FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — I’ve never known greater Minnesota’s mayors and city officials to be a dour or hypercritical lot. So what explains the sour note sounded Wednesday at the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities annual meeting when attendees were asked a version of the opinion pollster’s standard question: Is state government in Minnesota on the right track or headed in the wrong direction?
“Wrong direction,” 72 percent of them said.
What’s more, when asked moments later whether the federal government is on the right track or pursuing the wrong direction, the downside was chosen by 84 percent. Their assessment of President Donald Trump’s performance? “Terrible,” 59 percent said. Only 8 percent said “great.”
Mind you, these are not the assessments of people with lean diets of state and national news. These are mayors, city administrators and city council members who live and work in the public arena. They might be expected to sympathize with their fellow arena inhabitants.
That makes their “wrong direction” assessment all the more notable and worthy of elucidation. A bit of the latter came soon after the electronically tabulated survey, when Craig Clark, the city administrator in Austin, stood to ask a question of the conference’s panel of State Capitol journalists (this scribe among them).
“I thought this was supposed to be the greater Minnesota session,” Clark said. “What happened?”
Expectations in greater Minnesota were indeed high when Republicans took control of both the House and Senate this year on the strength of the GOP vote outside the seven-county metro area. The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, 90 cities strong, and its allied, business-oriented Greater Minnesota Partnership were ready with a legislative wish list. Its No. 1 item: pump an additional $45 million per year into the state’s homegrown revenue-sharing program, local government aid — enough to get it back to its 2002 level.
After considerable foot-dragging, the GOP-controlled Legislature coughed up a $15 million-a-year increase. It was enough to turn down the political heat, several mayors said, but not enough to ease the fiscal pressures that have been driving up property taxes and pinching police, fire, parks and library services in their towns.
The story was the same on other fronts. The coalition wanted an increase in dedicated transportation funding. The Legislature instead opted to pump $300 million in general fund cash into transportation projects in the next two years — a record amount — but provided no guarantee that future Legislatures will follow suit.
The coalition liked Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed $167 million in bonding for wastewater infrastructure upgrades. The Legislature came up with $116 million. The coalition asked for $50 million in tax credits to help finance workforce housing. It got $4 million. A number of mayors said they were rooting for a big boost in competitive grant money for high-speed broadband public-private projects. The governor recommended $60 million; the Legislature responded with $20 million.
“It wasn’t terrible,” Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson, the coalition’s outgoing president, said of the 2017 legislative session. “It isn’t like we went backwards. But we aren’t going forward, either.”
Carlson and her cohorts described a sense that state government is treading water. That’s not a comfortable feeling for forward-looking local officials in a state with a long history of state-local interdependence. The coalition folks fear it means their communities are only able to tread water, too, just when they should be moving to meet new challenges.
For instance: child care.
Reports of a child-care shortage in greater Minnesota aren’t new. But you know the problem is getting serious when it’s the answer grandfatherly city officials offer a journalist who asks, “How are things in your town?” They may be the first generation of greater Minnesota city officials to regard child care as an existential necessity for their communities.
“Having day care available makes it possible for parents of young children to live and work here. It’s just that simple and it’s just that important,” Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski, the coalition’s incoming president, wrote in a recent column in his local newspaper.
The closure of a nearby publicly supported child-care center because it wasn’t breaking even bothered him, Smiglewski told me. “Do we ask the roads to break even, or police and fire, or schools? Why do we make that the rule for day care? What’s the cost of losing young families?” he said.
Local officials are doing what they can to keep quality child care available and affordable, several coalition members said. They could use more state help. State regulations for those entering the child-care business are costly and cumbersome, and need streamlining. A state subsidy program for low-income families is too stingy, they said, keeping out children who need quality care the most. Public-private partnerships may be in order in some places where market forces aren’t sufficient to keep child care available for all who need it.
The Legislature cannot be accused of ignoring such pleas. A bipartisan legislative task force made some of those same recommendations last January, and the 2017 session added nearly $19 million to child-care subsidies over the next two years.
But that was news to the assembled city leaders in Fergus Falls. The 2017 session looked to them to be much about allowing Sunday liquor sales and cutting business taxes. By and large, they aren’t against either of those things. But they didn’t ask for them. And they’re still asking for a lot more.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.