City sets legislative wish list

Preserving state aid among top priorities

Though it still needs a little tweaking, the City Council has approved the wish list it plans to take to the state when the Legislature reconvenes this week.

The process happens every year, but it takes on added weight now that State Economist Tom Stinson has issued a fiscal forecast detailing a mammoth expected $4.5 billion budget deficit for the 2003-2005 biennium.

The state constitution requires a balanced budget every two years. However, the effects of a weak stock market, tepid economic recovery and greater-than-expected human services spending has created a huge gap between expected revenues and expected spending for the next biennium, according to Andrea Hart-Kajer, the city's director of intergovernmental relations and legislative lobbyist.

With that in mind, the council approved its legislative agenda 11-0 in December. It includes six core issues, along with a series of "supported" and "endorsed" items that rank lower on the priority scale.

Among the priorities councilmembers hope to bring to the state are:

  • Local government finance. This is a broad topic that boils down to the state preserving Local Government Aids (LGA), state-financed property-tax-relief aid money that comprises 43 percent of the city's general-fund revenue base (property tax levies plus state aids).

  • Government reform. This deals mainly with the "Focus Minneapolis" initiative, which has as its centerpiece the creation of a new economic-development oversight agency -- the Community Planning and Economic Development office (CPED)-- which officials hope will streamline the process of doing business with the city and assume the functions of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency.

  • Affordable housing. This addresses what the agenda refers to as "a continuing crisis," housing for lower-income residents. The draft agenda approved by the panel recommends that the state increase funding for affordable housing.

  • Bonding. If the city's requests were granted, the state would devote bonding funds to the downtown planetarium ($30 million), the Minneapolis Empowerment Zone ($12 million), the Guthrie Theater ($35 million) and the Children's Theater ($12 million).

  • Transportation. Bill Barnhart, a city government relations representative, told councilmembers not to hope for increased transportation funds given the budget crisis, but the panel nonetheless agreed to request funding for expanded light-rail and bus transit operations.

  • Public safety. The councilmembers agreed to make various requests, including expanded funding for the online CriMNet system, more money for the 4th Judicial District Court system, continued funding of the state Gang Strike Force and bonding for an 800 MHz police radio system.

    Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward), said that protecting local government aids tops the list of top priorities. And while the budget crisis looks grave, he said, he thinks the city has a convincing story for an incoming governor and Republican House majority, both of whom stress government accountability.

    Benson said that the city's Focus Minneapolis initiative is a poster child for government accountability.

    The initiative would attempt to halt what Mayor R.T. Rybak has characterized as the practice of deal-making for city projects, replacing it with development cycles that force developers to compete for city funds.

    Further, Benson said, the city can make a powerful argument that its aid money should not be cut. LGA funds go directly to the general fund, which is where the police and fire departments get virtually all of their money, and where street and bridge repairs get their cash.

    "It would seem that the more we can make clear that LGA reductions means reductions in police, fire and road construction and those types of things, the better off we'll be," Benson told members of the council's Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which he chairs.

    Barnhart cautioned that the deficit means the status quo almost certainly will change.

    "It would be my impression that if the state deficit had come in at the $2 [billion] to $3 billion range, the LGA program -- monitored correctly -- might have come out with minimal scathing."

    But, he said, "at $4.5 billion, things will change."