A 'mixed bag' for Greater Minnesota as state budget bills become law
ST. PAUL — New grants will make child care options easier for parents to come by and WiFi more readily available in pockets of the state that haven't been able to access it.
Farmers will see relief through an ag land tax credit and additional resources that could help offset a tumultuous year for dairy and soybean farmers. And public schools around the state will see state funding hikes over the next two years.
More workforce housing will spring up in rural Minnesota and clean water infrastructure will be built and repaired to help pipe in drinking water.
But local projects across the state will be delayed and roads in some parts of the state will remain bumpy.
What was promised as a One Minnesota state spending plan early on in the 2019 legislative session ended with a series of wins for Minnesotans living outside the Twin Cities but it came with some missed opportunities, too, said local officials and those advocating for Greater Minnesota.
The Legislature passed a set of spending bills that totaled $48.3 billion in a 21-hour special session last week and Gov. Tim Walz signed them into law Thursday, May 30.
While lawmakers checked off many of the items on Greater Minnesota's wishlist, it skipped a major transportation plan and a $440 million bonding proposal that could've funded local construction and infrastructure projects around the state.
“It is a mixed bag,” Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, told the Forum News Service. “Obviously our big win was the Local Government Aid increase and that’s something to be celebrated, but then by the same token, you have the failure to get a bonding bill across the line ... That is a major disappointment."
Walz and lawmakers approved $26 million in additional state aid paid to local governments for next year, as well as additional funding for County Program Aid. The funding to local governments was the top priority this year for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
The new funds return state aid to cities to 2002 levels. LGA was reduced in 2003 to help balance the state budget. And that's a big deal for cities, especially in Greater Minnesota, where new fire trucks, road repairs or new police hires have had to wait so that the local governments could avoid raising taxes.
"You can put off things, get an extra year out of your squad cars or hold off on hiring after you have a policeman retire, but it's not something that’s probably wise," Bemidji City Councilor Ron Johnson said. Johnson also serves as president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. “I think LGA is really the big win."
Lawmakers passed and the governor signed into law new grant funds to grow the number of child care slots available in the state, with a portion specifically earmarked for Greater Minnesota communities. They approved bond sales to pay for $60 million unmet housing needs, blocked out $40 million to go toward building out broadband and greenlighted job training and business development programs set to affect rural parts of the state.
And as part of a tax bill, they set up new property tax reductions for business owners and for farmers.
“I think from the perspective of making Minnesota affordable for families, the child care grants, the housing appropriations, the broadband funding for businesses and the business property tax reductions, that’s a good session," Laura Bordelon, senior vice president for advocacy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said. "That’s a good session for employers.”
Middle-income earners will also see a tax cut included in the plan, which could have a stronger impact in Greater Minnesota, where the middle class tends to dominate. Low-income workers raising children will also see a tax credit.
Transportation, local projects skipped
Walz and House Democrats, who control that chamber, came into the legislative session with plans to gradually raise the tax on gasoline to fund road and bridge repairs across the state. But Republicans, who hold a majority in the Senate, shot down the proposal at every turn.
As part of end-of-session budget negotiations, the gas tax increase plan got dropped and so did the projects (at least for now) that would've benefitted from the new funding.
“It’s just become a little frustrating not to get money for roads and transportation," Johnson said, pointing to the struggles cities like Bemidji have in keeping up with road repairs. Without the road work, it's harder for drivers to get up to northern Minnesota. "That’s how people get to our towns to help us prosper."
A $440 million bonding plan also came up during closed-door negotiations between House and Senate leaders and the governor to end the legislative session. And it fell by the wayside in the early hours of Saturday, May 25, as lawmakers wrapped up a budget.
Walz said he was frustrated to see the undisclosed list of potential projects go out the window so late in the game. Lawmakers did approve $60 million in bond sales to fund housing projects.
“That’s $60 million of what could’ve been more investment, more jobs, lower interest rates, reduced costs,” Walz said. "I disagree strongly that it was a good move or it was good for Minnesota."
Some have floated holding a special session to reconsider the bonding measure along with an emergency insulin access bill. Walz on Thursday said he was considering that but had no firm plan to call lawmakers back to St. Paul.