Buckle up for a game of legislative chicken as the DFL Senate and the GOP House race toward the end of session while keeping an eye on signals from Gov. Mark Dayton.

The session looks like an all-or-nothing deal for transportation, even though most legislators agree roads need expansion and repair. Minnesotans will be annoyed if roads don’t get funding, so what’s holding up a deal?

The Star Tribune Editorial Board correctly identified reform of the Metropolitan Council as being at the heart of striking an agreement (“Met Council reform could be a deal maker,” April 23), asking “What’s the rightful structure and composition of … the Metropolitan Council?”

The Editorial Board, however, also should have asked: What’s the rightful scope of authority for the Met Council, especially given its undemocratic structure? And then it should have acknowledged the biggest sticking point: funding Southwest light rail.

Downplaying the credibility problem, the Editorial Board went on to support “modest” improvements to how the governor goes about appointing the chair and all 16 council members (plus new six-year staggered terms).

Yet there are principled objections to the council’s governance model and sweeping authority that are not addressed by tweaks to the status quo.

Along with the council’s categorical rejection of any road expansion and its singular devotion to light rail, these long-standing philosophical objections explain why elected officials from both sides of the aisle — at the local and state levels — are opposed to funding the council’s long-term transit-oriented vision for the region.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles concluded in a report that “the lack of agreed-upon vision and priorities for transit … has resulted in large part from the Metropolitan Council’s lack of credibility among elected officials and other regional stakeholders. Therefore, the first step toward reform should be to address the composition of the Metropolitan Council. While several approaches are possible, we recommend a Council with a mix of gubernatorial appointees and elected officials from the region.”

In defense of the status quo, the editors dismiss critics and reasonable reforms, saying that “the council is a homegrown success story that other metro areas regard with envy.” Other metro areas may regard the council’s unbridled power with envy; what bureaucrat wouldn’t? But over the course of 50 years, not one state legislature outside of Minnesota has adopted the Met Council model. Why?

Setting aside the fact that federal law requires a metropolitan planning organization to include local elected officials (the Obama administration has refused a request by four suburban counties to enforce a 2014 law requiring this), there are compelling reasons to reject the council’s model.

According to a new report from Minneapolis-based Katana Community, “The Twin Cities Met Council: A Comparative Assessment,” the council is the least accountable regional body in the country, with the broadest scope of power. Moreover, when judged against peer regions, the council has not been particularly effective at fostering mobility — transit or economic.

The report’s findings, which compare the 20 largest U.S. metro regions, include:

• The council is the only regional body in the U.S. (and Minnesota) that is 100 percent appointed by the governor. All other regions have a majority of elected officials.

• The council is the only regional body to own and operate core infrastructure (transit, wastewater and housing).

• Due to its vast authority, the council’s $1 billion budget dwarfs all other such budgets, exceeding the combined budgets of 17 other regional authorities.

• If the council were a municipality, its $80 million levy would make it the third-largest in the state, just behind Minneapolis and St. Paul.

• The council is the only regional authority in the U.S. that can independently increase taxes and does so without any democratic representation.

• Despite (or perhaps because of) the council’s unprecedented control over infrastructure, the metro area lags peer regions on population and job growth, transit ridership and concentrations of poverty.

That’s a pretty ugly set of facts.

We favor breaking up the council by spinning off its vital functions to separate regional or state agencies with appropriately matching governance and oversight structure. Then, if those agencies recommend, for example, light rail to the Legislature, the project would likely get a better reception. Southwest light rail was poorly designed and received because it was conceived outside of the democratic process.

The Editorial Board favors keeping the council’s scope of authority and notes that years ago, it backed legitimizing the council’s power through direct elections.

We and the Editorial Board admit that neither of these scenarios is politically feasible. What is politically feasible? A council with a more limited scope of authority and majority input from elected officials and stakeholders. Conveniently, Minnesota statute 462.388 models this structure for regional development commissions and it is already used throughout Minnesota.

If lawmakers want to avoid gridlock on transportation, then the perennial problem known as the Met Council — and its illegitimate progeny, Southwest light rail — will have to be addressed. Modest changes will not cut it.

 

Kim Crockett is vice president and senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. Kevin Terrell is a partner at Katana Consulting and StartReadingNow.org.