Minneapolis sees diminished clout at Capitol

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2011 - 9:44 PM

After a slew of retirements, whoever replaces departing Sen. Linda Berglin will have few allies in the Legislature.

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Linda Berglin, a 38-year State Capitol veteran, departed from the Senate this summer

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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These are tough times to represent Minneapolis at the state Legislature.

A slew of candidates in south Minneapolis is vying to replace 38-year Capitol veteran Linda Berglin, whose departure from the Senate this summer prompted a special election with a DFL primary set for Sept. 13. But whoever gets the job will face stiff obstacles in a body where Minneapolis' clout has taken a dive.

A year after Minneapolis claimed both the speaker of the House and Senate majority leader as its own, Republicans used their 2010 wins to wage war on several key funding streams for the DFL-dominated city this session. The city's diminished standing was compounded by the resignations of former Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Berglin, two major blows to the delegation's seniority.

"We're a target," said Sen. Linda Higgins, who represents parts of downtown and north Minneapolis. "We're the biggest city. We're misunderstood by a lot of our colleagues. We're a liberal city and liberals are not in charge."

Higgins recalled that when she joined the Legislature in 1997, her five Minneapolis colleagues in the Senate were all committee chairs. Four have since retired.

Republican majorities wasted no time this year taking advantage of the new political landscape.

They passed budget bills gradually eliminating local government aid (LGA) for DFL strongholds of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth -- funding that amounted to about 14 percent of Minneapolis' general fund budget this year. They also voted to gut an education funding stream that largely benefited the Twin Cities and cut $109 million from transit funding.

In the end, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton blocked most of the cuts that disproportionately targeted the Twin Cities -- a marked change from his less urban-friendly Republican predecessor, Tim Pawlenty. And several legislators noted that Minneapolis did capture one key victory in the final budget deal: The state agreed to take control of two ailing city pension funds.

Rep. Linda Runbeck, who led the charge to phase out aid to the three cities, said city leaders lack "any sort of self-control" in spending and have enjoyed powerful allies at the Legislature for many years.

"Before, they could duck behind [former Senate Majority Leader Larry] Pogemiller or Kelliher and didn't have to answer a legislator's questions," said Runbeck, R-Circle Pines. "But with Republicans in the chairmanships everywhere, they can't really duck out."

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak felt the change firsthand when he testified before Runbeck's committee in March. During a hearing on the LGA cuts, she cut him off in the middle of his testimony and invited legislators to ask questions.

"She was extremely unprofessional," Rybak said. "That's not partisan. That was simply being unwilling to hear responses to her questions."

Rybak added that he met privately with many Republicans at the Legislature to spell out the city's finances, and he said most were happy to listen.

Gary Carlson, a lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities, said it's important to have members who are seasoned in the legislative process. The loss of Kelliher and Berglin, the DFL's authority on health care, left a hole in the delegation.

"Nothing against whoever's elected, but the city won't be represented the way it was," Carlson said. "And probably not with the knowledge of the process and ability to get things done."

Several state and local leaders said that to mollify some legislators who think the city gets too much of the pie, Minneapolis must do a better job marketing its role as an economic and cultural hub for the state.

"We can't just rely on our political clout to do that anymore," said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, whose district covers part of southwest Minneapolis and Richfield. "We have to make the argument and convince people, persuade people."

Rybak sees suburban commuters as potential advocates. He said the city should urge them to "remind their representatives" who are critical of Minneapolis that non-residents rely on the city's roads, public safety and parks.

"We need to better mobilize the allies. Including the ... more than 200,000 people who work here every day, who come from all over the state," Rybak said.

Minneapolis City Council member Betsy Hodges said the state knows how much it gives to cities, but needs better information about how much those cities give back in tax dollars. Most of that comes in the form of sales and property taxes.

"They don't have a clear picture of the way dollars flow from cities to the state," Hodges said.

Others feel the city's relationship with the state is too unpredictable. Paul Ostrow, a former council member who is now an assistant Anoka County attorney, suggests the city should allow its local government aid to be phased out, in exchange for the ability to raise its own sales tax and unload the Target Center and the Minneapolis Convention Center onto the state's books.

"To have every two years the potential fate of the city's budget hinge on what happens in the elections for the House or Senate, it's just not sustainable," Ostrow said in an interview.

But Pogemiller, along with other Minneapolis representatives, said that would go against the spirit of local government aid, which distributes tax dollars to help cities across the state.

"We do not want to go to a kind of survival of the fittest local government strategy," Pogemiller said. "Because that won't be good for everybody."

Eric Roper • 651-222-1210 Twitter: @StribRoper

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