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'Moonshot' for rural broadband, local gov aid on Walz's to-do list

Gov. Tim Walz speaks with members of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in St. Paul. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE

ST. PAUL -- Local governments around the state could get a funding boost to the tune of $30.5 million a year if Gov. Tim Walz's state budget gets a green light from the Minnesota Legislature.

The DFL governor said Wednesday, Jan. 30, that he'd push to get the extra funds to help cities and towns pay for essential services like fixing streets and providing law enforcement services while keeping property taxes down.

Walz also said his spending plan, set to be introduced next month, will include a "moonshot" to bring broadband access to rural Minnesota in two years, add funds to maintain roads and bridges and a create a new mechanism for bringing dollars to schools in a more equitable way.

It was the first time that the DFL governor spoke with local elected officials from around Greater Minnesota in a formal setting. And his comments elicited cheers from mayors, city councilors and planners from across the state.

With roughly $50 billion set to work with, Walz said he'd have to make tough decisions about possible cuts and would also look for new money to fund transportation through a gas tax hike, retention of the medical provider tax and through a changes to state tax laws. Republicans have opposed plans to raise taxes or fees and have said the state should look to a budget surplus projected last year.

And Walz said with the proposals set to come before the Legislature later this year, he'd need help lobbying from Greater Minnesota's mayors and city councilors.

“I know I’m singing to the choir," Walz told Council of Greater Minnesota Cities members gathered in a hotel conference room, "but what I’m asking is for the choir to sing loudly for the next three months.”

Those in attendance said they'd be eager to back Walz's proposals. Added local government aid funding could help offset the cost of bringing on a new police officer in Bemidji, City Councilor Michael Meehlhause said, and allow the city to offer more services now that Bemidji annexed part of a surrounding township.

"LGA is big in Bemidji," Meehlhause said as about half the cities buildings are nonprofits and aren't subject to property tax. "That would be about $167,000 for our community.

Heidi Omerza, an Ely city Councilor, said that community could also benefit from extra state aid. Funding for the program met a high water mark in 2002 which it hasn't reached since.

“Everyone says you have to run your city like a business and I agree, but there is only so much cutting we can do and it’s not like when the budget runs out we can stop plowing streets or not plow that street,” she said. "We still need to plow the streets when the snow comes."

Walz also said his budget would include a push to expand access to rural broadband and start reforming school funding models to provide for equity across districts. He said funding constraints would likely make the school funding effort a multi-year process.

“I am not going to have children’s education be dependent on their race, on their socio-economic status or their zip code because of a property tax base that puts them at a disadvantage and forces communities into continuous referendums just to try to hold pace with others,” Walz said.

Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski said the change could be a "huge deal" for his community. Rather than having to rely on a "coin-flip" to determine if a referendum passes, Smiglewski said he'd appreciate a more certain funding stream for Granite Falls schools.