Mayor calls for special legislative session

Although he postponed unveiling his full budget proposal because of financial uncertainties created by the I-35W Bridge collapse, Mayor R.T. Rybak delivered a shortened speech that emphasized one simple message: the city needs the Minnesota Legislature to hold a special session.

A special session holds the key to a boost in local government aid (LGA) and transportation funding. Additional funding in those areas will be crucial as the city plans for a future that looks much different in the aftermath of the bridge collapse, Rybak said during his Aug. 15 budget address.

However, it’s up to Gov. Tim Pawlenty to call a special session. The Republican governor vetoed a transportation bill the Legislature passed this spring that would have boosted funding through a gas-tax increase as well as a tax bill that would have provided millions of dollars in tax relief and LGA for Minneapolis. In the aftermath of a bridge collapse, Pawlenty has hinted that he’s open to the idea of both a gas-tax increase and a special session, but has made no promises. As of Aug. 22 when this issue of the Southwest Journal went to press, the governor had not called a special session.

Rybak had his 2008 city budget proposal almost complete when the I-35W Bridge spanning the Mississippi River collapsed Aug. 1. The financial uncertainties created by the tragedy prompted Rybak to postpone delivering his full budget proposal until sometime in mid to late September. He’s hoping to see results from a special legislative session by that time and to have a better idea of the full financial impact of the bridge collapse on the city.

“Over these next few weeks, as the Legislature hopefully goes back into session and I complete the budget that, hopefully, will be helped by some restoration of local government aid, we should also remember another lesson of this tragedy: when you invest in quality government, you get quality results,” Rybak said. “When you don’t invest, there are consequences.”

 Although Rybak didn’t go into detail about the 2008 budget, he did emphasize that public safety will remain the city’s top priority. In addition, he said the city also needs to invest more in a Public Works Department that has been hit hard by budget cuts.

“No area has suffered more than Public Works, and the critical task of building and maintaining our infrastructure,” Rybak said. “We have underinvested in resurfacing our roads and we have underinvested in repairing our sidewalks. The startling collapse of the 35W bridge also requires us to take a tough new look at the condition of our own bridges and it also requires us to take action when we see a problem.”

Rybak said the city’s strategy of putting public safety at the top of its priority list is paying off, pointing to statistics showing violent crime is down 14 percent citywide through the first half of 2007. However, a recent rash of six murders shows the city needs to maintain its focus on public safety and continue to invest in things like more 911 operators and youth violence prevention efforts, the mayor said.

Rybak also emphasized that the city will not push its tax policy, which caps property tax hikes at 8 percent, especially after the governor vetoed property tax relief measures this spring. In an interview after his budget speech, the mayor acknowledged that without additional funding that could be provided during a special session, the city’s budget “doesn’t look pretty.” More cuts will be likely, he said.

Delaying the release of a full budget proposal until September gives the City Council less time to mull over its contents before it must vote on a final budget in December, but Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) said the work will get done.

“Obviously, we’ll need to have a more compressed schedule,” Glidden said.

Even if the mayor did release a full budget right now, the council could end up having to redo some of its work if there is a special session, Glidden said.

Yet while Rybak said he’s hopeful about the possibility of a special session, Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) cautioned in an Aug. 14 interview that it’s far from guaranteed. Questions still remain about what the scope of a special session would include, said Hornstein, who would very much like to see a special session. Even after the bridge collapse, some legislators do not want to boost transportation funding through a gas-tax increase, he said.

“The political dynamic is that there are those who falsely and wrongly believe that there is no urgency to deal with transportation,” Hornstein said.

The mayor’s truncated budget address was his first speech to the City Council since the I-35W Bridge collapse. At the beginning of his speech, he memorialized each of the victims of the disaster by describing them by the details of their lives: a marketing director whose husband and daughters had dinner waiting on the table; a veteran construction worker who loved ice fishing, hunting and peach pie; a Greek woman who was running late to the folk dancing class she taught; a Cambodian woman and her son with Downs Syndrome, who were inseparable, even in death; an amateur baseball player driving home to see his wife and their two young kids; a pregnant Somali nursing student and her little girl; a vegetable salesman from Mexico whose family is scattered across two countries; a college enrollment director on his way home from work to see his wife and dogs; a bakery truck driver known for his love of the outdoors and his generosity toward those in need; an Aveda Institute student and mother of two anxious to get home and see her kids; and a computer technician and former missionary, who was on the phone with his family when the line cut out.

Rybak also commended city employees who responded and played a role in the bridge collapse, including police and firefighters as well as the Emergency Preparedness Team. The recognition drew a standing ovation from the crowd in attendance.

The mayor noted that the best way to move forward after the bridge collapse is to maintain the political cooperation that existed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

“I strongly believe that the best way we can show respect for those lost is to make the tough decisions that lie ahead with dignity, sustained compassion and continued cooperation,” Rybak said.