Cities urged to fight for state aid
Local government aid (LGA) — the money the state gives to cities across the state — does not fund city halls.
It funds people, noted State Representative Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth during the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities Fall Conference held in Alexandria November 12-13.
Marquart, a former mayor, has strongly supported LGA during his eight terms in the House. He told a banquet room of city leaders from throughout the state that LGA allows families to visit parks, drive on well-maintained roads even when there's a half-foot of snow on the ground, have police and fire protection, and enjoy a higher quality of life.
LGA, he said, also helps businesses by providing them with property tax relief, the only state program that accomplishes this.
Even though study after study shows that LGA helps keep property taxes down, some legislators try to argue that it doesn't, Marquart said.
LGA, he said, is the foundation cities use to set their budgets and levy. Without it, some cities would have to increase property taxes 50 percent or more.
"Our communities would look very, very different without LGA," Marquart said. "Rural Minnesota would be a wasteland."
Marquart urged city leaders to take a stand against those who try to claim that cities are spending too much money. He said cities should be prepared to respond to a new report showing that property taxes levied by cities are up about 5 percent statewide.
"You'll be hearing some people blaming wide-eyed liberal mayors and councils for their extravagant spending," he said. "I would suggest you to tell them to go fly a kite."
Marquart said that inflation and growth account for 2.7 percent of city levy increases. Cities, he said, have shown more restraint than the Legislature, which increased state spending by 3.3 percent.
"Don't let anyone tell you that you are the big spenders here," he told city leaders. "The facts are on your side."
LGA, Marquart said, is at a crossroads.
Despite a $2 billion surplus, efforts to increase LGA in the last session fell apart when the Legislature failed to pass an omnibus tax bill.
While the Senate passed a bill that included a $45.5 million increase, the amount sought by the coalition, the House passed a separate bill that cut $84 million from the program by targeting the amount of aid that goes to the "first class" cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.
Marquart said that cutting LGA to just those three cities would erode the credibility of the LGA program and turn it into a political issue rather than the bipartisan aid is was meant to be.
Marquart encouraged city leaders to hold their legislators accountable for missing the opportunity to increase LGA.
"You can't call yourself a supporter of LGA if you supported legislation that cut one dime from LGA when you have a $2 billion surplus," he said.
With the state budget expected to show a $1 billion surplus, LGA should be a priority for the next session, Marquart said. It amounts to only 2.5 percent of the entire state budget, he added.
Another critical issue for rural Minnesota is broadband. Businesses must have reliable high-speed Internet access to compete, Marquart said..
In metro areas, 94 percent of the population has access to at least minimum broadband speeds, yet in the rural areas, the percentage falls to 61.
"If this was the telephone or electricity, this would be a crisis," Marquart said. "People would be up in arms."