With the Minnesota Legislature split between a new Republican House majority and a returning DFL-controlled Senate, it might be good to keep expectations low for the 2015 session, which opens today.
That could be especially true for metro area local governments, given one of the GOP’s chief campaign themes during the 2014 election: that state government wasn’t focused enough on small-town and rural Minnesota.
Such political realities, however, haven’t curtailed the wish lists that will guide the legislative efforts of the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and Ramsey and Hennepin counties, chief among them being more state money in the form of Local Government Assistance and additional support for transportation — including mass transit.
“It’ll certainly be an interesting session,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
Pushing for more LGA
Local Government Assistance (LGA) has become a significant chunk of city budgets — a form of direct state aid that has helped cities rely less on erratic and unpopular property taxes.
In 2003, the Legislature distributed $587 million in aid. But in response to the Great Recession and in an attempt to reduce the scale of state spending, state government reduced LGA to $425 million in 2011, according to an analysis by the League of Minnesota Cities. Large property tax hikes followed, as did loud objections from some homeowners.
Gov. Mark Dayton, with the help of House and Senate Democratic majorities, has boosted LGA funding by $90 million. But cities complain that it still remains below 2003 levels and that there is no method for adjusting the allocation for inflation.
St. Paul elected officials, for example, say through their adopted agenda that the city receives $14 million per year less than the actual amount it received 12 years ago. With inflation, that number translates to $45 million today — nearly half of the city’s property tax levy. “This shortfall puts a significant and continued strain on city resources and creates instability in city budgeting,” notes the city’s legislative agenda.
Coleman said his first wish is that the Legislature “do no harm” by reducing LGA. But he said if lawmakers are committed to property tax relief, the best way is to provide a level of local government aid that can negate pressure on local levies.
The budgeting instability is one of the primary issues raised by the League of Minnesota Cities, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s municipal governments. “The current practice of almost annual adjustments to local government aid (LGA) and similar programs, recent unallotments of the appropriation and the imposition of levy limits do not allow for prudent financial planning and decisions,” the league stated in its 2015 lobbying plan.
Minneapolis is advocating giving local governments other sources of revenue, with the league advancing a local sales tax proposal to pay for capital projects, though such a move is considered unlikely given the current makeup of the Legislature and the fact that many in the GOP-led House are calling for tax cuts, not increases.
One aspect of the local government agenda related to finances is defensive: Both Minneapolis and St. Paul worry about attempts to cap the property tax in ways that will make it more difficult to raise revenue from that source.
Momentum around transportation
Transportation funding is the other top priority for local governments. Concerns about deteriorating infrastructure are universal. Partisan splits emerge, however, over how to pay for maintenance and new projects — and how to distribute money between roads and bridges and mass transit.
That conflict was at the center of the GOP’s 2014 campaign, during which many Republican House candidates said there was an overemphasis on metro-area transit projects at the expense of outstate roads and bridges.
Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who chairs the council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, said she is optimistic that legislators from the metro area and those from the rest of the state can reach an agreement.
“There’s a lot of momentum around this topic,” Glidden said. “You have to get into session to see if there can be a meeting of the minds so that all components of transportation are funded in some way.”
Minneapolis’ adopted agenda is less specific about how transportation money should be raised, but other government entities — St. Paul and the Metropolitan Council, specifically — are supporting requests for an additional sales tax increase in five metro counties (Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington) to pay for big urban projects, including expanded light rail transit lines.
Coleman said it is needed to make the state competitive with other states and other nations for both business growth and the young talent needed to staff businesses.
Both cities also support some expansion of tax increment financing for the development of alternative transit forms such as streetcars. TIF devotes increased property taxes resulting from capital improvements to repay the costs of those improvements.
Coleman continues his push to work with cities across the state to establish dedicated money to help cities deal with deteriorating urban arterials, many of which are beyond their structural lifespans.
One slight difference of opinion does emerge from the two sides of the metro. Both St. Paul and Ramsey County state in their legislative requests that they want transportation spending to be more fairly distributed between east and west. St. Paul “strongly encourages a renewed and balanced look at transit projects in the East Metro. This includes projects like the Gateway Corridor, Riverview Corridor, Rush Line, Red Rock, and Robert Street. In order to build a 21st century transit system, any new transit funding from the state must recognize the need for a geographic balance across the Metro Area.”
Ramsey County’s 2015 agenda echoes the sense that the east side of the metro area hasn’t always gotten its fair share, arguing that a “sustainable, dedicated fund must be established to support a comprehensive transit and transportation package that is balanced across transportation modes, sectors … and regional balance.”
Public Safety remains a priority
The final big agenda items involve public safety. Glidden said the cities that already have or are considering placing body cameras on police officers need additional guidance from the state on how the state’s Data Practices Act should be applied to requests for video.
For its part, Hennepin County wants better funding for Community Corrections. And both St. Paul and Minneapolis are calling for stricter gun laws as a means of combating gun violence.
To raise funds for public safety, crime prevention and rehabilitation, Minneapolis is proposing a wholesale impact fee on alcohol. The city also supports a state law change that would give its Office of Police Conduct Review limited subpoena power “to improve the quality of … staff investigations by obtaining information relevant to the allegations from entities outside the City organization.”
And Ramsey County thinks there should be state support for programs at the Dorothy Day Homeless Shelter.
“The Twin Cities Metro counties serve a disproportionate percentage of individuals that need shelter and coordinated support, including a large number of individuals who migrate from other counties,” the agenda states. “The Metro counties are willing to organize the needed supports, but the taxpayers of the metro area should not be the primary source of funding.”