Archived Story

Who will advocate for local government aid?

Published 9:52am Friday, October 26, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

$19,485,848.

Consider this number; let its weight sink in.

$19,485,848.

It’s not enough to patch up the coming government budget deficit for Minnesota. Not enough to make even a small difference in the amount of debt the federal government carries. But $19,485,848 is still a lot of money.

Where does that number come from? It represents what the state of Minnesota collected in sales and use taxes in Freeborn County in 2010. About $1.5 million represents use taxes; the rest is pure sales tax revenue (the amount collected in 2011 or so far in 2012 was not available). So two years ago, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, consumers of goods and services spent enough in Freeborn County to send almost $18 million to St. Paul.

When it comes to local government aid (LGA), however, all levels of local government in Freeborn County received only $5,643,536 in 2010 and $5,607,463 in 2011 (which is also the same amount estimated to be paid out for this year).

What that means is about 30 percent of what was collected by the Department of Revenue here in Freeborn County in 2012 was sent back to support local governments.

Is that a fair percentage? What is the definition of fair in this situation? What if LGA gets eliminated, the way some suburban politicians have proposed? Is 0 percent sent back to Freeborn County more fair? For whom is it more fair?

This number and these questions arise because I have not decided who to support in the choice between Rich Murray and Shannon Savick. I am genuinely undecided. And this is the single most important issue, as far as I’m concerned.

Yes, either candidate would have agendas and issues beyond this. The leadership of the Democratic Party is obsessed with union and big city issues (meaning Minneapolis and St. Paul). But Savick doesn’t appear to be a pro-union, pro-big-city zombie. Republicans in Minnesota are obsessed with divisive social issues. But Murray opposed putting the marriage amendment on the ballot. So he’s not marching in lockstep with party leaders on some issues.

So, where are these two candidates on the important questions about economic support for Greater Minnesota?

Why is LGA important? It’s self-evident to me, but apparently not to many politicians and citizens, even some who live and work in Greater Minnesota. Our life together in this community — if we want it to be more than just off-ramps on the interstates — requires institutions like libraries, parks and recreation programs. Police and fire departments — when staffed by paid professionals — help protect lives in a direct way; more indirectly they help all of us with lower insurance rates for our homes and property. Local streets need to be paved, and plowed in winter.

All of those parts of our life together cost money, and if we only have property taxes to pay for them, imagine the strain that would put on local property owners and local governments. Mergers and creative budgeting won’t work forever. We already have reduced hours at the library. A few weeks ago, we almost cut into muscle and bone in Albert Lea’s Fire Department. Funding a fully staffed police and sheriff’s office is getting harder.

So where do Murray and Savick stand on LGA? Before I vote, I need to know. I suspect there are others in Freeborn County who would also like to know.

So what I hope will happen is that the Tribune will let both candidates address this issue in a column. (See the B Section of today’s paper, for starters.) I think it’s important that we know how much they are willing to risk in standing up to their own party leadership when it comes to supporting programs and revenue streams that are vital to quality of life and economic development in cities like Albert Lea and Austin, and towns like Alden and Oakland.

David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.