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GOP targets Met Council as campaign issue

A GOP press conference Thursday revealed sharp partisan differences over regional transportation.

State Rep. Linda Runbeck speaking during a Thursday press conference. Behind her are, left to right, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, state Sen. David Osmek and state Rep. Peggy Scott.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

A group of Republican state lawmakers and suburban mayors attempted Thursday to make the Metropolitan Council a campaign issue, calling on Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to “rein in” the council and accusing the regional body of overreaching its authority.

The press conference, held at the state capitol, took on the council for its role in planning for enforcing regional growth plans on local governments; and for the pending Thrive MSP 2040 housing and transportation plan that has caused the five counties on the rim of the metropolitan area to unite in opposition.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said she has heard general complaints about the Met Council during her six years in office. But Thrive 2040 has intensified those concerns.

“Since they released this 2040 Thrive plan, this has come to a fever pitch,” Scott said. In addition to the county commissions from the five collar counties, suburban mayors are also beginning to raise concerns. Of most concern is what’s perceived as an emphasis on mass transit over roads, one that favors the Twin Cities over the suburban areas.

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“The Thrive 2040 plan comes from an unelected body we believe overreaches well beyond the original purposes of the Met Council,” said Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines. She said she thinks the plan will increase housing costs and increase gridlock.

But the press conference, more than anything, put on display the sharp partisan differences over regional transportation.

The DFL, especially in the Twin Cities, is enthusiastic about light rail. Though the controversy over the alignment for Green Line expansion brought objections from some neighborhoods that are DFL strongholds, even those residents have been quick to say they strongly support light rail expansion. Minneapolis even has a policy against having park and ride lots in the city that might encourage use of cars, even though drivers would end up on light rail and buses. 

The GOP, however, is moving in another direction. Anti-rail is now a centerpiece of Republican transportation policy. One statement Thursday shows how far some are willing to take that. Scott challenged the argument that light rail is a means of connecting low-income residents to jobs. Cars, she asserted, are still the primary means of getting to jobs among those with low incomes and said poor people with cars have higher incomes.

“If the Met Council wants to help people out of poverty by having access to jobs, they should look for ways to increase, not decrease, automobile ownership,” she said.

But most of the anger Thursday was aimed at Thrive 2040, the Met Council’s latest 30-year plan. It is meant to create the overriding policy that guides the council’s plans for transportation, housing, water resources and regional parks.

While the council was formed in the 1960s to conduct regional planning and coordination, its powers and authority has been greatly expanded by the Legislature in the years since — usually with bipartisan votes — to include the delivery of transportation, wastewater and freshwater, as well as the power to enforce regional planning on local governments.

It has become a political issue in the past with two recent governors. Independent Jesse Ventura and Republican Tim Pawlenty both campaigned to eliminate it, though neither did so once they had the power to appoint all of the members. It has not become a significant issue between Dayton and his Republican challenger Jeff Johnson, but the legislators in attendance Thursday tried to make it one, pledging to stop the Thrive plan and put a moratorium on light rail expansion.  

One GOP lawmaker suggested a new means of confirming the 16 members who represent districts across the region. Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said he would introduce legislation to let the cities help pick council members and remove them if they don’t like how they perform.

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But while Osmek said was looking for solutions to complaints about the Met Council, he acknowledged that he has tried before to eliminate it. Doing so would have required a 214-page bill, which speaks to how entwined the Met Council is in state law.

The Met Council did not respond directly to the GOP press conference, but did release a general statement that said while it was interested in proposals to “help us make the most efficient and effective use of tax dollars to achieve good things for the region as a whole.”

Those changes, however, “should be focused on how to best support the council’s core mission of providing efficient and economic growth for a prosperous metropolitan region.”