09 legislative session: Done, but not quite

Minneapolis isn’t calling it a ‘do-nothing session,’ but the city is nervously awaiting the governor’s cuts to Local Government Aid

Normally at this time of year, legislators, municipalities and the media take a look back at the legislative session that was. But because of a tough economic environment and a major May announcement from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, this was no regular session.

“The session isn’t over,” said City Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), chairwoman of the city’s intergovernmental relations committee. “I mean, truly. To me, the session isn’t over until the governor makes his decision.”

Pawlenty, unhappy with the new-taxes approach taken by the Legislature to fill a gaping budget hole, announced at the end of the session that he would once more use his power to unallot. Before the end of this month, he is expected to cut or shift about $2.7 billion budgeted for aid and services.

What does that mean for Minneapolis, which lost more than $10 million by way of unallotment last December?

Final numbers aren’t in, but earlier proposals by Pawlenty have leaned toward a statewide $450 million decrease in Local Government Aid (LGA), which cities use for general fund — or basic — services. Minneapolis could lose about $19 million in 2010.

In Hodges’ opinion, it’s further evidence that the program is broken.

Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60) said it might be time to reconsider the “aid” label.

“It isn’t some sort of handout, the largess of the state, the big parent who gives its kid an allowance or some sort of welfare charity check,” Dibble said. “No, it’s fundamentally how we set up the system for how we pay for public goods and public services in the state.”

Mayor R.T. Rybak chimed in from China, where for 10 days he touted Minneapolis as a travel and business destination.

“It’s shocking,” Rybak told the Southwest Journal. “Well, ‘shocking’ is not the right word. But it’s the best I can do.”

He said what many members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party have said, that Pawlenty’s decision to unallot and not raise taxes is an attempt at bolstering his national Republican résumé. But the governor said in an end-of-session news conference his decision is merely the state’s version of what families are experiencing during the recession — cutting back in the face of less revenue.

“Anybody who tells you that they need to go forward with status quo revenues or increasing revenues is not facing the reality of this economy,” Pawlenty said.

Rybak is about to embark on developing a 2010 city budget. He said he would act similarly earlier this year, when he proposed a revised 2009 budget that was recalculated based on a worst-case LGA scenario.

“I’ll do what I have to do,” he said.

But first, Rybak will have to wait. Pawlenty said he’ll make all cuts on a single day, but he hasn’t provided a date. Gene Ranieri, Minneapolis’ intergovernmental relations director, said to expect it before July, the start of the state’s next biennium.

Meanwhile, the city is celebrating some success. While talk of unallotment has dominated since May 19, there was lots of other work done over the past six months.

“This was not a do-nothing session,” Ranieri said.

Here are some highlights:


Environment

Minneapolitans should expect to see impacts from the constitutional amendment approved last November to boost environmental and arts funding.

While those “legacy” dollars were a contentious issue throughout the session, metropolitan regional parks should receive $12.6 million in fiscal year 2010 and $15.1 million in fiscal 2011. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is expected to receive about 24 percent of that money, or about $2.7 million and $3.2 million in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

The money can only be used for regional park projects; neighborhood parks won’t benefit.

Meanwhile, the Legislature dedicated about $2 million statewide toward the fight against emerald ash borer.

Also, new legislation calls for Xcel Energy to round up 1 percent of its renewable energy from solar energy by 2020 as part of the existing renewable energy standard. It allows the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to approve new energy technology projects, like SmartGrid research and hybrid vehicles with solar charging stations, between Xcel Energy and the Central Corridor light-rail transportation project.

Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-66) said some of the state’s light-rail system could be run with solar power in the future. She called it a solar energy revolution.


Pensions

Minneapolis had set out this session to try to deal with skyrocketing costs the city expects to incur because of three closed pension funds. While serious negotiations were held — state Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-63A) worked closely on one merger — no official actions were taken.

“I think the groundworks are set for the future,” Ranieri said.

Public Safety

There were several key changes in the field of public safety, perhaps none praised more by Minneapolis leaders than one increasing the amount of time in which police officers can arrest a person who they have probable cause to believe committed domestic abuse. Before, officers had 12 hours. That’s up to 24 hours.

Also, public employers are no longer allowed to consider the criminal histories of job applicants until those applicants have been chosen for interviews. Governmental relations representative Melissa Reed said the change should allow ex-offenders an easier transition back into society.

An anti-bullying bill, of which Sen. Dibble was the chief author, did not survive. The bill would have required school districts statewide to train teachers and staff to deal with bullying over such issues as sexual orientation and gender identity. It was vetoed.

Transportation

Together, metropolitan and Greater Minnesota transit lost about $14.8 million in general fund appropriations. But Pierre Willette, a Minneapolis governmental relations representatives, said that overall, the session saw a new interest in transit — especially rail.

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) echoed that sentiment.

“It’s been really fascinating as the chair of the transportation policy committee to see individual legislators come up with these [new rail] corridors in their districts that they now feel not only have political support, but may even have a shot at being funded,” Hornstein said.

Also, the Legislature approved creating both a pilot program for providing half-priced bus rides to organizations that serve homeless people and a program to allow disabled veterans to use transit for free.

Reporter Tara Bannow contributed to this report. Reach Cristof Traudes at 436-5088, ctraudes@mnpubs.com or twitter.com/sctraudes.