Republican legislators take aim, once again, at the Met Council

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. David Osmek: “Today the Minnesota State Senate took the first step in preventing a $2 billion taxpayer boondoggle from being rammed down the throats of Minnesota by an unelected, unaccountable group of metro liberals.”

It was Bash the Met Council Day at the Minnesota Legislature Monday.

Altogether, there were two press conferences, a floor resolution and a hearing on a half-dozen bills — all intended to pick apart how the regional body is run, spends money and builds and operates light rail lines in the Twin Cities. And that doesn’t even include bills to block (or at least slow) the dissolution of the Counties Transit Improvement Board, a move designed to increase local construction money available for light rail.

The end result might not lead to much change, depending on whether legislative Republicans can finesse their way around expected vetoes from Gov. Mark Dayton. But the sheer volume of proposals reflects the ongoing angst over the regional council, which is more powerful and influential than any similar body in the United States.

Many lines of attack

The Metropolitan Council not only handles regional planning and the distribution of federal dollars to local governments, it operates regional bus and transit services and sewage treatment. Adding to its unique status, the Met Council is not a federation of local elected officials, as is the case with most regional planning agencies. It is — as was repeated over and over Wednesday by its critics — an unelected body that is answerable to the person who appoints its members: Gov. Mark Dayton. And Dayton, like predecessors of both parties, hasn’t been inclined to support measures that would reduce his control over the council.

Still, that hasn’t stopped a lot people from trying.

Like a measure by Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, introduced in both the House and Senate that would change the makeup of the council, adding a commissioner from each of the seven counties in the region and letting the city council members from each of the 16 existing council districts pick one of their own to sit on the council.

Or the resolution that would urge the Federal Transit Administration to cancel its pending funding of half of the Southwest Light Rail project and send the $929 million to the region as a block grant to be spent on other transportation projects.

And there are three different bills taking on CTIB. The measures would block the pending strategy to dissolve the regional body — it’s made up of officials from Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota and Washington counties — as a means of raising more revenue in Hennepin and Ramsey to replace the once-hoped-for state contribution for future light rail construction.

Finally, there’s a bill that would say the state won’t cover half of the operating costs of any new line built without legislative approval. In effect, that would keep the state as an equal funding partner for existing lines but would cancel that partnership on the SWLRT and the Bottineau Blue Line extension to Brooklyn Park.

And should Ramsey County decide to pursue light rail between downtown St. Paul and the airport — construction that could be boosted by the CTIB dissolution and the doubling of the transit sales tax in the county — the state wouldn’t cover half of the operating costs, either, the bill says.

‘Preventing … a boondoggle’ 

Some of the action Monday flows from continued animosity by many legislative Republicans toward light rail in general and Southwest LRT specifically.

“Today the Minnesota State Senate took the first step in preventing a $2 billion taxpayer boondoggle from being rammed down the throats of Minnesota by an unelected, unaccountable group of Metro liberals,” said Sen. David Osmek R-Mound.

State Rep. Tony Albright
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Tony Albright

Osmek’s resolution, along with a House version sponsored by Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, would ask the federal government to quit its support for SWLRT and simply send the money to the state as a block grant. The money could be spent on all transportation projects, not just new transit. “Southwest light rail is emblematic of what happens when you have an extremely powerful entity with very little accountability and very little oversight,” Runbeck said at a noontime press conference.

Even if the money isn’t rolled into a grant — a likely outcome given that if SWLRT loses its place in line for federal funding the money would flow to projects elsewhere in the U.S. — Osmek said the state would benefit because it wouldn’t have to cover half of future operating and maintenance costs.

Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said Monday that there is zero chance that the federal money that would be devoted to SWLRT could be shifted to roads and bridges. Transit money is a separate funding area that has been supported by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Not just light rail

While light rail — especially the SWLRT plan to extend the Green Line from Target Field to Eden Prairie — has been a flashpoint in the Legislature, there is also concern about the Met Council’s long-range regional planning duties. Officials in the so-called collar counties have been unhappy with what they see as a loss of control over many local land-use decisions. Many of the elected officials have been meeting formally for two years to share concerns about growth and housing limits contained in the Met Council’s Thrive 2040 comprehensive development plan. 

Those counties — Anoka, Dakota, Scott and Carver — represented themselves as the Metro Governance Transparency Initiative, and brought forward the language in the two files that would change the makeup of the council.

The federal government requires metropolitan areas to have what are called Metropolitan Planning Organizations made up of locally elected officials to decide how to spend federal transportation dollars. While that is the model elsewhere in the state and in much of the nation, the Met Council has been allowed to have a different structure. A Transportation Advisory Board that advises the council on how those dollars are spent does consist of local elected officials.

State Rep. Linda Runbeck
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Linda Runbeck: “Southwest light rail is emblematic of what happens when you have an extremely powerful entity with very little accountability and very little oversight.”

Dakota County Commissioner Chris Gerlach has been a leader of the move to change the council. He said he thinks the council that started as a regional entity has “devolved” into just another agency of state government with an appointed chair rather than an appointed commissioner.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, brought forward a bill that reflects recommendations made by the Citizens League, a nonpartisan think tank that tries to address public policy issues, to make changes to the council makeup that are less sweeping than in Albright’s bill. The Citizens League studied the Met Council and thinks members should serve staggered terms — that is, a new governor couldn’t replace all 16 members upon taking office. The League has also suggested beefing up the role of regional cities and counties in the nominating committee that proposes council members to the governor.

Dayton not on board

Dayton has been resistant to most suggested changes to the Met Council, and he has expressed support for completion of SWLRT and the CTIB dissolution plan.

Duininck said Monday he thinks Dayton would be open to talks about the council’s governance, but that some of the bills seem intent on harming the Met Council.

“There is potentially a strategy to throw mud at the wall and see what sticks,” Duininck said. “Hopefully we can boil down some of the ideas and proposals to see what’s serious and what’s not.”

Despite Dayton’s stated opposition, House and Senate majority Republicans may try to force his hand by including them in massive omnibus bills that pass at session’s end with lots of different bills inside.

Monday, for example, Runbeck said Albright’s bill to change the council — House File 828 — would be held over for inclusion in a transportation omnibus. The same motion was made on a bill to urge Metro Transit to collect at least 60 percent of its transit costs from fares.

Such a strategy puts pressure on a governor to accept language he disfavors in order to sign many items that he favors.

Duininck said he doesn’t believe Dayton would sign omnibus bills that contain significant policies that he opposes.

“Any omnibus bill with potential controversial policy language in it is something I would urge the legislature to engage directly with us and the governor on,” Duininck said. “I don’t think they would ever think that they could pass very radical change to how state government is formed or the governance of the state and region and then assume he’ll sign it because it’s in a bill he has to sign for other reasons.” 

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 02/21/2017 - 01:00 pm.

    Yes, but NO

    Yes, the Met Council is an “unelected and unaccountable group” who may be liberals as Dayton appointees but presumably were not liberals during the Pawlenty regime.

    But making it into a board of county and municipal officials will not solve its deficiencies. Look at what’s happening to the Counties Transit Improvement Board: the counties didn’t get along there, did they!

    Having a Met Council elected directly as such by the voters is the obvious best answer to the Council’s inadequacy as a regional planner and authority. It’s a regional layer of government to serve regional needs which may not coincide with all the wish lists of local governments.

    When I’ve previously raised this point, I’ve been amazed at responses from those who write in favor of an unelected and unaccountable form of government. They seem unaware of the consequential missteps made by the appointed Met Council just in transit, whether it’s poor planning of the Southwest Corridor, or approval of St. Paul’s wish to use the Green Line as a supposed billion-dollar development tool for five intersections as opposed to getting a regional transit trunk line, or acquiescing to the proposed Gold Line whose backers admit is an attempt to promote development rather than satisfy transit needs.

    No wonder the Republicans think transit money is misspent and should be used for roads!!

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/21/2017 - 01:23 pm.

    Titles

    The main title in the article says State legislators take aim at the Metro Council – the article itself says Republican. The link title inaccurate.

    That the Met Council, which has effectively provided urban services for many years, is the target of rural legislators is purely political motivated, as it is literally none of their business how local governments handle local problems.

    GOP legislators from the metro have a right to speak up, but not organize rural representatives to vote on proposals that don’t affect theiir communties. If the GOP wants to work it this way, do they want the metro area getting deeply involved in rural areas in issues such as wildlife management.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/21/2017 - 01:43 pm.

    It’s too bad

    …the state’s Republicans insist on returning to the 19th (or, in some instances, even earlier) century. As an old guy who’s watched these kinds of disputes for decades in three different metro areas, I’ll argue that what these particular Republicans are advocating is a de facto abandonment of regionalism, to be replaced by precisely the sort of parochialism, including all the selfishness, spite, prejudice and small-mindedness that typically accompanies it, that bodies like the Met Council were invented to try to mitigate. A member of the Citizen’s League myself, though I did not devise the policy alternatives mentioned in Peter’s article, I’d be supportive of the Met Council changes proposed by the League, including staggered terms for Met Council members.

    Doing so would still retain what I view as the absolutely crucial ingredient to the continued economic success of this area: a regional (as opposed to municipal) approach to metro-area problems and issues. Republican insistence that Met Council members be, themselves, elected officials, usually from one of the municipalities involved, simply reveals both a very short-term thinking horizon on the part of said Republicans, as well as highlighting what I believe to be mistaken and counterproductive Republican faith in narrow parochial approaches to broad, metro-wide issues and problems such as transportation and housing.

    In a region where racial and economic segregation is a de facto reality, for example, I very much like the possibility that the Met Council might be able to twist a municipality’s arm a bit to say “We’re not OK with you zoning this area so that it becomes (or remains) an island of affluent white privilege,” or that “There are no metro areas in the lower 48 states without traffic congestion. Even interstates with 6 lanes in each direction are subject to rush hour congestion when everyone is individually driving their own car. For this area to prosper, we need to spend less money on construction of new roads and more money on maintaining what we have, while expanding the use of non-automotive forms of transit to move people and goods.”

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 02/21/2017 - 05:27 pm.

    Nearly agreed

    I’m in near agreement with Ray Schooch, except that I think the Citizens League proposal is a mere political bandaid that falls far short of the full treatment needed, ie. direct election to the board from districts of equal population.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/21/2017 - 08:36 pm.

    Wait Hold It A Minute Here

    Let me get this straight. When a municipal government decides to institute a minimum wage, we don’t like local control.

    But we do like local control when it comes to roads, sewers and the like.

    Could someone ‘splain that to me?

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 02/22/2017 - 07:27 am.

    How, Exactly

    does altering the structure and makeup of the Met Council,…

    accomplish even the slightest inkling of meeting the needs of the constituents,…

    who voted these Republican legislators into office?

    Are these Republicans capable of doing ANYTHING positive.

    So far all they seem to be want to do is tear things apart.

    Why is it that they can’t CONSTRUCT anything,…

    but only work destruction?

    They seem, far too much, to be operating like a fly-by-night remodeling contractor,…

    who tears your kitchen and bathroom down to the studs leaving you with no working plumbing,…

    then skips town with the money you paid them for materials (which they never purchased),…

    never to be seen again.

  7. Submitted by Julie Moore on 02/22/2017 - 01:50 pm.

    Just what we need

    More elected officials . . . because that is doing so much for us. Osmek is my representative, and watch out if you send him a message asking him to do something he isn’t in agreement with, or telling him you disagree with his vote–he’s nasty and doesn’t care if you are a constituent. Just the fact this article led with him shows you want a bashing this must have been!

  8. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/24/2017 - 01:08 pm.

    Elect This!

    While I agree that the Met Council doesn’t always get everything right, that doesn’t mean we need to throw the baby out with the bath water and start over. In fact, making their board elected would be a disaster of the first order.

    “What the heck has he been drinking” you ask? I’m glad you brought that up!

    How do you like our state and national politics? Do you find them to be partisan, leading to nothing but a horrible gridlock? Can you guess what will happen with the Met Council if we make them an elected body?

    That’s right: more partisan political bickering. The Met Council was created the way it is so it can rise above petty politics and get the job done. The body was created not to serve every county, city, and township, but to rise above their every request and instead serve the region as a whole. If you make them elected, then you devolve the system to a form where every municipality cares about and fights for their small piece of the pie because that’s what they were hired to do. Under the current system, the Met Council can rise above all that tribalism and instead serve the region.

  9. Submitted by Mike Downing on 02/26/2017 - 10:07 am.

    Taxation without representation…

    Met Council is a sad example of “taxation without representation”. These political appointees are not elected to represent us the taxpayers. Instead these political appointees are virtually free to change the Twin Cities into their warped Utopian & ideological worldview.

    Yes Met Council needs to be elected to represent us the residents and taxpayers! Yes, there needs to be oversight to make Met Council responsible to the taxpayers.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/26/2017 - 01:38 pm.

      Taxation With Representation

      You have representation in this matter. Don’t like the makeup of the Met Council? Then vote for the governor of your choice.

      Your argument only holds water if you have no recourse. That is not in play in this circumstance.

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