Municipal officials, rural lobbyists blame lawmakers for poor Greater Minnesota session

Published 7:01 am Sunday, June 21, 2015

The 2015 Minnesota Legislature made some big promises. This was the session for Greater Minnesota, after all, and both Democrats and Republicans had spent months promising transportation funding reform before the session began.

Yet city officials and Greater Minnesota lobbyists are frustrated with what they say was a legislative session that didn’t live up to the hype.

“This certainly wasn’t the session for Greater Minnesota,” Austin City Administrator Craig Clark said.

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A local government aid increase? Thwarted when lawmakers couldn’t get a tax bill passed.

ah.03.21.aWorkforce housing funding? Though lawmakers created a workforce housing office, the Legislature gave less than $4 million over the next two years for housing projects around the state, a huge decrease from the near $100 million in tax cuts and state grants proposed by lawmakers (and championed by Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, in the Senate).

That could get about 45 to 100 new housing units built across the state, according to Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership.

“While I think the amount spent is nice, it really is going to do very little to change the need that’s out there,” Dorman said Thursday during a conference call with other Greater Minnesota lobbyists.

Lawmakers allocated $10 million for broadband funding this year, short of Gov. Mark Dayton’s request for $30 million and much smaller than the $100 million Greater Minnesota officials requested.

That funding doesn’t match the $20 million legislators gave to broadband funding last year, and Greater Minnesota lobbyists say the lack of broadband funding is hurting outstate communities with business opportunities from expanding.

“Minnesota did not become a great state by nursing the status quo,” Heidi Omerza, president of the Coalition for Greater Minnesota Cities, said. “We’re still patiently waiting for broadband to come to fruition.”

 A wave of MPCA woes

Perhaps the biggest concern for Austin residents is the upcoming improvements to the city’s wastewater treatment plant required by stricter guidelines set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

MPCA officials enacted stricter phosphate standards, among other policies last year. Yet several cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities pushed back against the new MPCA rules and asked legislators to revoke the standards as lawmakers hadn’t approved the changes.

Lawmakers initially seemed willing to address the new standards, but only the Iron Range received a policy exemption.

Austin’s water permits expire at the end of the year, which makes it among the first cities affected by the new rules. Based on similar standards in Wisconsin, Hormel Foods Corp. and CGMC officials predict Austin could pay about $20 million to upgrade the treatment plant.

Half of that cost would be absorbed by Hormel, but residents would likely have to pay larger sewer bills to cover the other $10 million.

“They didn’t have any sort of peer review to enact those standards,” Clark said. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Former state rep. Marty Seifert, another lobbyist with the CGMC, said the coalition plans to gather cost analysis data from cities this year and push for legislators to re-examine the rules next year.

“There’s no doubt this is going to have a very negative impact on rural people, particularly,” Seifert said.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said the Legislature appeared willing to examine the new MPCA rules but the issue devolved into a tricky argument between environmentalists and a so-called anti-environment movement. Yet Poppe believes the issue should be discussed again if the costs to improve wastewater treatment plants become too great for individual cities to bear.

“There does have to be a reality check on what does that mean and how do we pay for everything we want,” she said.

 In the future

Though the session is done, Greater Minnesota lobbyists and lawmakers pledge to renew their efforts for Greater Minnesota next session.

Greater Minnesota lobbyists will likely pursue LGA increases as its biggest issue. The DFL-led Senate proposed a $545 million increase to LGA earlier this year, but House Republicans opposed the issue and cut LGA funding from their version of the tax bill.

Sparks is hopeful lawmakers can reach an agreement on LGA, even though the 2016 legislative session will only be about two months and dedicated to capital bonding projects.

“It’s very important to our local cities, not only Austin and Albert Lea but to our smaller cities,” Sparks said.

While Sparks said he was pleased with the session overall, he also acknowledged the session left much to be done. Yet both Sparks and Poppe say it will be difficult to tackle some of the issues left over from this year, such as transportation.

“I don’t see us really having a smooth outcome in those eight weeks that includes a bonding bill where every part of the state is going to want something,” Poppe said.