Greater Minnesota cities stake claim
WILLMAR — Buoyed by the belief that legislators were delivered a strong message in the 2016 election that rural voters are tired of being ignored and want swift results to address small-town needs, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities said its has high expectations for the 2017 legislative session.
Residents and community leaders are "sick of having these needs swept under the rug" and frustrated that they've been "left behind" and left out of the discussion, said Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, a nonprofit advocacy organization that represents 85 cities outside of the Twin Cities metro area.
Peterson said coalition members are taking up the drumbeat that voters began in the election to demand action to fund "bread and butter" issues: transportation, a bonding bill and increasing Local Government Aid to help small towns fund infrastructure projects without putting an extraordinary burden on taxpayers.
Whether lawmakers come through or not depends on "what type of willpower is shown by rural legislators," Peterson said during a telephone conference call Thursday with reporters and regional community leaders, including Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski.
Smiglewski said Local Government Aid is "critically important" to help rural communities provide reasonable services while keeping property taxes down.
Increasing the LGA allocation by $45.5 million — which would bring it back to the 2002 funding level — is the top priority of the Coalition.
Peterson said the Legislature's failure to pass a tax bill two years in a row means LGA funding has been stagnant while cities' costs continue to rise.
The Coalition is also lobbying hard for a transportation funding bill, but because that might be a tough sell politically, Smiglewski said it's hoped the Legislature will at least provide funding for city streets and the Corridors of Commerce program.
Transportation "continues to get skirted" in the Legislature, Smiglewski said. "They really have to address this."
The Coalition is asking for $369 million for the Corridors of Commerce program, which has helped ease bottlenecks and improve safety on past projects on U.S. Highway 14 and state Highway 23.
The 2013 Minnesota Legislature created the Corridors of Commerce program by authorizing the sale of up to $300 million in new bonds for the construction, reconstruction and improvement of highways. An additional $31.5 million was provided by the 2014 Legislature.
The program's goals are to provide additional interregional capacity, reduce bottlenecks and improve freight movement.
Getting more money into that fund would get additional sought-after projects "off the table," Smiglewski said.
In light of the state's budget surplus, he said, the Legislature should be able to agree on the "one-time" influx of funds.
The Coalition is also proposing a $50 million allocation for city street projects that would be divided equally between large and small towns.
Cities with a population under 5,000 currently do not receive state assistance for street funding and the state allocation would help fund overdue street repairs while keeping property taxes reasonable, Smiglewski said.
Passage of a bonding bill this year is also a priority of the Coalition, which is seeking $167 million for grant and loan programs to help cities pay for upgrades or repairs to their water treatment facilities.
That kind of funding would be useful for cities looking at multimillion-dollar costs to build or upgrade drinking or wastewater plants to meet new regulations and replace outdated infrastructure.
Peterson said there is "energy" right now as the legislative session begins, and that despite the political challenges, there's a hopefulness that rural Minnesota needs will be met.
He said the Coalition will be "pounding on the doors" of legislators until the session ends in May to make sure it happens.