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Forget the urban-rural divide. Some of the most contentious issues in Minnesota come down to locals vs. legislators

Mayors Chris Coleman and Emily Larson
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, along with mayors from other cities, called for more distribution of state revenue to cities and counties.

It’s the most common narrative for describing the politics of the 2017 session of the Minnesota Legislature: the urban-rural divide.

The gist of that storyline: that Republicans — elected mostly from Twin Cities exurbs and Greater Minnesota counties — are using their growing legislative power to thwart the interests of the heavily DFL Twin Cities. From transportation funding to Local Government Aid, from “preemption” to environment and agriculture, issues have become defined by where they fall amid that divide.

But the partisan orientation of that model starts to break down when local government officials come to the state Capitol. In fact, on many of the most contentious issues, the divide isn't just between urban Democrats and rural Republicans, it's between local government Republicans and legislative Republicans.

Why LGA is a BFD in Greater MN 

Two examples of this local-legislative divide could be seen in one hour on a single day during the busy final week of session.

First, a bipartisan group of mayors stood together to ask for a more generous Local Government Aid package than Republican budget writers have been offering. As expected, mayors from Democratic cities like St. Paul and Duluth called for more distribution of state revenue to cities and counties. But they were joined by a batch of mayors from Greater Minnesota with nearly identical messages: that in a time of budget surpluses, the state should not continue to hold down the growth in Local Government Aid.

It would require $45.4 million more than the current level of LGA to get the distribution back to the same level — adjusting for inflation — as it was in 2002, the mayors said. Dayton has proposed $20 million more while the most legislative Republicans have offered is $6 million.

Mayor Tom Kuntz of Owatonna said his city gets $900,000 less today than it would had LGA not been cut in the early 2000s and frozen during two stretches since then. “That lack of $900,000 that we got from Local Government Aid just goes back onto the taxpayers,” Kuntz said.

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht
Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said that 89 percent of the state’s cities get some share of LGA. Half of the property value in her city is exempt from tax rolls. Yet cities like hers that are regional centers — places that provide educational, medical and social services to people outside the city limits — rely on LGA to cover costs that can’t be recovered via property taxes.

She too asked that grants be restored to previous levels. “It’s really difficult to understand why Greater Minnesota legislators are not willing to do that,” Albrecht said. “Mayors don’t buy into that urban-rural divide that people have been talking about. We support one Minnesota where everyone counts.”  

Ben Schierer, the mayor of Fergus Falls, also questioned the political narrative. “Too many times the opponents of LGA paint this issue as political or regional or partisan or geographic,” he said. “But it’s not. It’s a Minnesota issue.” 

Mayor Mike Kuhle of Worthington said LGA distributions are the best way to help keep local property tax bills down. He said that is especially important in towns like his, places near Iowa and South Dakota that compete with tax levels in those states. Two recent school bond failures, Kuhle said, could have been caused by taxpayers who think local government tax rates are too high.

But if these mayors think their residents favor more LGA, why don’t their legislators support it?

Kirsten Hagen-Kennedy, the mayor of North Branch, has one explanation. “So they run, and they make promises, and people go out and vote because we all want to believe what someone says,” said Hagen-Kennedy. “Then they get into office and all of a sudden I’m up here talking about local control being taken away.”

North Branch Mayor Kirsten Hagen-Kennedy
North Branch Mayor Kirsten
Hagen-Kennedy

“Local control” is a reference to another batch of issues that local governments have been worried about. GOP bills and budget provisions proposed this year have sought a blanket preemption on cities legislating on minimum wage and paid leave and prohibitions on local bans on plastic bags. In fact, the plastic bag bans were of such interest that language about them ended up in two different appropriation bills: the jobs and economic development bill and the environment and natural resources bill.

Dayton vetoed both. “Instead of providing for essential government services provided by cities and counties, the bill micromanages local decision making,” Dayton wrote in his veto message on the revenue bill.

By the end of April, 60 cities spread across the state had passed resolutions opposing legislation that would block cities from acting on measures that “directly respond to the needs of their community.”

Counties want a transportation deal

LGA and pre-emption are not the only issues on which local officials in Republican districts disagree with Republican legislators. 

An hour after the mayors spoke, officials from the Association of Minnesota Counties passed through the offices of statehouse reporters to share a letter they have sent to legislators. Commissioners and top transportation staff from 79 different counties signed a letter calling on lawmakers to compromise on a transportation plan.

That compromise, the letter stated, should include not just one-time spending from general fund surpluses but “increased revenue from a constitutionally dedicated source, such as vehicle registration fees.”

And the letter said any deal must include adequate treatment of transit in urban areas. Though the letter did not use the hot-button phrase “light rail,” it did allude to such investments. The governor and Legislature must agree on a way to “give counties the resources to fund transit operations in a manner that makes sense for the unique needs of the county,” it stated.

“While much discussion has focused on an alleged divide between the needs of Greater Minnesota or the metro, the reality is that we simply cannot address our transportation needs piece-by-piece or region-by-region any longer,” the letter continued.

Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte
Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte

Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte, one of the leaders of the counties group, said even though party labels don’t appear on the ballot for most city and county elections, the candidates have partisan affiliations. Local officials, however, act on them differently than legislators do. “The Legislature is more driven by the caucus system and the party system than are local councils and commissions,” he said. “That allows them to be a little harsher, to be a little more dogmatic about their beliefs. And they’re allowed to NOT get things done. We are not.”

“If we do answer to a specific dogma or a specific group — whether it’s Republican or Democrat — we’d be in constant combat, just like the Legislature is,” Schulte said. “We’re forced to compromise more often. We’re forced to look at problems through a different prism.”

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Comments (10)

Hmmm…

Dogmatic legislators who are tone-deaf when it comes to the concerns of the people who elected them are neither new nor unique to Minnesota, or even to the 21st century. This strikes me as one of those instances where the old maxim of "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me" seems more than a little relevant. A legislator who's elected on the basis of "better serving the needs" of an area or community than her/his opponent, but then fails in one or more major ways to do so is someone who, in fairly short order, should be a *former* legislator. That's the purported purpose of elections in a democratic society.

People who insist that they "hate politics" or "don't pay attention to politics" are playing right into the hands of self-serving individuals and groups who generally do not have the welfare of the entire state, or even their region or community, at heart. Those who insist on being apolitical in a society based on citizen participation are getting the government they should expect when they don't pay attention. Legislators who promise 'x' and give you 'y,' unless there are rational and easily-explained reasons for the change of heart, deserve to be sent to some other line of work.

Amen

Well said, as usual, Mr.Schoch. For my part, I also like the comment of the Bemidji mayor: “Mayors don’t buy into that urban-rural divide that people have been talking about. We support one Minnesota where everyone counts.”

Who was it that said: "all politics is local"?

Unlike the kind of

Unlike the kind of Minnesotans who once populated the Legislature, Republicans are not serving their constituents, but the will of the Kochtopus.

Yet they keep voting repub

Interesting the repub mayors complain that they aren't getting enough money, while repubs cut their funding...kind of like Pawlenty did...that forced many areas to drastically increase property taxes.
Sad that todays repubs oppose investing in our people instead of just their financial benefactors.
Little wonder that repubs are generally cutting funding for education, as their base seems to have little regard for it...which in itself is disgraceful.
Just an illustration of how todays repubs value their base...two years ago, about the only thing the House repub bill did was cut taxes for the wealthy landlords in the Twin Cities along with an effective cut to education and zilch for the rural areas. Sad!

LGA

I blame the dysfunctional nature of the Republican Party for this. In olden times, there was a de facto agreement between the cities and greater Minnesota to the effect that they would view each other's projects favorably. Much mutual back scratching took place. But over the last couple of decades or so the agenda of the Republican Party became totally dedicated to tax cuts to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. This made Republican legislators less responsive to the needs of their constituents, but in effect the trade off was access to a lot more money campaign money from outsiders. To compensate politically for this, Republican outstate legislators, targeted blame for their failure to "out of touch" urban legislators, and emphasized social issues. Regional warfare issues like the senate office building were highlighted by Republicans demonizing the cities.

The result is a polarization of the legislature, and a loss of an interest in cooperation, both between the regions and the parties, worsened by the fact that the parties are much more identified with regions than they used to be.

Admittedly, this is a very partisan point of view. I am a Democrat of the yellow dog variety. But the Democrats I do talk with, without much prompting, can give you a very substantial list of things they did for rural Minnesota when they were in charge, things they didn't get much support for from Republicans. I have heard more than once, stories from Democrats how they fought for stuff in Republican districts, over the opposition of local Republican legislators, who then took credit for them. Maybe Republicans have similar tales to tell, but I just haven't heard them.

Great article

This is the kind of informative description of issues that needs to be read by more folks that both govern and vote. It is significant that the same issues are being raised and acted upon all over the country. Most recently, in Arizona, parallel legislative enactment has limited the ability of local government to require background checks in their communities before gun sales can be made. Yet, the legislatures act with little or no debate, and often from the same legislative agenda proposed successfully by some central control function outside of the state. The basic inconsistency of national Republican insistence on local control in education, taxation, religious expression, etc. and the more insistent efforts to destabilize area wide infrastructure by defunding, legislating statewide regulation of medical facility to prevent abortion and deny family planning, and mostly, the effort to completely eliminate any local effort to make communities safe from gun ownership, abuse and injury suggests some nefarious intent. More of this type of reporting would be helpful to all of us.

Responsiveness to constituent needs

Are you saying that in Minnesota elected Republican leaders do not respond to the needs of their constituents? And the dogma that guides their thinking comes from a Cold War, Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan playbook? I hope so. It is refreshing to see real stories told about real people who suffer because of this mindset. Progress will come from living, relatable examples, not from partisan speech making.

Are you saying that in

Are you saying that in Minnesota elected Republican leaders do not respond to the needs of their constituents?

It's not that the Republicans are against things. What they is oppose is paying for the things they are not against. I read an op ed piece the the other day from Jason Lewis about Obamacare. In terms of overall objectives for health care, it turns out that Jason is in favor of exactly the same things I am in favor. in some respects, he goes a considerable distance beyond anything I would support in his rhetoric. What was missing in the flurry of words, wasn't support for exactly the kind of universal health care Democrats favor, rather what was missing was any reasonable way for paying for it. Health care will be available for us all, Jason tells us, it's just that some other dude will pay for it.

This is the legislative bait and shift you see every day, at the legislature. Sure they are in favor of this or that, but the actual responsibility for doing it, in the Republican view, always belongs to someone else. That distinction is a fine one, and it's generally lost at ribbon cutting ceremonies, and campaigning where over and over again, lip service has proven to be enough, to secure election..

Democrats call for more

"free" stuff, LGA, light rail, healthcare, no work requirement for Medicaid, Fereral control of Medicaid, no limits on welfare (like being a US citizen) and 100 different "free" benefits for living here in the USA. One small problem, someone has to pay for it! After, we as a country have spent over 20 TRILLION on the "war on poverty" since LBJ declared we would help the poor in mid 1960's and it hasn't helped or reduced the amount of poor folks, you think we would look for plan B. Plan A is more money and less requirements (then claim GOP hates the poor and want folks to die) after 50 years of this reteric working folks are not even hearing this message.

How about we actually try to help the poor, rural and urban, by improving public education with some choice for those living in the inner city (not elites claiming to help them), more ways and incentive to get off welfare (not more to stay on) like job training, a tax code to encourage more manufacturing here in the USA. We could help those living in poor rural communities and poor urban areas if we tried plan B, but plan A wins over voters. Maybe use LGA to train workers not fund the running of cities!!

Good, for sure.

“That lack of $900,000 that we got from Local Government Aid just goes back onto the taxpayers,” Kuntz said."

What can be wrong with that?

It properly sensitizes the local voters to local tax and spend issues!