Leaders of cities from around Minnesota launched a lobbying blitz at the State Capitol on Wednesday as legislators struggled for a breakthrough on major sticking points in the final two weeks of the session.
City officials met with legislators. They held a news conference. They gave out 350 vanilla sundae cones, ice cream sandwiches, and strawberry ice cream bars.
“The fact is, we really have a chance to make this a do-something session … instead of all the talk about a do-nothing session,” said Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski.
The mayors and council members of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities are pushing for an increase in state aid to local governments, a bonding bill with funding for clean water programs, and a transportation package that would fund repairs for city streets and commercial corridors with a gas tax increase.
With only a week and a half before adjournment, legislators are still struggling to compromise on a transportation agreement and decide how to divvy up the state’s $900 million surplus. They are still far apart on a proposed bonding package, with billions of dollars in requests for new road, building and construction projects around the state.
Smiglewski said that western Minnesota had problems with safety and accessibility of its roads and that “having some money to work with would sure be a help.”
The DFL has supported a proposed gas tax hike, but Republicans want to use money from the surplus to fix state roads and bridges.
Republicans have said that most Minnesotans are opposed to a gas tax increase, particularly when the state has a significant budget surplus. But outstate city officials say they hold a different view.
“This idea that we in greater Minnesota are against a gas tax increase or are against light rail is just false,” said Tim Flaherty, an attorney and lobbyist for the coalition.
Meanwhile, the Senate passed an omnibus tax package that expanded eligibility for a tax credit for working families. It would create a tax credit for people paying college loans, parents of stillborn children, and immigrants facing stiff naturalization expenses. It also includes a provision to expand the circumstances in which out-of-state retailers like Amazon can collect a sales tax on Minnesota sales. And it authorized paid family leave for Minnesota employees through an additional payroll tax, a measure the DFL has made a priority this session.
Republicans swiftly criticized the measure as enabling tax increases for working families. Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said in a statement that the session began with “high hopes” that families would receive tax relief and transportation investments, but that DFLers had done the opposite with the passage of the tax bill and advocacy of a gas tax hike.
Noting that Minnesota has the largest percentage of women in the workforce, paid-leave sponsor Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said in a statement the measure was a big step for families.
After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, strolled through the lobby to pick up a vanilla sundae cone as people from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities milled around.
“We agree with them,” he said of the organization’s requests. Flaherty, standing beside him, said Bakk had been out front on all the issues the coalition had advocated for.
Local officials said that without increases in state aid, they would be forced to raise property taxes or cut important services like fire response.
Le Sueur Mayor Robert Broeder, president of the coalition, said a $45 million increase in local government aid “is very important to greater Minnesota.”
But Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said there wasn’t much support from his constituents for more local government aid and that they felt too much money was going to big cities like Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. Roseau, a northern city of 2,600, gets about $650,000 a year in state aid, down from 2011.
Fabian said the gas tax rise would hurt outstate Minnesota more than the metro area because people’s jobs, schools, churches and grocery stores are more spread out in rural areas. “I would be doing a disservice to the people of my district and the people of Minnesota if I accepted the default position that if we have a problem in Minnesota, we have to raise taxes to solve it,” said Fabian.