Déjà vu all over again. The Minnesota Legislature is well into this year’s session. Prior to the start of the 2016 Legislative session members of both political parties promised to do what they could to help out Greater Minnesota. As we know, that didn’t happen due to an end-of-session fiasco. As a citizen of Grand Rapids I was then and continue to be particularly concerned about two issues, which, if addressed by our State Legislature, would go a long way towards fulfilling that promise made to the citizens of Greater Minnesota.
The first would be to restore the level of Local Government Aid (LGA) to 2002 levels and the second is to come up with additional funding or funding options that the state and local units of government could use to fund maintenance of our roads, streets, and bridges. At this point it does not appear that the legislature has the will to adequately address either of these issues. Support for LGA should not be viewed as a partisan issue, both Democrats and Republicans are aware of the needs of Greater Minnesota.
Indeed, the formula used to calculate LGA was the result of a bipartisan effort. In 2016 Owatonna Mayor Thomas Kuntz and Glencoe Mayor Randy Wilson, both Republicans, wrote that “As mayors of cities in Greater Minnesota - and as Republicans - we have waited more than a year now for the new House Republican majority to show leadership on a key issue affecting communities across Greater Minnesota: Local Government Aid (LGA).” They go on to say, “We thought the days of LGA being a political football were behind us. As rural mayors and Republicans ourselves, we can’t fathom why the House would threaten the LGA program like this.
LGA helps cities pay for essential services like police and fire protection and street repairs, as well as important quality-of-life amenities like parks and libraries. For many Greater Minnesota cities, LGA is the difference between being a thriving attractive community and being a hollowed out ghost town.” I stand with these two Republican Mayors and ask the Minnesota House and Senate to pass legislation that restores LGA to the level that it was in 2002, the level supported by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
The other issue that affects all of us in Greater Minnesota is funding for maintenance of our aging transportation infrastructure. In the new 20 year plan announced in January, MnDOT stated that $18 billion is needed in the next ten years for the state highway capital investment plan. Again, this is not a partisan issue. At a League of Minnesota Cities session in the Fall of 2015 Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle mentioned that eight of the 18 other state legislatures that have recently passed increased funding for transportation infrastructure have legislatures that are controlled by Republicans.
These increases included a wide variety of funding methods. Some were bulk fuel related, some relied on increases in general fund contributions, and others relied on increases in fees. Some also focused on sales taxes to fund the increased funding. Also, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Since 2013, 19 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation that will increase or may increase overall state gas taxes.” Even though a huge majority of Minnesotans, including those in the legislature, agree that something must be done we have yet to come up with a solution.
In 2014 the City of Grand Rapids attempted to pass a local sales tax option, which, if implemented, would have saved millions in finance charges because bonding would no longer have been necessary. It failed by the slimmest of margins. But even had it passed, the State Legislature would have had to pass enabling legislation to make it possible for our city to implement a sales tax for street maintenance. Although unsuccessful, the city was creative in its search for a better way to fund maintenance of our streets. I would like the City to take another shot at it. The state legislature could help by making a sales tax option possible, should the citizens decide to support it.
Statewide, if we maintain the status quo, the problem will do nothing but get worse. Even if we manage to make up the $1+ billion annual shortfall it will only result in enough revenue to keep the transportation system at its current level of service, not to make improvements. Again, this is a problem across all of Greater Minnesota that can only be effectively addressed at the State Legislature.
All of us, even those who don’t drive, benefit from roads, streets, and bridges that are properly maintained so goods and services can be efficiently delivered. The legislature will be a failure if it doesn’t begin to address the need for additional funding for maintenance and improvement of our transportation infrastructure in this session. Politics is about improving people’s lives. Addressing these two issues will help make life better for those of us who call Greater Minnesota home.