A year ago the Minnesota Legislature invested significant time and energy into reforming local government aid, including the formulas that determine how much communities pay into and how much they get back from a program meant to assure the same high-quality, Minnesota way of life no matter where in the state anyone lives.
Dozens of public hearings were held, and local governments cheered the more-reliable, more-predictable, and supposedly politics-free funding formulas that emerged and that were supposed to allow them to finally plan and budget with confidence. This followed year after year of political and financial battles over local government aid, or LGA, and the amounts local governments, including Duluth's, could count on, plan for and get.
Disappointingly, despite the apparent progress made by lawmakers, the annual idiocy doesn't appear to be over. This legislative session, House Republicans proposed enormous cuts in local government aid for Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth - and for no one else. Just those three. Not surprisingly, all three tend to lean left and elect Democrats.
"What we are seeing today is simple punish-your-enemies politics," Duluth Mayor Don Ness told the News Tribune Opinion page yesterday. "The state has a $2 billion surplus, yet House Republicans are proposing cuts that would absolutely devastate Minnesota taxpayers who happen to live in Duluth. This sort of politics has no place in Minnesota; we're better than that."
Duluth would lose $20 million under the proposal, an amount that would "devastate" the city, the mayor said, echoing comments made by Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery in testimony at the Capitol, Rep. Jennifer Schultz in a column in the News Tribune and others.
"We'd either have to lay off 300 employees (over half of our general-fund workforce, including police, fire, librarians, etc.) or double the city's portion of your property tax bill," Ness said. "The devastating loss of services and/or the crippling increase in property taxes would derail the progress we are seeing in Duluth. It would clearly discourage private investment that is driving our growth and strengthening our tax base."
Duluth contributes about $90 million of sales tax revenue per year to the LGA program. We get back about $30 million.
So, "by attacking the city of Duluth, House Republicans are attacking an economic engine important to the fiscal health of the state," Ness pointed out. "It's truly discouraging to see this type of politics in Minnesota."
Minneapolis is looking at a loss of about $34.4 million in LGA, approximately 45 percent of what it usually receives and 75 percent greater than any LGA cut it has ever endured.
"Minneapolis supports the current LGA formula," Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges told the News Tribune Opinion page. "We participated, along with other city stakeholders, to craft the reforms to the LGA formula to improve the way it works for the entire state. This (year's proposed) LGA modification is made through methods outside of the current formula. You would need to inquire with those pushing for these cuts as to why they are now breaking this agreement."
For the many communities that receive it, LGA isn't extra money. It's not frosting for niceties but rather, by design, for basic services like police and fire protection, assuring such services remain viable and available even in poorer communities or in more-rural areas where public money can be tight.
Local government aid is far too important to far too many Minnesotans to be used as a political pawn year after year. That's why all the energy last year was welcomed. Maddeningly, more must be done.