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Our View: Enough with threats to LGA

On top of so much else — passing a state budget, a bonding bill, a long-range transportation plan, tax breaks, and a Real ID solution are only the top of the list — Minnesota lawmakers representing cities like Duluth also are occupying their time once again this legislative session watching out for and protecting local government aid, or LGA.

Dear lord, can't even one session of the Minnesota Legislature go by without threats to cut a state program as vital as it is effective in helping small communities provide basics like fire protection and street maintenance and in helping regional centers like Duluth provide libraries, parks and other services to the thousands of non-residents who pour in every day for work or play?

Sen. Erik Simonson of Duluth sounded the latest alarm about a threat to local government aid in a letter late Friday sent on his behalf by the Senate DFL to newspapers owned by Forum Communications, including the News Tribune. He said an amendment to the omnibus tax bill was able to "slide under the radar" last week to strip away a large chunk of local government aid from Minneapolis, to reduce the statewide LGA pool by nearly $29 million, and to decrease all local government aid in future years.

"Take for example the city of Duluth," Simonson wrote. "In 2019, under the amended Senate bill, the city will actually receive less aid than it will in 2018. Due to the complexity of the formula, the amendment will have a negative impact to many cities all across Minnesota. That is significant. ... When local governments from Willmar to Virginia to Owatonna don't get enough aid from the state, they turn to local taxpayers. ... We know a strong commitment to LGA is one of the best ways to keep property taxes down. And yet, here we are with a small, one-time bump for 2018 before we're right back down to decreasing aid again in 2019. This isn't what cities and counties are asking for. They want stability, and they need more aid in order to keep property taxes in check."

Simonson isn't the only one sounding an alarm. LGA was a priority last month when hundreds of Duluth-area residents and officials blitzed St. Paul for the annual Duluth and St. Louis County at the Capitol citizen-lobbying event.

"That and, 'Don't touch local government aid,'" Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Davis Ross answered when asked at the event by the News Tribune Opinion page whether advocating for Duluth-area bonding projects was the main focus of this year's lobbying. "(LGA) provides $29 million for the city of Duluth. We talked to the lieutenant governor and others about that."

"Over one-third of our general-fund budget comes from local government aid," Duluth City Councilor Zack Filipovich wrote in an op-ed in the News Tribune in December. "With a new Legislature, Duluth must work diligently to protect this important funding."

Not just Duluth. If there's an "under-the-radar" move to reduce LGA, there's also a spirited and far-more-vocal push from municipal leaders around the state to increase LGA by $45.5 million this year. That would just restore funding to its 2002 level. City councils are passing resolutions of support, and mayors are penning op-eds to promote the push.

"LGA is the ultimate equity tool," Alexandria, Minn., Mayor Sara Carlson wrote in a commentary published last month in the Grand Forks Herald. "It was created in the 1970s as a means to ensure that all Minnesota cities are able to provide a similar level of services, regardless of their wealth."

Minnesota lawmakers actually approved an appropriate and much-needed LGA increase last year of $20 million. But it was part of the infamous tax bill Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed after a typo was discovered that would have cost state taxpayers $100 million.

So why is there even an under-the-radar push this year to reduce LGA? Lawmakers owe it to Minnesotans instead to support and to fully fund a program that assures the same high quality of life no matter where in the state they live.

With so much else that needs to get done this session, any suggestion in St. Paul of reducing local government aid isn't worth even the time it takes to utter.