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Craig Clark: Looking ahead to what LGA does for Austin

By Craig Clark

Austin City Administrator

At our most recent City Council meeting, Tim Flaherty of the Coalition of the Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) gave a recap of the 2015 legislative session and a preview of the top issues the CGMC will be working on in 2016. After this year’s dismal session in which legislators failed to pass a tax bill, the CGMC’s top priority remains the same as last year — obtaining a funding increase for the Local Government Aid (LGA) program.

The CGMC is one of the few organizations in Minnesota specifically oriented to address issues that impact rural communities like Austin. In its more than 30 years in existence, the CGMC has advocated for issues such as broadband expansion, economic development and equitable funding for transportation and capital investment. While its priorities can vary from year to year, LGA has always been the cornerstone of the CGMC’s advocacy work.

LGA is absolutely critical to allowing cities like Austin to provide the services its residents and businesses need, such as police and fire protection, snow plowing and street repair. Without LGA, Austin and many other cities would have to dramatically raise property taxes in order to avoid cutting or eliminating these vital services.

Given the state’s large budget surplus, the CGMC’s goal for 2016 is modest. It seeks a $45 million increase in funding for the LGA program, which would bring it back to its 2002 level. This doesn’t even account for inflation—it would merely fund the program at same level it was at nearly 14 years ago.

Here are some of the top reasons why lawmakers should support this proposal:

•LGA keeps our community viable

In Austin, our tax rate would have to increase from 38 percent to 110 percent if we had to use property taxes alone to pay for the city services currently covered by LGA. This would be disastrous for our community members and businesses.

•LGA helps ensure businesses and residents call Austin home

Austin competes on a rapidly growing playing field as communities across the nation—and the world—fight to lure new businesses and residents. LGA helps us afford key components such as infrastructure and public safety that make Austin a desirable place to live and work.

•LGA is flexible

Many opponents of LGA argue that it is just another government handout and that cities have no desire to ever reduce the amount of LGA they receive. Quite the contrary, Austin recognizes that LGA is properly structured to provide less funding to cities as they grow their tax base. We have advocated for investments in broadband and workforce housing, among other items, to encourage economic growth so that more of our city budget can come from our local tax base rather than LGA.

•LGA is based on need, not politics

LGA is distributed based on a formula that factors in a city’s tax base and population. It is based solely on need, not whether a city is considered rural or metro, Republican or Democrat. Last session, some members of the House of Representatives tried to use LGA for political purposes by passing a bill that would have arbitrarily cut LGA for the cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. Injecting politics into what is sound policy would quickly lead to the demise of the program.

•LGA works

When it seems that many government programs carry unintended consequences or fall short, LGA has delivered on its goal. Minnesota does not have the wide disparities experienced by other states where many communities have been ignored and forgotten. LGA has been instrumental in allowing Austin and other communities in Greater Minnesota to experience the “good life” that Minnesota is renowned for across the nation.

I hope Governor Dayton and legislative leaders can keep these points in mind as they prepare for the next session. With the state budget surplus at $1 billion and growing, lawmakers have a prime opportunity to invest in the future of our communities. I’m counting on our legislators to keep LGA, and the needs of the cities they represent, in mind when they head back to St. Paul in 2016.