Every day, 36,000 workers, shoppers, and other out-of-towners pour into Duluth, and every year we welcome some 6.7 million visitors. Love 'em all, of course, and the vitality, energy, and economic jolt they bring. But there's also this reality: They're here using our streets, parks, libraries, and more without paying a penny in property taxes to help cover the costs of it all.
So we love local government aid just as much. The state program has been a godsend for nearly half a century to regional centers like Duluth and to poorer, often rural areas, ensuring that no matter where in the state anyone goes they can expect and enjoy a similar Minnesota quality of life as well as basic government services like police and fire protection and street maintenance.
The problem is that state dollars for local government aid, or LGA, have been on the decline for more than 15 years, slashed during years of state budget shortfalls and sometimes targeted out of pure political spite.
A solution is in Gov. Tim Walz's state budget proposal: $30.5 million to restore LGA to its pre-recession 2002 funding level of about $565 million. The allocation, a return to normalcy for a program that's proven effective and is helping so many, deserves the bipartisan legislative support it hasn't received during past sessions.
"I have been to St. Paul weekly this session to advocate for continued and increased LGA. As a result, legislators and commissioners know Duluth, our needs, our story, and why we are an important investment for the state," Mayor Emily Larson said last week in an exclusive statement to the News Tribune Opinion page. "Ensuring strong cities across the state fits well within the theme of 'One Minnesota,' which Gov Walz campaigned on. ... LGA investment is one critical funding source that recognizes the importance of a strong and robust Duluth."
Larson isn't the only one at the Capitol lobbying for a long-overdue LGA increase.
"I am a proud member of the LGA 'choir,'" Bemidji City Councilor and Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities President Ron Johnson wrote in a commentary last week. "The LGA program distributes aid to cities using a formula that compares a city's property tax base to its needs. ... LGA benefits all Minnesotans."
Approximately 90 percent of Minnesota cities receive LGA. Without it, those 758 cities would have to increase property tax rates by more than 65 percent to continue providing their current levels of services, Johnson argued.
"LGA is a small investment with a big payoff," he wrote. "LGA currently represents less than 3 percent of the state budget. The proposed $30.5 million increase is just a fraction of the governor's budget proposal. It is a relatively small price to pay to boost a program that has a tremendous impact on cities across the state. ...
"As legislators and the governor continue the daunting task of creating the state budget, I hope they keep the health and prosperity of our cities in mind," Johnson wrote.
While lawmakers and the governor must control spending, LGA, a program doing so much for so many Minnesotans, is a sound investment.