Bid to cut local government aid for large cities would spare Rochester

Published 10:07 am Friday, April 10, 2015

ST. PAUL — Rochester would get a reprieve from state budget cuts under a House Republican’s proposal discussed Thursday to eliminate tens of millions of dollars in state payments to Minnesota’s largest cities.

Duane Quam

Duane Quam

GOP lawmakers have long taken issue with big local government aid to Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester, saying cities with big tax bases don’t need the funding boost like smaller towns. Rep. Duane Quam’s bill would cap payments to the state’s other first-tier cities, cutting more than $90 million a year in the process, but leave Rochester’s share untouched.

Quam, a Republican whose district includes part of Rochester, dismissed any appearance that he was playing favorites. Rochester would escape unscathed because its per capita disbursement simply falls below the statewide average, he said. He portrayed the measure as common sense, tipping huge sums of money away from big cities that need it the least.

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“I didn’t exclude my city … from this cap,” he said. “It just happens that the only city of the first class that is dramatically below the average is the one I represent.”

Quam’s measure is one of several proposals majority House Republicans may weave into a tax bill as the GOP seeks to squeeze out budgetary savings, redirecting money to other spending priorities or offer tax relief. By slicing more than $30 million a year in aid to St. Paul and Minneapolis and an additional $21 million from Duluth, the GOP could also send more money to smaller communities.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Mazeppa Republican charged with piecing together a package of property tax changes, wouldn’t say whether Quam’s proposal would make the final cut but called it an “excellent” idea. It would still face long odds in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Thursday any changes to the local government aid formula would require further study that would push those changes well beyond this session.

House Democrats called the proposed cuts to big city aid heavy-handed and said it would result in massive cuts and property tax hikes to fill in budget holes. Duluth Democratic Rep. Erik Simonson said city officials couldn’t fill a 25 percent budget shortfall without cutting fire department and police staffing.

“It would be devastating,” he said. “This seems like a short-sighted approach.”