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

It turns out that a lot of  local government officials from Republican parts of the state have very different priorities than those in the Legislature. 

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.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

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.

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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.”

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North Branch Mayor Kirsten Hagen-Kennedy
North Branch Mayor Kirsten

“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.”

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“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.”