With only Democrats representing Minneapolis and St. Paul at the state Capitol, lawmakers from Minnesota’s two largest cities didn’t expect life to be easy under a Republican-controlled Legislature.
And so they’ve been at odds with Republican legislators all session over provisions like pre-emption, which would bar local governments from setting their own policies on issues such as a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave and banning plastic bags in grocery stores.
But the struggles go beyond paid leave and plastic bags. Minneapolis and St. Paul lawmakers say they are having to fight on seemingly every front these days, as they struggle to maintain state support for everything from light rail transit to bus routes and pension plans.
It’s part of a growing political divide that’s been exacerbated by demographics. As the cities’ populations swell with younger voters who tend to lean left, districts in rural Minnesota have come to be dominated by older voters who tend to vote Republican. The effects have mostly played out in Minnesota’s last two elections, with Republicans picking up nearly a dozen House seats and six senators from rural areas.
With Republicans now in control of both chambers, they’ve shifted policy priorities to focus on districts outside of the metro — parts of the state that GOP lawmakers say have been left behind in recent years.
Yet DFL legislators say many of the policies being proposed this session go beyond trying to help Greater Minnesota. Instead, DFL lawmakers say the moves are part of a campaign to target DFL-represented districts in Minneapolis and St. Paul — and exacerbate the urban-rural divide. “It’s been driven by politics and not by reality,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. “That’s why they are doing this, for political reasons. But it is going to hurt the state.”
Loving buses. Or not.
Among the biggest struggles of the session, say DFL legislators, is over maintaining funding for transit projects and bus routes in the Twin Cities. On Monday, Republicans from the House and Senate announced they’d reached a compromise agreement on a new transportation budget that puts about $30 million of new funding into Metro Transit over the next two years – $15 million per year.
But Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck said that funding level falls far short of what’s needed, and that it would leave a $35 million hole in Metro Transit’s budget each of the next two years — a situation that could lead to a 10 percent reduction in bus routes.
“That’s just treading water,” Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said of the proposed funding for Metro Transit. “That’s not any expansions. So all their chest beating about how they love buses — I don’t see it in their bill. When [light rail] is up there, they love the buses. But when it comes time to fund the buses, it doesn’t quite happen.”
At the same time, the transportation proposal includes new funding for road and bridge projects across the state and a few select western and southwestern suburban bus lines. It also includes pilot projects for bus routes in Republican districts. “It’s hard for us to look at our partners and say, ‘Some parts of the region are getting new dollars while others are not,’ ” Duininck said.
Killing CTIB — and inviting lawsuits?
Another sticking point for the urban lawmakers: The Republican transportation budget would require all future light rail lines to get legislative approval, and would halt the construction of controversial Southwest Light Rail Line by barring the Metropolitan Council from using a controversial borrowing mechanism — known as “certificates of participation” — to pay for the project. That mechanism became necessary last year, according to the Met Council, because legislative Republicans balked at providing state funding that had been expected to complete the project.
The bill also essentially dissolves the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), a five-county agreement in the metro that levies a one-quarter-of-1-percent sales tax to pay for transit projects throughout the region. The dissolution of CTIB would supersede a joint powers agreement — a contract between the five counties that controls how the body operates and how revenue is allocated.
Dissolving CTIB might sound familiar: The board tried to disband itself earlier this year on its own terms, a move that would have allowed Hennepin and Ramsey counties to double their transit sales tax (to one-half of 1 percent) and take over all nonfederal construction funding of light rail lines. The money available under that plan would be enough to complete funding for Southwest LRT and the Bottineau Blue Line extension, as well as the transit improvements on Ramsey County’s Riverview Corridor and Rush Line. But Dakota County — which is planning to leave CTIB at the end of 2018, anyway — vetoed the move because the terms offered by the other four counties weren’t generous enough.
Not surprisingly, all seven Dakota County commissioners on Tuesday endorsed the parts of the plan that pertain to the county and CTIB.
The language in the current Republican transportation bill requires a public vote before the five metro counties can increase the sale tax above the current quarter-cent. And even if such a vote were successful, the counties and the Metropolitan Council would be prohibited from spending any money on new rail lines unless approved by the Legislature. Only Hennepin and Ramsey counties had been planning to double the sales tax and use the revenue to complete funding for transit projects.
McLaughlin said the proposal could put a chill on future uses of joint powers agreements, which are commonly used by school districts and local governments across Minnesota. And at a Wednesday meeting of CTIB, Jay Lindgren, a bond attorney for the Dorsey & Whitney law firm, called the forced dissolution of the regional body a “litigator’s dream.”
“I don’t want to overdramatize this,” said Lindgren. “But it’s a fact — because it would be unwinding something in a way I haven’t seen before.”
“The facade is gone here,” McLaughlin said. “This is an anti-transit, anti-metro bill that will have very negative repercussions for the economic future of the region. I haven’t spoken to the governor directly yet, but I can’t imagine that this is anywhere close to meeting his requirements.” Indeed, Twin Cities legislators’ biggest ally on budget issues is DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who has pushed back on cuts to Twin Cities’ aid and mass transit.
And yet, House Republican Transportation Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said the new funding for Metro Transit in the bill was a “big step” in terms of finding agreement with Dayton. An earlier proposal from the House included no new funding for bus routes in the Twin Cities.
With recent proclamations from the governor that he could sign a transportation bill without a gas tax increase, Torkelson said he’s optimistic about getting something passed this year. “The financial structure of the bill is pretty well balanced, it does touch all parts of the state,” he said. “It puts a significant amount of money into the highway distribution fund, and a significant amount of money for local roads and bridges.”
He also said the transportation bill is open to more changes, particularly on light rail issues. Like McLaughlin, Torkelson has some concerns about changing CTIB and the precedent that sets for other joint powers agreements around the state. “I don’t want to pass a bill that is only going to get vetoed,” he said. “Passing a transportation bill is really hard, and it’s not pretty. I fully realize how challenging it is. I intend to work with the governor and get something passed.”
From pensions to construction projects
Transportation is not the only issue legislators from Minneapolis and St. Paul are concerned about, though. There is also a $10 million reduction in annual planned state contributions to the city of Minneapolis’ employee pension fund, as well as the repeal of an agreed bond repayment — of $140 million — for the Minneapolis Central Library in downtown Minneapolis. “The downtown library is a regional asset,” said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis. “When you cut that, it looks like a cut to Minneapolis. But it’s a cut to the region.”
For his part, House Taxes Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said the $1.13 billion bill doesn’t go after any city in particular. In discussions with Senate Republicans, Davids says he successfully advocated for the removal of a provision that cut Local Government Aid just for Minneapolis, from $78 million a year down to $50 million a year.
“We went through every line to put this thing together and one of our considerations was: Would the governor sign this bill?” Davids said. “All this bill does is help a lot of people. Nobody is being attacked in this bill. There are a lot of provisions in here for the metro and for the rest of the state.”
Legislators from both cities are also closely watching what happens with the bonding bill — a package of construction projects typically passed in even-numbered years in Minnesota. Last year, a $1 billion proposal that fell apart in the final hours of the session included a handful of projects in Minneapolis and St. Paul that were anticipating funds. Twin Cities lawmakers would like to see a package passed this year to make up for the delay.
But in the House’s $600 million bonding bill, released Monday, Minneapolis gets a total of $1 million in funding — for the Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery restoration project. St. Paul gets $13 million, all for the Science Museum of Minnesota.
In fact, a number of projects that were included in last year’s bonding bill are gone — projects like Catholic Charities’ Opportunity Center and Dorothy Day Residence in St. Paul. Tim Marx, Catholic Charities president and CEO, said the organization was going to update results of private fundraising for the center at its annual Dorothy Day Center breakfast in St. Paul on Friday. The organization’s goals were close being met, and construction was set to start this summer — all they needed was $12 million in the state bonding bill to complete the project. That funding was included in the bonding bill that fell apart last year, and this year, Dayton and Senate Republicans support the project.
But the funding wasn’t in the House’s bonding bill. “That is just extremely disappointing given the amount of effort that has gone into this work, the support that it has received and the critical timing,” Marx said. “We simply can’t be in a position of this uncertainty when we’ve built this level of public-private partnership, when we have investors who are thinking about walking and when costs are increasing.”
And while Dorothy Day is located in downtown St. Paul, the shelter has served people who come from 66 of the state’s 87 counties.
Hurting the ‘economic engine’ of Minnesota
The bonding bill also includes language that caps the amount that can be spent out of the state’s local bridge fund at $7 million, which some legislators say is a direct hit on Minneapolis and St. Paul, since they’re the only cities in the state that tend to have bridge projects that cost more than that amount. Two bridge projects, in particular, Kellogg Boulevard in St. Paul and the 10th Avenue SE bridge in Minneapolis, cost $48 million and $31.9 million, respectively.
For his part, House Capital Investment Chairman Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said this is one of the largest bonding bills ever passed in a nonbonding year, and it had a tight focus on road projects, clean water infrastructure and maintaining state facilities.
“All of these projects were visited and vetted over the last two years,” Urdahl said. “The focus is squarely on improving our state’s infrastructure, sticking with the priorities during what is, by definition, not a bonding year. This is the first step in our process to get projects rolling.”
Still, when DFL legislators look at the volume of cuts and restrictions aimed at the cities, they say it looks more like a political campaign than a serious attempt at enacting effective policies — a tactic that could end up hurting all of Minnesota, they say. “We are the economic engine of the state,” said Hausman of St. Paul. “The bulk of the state’s tax dollars are generated here and they are sent across the state, and we are happy about that. They hurt the whole state if they hurt the economic engine.”