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.
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.”
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.