Stop us if you’ve heard this one: Minnesota politicians offer wildly different takes on Met Council

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Rep. Jason Lewis speaking at Wednesday's press conference as state Rep. Tony Albright and state Sen. Scott Jensen look on.

At the state Capitol, in the final weeks of a legislative session, during a year when voters will pick a new governor and decide which party controls the state House of Representatives, nearly everything becomes a proxy war for the election.

Why should the Metropolitan Council be any different?

So it was during back-to-back press conferences Wednesday that were, at least on the surface, about attempts — via both Congress and the state Legislature — to reform the makeup of the 17-member regional planning body, pitting those who feel the Met Council is unaccountably exporting big city priorities to the outer areas of the seven-county metro against those who feel the council’s format provides a necessary salve for parochial tendencies.

Lewis amendment would force restructuring

Wednesday’s dueling press conferences come in the wake U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Woodbury) attaching an amendment to a federal aviation funding bill that would require that what are called metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to have locally elected officials as part of their governing boards.

Under federal law, MPOs are charged with deciding how federally shared revenue for aviation, highways, transit and non-motorized transportation are distributed throughout a region. Since the Met Council fills that role for the seven Twin Cities counties (along with many other duties unrelated to MPOs), it would be out of compliance under the amendment.

Assuming it survives in the final FAA authorization bill — something that’s a long shot but still possible — state and regional officials would have to do something if they want to continue to receive hundreds of millions of dollars from Washington: either create a separate body, as most regions in the country do, to divvy up MPO dollars; or restructure the Met Council itself to include local county and city elected officials — both of which would require the sort of consensus among state and local officials that has not been apparent when it comes to the Met Council.

In his remarks at the first press conference Wednesday, Lewis said his amendment was all about governance and transparency, that decisions should be made by elected officials, not gubernatorial appointees. “Today we’re here to talk about good governance,” Lewis said. “We’re not here to beat up on the Met Council. We’re not here even to beat up on decisions they’ve made in the past or decisions they might make in the future. This is about getting our regional governance in compliance with every other MPO.”

Specifically, what Lewis’ amendment tried to do is jettison a clause in the aviation authorization bill that exempts the Met Council from the elected official requirement. That exemption has been in place since 1991 (and in a different form before that) and was put in place because the Met Council existed before the federal requirement that MPOs exist at all.

Even so, the exemption requires Minnesota to create another body — what’s called a Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) — made up mostly of locally elected officials that makes a recommendation as to how those dollars are spent. While the money is legally spent by the Met Council, the council has always accepted the plan approved by the TAB, with the dollars distributed based on the relative populations of the seven counties.

In his remarks, Lewis also conflated the money the Met Council gets from the federal government distributed via its MPO function with other federal dollars, such as the hundreds of millions that have gone toward light rail construction. The latter flows directly from the Congress via the Federal Transit Administration to the Met Council.

Lewis also repeated an allegation on Wednesday that carries a lot of political potency: that the unelected Met Council constitutes taxation without representation.

But none of the money distributed by the Met Council when it acts as the region’s MPO comes from taxes imposed by the Met Council. They are federal dollars authorized by Congress and collected by the federal government. And while there are a few taxes that are legally imposed by that unelected Met Council — including some property taxes that go for debt service on parks bonds — they are authorized by the state Legislature, which also puts parameters around how much can be collected.

The local matches for big transit projects, moreover, were imposed by county commissions. And other money the Met Council distributes is either appropriated by the Legislature or from taxes imposed by the Legislature.

Legislative proposals

Met Council governance is an issue that long predates Lewis’ amendment. As long as the council has been around, in fact, lawmakers and governors debated whether it should be a federation of local officials, separately elected or appointed. Though (mostly Republican) lawmakers have attempted to change the makeup, even non-partisan entities like the Office of the Legislative Auditor and the Citizen’s League have proposed changes.

Yet concerns about the Met Council are not just about how members get the job. They also stem from what the current council has done in the area of land use and transit, especially in the four suburban and exurban counties in the metro area where the council’s restrictions on growth and development have been opposed by both locally elected officials and their representatives in the Legislature.

Those counties — Anoka, Dakota, Scott and Carver — are represented by the Metro Governance Transparency Initiative, which has been joined in opposition to the Met Council by up to 40 cities in those counties.

Changing the governance of the Met Council, these opponents maintain, will change how it responds to these communities’ concerns. One of the not-so-radical proposals to make that happen, House File 3917, would upgrade the method by which local governments and citizens can recommend the 16 council members appointed by district. It would also stagger council members’ terms.

But there are also more dramatic proposals, including the one sponsored by Sen. Eric Pratt and Rep. Tony Albright, both Republicans from Prior Lake. The Pratt-Albright bill would have each of the seven counties appoint one member and then have city council members meet in each of the 16 districts to select someone from their ranks to serve.

Pratt said he hopes to have the proposal, SF 2809, taken up by the Senate early next week. Albright said the language is contained in the House state government omnibus bill that should be debated by the House Thursday.

Albright called the bill to offer staggered terms a “nice tease, a nice bite of the apple” but not sufficient to make the Met Council accountable. Added co-sponsor Sen. Scott Jensen (R-Watertown): “Elected officials will enhance accountability and that’s what we need to do,” he said. “That will mean increased transparency so that people who are being governed by Met Council decisions will have at least know why, how and who can they go to.”

Opponents of the opponents

As is common during legislative sessions, the Lewis-led press conference quickly gave way to one with another batch of elected officials offering a rebuttal to the one that preceded it.

In the second press conference, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the previous panel included elected officials who have in the past opposed having Met Council members elected directly by voters. And he said the Pratt and Albright bills do not offer proportional representation; populous counties like Hennepin and Ramsey would have the same number of members — one — as less populous counties like Scott and Carver. “Let’s just call it out,” Frey said. “…every single one of them is opposed to public transportation and light rail. That’s what this is about at the end of the day.”

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland said local officials serving on the council under the language proposed in the Pratt-Albright bill would also have a conflict because they would be overseeing regulation of their own cities and counties, distributing money at the same time their governments would have an interest in receiving it.

“Over time I have come to appreciate this nuanced model,” of the current Met Council, Hovland said. “I think we ought to be celebrating and not denigrating the model we’ve got.”

Hovland acknowledged that given some changes in election outcomes, it could be his fellow supporters complaining about the Met Council. Should a Republican win the next election for governor, for example, the 17 members appointed could take the council in a much-different direction. It could oppose light rail expansion, for example.

“That is an infirmity — a potential infirmity — in this system that we’ve got,” he said. “But, on balance, the Legislature thought that through in the 70s and decided that this was a better way to do it than having elected officials serving two masters or having the regulated be the regulators.”

Dayton’s response

How any measure dealing with the Met Council gets to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is important, but mostly as it determines how he’ll explain his veto of it.  

Dayton, like predecessors of both parties, hasn’t been inclined to support measures that would reduce his control over the council, and he said he told GOP legislative leaders at a breakfast Tuesday that he wants issues such as Met Council governance changes to come in a stand-alone format and not as part of so-called omnibus bills.

“My concern, as I expressed to them as I looked at this omnibus … is there are things in there that I very much want and need,” he said. “But if you sprinkle some good things with too many bad things, I told ’em I’m going to veto those bills. So send them to me early enough that we have a chance to haggle. Make your political statements and then we turn around and get as much of it resolved for the benefit of Minnesota.”

Dayton was no less opposed to the Lewis amendment, a position he made clear by a letter he sent to the state congressional delegation as well as U.S. Senate leaders from both parties. In it, he described the long history of how the Met Council was designated under federal law to serve as the metropolitan planning organization for the Twin Cities.

“Eliminating the Metropolitan Council’s MPO status would trigger a lengthy redesignation process that would bring uncertainty about federally funded transportation projects in the Twin Cities, and circumvent a longstanding and productive process at a time when transportation investment is critical to our region,” he said.

The Met Council has also made it clear that Dayton is hardly alone in that opposition, distributing letters against the Lewis amendment from the Association of Metropolitan Municipalities, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.

In a memo to congressional leaders, Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff also said there is no consensus in the state as to what a new MPO would look like, and the lack of such an organization under federal law could potentially put about $200 million in federal funds into limbo. The council also anticipates receiving and splitting up $2 billion in money for pending light rail expansions.

“If a redesignation of the MPO is required, these funds might not be available or allowed to be allocated by the U.S. DOT,” Tchourumoff wrote.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 05/03/2018 - 12:40 pm.

    The Region, the Region!

    The Met Council should stand for the region, not for county governments nor localities. Granted, it should certainly take local needs and consequences into careful consideration as it evaluates and plans for regional needs.

    A Met Council directly elected to that body by the voters of the region ought to end this controversy about representation. To merely “restructure the Met Council itself to include local county and city elected officials” would arguably make it even less representative than the present body appointed by the governor according to districts of roughly equal population.

    The commissioners of such a directly elected body would ALL be elected officials, which ought to satisfy Congressman Lewis, if he’s sincere about the issue.

  2. Submitted by Pat Berg on 05/03/2018 - 12:58 pm.

    Good old Congressman Lewis

    He’s all about local control . . . . . until he’s not.

    • Submitted by Jeff Asmussen on 05/03/2018 - 02:13 pm.

      Congressman Lewis

      We’re talking about federal funds here…there are federal laws which the Met Council is violating by controlling too much money without being directly elected. This about democracy and rule of law…local control is great, they can turn down all the federal funds then.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/08/2018 - 11:50 am.

        Federal Laws

        What federal laws is the Met violating? I thought they covered that aspect pretty thoroughly in the article.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/03/2018 - 03:52 pm.

      There is a More Important Principle at Work Here

      This is an election year, and he needs some grandiose talking point.

      Principles.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/03/2018 - 05:43 pm.

      Local Control? Lewis?

      The second congressional district isn’t even represented by a local resident!

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/03/2018 - 01:00 pm.

    , Lewis doesn’t not have the correct answer.

    “Minnesota’s 2nd congressional district covers the south Twin Cities metro area and contains all of Scott, Dakota, Goodhue, and Wabasha counties and It also contains part of northern and eastern Rice County including the city of Northfield, and southern Washington County including the city of Cottage Grove. It has about 700,000, under 20% of the 3,600,000 total in the Twin Cities metro area.” Wikipedia.

    Lewis is the tail that wants to wag the dog. He wants to legislate at the federal level what is appropriately a state and local issue. If he wants this responsibility he can run for governor. Of course, he couldn’t even get through a Republican primary election.

    If he hadn’t presented the disclosure of his hateful and ignorant statements as a talk show host and got a ton of big money from out of state billionaires, he wouldn’t have gotten elected. Remember Rod Grams – sort of a light weight version of him – an automatic rubber stamp for the next bizarre Trump idea.

    So we have Republican congressmen from Idaho, West Virginia and Mississippi voting to end our right to have a free-functioning Met Council. Having citizens rather than career politicians make decisions. As if politicians listen to their constituents. Tom Emmer does – Paulsen and Lewis – no town hall forums for them – cannot be bothered. Takes away time from fund raising and doing favors for their friends. The Metro Council has made our metro area one of the best in the country, not like the cities found in states mentioned above.

    If there is power to be had, “representatives” like Lewis are ready to abuse it. He was willing to vote for tax cuts for the rich over insurance for the working poor. How do people across the country rate the Republican Congress? Check it out if you don’t already know. It is eye opening

  4. Submitted by Jeff Asmussen on 05/03/2018 - 02:11 pm.

    The Met Council Is Operating Illegally

    Thank you Jason Lewis for standing up for rule of law. Here’s clip of a Strib story from a few years ago where we can see the Met Council is in violation of federal law:

    4 suburban counties hire federal help to upend Met Council – May 2, 2015

    [T]he Met Council — the seven-county regional agency whose 17 members are appointees of Gov. Mark Dayton — is violating a federal rule by distributing more than $660 million a year without appropriate input from elected officials.

    The Met Council’s budget was at $1.017 billion as of 2017, which shows clear violation of federal law. It’s time to put the members of the Met Council up for elections or dismantle the whole thing.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/08/2018 - 09:24 am.

      I’ll bite!

      Which laws? Could you please site section paragraph etc. how it applies and how they are in violation?
      Question 2, why wouldn’t the local districts that think they are getting screwed etc. be suing them?
      Question 3. And how would some elected (bought and paid for politician) serve the “people’s” interest better? Personally, I sure as “H” wouldn’t trust a JL type to have anyone’s interest other than his own in mind.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/08/2018 - 11:54 am.

      Article Details

      The article explained in detail how the Met is clearly not violating any laws. Can you explain how your position differs?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/08/2018 - 03:38 pm.

      Kind of Obvious Point

      You’r repeating allegations. Has there been a final decision made, after three years?

  5. Submitted by Jim Smola on 05/03/2018 - 07:29 pm.

    Not a federal issue

    Rep. Lewis proposed legislation is under cutting local control. It is not a federal issue, it is an issue that should be decided by the citizens of Minnesota not elected representatives of other states. It is a back door attempt to hamstring the light rail expansion in Minnesota.

    • Submitted by Mike martin on 05/06/2018 - 10:54 pm.

      why should the Met Council be exempt from federal law.

      Federal Law requires that mpos that spend Federal money need to be elected either directly or indirectly. The current Met Council arrangement does not satisfy that federal law.

      Members of mpos in 49 other states are all elected officials. Why can’t that be the same in Minnesota?

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/08/2018 - 11:59 am.

        49 Shades Of Grey

        With the exception of the Portland area, the MPOs in the other 49 states are envious of the arrangement the Met Council has. Their MPOs are all ineffective at regional planning as they simply devolve into bickering among conflicting city and county interests. The Met’s appointed status means they can move the ball forward and get projects done while other MPOs fight among themselves with the interest of the individual members in mind instead of the region as a whole.

        Appointed is the feature in this case. Elected members is the bug.

  6. Submitted by William Anderson on 05/03/2018 - 10:52 pm.

    “Let’s call it out.”The

    “Let’s call it out.”

    The powerful supporters of the Metropolitan Council remaining an unelected body with authority over the entire region are the same as the supporters of the Mayor of Minneapolis: The Chambers of Commerce, which represent the business interests of the region, not the citizens. How did a Mitt Romney get to be Mayor of Minneapolis?

    It looks like democracy is not good for business, from the point of view of the corporate heavyweights in the area. “That’s what this is really about at the end of the day.”

  7. Submitted by Mike martin on 05/06/2018 - 10:48 pm.

    why should the Met Council be different?

    Federal Law requires that mpos be composed of elected officials. That’s the way it is throughout all 50 states except Minnesota. Representative Lewis bill says Minnesota needs to do it like the rest of the country! If using elected official works in the other 49 states why won’t it work in Minnesota?

    Powerful business and political special interest groups want to keep the Met Council the way it is so they can continue to control the Met Council using back room deals instead of having the Met Council work for the average citizen in the metro area.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/08/2018 - 11:36 am.

      Not By a Long Shot

      MPOs are not required to be composed only of elected officials. Federal law says that an MPO must consist of local elected officials, officials of public agencies, and “appropriate state officials.” The designation or selection of officials or representatives is determined by the MPO “according to the bylaws or enabling statute of the organization.” 23 USC sec. 134.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/08/2018 - 12:19 pm.

      Because It Works

      What’s left out of the discussion is that the MPOs in 48 of the other 49 states don’t work. They’re ineffective–castrated by their own self-serving members.

      The whole point of an MPO is to do regional planning. Make them elected and the members represent the region’s counties and cities rather than the region itself. Then they’re voting on allocating money that they’ll then receive, creating a conflict of interest in the process.

      You are absolutely right that there are political and business forces in play here, but they’re the ones forcing the change, not those who are defending the current system. Here’s the back story.

      A few years ago the Met changed the formula on how they allocate funds. Previously a lot of funding went to pay for new sewer and water hook-ups in the far-flung burbs. Developers don’t pay for the new lines themselves as that would be cost-prohibitive for the new houses. The Met was, in effect, subsidizing urban sprawl at the expense of investment in the inner city.

      So they changed the formula for how the funds are allocated and the inner city scored better, which is why you see more investments in LRT. That isn’t to say that the suburbs are being neglected–they’re just not getting the lion’s share anymore. You still see sewer/water hookups going in as well as a lot of BRT lines (bus rapid transit) being built.

      But having some money go their way isn’t enough for the developers. They (and their political allies) want all the funds. A dime spent on LRT is a dime that can’t go into a new sewer line. Those developers got to people like Jason Lewis and bingo, you see bills like his working their way through Congress.

  8. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/07/2018 - 12:44 pm.

    Lewis Survey

    Jason Lewis says this is not targeted at the Met Council, yet here’s a survey directly from his web site.

    Do you support my amendment that requires the Met Council to have elected representatives on their board?

    -I support requiring the Met Council to have elected representatives on their board
    -I do not support requiring that the Met Council have elected representatives on their board

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