For local governments officials in the Twin Cities region, 2017 will begin with an eye on the legislative session — and end with significant elections.
In between, there will be plenty to keep an eye on, especially given the divisions at the Capitol (at least when the DFL governor is included in the mix) — and what those differences could mean for local officials.
With all that in mind, here are six issues that could dominate the year in local government.
“Government that is closest to the people, is the best,” someone is supposed to have said, somewhere in history. But when it comes to issues, if you’re not winning at the local level, one longstanding tactic has been to take it up a notch — to address it in a venue where the odds might be more in your favor.
That’s been especially true during the last several years, when activists in dozens of American cities have localized issues that haven’t gotten the attention of Congress or state legislatures: minimum wage, mandatory paid leave, fracking, guns. In city after city, those activists have been successful in pressuring elected officials to adopt policies they could likely never get through at the state or national level.
In response, opponents of such initiatives have argued that local government officials don’t have authority to impose such rules. In Minnesota, a case in Hennepin County District Court has pitted the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and some local businesses against the city of Minneapolis over whether the city had the right to adopt a mandatory paid leave ordinance for employees of private employers. St. Paul is watching the case closely because its council adopted a similar ordinance.
Regardless of what the court rules, however, look for lawmakers to write bills in 2017 that explicitly reserve the right to legislate issues regarding private pay and benefits at the state level, a move known as “preemption.”
Not surprisingly, local governments oppose preemption efforts. As the Minneapolis City Council wrote in its 2017 legislative agenda: “The City of Minneapolis supports efforts to maintain or enhance local governance, and opposes efforts by the legislature to interfere in local government decision-making authority.” Added St. Paul: “City government most directly impacts the lives of people and therefore, local units of government must have sufficient authority and flexibility to meet the challenges of governing and providing citizens with public services.”
In the past, Gov. Mark Dayton has said that the state level is the best place for such issues to be addressed, so as to avoid a hodgepodge of local ordinances. But politics has changed dramatically over the last two years. With Republicans now in control of Congress and now both houses of the Minnesota Legislature, Democrats nationally are looking to cities as a bulwark against rolling back policy gains.
A year ago, backers of Southwest LRT — the 14.5-mile extension of the Green Line, from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie — were hoping for a state version of a grand bargain: Rural and suburban legislators would set aside their hostility toward light rail in order to get a deal that funded both mass transit and the roads and bridges they sought.
But no bargain emerged from the 2016 session. And Dayton decided an offer made on his behalf by Met Council Chair Adam Duininck — that the project would not proceed without legislative authorization — was null and void. Instead, a complex funding deal using local and regional funds was used to get the $1.858 billion project to move ahead.
Just before Christmas, the Federal Transit Administration gave its approval for the project to enter final engineering phase. And, according to Duininck, every transit project that’s gotten that far has been built; any change in federal approach toward transit is unlikely to affect projects this far in the process. Construction could start by next fall, with a completion date of 2021.
Might the Republicans in the Legislature find a way to scuttle the funding? Perhaps. The Met Council will not go to market with the project’s funding mechanism (called certificates of participation) until after the session adjourns. But any attempt to kill SWLRT would have to come over the veto of Dayton, who, if he wasn’t all in on the project a year and a half ago when costs rocketed, is now.
The Met Council
If House and Senate Republican can’t express their unhappiness over the work-around for SWLRT funding by taking on, well, SWLRT, perhaps they will take it out on the Met Council. Reforming the governance of the regional planning, transit and water treatment agency has been on the GOP agenda for years, with periodic calls for either an elected council or for creating some means of having elected officials from different parts of the region serve on it.
Currently, council members and the chair are appointed by the governor, with state Senate confirmation. That opens the council up to criticism that it is too powerful for an “unelected” body. Transit planning isn’t the only topic that draws criticism. So does the Met Council’s role in projecting population growth expected throughout the metro area — and for determining how infrastructure funds should be distributed in response to that growth. Dayton, however, has frequently defended the council, and a veto of any significant changes is likely.
Last legislative session, there was a deal between key House and Senate transportation players to pay for roads and bridge work with a variety of state sources and authorize Twin Cities counties to raise money from local sales taxes for transit. The deal also gave the GOP a few wins when it came to reforming the Met Council — staggered terms so a governor couldn’t replace the whole bunch at once, and a voice for local elected officials on council appointments.
That deal fell apart when House GOP leadership balked. But it could return. Even without a Met Council angle, there is still some hope that the roads, bridges AND transit deal could reappear. Urban areas need road and bridge funding too. And the five counties that make up the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) have offered to cover the state’s historic contribution to mass transit projects locally if the Legislature were to let them raise local taxes at the county level.
The state’s two largest cities have mayoral elections in 2017. Actually, both elections have already started.
In Minneapolis, Mayor Betsy Hodges recently announced that she’s running for a second term. Challenging her (so far) are former law professor and NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds and state Rep. Ray Dehn. Another possible challenger, Council Member Jacob Frey, is announcing his plans after the first of the year.
In St. Paul, the decision by three-term Mayor Chris Coleman against running for another term was not a surprise — he is running for governor in 2018 — and at least three candidates have already stepped forward to run: former council member Melvin Carter III; former city council member Pat Harris; and former school board member Tom Goldstein.
In St. Paul, council members are not on the ballot in 2017. But that’s not the case in Minneapolis, where all 13 council members face re-election. Several already have announced opponents, and at last two are facing candidates who emerged from the Black Lives Matter movement.
Both cities use ranked choice voting for municipal elections, so all races are decided in November, without a primary.
In 2016, Minneapolis activists got tired of waiting for a city council they considered to be too-timid. So they took the issue of a $15 minimum wage to the streets and, they thought, to the ballot box, gathering more than enough signatures to place the wage hike on the November ballot.
They were angry when the city successfully sued and blocked the ballot measure. The state Supreme Court ruling that decided the issue did open another path for getting the minimum wage on the ballot, however — albeit it a far more complicated one.
Unlike St. Paul, Minneapolis’s charter does not currently allow voters to pass ordinances via voter petitions and ballot measures. But that could change, and the power to do so could come about, ironically, by petition.
Voters in Minneapolis could petition to get a charter amendment on ballot — an amendment to allow the city to pass ordinances via voter referendum. And backers of the group $15 Now are considering a drive for just such a charter amendment.
In other cities in Minnesota, progressive activists are also hoping to using the existing initiative powers to push laws that might be too politically hazardous for elected officials, especially on issues of pay and benefits for private employers. That is, of course, if the Legislature or the courts don’t step in to keep local voters from passing such ordinances.
Which brings us back, once again, to another potentially big issue of 2017: preemption.