A long-term funding boost for both roads and transit. A state incentive for Greater Minnesota broadband service. Stronger state support for municipal services, urban and outstate. And recognition that higher education — especially research at the University of Minnesota — is crucial to both solving looming problems and bridging the rural-urban divide.
That’s the Star Tribune Editorial Board’s “One State Agenda,” a policy prescription offered in the December series “Better Together.” The series described how growing demographic, political and economic gaps are threatening Minnesotans’ hold on a key to this state’s success — their willingness to aggregate resources at the state level and distribute them for the whole state’s benefit.
The 2016 legislative session is a wrap — sort of. It ended at 11:56 p.m. on May 22 with work on bonding and transportation unfinished. Calls for a special session were heard almost immediately.
We echo those calls. But we urge Gov. Mark Dayton to insist that before he calls legislators back, the DFL-controlled Senate and Republican-led House improve the bills they had on offer last weekend. Only a portion of our One State Agenda was enacted. A chance exists in coming weeks to do better. Specifically:
• Don’t give up on a long-term transportation package. The one-year alternative that was in play last weekend doesn’t cut it. It would have pumped $300 million in cash and nearly $300 million in bond proceeds into road and bridge projects — just once. A comparable amount is reliably needed every year for the next 10 years to meet the road improvements transportation experts have identified.
As the collapse of the bonding/transportation deal last Sunday showed, no bill can pass — nor should pass — unless it serves both the metro area and Greater Minnesota. The House GOP failed with an attempt skewed against transit. And a last-ditch Senate move to allow Hennepin County to shoulder a disproportionate share of the cost of Southwest light-rail transit asked too much of one county’s property taxpayers.
We’re rooting for the revival of an idea floated in the session’s final days by House transportation chair Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing: Allow metro counties to raise the sales tax at least 0.25 percent for transit needs. A constitutional amendment dedicating a small slice of ongoing sales tax revenue to both roads and transit could also be a dealmaker.
• Do better by higher ed. “Stingy” describes the Legislature’s treatment of the state’s two higher-education systems this year, in response to their needs for both building projects and operating support. “Punitive” reportedly also applies in the case of the University of Minnesota. The fact that some U research in pursuit of cures for diabetes, spinal-cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and other scourges uses tissue legally derived from aborted fetuses rankles staunch abortion foes. That treatment is not acceptable to Dayton, who says he will press for a better response to higher-ed needs.
The two systems were shortchanged in different ways. The U was denied bonding for a $66 million health sciences building that would facilitate the interdisciplinary training of the next generation of medical professionals. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, hamstrung by a legislatively imposed tuition freeze, seeks more operating money to avoid retrenchment on campuses around the state. Dayton recommended $21 million for MnSCU operations; the Legislature responded with a measly $570,000. The schools deserve more.
• Make sure broadband incentives work. The budget bill awaiting Dayton’s signature includes a $35 million infusion in the state’s matching-grant program for broadband development. While that sum is a third of what Dayton and broadband advocates requested, it’s three times more than the Legislature provided a year ago.
The Greater Minnesota Partnership, a business advocacy group, warns that there could be another problem. Language in the bill gives incumbent telecom providers considerable license to block a grant to a competitor, without requiring those incumbents to offer their customers significantly higher speeds in the near term. The state’s Office of Broadband Development should examine that language to make sure the new investment will work as intended. State matching grants should hasten the arrival of faster Internet speeds not only in the state’s unserved remote areas, but also in underserved cities and towns.
The Legislature responded positively to our fourth One State Agenda item, an increase in aid to cities. Legislators also heeded our call to keep distributing the aid with a metric-based distribution formula that helps any city, regardless of location, whose costs for municipal services outstrip an amount their property taxpayers can reasonably afford.
Lawmakers increased base funding for the local government aid program by $20 million per year and dropped a House plan to dramatically cut aid to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. That still leaves the state’s outlay for local government aid (LGA) below its 2002 level. But it represents bipartisan recognition that keeping city services adequate and affordable makes the whole state more livable and attractive.
The 2016 session’s frustrating finish offers a lesson we hope future lawmakers will note. The Legislature stumbled because some Greater Minnesota legislators were determined to deny the metro area a long-planned rail transit system, even as they were keen to address the transportation priorities of their own regions. Their attempt to favor one region over another not only came to naught, but also denied needed investments to the whole state.
In lawmaking and much more, Minnesota’s metro area and Greater Minnesota function “better together.”