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Republicans take heat for LGA plan

Cities have not always received what they were promised (certified) in LGA funds. The areas in red show where reductions were made, often at the last minute, forcing cities to scramble to replace lost funds. GRAPHIC BY CAROL HENNEN

Minnesota House Republicans came under fire Tuesday from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities for advocating a plan that Coalition officials said would ultimately gut the Local Government Aid program.

The City of Detroit Lakes received $788,000 in LGA funds from the state last year, money it used for police, parks, streets and government operations in general.

If that money were to disappear overnight, it would take a 20 percent city levy hike to replace it.

“I was extremely disappointed that our friends in the House on the Republican side continued to undermine LGA by insisting on extreme cuts to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth,” said Le Sueur Mayor and CGMC President Robert Broeder.

Although Republican leadership characterized the proposed cuts as mild, it would have meant a 44 percent cut for Minneapolis, a 48 percent cut for St. Paul, and a stunning 68 percent cut for Duluth.

“That is a big chunk to take out of any city budget,” said Bradley Peterson, a senior lobbyist for the Coalition.

“Duluth would have had to lay off half their city employees – that should not be characterized as a ‘slight cut,’” he added.

He faulted House Property Tax Chair Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) for implying that LGA funds cut from the bigger cities would be redistributed to smaller cities – none of that money would be used to beef up LGA anywhere, Peterson said.

He said the Republican campaign against big city LGA would “erode confidence in the program and support for the program, it’s the first step in ending the program.”

LGA is vital to a lot of Minnesota cities, said Coalition lobbyist and former lawmaker Marty Seifert.

“Over 180 cities depend on LGA for over half their budgets, most of them rural cities,” he said. In those cities, the loss of LGA funds translates directly into property tax hikes or service cuts. “There’s no other way to go,” for them. “We’re very hopeful good policy will prevail.”

With a $1.2 billion budget surplus, Minnesota is well-positioned to improve its LGA program, said Audrey Nelsen, a member of the Willmar City Council and CGMC Board of Directors.

“With such a huge state surplus right now, you’d hope that legislators would be looking for ways to give cities a boost,” Nelson said. “Instead, the House is moving ahead with a plan that does nothing to provide additional help for cities like Willmar, and in fact harms the main state program that we rely on to help restrain property taxes and pay for important services like police protection, street maintenance and parks.”

The House’s LGA proposal passed last session (and currently sitting in conference committee, since the Legislature was unable to reach an agreement on a tax bill in 2015) cuts $84 million from the LGA program by reducing the amount of aid distributed to the “first class cities” of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, a CGMC member.

The House plan would also freeze the LGA appropriation for all other cities. In contrast, the Senate passed a bill that would increase total funding for the LGA program by $45.5 million, the amount advocated for by the CGMC.

“I think we’re really at a crossroads,” Broeder said. “This is a golden opportunity to strengthen cities across Minnesota by increasing LGA funding,” he said.

The House plan, he said, “sends us backwards … I hope rural legislators will speak out against this very harmful proposal and instead support the cities they represent.”

Workforce housing, infrastructure funding, broadband expansion and transportation round out the CGMC’s legislative goals for this year.

But LGA is at the top of the list.

“Silence equals failure,” Seifert said. “If you want to guarantee failure in the legislative process, say nothing about your issue and don’t advocate for it.”

The Legislature convenes March 8.

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