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Like Don Quixote, mayors plead for special session

Thursday’s press conference at the State Office Building on the Capitol grounds in St. Paul had a defeated air about it.

Thursday’s press conference at the State Office Building on the Capitol grounds in St. Paul had a defeated air about it. Though the event, put on by the League of Minnesota Cities, drew a fair share of media folk and policy wonks, the main message was thwarted a day earlier.

This was supposed to be a chance for six mayors from a wide range of Minnesota cities to call out Gov. Tim Pawlenty and demand a special session to restore cuts to Local Government Aid (LGA) and cough up money for “property tax relief,” as it was smartly spun in the press releases. But Pawlenty had pulled the plug earlier, having sent a letter to the mayors Nov. 9 saying he would not be calling a special session on the issue, something that was picked up in the media.

But the mayors pressed on. “I don’t think we’d be here if we didn’t believe it could happen,” Steve Cook, mayor of Hutchinson, said at one point. Each took a turn at the podium, and stayed on message: Namely, that cuts to LGA, a complicated state program that funds municipal bottom lines, had forced cities to cut back on public safety and infrastructure while increasing property taxes. They saw a ray of hope last spring, when the Legislature passed a tax bill that would restore some cuts, but Pawlenty vetoed it. Now they were asking for a special session because many of them are in the midst of finalizing their 2008 budgets.

And the numbers are bleak. According to Cook, more than 300 Minnesota cities will have levy increases in the double digits, and 122 levies will increase by more than 20 percent.

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Others stated their cases matter-of-factly. Richard Lehmann, mayor of Bemidji, said that city’s levy would have to go up 9.9 percent. Hutchinson’s would have to go up 8 percent, Cook said, versus just 2.9 percent if some LGA money was restored. St. Paul is looking at a 15 percent increase, according to Lee Helgen, a council member subbing for Mayor Chris Coleman. Chuck Novak, the mayor of Ely, claimed that the city didn’t have enough money to replace its newest fire truck, one of a “1970s vintage,” he said, and added that the town’s other fire truck is from the 1940s. And so on.

‘Shuttle diplomacy’
Though no one was eager to rock the boat too much — they have to kiss up to Pawlenty now more than ever — there was no mistaking that the coterie felt jilted. That’s because they met with Pawlenty at the governor’s office Oct. 31, asking for a special session to revisit aspects of the vetoed tax bill. There, according to North Mankato Mayor Gary Zellmer and others, Pawlenty said he would be open to a special session if legislative leaders were open to it, and would agree to, as Zellmer put it, “control their caucus” — in other words, no shenanigans.

“We understood that this wasn’t a time to be getting into transportation issues,” Zellmer said. “We thought we had a solid commitment.”

In what Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak referred to as “shuttle diplomacy,” the mayoral group convinced house Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, both DFLers, to get on board under Pawlenty’s initial conditions. Then the governor bailed.

“We have been in contact with legislative leaders to gauge interest in a tax bill-only session,” Pawlenty wrote in his Nov. 9 missive, adding that he was concerned about upcoming state budget forecasts this month and in February, when the regular legislative session starts. “There does not appear to be consensus on this idea among the leaders and the members they represent.”

He also defended his veto of the original bill, writing that it was “over a provision that legislative leadership clearly understood would jeopardize the bill’s passage.”

Minneapolis hit hard
Back at the press conference, Rybak, something of a transformed man after the I-35W bridge collapse, pulled no punches in what has become heightened battle between him and Pawlenty. “We don’t know what happens behind closed doors,” Rybak sniffed. “We’re asking the governor to do what mayors do every day, which is bring people together and be a leader.”

The 2003 LGA cuts hit Minneapolis especially hard. According to Rybak’s communications director, Jeremy Hanson, and city CFO Pat Born, Minneapolis lost some $37 million in LGA funding in 2003. Two years ago, some cuts were restored, but the state’s largest city is still short some $35 million annually. (The city’s general fund budget is $327 million this year, and if Pawlenty hadn’t vetoed the tax bill in the spring, the city would have about $13 million more.) This translates to, as Rybak repeatedly notes, fewer cops on the street, less investment in infrastructure and huge spike in property taxes.

As much as this distillation might resonate with voters, it’s unlikely to move Pawlenty. This is, after all, a man who has refused to call a special session in the wake of the bridge disaster. And he’s repeatedly taunted local governments to get their budgets together.

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For all the sob songs played at the press conference, the mayors might as well have just stayed home.