Greater Minnesota matters. That’s been a mantra for state lawmakers in the year since the 2014 state House election saw a Republican resurgence outside the Twin Cities area. Yet despite talk about a new emphasis on the non-metro share of the state, the 2015 Legislature left many advocates for Greater Minnesota dissatisfied. Little was accomplished on several key items on their agenda — transportation, state aid to cities, broadband, civic infrastructure, workforce housing.
With the same cast of characters due to return to St. Paul in March, can that outcome change in an abbreviated 2016 session? We think it can, with the help of a different theme and focus. What’s needed in 2016 and beyond is not a Greater Minnesota agenda, but a One State Agenda that reflects the interdependence of this state’s regions.
Every part of Minnesota needs the problem-solving muscle that a functional state government provides. And state government won’t work unless lawmakers strive to benefit the whole state — and unless voters insist that they do so. It ought to be a political sin to pit one region against another.
It’s easy to blame partisan gridlock for all that didn’t happen in 2015, given that major bills stalled when the GOP-controlled House clashed with the DFL Senate and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. But that analysis is also too simple. Willingness to aid one part of the state to the detriment of another was part of the problem. So was an apparent inability of legislators from one region to see the perspective of another. Such understanding came more easily when Minnesota had a smaller, more homogeneous population. Today, it must be pursued intentionally.
The 2016 Legislature is set to convene on March 8 and run only eight weeks. But that’s enough time to demonstrate that state government can be trusted to leave no region behind. Three items top our One State Agenda:
• Transportation: Enactment of a transportation funding bill with no gas-tax increase, as Republicans have long demanded, now seems plausible. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton acknowledged as much after the forecast of a $1.2 billion spendable general-fund surplus through June 30, 2017. But we can’t imagine a transportation bill becoming law that does not serve the whole state. In other words, it must provide for both outstate roads and Metro Transit.
A failure to provide for Metro Transit is a prime defect of the House transportation bill now in conference committee. The House bill not only refused to fund Southwest light rail — despite a looming deadline for access to federal funds — but also crimped funding for basic bus service in a way that would lead to a 20 percent service reduction by 2020.
That’s the wrong way to increase funds for outstate road construction. Quality transit services are a win-win-win for Minnesota’s future. They can attract the transit-oriented millennial generation, help seniors live independently, reduce climate-altering carbon emissions and stave off demand for costly additional highway lanes.
A One State transportation bill need not tap only the state’s coffers. It could also give a green light to counties or transit service regions that are willing to tax themselves. A One State bill also should aid the smaller cities that are now excluded when state highway funds are distributed. And, as the House bill does, it ought to earmark a revenue stream for outstate transit. Transit’s benefits should extend to every region.
• Local government aid: A renewed commitment to LGA, a 44-year-old partnership with cities throughout the state, is a critical component of our One State Agenda. LGA and its historic companion, the state’s general education formula, were once called the Minnesota Miracle. LGA is still pretty miraculous. It keeps municipal services affordable in both big and small cities with a formula that favors those with low tax bases and/or high demand for services because of large daytime populations.
Despite widely embraced improvements in its distribution formula in 2013, LGA fell prey to divide-and-conquer politics in 2015. House Republicans sought drastic reductions in LGA to three big cities — Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth — while holding funding flat for Greater Minnesota recipients. To its credit, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities led a chorus in protest. Fergus Falls Mayor Hal Leland called the House’s proposal “a fundamental threat to the LGA program.”
Outstate mayors evidently understand that LGA won’t be politically sustainable if it serves only one region of the state. They also know that LGA shores up the quality of life and appeal of their towns to both potential employers and employees as a labor shortage squeezes Greater Minnesota. That pinch makes LGA more important to those communities than ever.
LGA cuts were a recurring coping strategy for the state during the lean times of the past decade. Now that good times are back, LGA should be, too. Its funding should be restored to 2002 levels, as the Senate’s 2015 tax bill does.
• Broadband: A metro mind-set seemed to be in play in 2015 when House Republicans sent a bill out of committee that rejected rural pleas for help in bringing high-speed Internet service to more of the state. Committee chair Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, claimed that new technology and private-sector efforts were sufficient to bring broadband statewide soon enough and that the state’s matching program for public-private partnerships would only get in the way.
“Soon enough” strikes a sour note in places that have watched and waited for a more than a decade as the digital age flowered in the rest of the state. Garofalo may be right about the rapid pace of technological change, but Greater Minnesotans are understandably skeptical about whether and when those changes will reach them. They wonder why their government is not as responsive to today’s technological imperative as governments were in the middle of the 20th century, when they accelerated rural electrification. Broadband funding has become a litmus test of the Legislature’s commitment to the whole state. The 2015 Legislature eventually agreed to an $11 million boost to the state’s program, enough to provide matching funds to projects in 15 communities. But that’s only a third of the sum applicants requested. Ironically, the choice of outstate grant applicants over exurban places like Afton and Scandia left those communities complaining that their needs had been unfairly overlooked.
Sound fiscal stewardship says that the 2016 Legislature ought to be looking for smart one-time uses of surplus dollars. At least $50 million in additional broadband matching grants, awarded throughout the state according to their potential to produce economic benefit, would nicely fill that bill.
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These three items sit atop our One State Agenda because they involve pressing needs and appear within reach in an abbreviated 2016 session. Do all three, and legislators would go into next year’s election better able to claim that state government is on Minnesotans’ side no matter where they live. But our agenda for 2017 and beyond is longer, and it requires some legislative rethinking about the state’s most important 21st-century institutional asset — the University of Minnesota — as well as strong support for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. We’ll discuss that Dec. 20 in Part Three of “Better Together.”