The juxtaposition of three news items on Feb. 20 lit up my Minnesota legislative history sensor.
The three: Several Republican legislators proposed to “reform” the Metropolitan Council into an unrecognizable assembly of local government elected officials. Another GOP combo said it will seek permission to divert the $929 million federal share of construction costs for Southwest light-rail transit — the Met Council’s headliner project — to highway improvements instead. (Fat chance, the feds said last week.)
And the Citizens League issued a new report, “Getting From Here to There: Funding Transit in the Region.” It might be deemed a sequel of sorts to the league’s 2016 report, “The Metropolitan Council: Recalibrating for the Future.”
How fitting that the Citizens League has taken the field and is again pitching ideas about regional services and governance, thought I — remembering that both the Metropolitan Council and Metro Transit can trace their origins to league reports in the 1960s. (A full catalog of the prolific policy outfit’s output through its 65-year history is available at citizensleague.org.)
And how coincidental that Mother Citizens League popped up with ideas to protect and renew her progeny on the very day that the Met Council and its pricey rail project came under Republican fire. How ironic, too, since back when, the legislators who took the nonpartisan group’s recommendations and ran with them were mostly Republicans.
Few of today’s Republicans are in love with the ideas that today’s league is offering on transit and the Met Council. The same can be said about DFLers.
But a lot of legislators don’t know much about the league or why they should care what its reports say. Like many who were young in the 20th century, the Citizens League has not been as vigorous in the 21st. Today’s legislators have seen too few of the good ideas that can arise when a mixed-bag collective of informed citizens spends a few months earnestly striving for solutions to public problems.
The league’s timely willingness to wade into this session’s transit/Met Council fights ought to raise its profile at the State Capitol once more. My hunch is that come May, when the GOP-controlled Legislature and DFL governor are at loggerheads over the who and how of metro transit and governance, appreciation might grow for the Citizens League’s latest efforts. Its recommendations could be templates for compromise.
Here are some for-instances:
• The Metropolitan Council — now in its 50th year! — stands perennially accused of partisan bias for an understandable reason: All of its 16 members plus its chair are appointed by the governor, to terms that coincide with the governor’s.
The Citizens League recommends a change that sounds deceptively modest: staggered terms. With that change, not all council members would owe their seats to the same governor unless that governor had been elected for more than one term. The league also recommends a larger role for local governments in recommending council candidates to the governor. And it says candidates should be required to have experience in local government and/or administration of the public services the council provides — transit, housing, wastewater treatment, regional parks, development planning.
Those changes would tighten the council’s ties to local governments and loosen them to the governor, as the council’s critics desire. But they would avoid the conflicts of interest that would arise if, say, the council were reconstituted as an assembly of county board members.
• Republican legislators have been steadfast in resisting a metrowide sales tax increase for transit’s sake, as Gov. Mark Dayton proposes, to alleviate a growing deficit in transit budgets. The Citizens League recommends a quarter-cent transit tax in the seven-county metro area — but it also suggests another way to shore up Metro Transit’s sagging bottom line: a state takeover of Metro Mobility.
Metro Mobility is a federally mandated ride service for the disabled. Its costs are climbing in the 9-10 percent per year range as the share of disabled and elderly people in the population grows. Already it accounts for about 30 percent of Metro Transit’s projected $80 million deficit through mid-2019. Think of Metro Mobility as a human-services program rather than a transit service, the Citizens League says, and find room for it in the state’s human-services budget.
• Resistance to transit spending in general and light rail in particular has been greatest among Republican legislators who represent exurban districts, places that aren’t likely to see many buses or trains but can still be asked to pay for them. The Citizens League recommends a taxing policy that owns up to the reality that not every part of the metro area is well-served by transit. It would create a two-tiered sales tax, with a higher rate imposed by retailers who operate in the zone with denser service.
That idea may be closer to reality than the league’s task force anticipated. The move afoot this month to dissolve the five-county Counties Transit Improvement Board and let willing metro counties impose their own half-cent transit sales tax seems to be leading toward the creation of a “high transit tax zone, ” aka Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
Peter Bell, the former Metropolitan Council chair who chaired the league’s task force, said that bilateral county deal making is not quite what his panel had in mind. Rather, he said, it envisions the state reasserting control over transit funding policy for both operations and the construction of new lines, and ultimately for the whole state. It would then set a logical data- and formula-driven policy for transit taxation based on service density.
That sounds a lot like the notions about how government should operate that the Citizens League promulgated 50 years ago. Legislators listened then, knowing that the league “both reflects and cultivates the civic culture of Minnesota.” That’s the description of the Citizens League written 17 years ago by the late John Brandl, dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Minnesota could use a little more civic culture cultivation today.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.