A tough road ahead

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January 17, 2011
By: Nick Halter
Nick Halter
// Minneapolis lawmakers bracing themselves for challenging 2011 legislative session //

Marion Greene spent her entire childhood living abroad — in India, Morocco, Brazil and Pakistan. She spent her early adult years living in Pennsylvania and New Mexico.

While living in New Mexico and working for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1996, she thought about someday running for public office, but realized a hurdle in her way.

“People are usually from somewhere when they run for office,” she thought at the time. “And I’m not from anywhere.”

She moved to Minnesota a few years later. Earlier this January, 11 years after moving to the state, she was sworn in as Minnesota’s state representative from district 60A, which runs from Uptown north into the Bryn Mawr and Loring Park neighborhoods.

Greene, whose parents flew in from Maryland to watch the ceremony along with her husband and other relatives, said the experience was exciting and also reminded her that Minnesota is her home.

A resident of the East Isles neighborhood, Greene takes the seat formerly held by Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Kelliher is the former Speaker of the House who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year. She is now the president of the Minnesota High Tech Association.

Greene, a health policy analyst, previously worked as campaign manager for Kelliher.

She takes over during a difficult time in Minnesota. The state faces a $6.2 billion budget deficit. More than 200,000 Minnesotans are unemployed. City governments across the state are cutting budgets and raising taxes. Minneapolis recently raised taxes by 4.7 percent — which hit homeowners even harder — while eliminating 80 positions, mostly police officers and firefighters.  

Minneapolis’s legislative delegation returned to the Capitol in early January for its legislative session scheduled to end in May. Things are different this year, as the all-DFL Minneapolis delegation serves in the minority since Republicans took control of both houses after the November election.

While Greene learns to navigate her way through the Capitol and its processes, seasoned Minneapolis DFLers will assume new roles in the minority.

State Sen. Larry Pogemiller (DFL-59) began his 30th year representing Northeast Minneapolis. While Pogemiller has seen most everything over the years, the 2011 session will be the first time he has ever been in the minority party. The Minnesota Senate was in the hands of the DFL for the past 40 years.

State Rep. Diane Loefller  (DFL-59A) began her seventh year in office. The lifelong Northeast resident knows that cutting $6.2 billion — roughly 17 percent of the state’s general fund — will be no easy task.

But Loeffler and Pogemiller are optimistic that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature will be able to work out a compromise before the end of the session in May.

“It requires people reaching across that policy and philosophical divide and coming to an agreement on a compromise that everyone call feel like ‘it’s OK, nobody got everything they wanted, but we all feel like we left the state in good hands,’” Loeffler said.

Tough budget decisions

The Republicans in the majority of both houses have said they do not favor any tax increases to deal with the deficit. Minneapolis legislators, however, are strong supporters of income tax increases or other revenue sources to help balance the budget.

Dayton favors a mix of tax increases, budget cuts and reform.

Pogemiller said taxes will rise one way or another. He favors an income tax hike on higher earners. If not, the Legislature will be forced to cut its aid to local governments.  

“If you cut (Local Government Aid) you will raise property taxes,” he said.

Pogemiller said Minneapolis lost about half of its Local Government Aid during the Tim Pawlenty administration.

Loeffler also favors new state revenue, and she cited closing corporate tax loopholes and raising fees and permitting costs as possible solutions.

“Property taxes have been going up dramatically even though peoples’ housing values have been flat or gone down,” she said. “That’s not fair. It’s one of our least progressive taxes.”

Even with new revenue sources, Minneapolis legislators say reforms and tough cuts will be coming.

Loeffler, Greene and Pogemiller spoke of the importance of funding education. However, K-12 Education funding makes up 38 percent of the state budget and higher education makes up 9 percent of the state budget.

Pogemiller said state health care costs are rising by 8 percent annually. Because of the state’s aging population, it’s unlikely to make any real cuts to the health and human services budget, which is about 29 percent of the total budget.

“I would love to see a bill that addresses the $6.2 billion deficit without raising taxes, but I just don’t think it’s going to be possible,” Greene said.

No support for Vikings stadium

Minneapolis legislators say finding public funding for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium is at or near the bottom of their list of priorities.

Loeffler said it’s not the state’s job to finance stadiums, but rather to fund the public services the state offers.

“It’s funding the education system, making sure the University of Minnesota is affordable and accessible to people, ensuring the needs of people with developmental disabilities are met. Once we get all that out of the way, we’ve got to say, ‘is there anything left, and what’s fair?’”

Loeffler and Pogemiller said a football stadium does not boost the local economy the way some think. They pointed to the undeveloped area around the Metrodome as an example.

Still, Pogemiller said, the Vikings are a valuable cultural asset to the state.

“Is there a mechanism to do a Vikings stadium that is economically wise?” Pogemiller said. “There may be. But it would be challenging in this budgetary environment.”

Neighborhood funding

It’s unclear if the city of Minneapolis will need legislative approval for the move it made to freeze about $15 million in funds it had previously allocated to neighborhood organizations.

Loeffler said she took part in the legislation that originally authorized the city to continue funding neighborhoods and she hopes the city will reconsider its decision.

Should it be determined that the city needs legislative action to freeze the funds, Loeffler will not support the city.

“I really feel like our citizens right now need neighborhood level revitalization funds more than ever since housing values have sunk below peoples’ mortgages, the home improvement loans and grants that have been available through the neighborhood groups have been the only thing that’s available to a lot of people to replace that worn out furnace, or to fix the roof that’s got an ice dam,” Loeffler said.

Pogemiller said he’s sympathetic to the city as it struggles with raising property taxes as well as the neighborhood organizations that improve the housing stock and help police communities. But he said he didn’t expect it to be a legislative issue.

“I’m under the impression that they are not coming to the Legislature this year,” he said. “So it seems to me it’s not going to be a legislative issue, it’s how they deal with it locally.”

Reach Nick Halter at nhalter@mnpubs.com.