if for no other reason than it’s a quick way to put construction workers back on a payroll. I would expect, however, that the money would be better distributed geographically than last session’s “jobs bill” (aka the Vikings’ stadium).

    I’d like to see some real progress on education, not in terms of dollars, testing or even the number of teachers but in making sure that the children moving through the system today come out of process ready, willing and able to learn. My limited experiences as a tutor this past year have shown me that too many students, including high performing students, have moved up the ladder with gaping holes in their math and other skills. Too many 7th and 8th grade students don’t know their basic multiplication, division, addition and subtraction and get bogged down if not lost in these elementary steps while trying to master algebra and geometry. Remedial work is required for many, something that I don’t see being recognized or provided for in my district, other than through the use of volunteer tutors. One step might be to provide a small amount of funding for tutoring programs, similar to that in use at the St. Paul Public Schools and sponsored by the SPPS Foundation, using Americorp funded coordinators. Another, more radical step, might be to simply stop introducing new concepts until they’ve mastered the fundamentals.

    First and foremost, however, let’s fix the structural budget issues, starting with reversing the tax law changes of the late ’90s and Pawlenty years.

  7. Submitted by David Greene on 11/09/2012 - 05:27 pm.

    A Better List

    I agree with James that state money for Nicollet and Hennepin seems inappropriate.

    I am in full support of transit funding. Bonding for Southwest LRT, Cedar BRT and 35-W BRT are important. We also need to fund the study/planning for Bottineau and Gateway. In addition, the legislature should lift the ban on study of the Dan Patch line.

    But just as important is support for expanding and improving the bus system. A increase of 3/4 cent to the metro sales tax dedicated to transit would cover that and implement a modern, efficient transit system. Better yet would be to slightly increase that amount and remove transit funding from the general fund entirely.

    I’m not demanding this money because these are nice things to have. I’m demanding it because these are things we MUST have to compete in the 21st century business market.

    Basic sewer and water infrastructure is critical. It is falling apart. Just as critical is to reign in the sprawl that makes these systems so expensive to maintain. We can no longer afford to keep spreading out.

    We have several convention center needs: Duluth, Mankato, Rochester. Those have been waiting a very long time and they are important economic generators.

    But most of this is bonding stuff or otherwise mostly unrelated to the budget. As far as the actual budget goes, we need to pay back the school system. We do need to raise revenue and reversing the Ventura tax cuts would get us a long way. I would support slightly lowering business tax rates and would definitely support broadening the sales tax base and reducing its rate, as that makes the sales tax more progressive.

    Property tax relief is a must. Property taxes have to become much more progressive somehow.

    We need more support for affordable housing. I don’t have a good idea of the state’s role here but it’s clear that counties and cities can’t afford the kind of support developers need to build affordable housing in the areas the Met Council understands it needs to go. Money is almost certainly a necessary state contribution.

  8. Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/09/2012 - 07:49 pm.


    With respect, you had in place for the last two years a group of folks who claimed to share your views. They did nothing to imorove your situation, nor would they if they were still in power. Without trying to downplay your situation, might I suggest that the few hundred bucks you might save if even the most drastic cuts in taxes were enacted pale in comparison to the potential opportunities initiatives like improving infrastructure and easing transportation of goods through decreased congestion might offer you when they aid in kickstarting economic growth. In short you SHOULD care because taxes aren’t the root of your problem a low wage economy and slow growth (a result of the actions of more people who think like you) are.

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