Column: Emmer's plan pulls plug on property taxpayers
HIBBING -- In his plan to redesign government, Tom Emmer, Republican candidate for governor, has proposed cutting property tax relief programs by $1.1 billion. I genuinely wish that this were a new idea, because it would mean that the past eight years of local government aid (LGA) reductions -- over $1 billion in total -- never happened.
But they did happen. A 68 percent increase in property taxes statewide happened. Police and firefighter layoffs happened. Library hour reductions and rec center closures happened. Unfilled potholes and unplowed roads happened. Try as Tom Emmer and I might, there's no wishing away the consequences of LGA. Yet while I realize the state's potential to revive its commitment to property taxpayers, Emmer sees an opportunity to pull the plug.
Political minds are shaping the upcoming election around one specific question: What are government's responsibilities to the people it serves? Emmer has stated that when it comes to LGA, government should restrain itself and only provide for what he deems "core" needs, including public safety and drivable roads. Those are undeniable core city services, but as the mayor of a small town, I know my residents would say that list falls short. Minnesotans want to live in an educated community where the public library attracts both young and old. They want recreation centers where youth can find positive and safe ways to occupy their time. They want senior centers so our elderly can socialize instead of feeling abandoned. For decades, Minnesotans have viewed government as a partner, not an enemy, in achieving a quality of life that other states envy, and this has only been possible through LGA.
The reason that LGA has been an effective tool in creating strong, affordable communities is that its funding is targeted at the cities that need it most -- those with low property wealth and/or high service needs. For example, a community with low property wealth such as Wadena can raise only $5.67 per person for every one percentage point increase in their property tax rate, while Eden Prairie can raise $18.72. The bill for a new fire truck will be the same for each community, however. Likewise, due to large public events and high traffic counts, a city such as Minneapolis has a higher need for police and pothole repair than most of its surrounding suburbs. Some critics of LGA, including Emmer, conclude that this distribution method is flawed because it creates perceived winners and losers. While the majority of LGA recipients live in greater Minnesota, St. Paul or Minneapolis, it is a stretch to say that residents living in non-LGA receiving cities don't enjoy quality services at an affordable price. In fact, it is their quality of living that LGA attempts to replicate in cities that are not as well off.
In recent years, the LGA program has become less effective at accomplishing this goal due to Gov. Pawlenty's unilateral cuts -- called unallotments -- and legislative reductions. As the cost of building repairs, road construction, equipment purchases and employee health insurance have all increased, LGA funding has plummeted. Without adjusting for inflation, cities receive $138 million less today that they did in 2002. Adjusting for inflation, cities receive $248 million less. To account for this loss in funding, City councils across the state have made significant spending cuts, increased user fees and asked property taxpayers to foot a growing bill for fewer services.
This is a trend that Emmer's $1.1 billion cut to property tax relief programs would continue, and while he is politically astute enough to say that his plan would not eliminate LGA -- because he knows the program is the lifeblood for the communities in which most voters live -- his rationalization for deep LGA cuts is more self-serving to his small government ideology than to the families and small business who see their property tax bills climb and city services disappear. In the case of LGA, government has improved the quality of life for Minnesotans across the state, and that's a hard reality to digest if your vision for the future relies on casting government as the villain.
Rick Wolff is the mayor of Hibbing and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.