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Local leaders share wishes for legislative session

MORRIS — As Minnesota's legislative session finishes its second week, Minnesota residents have heard a lot about what legislators and Governor Mark Dayton hope to accomplish before May 23 when the session ends.

This week, we reached out to local leaders to see what their top priorities are for the session. Here's what they shared with us.

County Program Aid

Stevens County Coordinator Becky Young said the biggest issue of the session for Stevens County is County Program Aid.

Since the early 2000s, Stevens County has lost 85 percent of its CPA funding, a dropping from $1.5 million to about $147,000 in 2016.

"Even with the loss of funding, we are still mandated to provide services whether they are funded from the state or not," Young said. "What this has led to is a greater burden on the local taxpayers to pay for these services."

The formula that calculates how CPA is distributed hsa slowly shifted money from rural Minnesota to the metro area, largely because of the increased value of agricultural land.

At a session with county and legislative leaders in February, Matt Hilgart, general government policy analyst with the Association of Minnesota Counties said AMC is proposing a new formula developed by a working group of 25 Minnesota counties.

The goal of the new formula is to reduce volatility, make sure there are "no losers" in the new division, and create sustainability in the CPA program, Hilgart said.

One of the problems with the current formula is that part of how aid is distributed is based on population and net tax capacity. In agriculture-heavy counties like Stevens County, the increasing value of ag land is creating "regional disparity" in the program, Hilgart said.

The new formula addresses this issue and adds in a floor so that all counties can expect some minimum level of aid each year.

Young said she also wants to see stabilization built into the formula so individual counties can't lose as much aid year-to-year.

"Stevens County has still tried to maintain small levy increases, we have tried to absorb much of this cost through spending reserves, realizing efficiencies or putting off projects," said Young. "We are looking to be partially reinstated — this would give immediate relief next year and help offset the normal cost of business increasing."

Some other issues that will have an impact on Stevens County include transportation — Young said she would like to see a dedicated source of ongoing funding, not a "one time raid of surplus or general reserves" — and the buffer initiative.

"Our major issue here is asking for guidance at the legislative level," Young said. "This would be a difficult and costly issue to see played out in a legal setting and we would like to see further guidance on this issue" and the role the county will play.

Local Government Aid

Morris City Manager Blaine Hill said the biggest issue is Local Government Aid because of the impact that funding has on the city's ability to provide services. Currently, LGA accounts for approximately 55 percent of the city's budget.

"The state has not given us any kind of substantial increases in the last two years and the increase we received before was used to keep taxes frozen for several years," said Hill. "Without an increase that matches at least inflation, the city will be forced either raise taxes or cut services."

Hill said he would like to see the state invest an additional $45 million into the LGA program — a proposal supported by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and others.

"This would give us an increase that we can use to hold taxes down," Hill said. "A 2 to 3 percent increase would be most favorable for us annually. Freezing should not be an option. Cutting would be devastating to us."

Infrastrastructure and business support

Infrastructure — transportation, water and sewage treatment plants, and industrial parks — Local Government Aid, and child care, are top priorities for the Board of Directors of the Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission.

"Transportation has long been underfunded and our roads, highways and bridges are deteriorating faster than they can be repaired or replaced," noted SCEIC Director Michael Haynes. "The ability of our businesses and farmers to safely and efficiently transport their products to market is fundamental to their making a profit and thereby sustaining our communities. Increased spending on transportation could result in more jobs in Stevens County (i.e. Superior Industries, Hancock Concrete Products, and others), or at the least retaining the jobs that we have."

In a statement, the board said that support for infrastructure like water treatment plants and programs like LGA are also insufficient in rural areas and result in increases to local taxes.

Although child care has been a priority for several years, the board indicated that "it appears that our representatives and senators are more concerned with imposing new regulations than with working to ensure that adequate day-care is available in rural Minnesota. Tax credits for day-care business owners and investors would be a great starting point."

Education funding and agriculture equalization

Morris Area Superintendent Rick Lahn identified three key areas he hopes the legislature will address during this session.

The first is an increase to the basic education funding formula that provides the majority of funds used for district operations.

"Two decades of flat or sub-inflationary increases have left most school districts with significantly reduced budgets that directly impact the quality of education we can offer our students," said Lahn. "An increase to the basic formula is the most equitable way to ensure every Minnesota child receives the best education possible without having to rely heavily on local levies that directly impact our tax payers."

Another important issue is reducing "high agricultural taxes for school building bonds while protecting homeowner and business property taxes through a targeted, ongoing, bond credit program called Ag2School," Lahn said.

Ag2School, a program developed by the Minnesota Rural Education Association, would address inequalities in deferred maintenance funding between metropolitan and rural school districts. The two-pronged approach would shift how the tax base for long term maintenance funding is calculated and develop a way to "smooth out" the impact of taxes on agricultural production land.

Finally, Lahn said he hopes the Legislature will look at assistance for recruiting and retaining qualified teachers in rural Minnesota.

"This can be accomplished by building better teacher preparation programs at our colleges and universities, establishing student loan forgiveness programs for teachers who chose to work in rural Minnesota and maintaining a stable defined retirement plan for career teachers," he said.

This week, leaders with Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, presented a strategy for addressing this teacher shortage. The plan encouraged lawmakers to provide financial incentives to teachers who want to work in high-need areas, offer more funding for improved mentoring and on-the-job training, and take steps to encourage more students to consider teaching careers.

According to the state Education Department, the average annual Minnesota teacher salary is $56,670. Education Minnesota has found the starting salary for a teacher is between $30,000 and $40,000.

Sentencing guideline recommendations

Stevens County Attorney Aaron Jordan said he is most concerned about new sentencing guidelines related to drug offenses.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has voted to reduce the sentences for Minnesota's most serious drug crime offenders, Jordan said. The changes go into effect on Aug. 1, 2016, unless the Legislature acts to stop the proposal.

The new guidelines shorten prison sentences for the two most serious categories of drug offenses. First-time dealers and addicts who sell to support their habits are the ones especially targeted for lighter sentences.

"I would like to the see the legislature take a more comprehensive approach to drug sentencing reform," Jordan said. "Many in law enforcement agree there could be reasonable changes made to low level drug crimes. Some of the things that are felonies now, maybe don't need to be felonies, at least for first time offenses."

Jordan suggested that mandatory minimum sentences be reviewed, state drug courts "are fully funded, and that treatment options are available. Releasing our most serious offenders early, without providing treatment options, is just going to lead to re-offense."

However, Jordan said he was in favor of longer prison sentences for drug "kingpins" and other high-level drug dealers.

"While most drug offenders are addicts or addicts that sell to support their habit, there are some true drug dealers," he said. "Those individuals cause immeasurable harm to their families and our communities. The punishment for true drug dealers needs to be much more severe than with a person who is struggling with addiction issues."

Christopher Magan of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.