Guest column: Legislators failed to properly address LGA inequities

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 30, 2005

By John Ellenbecker, Mayor of St. Cloud

In the weeks ahead, some politicians no doubt will point to the $48 million in new funding earmarked for Local Government Aid and argue that the property tax needs of rural Minnesota were addressed by the 2005 Legislature.

It is the sort of thing that politicians frequently do when they fear that voters might turn against them if they are told the truth.

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But truth often is at odds with political spin.

The truth about Local Government Aid is that legislators failed to address the inequities in the property tax relief program during their marathon, seven-month legislative session.

Rather than embrace a thoughtful package of reforms, key House legislators chose to embrace piecemeal changes that will not provide a long-term solution to problems inherent in the current LGA distribution formula.

It is important to remember that LGA was created to promote property tax equity in Minnesota.

The program was designed to reduce the property tax disparity that currently exists between high-wealth suburbs and lower-wealth communities &045; many of them in rural Minnesota.

In 2001, the Legislature spent almost $1 billion on reducing property taxes statewide.

Much of that tax relief was directed towards the business owners and the owners of high-end homes.

Taxpayers in greater Minnesota

received their tax relief, for the most part, through increased LGA funding.

Two years later, the governor and the Legislature started taking LGA-supplied tax relief away from taxpayers. With the state wallowing in a $4.5 billion budget deficit, the governor and legislators embraced a plan that cut $150 million from LGA and largely protected the tax relief given to business owners and the owners of high-priced homes.

Moreover, they altered the formula used to distribute the aid to cities, arguing the changes would ensure that the aid would be given to cities that truly needed it.

Rather than improve the program, the new formula discriminated against a number of rural cities and lower-wealth suburbs in the Twin Cities.

Early in the 2005 legislative session, we offered the One Minnesota Act, legislation that would have addressed local government needs on a statewide basis.

We proposed restoring $60 million in funding cut from LGA to help the lower-wealth suburbs and assist those cities that are being victimized by the current distribution formula.

The Senate included our reforms in its Omnibus Tax Bill, and restored $86 million in lost LGA funding.

The House took a sharply different approach. On a tie vote, its members rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, that would have restored $66 million in LGA funding and fixed the quirks in the aid distribution formula.

Instead, House legislators &045; many who now claim they are committed supporters of LGA and rural issues &045; voted to cut another $17.5 million from the program.

While Senate negotiators eventually persuaded the House and governor to restore $48 million of the lost LGA funding, the method chosen to disburse the aid was not fair or balanced.

Some cities received an excessive increase in aid, while others received no increase at all.

Taxpayers should not be satisfied with momentary solutions that help some and ignore the needs of others.

Our legislators should be pursuing good public policy, not quick answers that offer little long-term benefit.

(St. Cloud Mayor John Ellenbecker, President of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.)