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A bill to reform the Met Council will probably be vetoed. That doesn’t mean a lot of people still don’t have problems with the Met Council

The current propopoal represents the latest iteration of a long-running argument: whether the Met Council sufficiently represents, and responds, to those it serves.

Under Senate File 2809 — which was chiefly sponsored by Sen. Eric Pratt and Rep. Tony Albright, both Republicans from Prior Lake — the Met Council’s governing board would consist of a combination of county and city officials.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Republican sponsors of a bill to remake the Metropolitan Council are prepared for a veto.

Unlike the surprise that met last week’s decision to scuttle the two biggest pieces of legislation coming out of the 2018 session of the Minnesota Legislature — a tax conformity bill and the Mega-omnibus bill — Gov. Mark Dayton cannot be accused of being less than clear on this issue.

Dayton has long opposed any changes to the governance of the Met Council, which is currently overseen by 16 district representatives and a full-time chair, all of whom are appointed by the governor. Giving up that power voluntarily seems unlikely, especially when Dayton sees the effort as one driven by partisanship.

Senate File 2809 would substantially alter the governing board, making it a federation of metro area county and city officials. But the bill also represents the latest iteration of a long-running argument about the regional policy-making, transit and planning agency: whether the Met Council sufficiently represents, and responds, to those it serves.

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UPDATE: Dayton vetoed the bill Wednesday. 

More power to city and county officials

As of now, the board that oversees the Met Council is made up of 17 people appointed by the governor, albeit subject to Senate confirmation: 16 come from from districts of roughly equal population plus the board chair. That chair acts as a quasi-commissioner in the governor’s cabinet, advising him on regional issues, especially transit, including light rail.

Under Senate File 2809 — which was chiefly sponsored by Sen. Eric Pratt and Rep. Tony Albright, both Republicans from Prior Lake — the Met Council’s governing board would consist of a combination of elected county and city officials. Representation would not be based on population, however. Anoka, Dakota, Washington, Carver and Scott counties would each have one commissioner, while — in a slight nod toward its size relative to the other counties — Hennepin County would get two: one coming from within Minneapolis and one from without.

Cities in each of the current 16 council districts would form a council and choose one elected council member from among themselves. (A provision in the Senate version of the bill that gave the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul their own appointee was eventually removed from the bill.)

One change to the bill — made during the conference committee negotiations after being suggested by DFL Sen. Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids — would give the governor the power to appoint the chair of the council.

Pratt said he hoped it would make the bill more attractive to Dayton. “The governor wanted it and we agreed to it,” Pratt said. “I think it was important for us to agree to it to show him our willingness to work with him.”

Such details, however, may end up being inconsequential if Dayton does what he has repeatedly said he would do: veto any changes to the makeup of the council.  

Could Congress force Dayton’s hand?

Pratt and Albright met with Dayton before the bill passed. One purpose was to try to convince the governor that the dynamic of the debate could change if an amendment currently part of a federal appropriations bill in the U.S. House succeeds.

That amendment, authored by U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Woodbury, would end the Met Council’s long-standing exemption from a federal requirement that regional bodies that distribute federal transportation and planning dollars be elected. The amendment would have to survive negotiations on a larger measure, a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, for it to be a problem for the Met Council.

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Lewis told MinnPost that he is confident that his amendment will survive that process in the Senate, even though one or both of Minnesota’s two Democratic senators might be inclined to remove it. “There’s a good shot,” Lewis said, claiming that if the amendment is included in the Senate’s version of the FAA reauthorization bill, it is likely to remain when House and Senate lawmakers meet to work out differences in a conference committee.

Dayton has written to the state’s congressional delegation as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell describing the history of the exemption, which dates to the mid-1970s. Congress has allowed the current Met Council makeup as long as the distribution of federal money for transportation, transit and non-motorized transportation is decided by locally elected officials.

In practice, the federal government only cares when the council acts as what is called a metropolitan planning organization, which makes up a relatively small part of the functions of the Met Council. The state Legislature created something called the Transportation Advisory Board in 1974 to make those decisions, with the Met Council empowered only to give an up or down vote to approve. And no one involved in the process can ever recall a time that the Met Council didn’t ratify the choices of the TAB.

The bill would eliminate the TAB since those duties could be performed under federal law by the new council.

Still, Pratt said Dayton listened to their concerns. “I do think there is opening for conversation,” he said. “It was a very cordial meeting.” But Pratt said the governor, who is in his final year in office, said that he thinks this is a decision that a new governor to make. Pratt said that Dayton also doesn’t feel the urgency that he and Albright feel.

“I can’t speculate whether the governor thinks the [federal] amendment is not going to go through,” Pratt said. Should it survive and become law, however, Pratt said it could trigger a special session to pass something similar to his language. “I’m hoping he’ll have a change of heart and come back and negotiate with us.”

DFLers want reform, too

While criticism of the Met Council over the years has come from both parties, the loudest attacks have more recently come from Republicans, especially GOP legislators and local officials representing the suburban and exurban areas of the Twin Cities metro. A coalition of cities and counties from those areas support the changes embodied in the bill, as does the Metro Governance Transparency Initiative, which is made up of officials from Dakota, Scott, Carver and Anoka counties.

In response, Democrats, local government officials from Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties and Metro Cities opposed the bill. Democrats said they feared the board setup called for in the Pratt-Albright bill — a federation of governments system with local elected officials serving on the regional body —  would engender conflicts when dealing with issues that might help or hurt their local governments. “They will have two oaths of office,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. “They will have two fiduciary duties that may at times completely conflict with each other.”

There was also a concern that a body meant to think regionally would instead become a competition of provincial interests.

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Current Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff told the conference committee reconciling the House and Senate versions at the Capitol that Dayton does not support any proposal that isn’t supported by a broad range of local governments. And Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said not a single city or county covered by his district supports the measure.

Despite all that, sponsors pushed the bill through both houses in the final weekend of the session. It passed the Senate 36-30 and the House 72-48.

None of which is to say that all Democrats think the current format of the Met Council is a good thing, however. Some Minneapolis Democrats have long complained about the way the council selected and pushed the current route for Southwest Light Rail Transit, for example.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, has endorsed a system where all council members are elected by voters from council’s current 16 districts. “If we want to solve all the problems that have been articulated, we maybe should consider an elected Met Council,” Dibble said. “That provides the transparency, the clear line of authority to enact what are effectively laws that the region has to live by.”

That was rejected by majority Republicans, with Pratt saying that it would create another office where big fundraising and special interests would exert too much power. He cited high-cost elections for the regional council in Portland, the only regional government in the country with elected council members.

Sam Brodey contributed to the reporting of this story.