Minnesota lawmakers hear pleas for reform
CROOKSTON -- Reducing strict regulation and streamlining duplication of services were some of the dozens of suggestions local officials gave Thursday during a meeting on ways to reform Minnesota's government.
The event was part of House Republicans' "Reform 2.0" tour across the state to get input on what to focus on when the Legislature meets again.
"Hopefully by the time we leave here, we can have some ideas for what you think we need to do as a Legislature to try to make some changes to state government," said Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau.
Fabian and Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, were joined by House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, and about 30 local officials at RBJ's Restaurant for the nearly two-hour session.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has also toured the state to hear government reform options, and held a news conference Thursday to outline his "Better Government for a Better Minnesota" agenda.
Jack Swanson, chairman of the Roseau County Board, said counties face the most state mandates in social services issues, many of which are partially or entirely unfunded. But a bigger problem is "maintenance of effort" that limits how counties can spend their money.
For example, he said Roseau County's mental health services commitment was set at $500,000 years ago and has remained the same. But since that target amount was enacted, Swanson said the county has actually seen its mental health needs and costs go down.
"If we have flexibility in spending that half a million, it would be much more effective," he said.
Roseau Mayor Jeff Pelowski said it's time for legislators to look at local government aid, or LGA, funding and provide "meaningful reform." The program is meant to help smaller communities in the state be able to provide the same level of services as communities with larger tax bases.
But Pelowski said the funding makes up 30 to 40 percent of the overall budget for some communities, while only 6 to 8 percent of other recipients.
"It screams of reform," he said. "No one really wants to touch it because it's so archaic, no one can get their arms around how it evolved to what it is today."
East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss said one problem is the state's overregulation of communities. The city was recently told it had to replace playground equipment that he said has been there for years and had no problems.
The city also is facing pressure from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to revamp its sewage lagoons to meet new codes and requirements.
Stauss said he understands the purpose of these regulations, but said the costly rules and projects are coming at a bad time for the state's cities in the midst of a sluggish economy. "They've got to lay off for a while, let the economy pick up and let the cities pick up."
Kittson County Engineer Kelly Bengtson told the lawmakers about a $12,000 project to trim weeds and clean out 2 miles of a drainage ditch in the county. The work resulted in a lawsuit through the Minnesota Center of Environmental Advocacy with the claim that they had damaged the environment.
Bengtson said by the time they reached an out of court settlement, and paid legal fees, office time and other costs, the $12,000 project cost about $1.2 million.
"I was losing sleep over it, but now I just laugh about it because I have to," he said.
Bengtson warned that these strict regulations and tough standards have gotten worse in recent years. He said it makes it difficult to keep the county's roads up to date because of the hardship in securing permits and approval to improve the roadways and make them wider.
Another attendee said reforms are a good goal, but the government needs to restore "certainty" and avoid the kind of shutdown that rippled through the state economy this summer over a budget dispute between the Legislature and Dayton.
Dean said the purpose of these tours is to find "really good ideas" and meaningful changes that will make a difference.
"We know that we can't keep doing what we're doing right now because the math doesn't work," he said. "Every person knows the way we're doing things in the Legislature five years from now will be different than now."
The possibility of a new Vikings football stadium in Minnesota also came up for discussion when Stauss asked the legislators to weigh in on a planned special session next month that was requested by Dayton.
Fabian said he "wasn't going to dodge any bullets" with the issue and bluntly said he is not in favor of spending tax dollars to help the team build the proposed $1.1 billion stadium in Arden Hills.
A preliminary plan would ask for a $300 million contribution from the state.
Fabian said the funds need to be based on user fees, concessions at games, luxury suites and other on-site ways of raising the money.
Dean said the Vikings' current lease at the Metrodome ends in January, and there's probably a way to extend the lease next year during the regularly scheduled legislative session rather than calling a special session on the matter.
He said the state is in a "different economic world" than it was in 2006, when a plan to build a new stadium for the Twins was passed. The value of the Vikings has grown to nearly $800 million today, up about $200 million since 2006, while the average value of a home in the state has dropped 23 percent in that time.
"It's a really hard sell," he said. "I think that most people understand that in today's economic realities, they need a fair deal for the state of Minnesota."
Dean said he thinks the Legislature should focus on regulatory reforms for its next session, and then deal with the Vikings stadium issue after that.
Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.