As Duluthians know, it’s often “colder by the lake.” But the chill that Republican State Convention delegates experience in the city this weekend may have an origin other than Lake Superior. The Republican-controlled Legislature this year spurned both of Duluth’s top requests, leaving that city’s leaders feeling justifiably ill-served.
Atop the Zenith City’s legislative list was a request that ought to have been easy to accommodate. Last November, Duluth voters overwhelmingly said yes to a 0.5-percentage-point increase in the sales tax rate within the city, hoping to raise $7 million per year to be used for street improvements.
All that was needed to impose that tax was a green light from the Legislature. No state money was required. “We are willing to solve our own problem here,” Mayor Emily Larson told an editorial writer. More than 20 public meetings ensured that the tax proposal was well understood by voters, she said. The referendum was approved with 76.5 percent of the vote.
Larson spent 15 days at the State Capitol making the case. One survey rated 55 percent of Duluth’s streets “in critical condition.” Her city needs to spend at least $10 million a year to drive that number down, she explained. When she became mayor in 2016, Larson pushed for spending cuts to boost a $2.8 million annual street budget to $3.8 million. More cuts won’t cut it, she said.
The Legislature’s response was no response. Neither the House nor the Senate version of the eventually vetoed tax bill gave Duluth permission to raise its sales tax. Other cities seeking permission for local sales tax increases were also turned down, Duluth DFL Sen. Erik Simonson noted, but among them only Duluth had already obtained the consent of local voters.
“They intentionally disregarded the will of the electorate,” Larson complained. “It feels very disrespectful to the voters.”
Duluth’s hope for state help with infrastructure of another kind was also dashed. The city sought assistance in paying the municipal costs associated with the proposed Essentia Health redevelopment in downtown Duluth. That $800 million project, dubbed Vision Northland, is planned to be the largest private development in the city’s history. The request for state aid relied in part on state bonding and was fashioned after the assistance extended to the Destination Medical Center in Rochester in 2013. That year, the Legislature authorized matching funds for Rochester of up to $400 million to be paid over 20 years; this year, Duluth’s request for less than half of that stalled in committee.
That’s a regrettable result — even though it’s likely not the final word, on either front. Duluth intends to bring the same or similar requests to the 2019 Legislature. Still, this year’s inaction will delay and add to the cost of both street improvements and the municipal components of the Essentia project. And it will fuel a growing sense among Minnesota local governments that state government is no longer a reliable partner.
The 2018 Legislature didn’t reject everything on Duluth’s wish list. The bonding bill included $1.9 million for the Duluth Zoo, $6.9 million for its proposed Superior Street steam heating project and $4 million to refurbish the Glensheen mansion.
But while those smaller gains are welcome, they did little to soothe city leaders’ disappointment about their two priorities. They are left to wonder whether their city’s propensity to elect DFLers contributed to the result. “I hate to assume that it was partisanship, but I don’t have any better answer,” Simonson said. Our hunch is that some of his 86,000 fellow Duluthians will be asking Republican legislators for one this weekend.