October 6, 2022

‘Placing politics over governing costs everyone,’ County Board says in plea for special session – Brainerd Dispatch

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BRAINERD — The state Legislature’s failure to act on massive spending bills during the session is already impacting the lives of everyday Minnesotans and the ripple effects will continue without compromise at the state Capitol.

This is the message the Crow Wing County Board sought to convey during a news conference Tuesday, June 7, at the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse in Brainerd. Legislators must get back to work in a special session and accomplish the passage of a slate of bills left on the table last month as billions of dollars in surplus remain in the state coffers, commissioners said.

“I’m not criticizing any legislator — it’s the system that failed and this is hurting Crow Wing County,” said Commissioner Rosemary Franzen.

Some of the state’s most vulnerable and impoverished no longer have rides to medical appointments. Taxpayers aren’t getting relief amid an inflationary environment. Minnesota could lose out on federal infrastructure dollars without the approval of matching funds. And Crow Wing County must find the money somewhere to deliver state-mandated programming — even if the state’s governing bodies fail to fund those requirements.

These are just some of the impacts commissioners highlighted Tuesday while standing side by side around microphones in the boardroom. The unusual news conference event was prompted by the unprecedented circumstances of one of the least productive legislative sessions in memory, said County Administrator Tim Houle.

“In Crow Wing County, we say (it is) a workplace where ‘good enough is not good enough,’” said Commissioner Steve Barrows. “Our Legislature should immediately adopt this statement and get the job done in time. Placing politics over governing costs everyone needlessly and this is a disappointing way of operating government.”

The Legislature appears to remain at a stalemate, with leaders of both bodies along with the governor’s office failing to reach an agreement Friday to reconvene in a special session to pass the many bills left unfinished. Commissioners and county leaders said a number of these bills directly affect the funding Crow Wing County receives to meet its obligations under state law to administer programs such as probation services and recycling, among many others.

“Budgets are a math problem,” Houle said after the news conference. “And so you’re either going to increase the revenues from the state or increase the revenues from local. If you don’t change the requirements from the state of Minnesota, the money has to come from somewhere. Because we are political subdivisions of the state of Minnesota. We don’t get to choose not to do what we have been required to do. That’s breaking the law.”

Houle said the lack of county program aid at a time when the state has a substantial surplus is a source of frustration — especially for those who lived through the Great Recession’s impacts on the bottom line of county government.

“At that time, that was a $4.5 billion state budget deficit and it sent the state into a tailspin — every city, every township, every county, every school district had to be part of the solution to that budget shortfall,” Houle said. “ … Right now, we have a surplus of $7 billion and another $5 billion in the next biennium sitting in the bank while people are hurting out there.”

Franzen and Barrows both serve on the board of directors for the Minnesota Inter-County Association, which represents the interests of some of the larger and fastest growing counties in the state at the Capitol. Executive Director Matt Massman said in a non-budget year, the lack of action does not put the state at risk of a government shutdown. It does, however, leave unfinished several matters placing a disproportionate burden on counties.

“There’s a historic budget surplus that presents significant opportunities to address both tax relief and, you know, needs, and sort that out,” Massman said during a phone interview Tuesday. “And so the upside of bipartisan compromise is being able to, you know, make investments and do tax relief. And instead, what we have is significant amounts of that resource of taxpayer dollars is left unallocated.”

And the longer it takes the Legislature to decide how to use the funds, the less that money will ultimately be worth, Barrows noted.

“In the past, I’ve heard it’s as much as $1 million to bring them back for a special session. Those are completely unneeded if the work gets done in time,” he said. “Every day that there isn’t a settlement and we’re all impacted by this, inflation eats away at the value of the settlement that will be achieved at some point. Urgency is urged here.”

While the County Board lobbed plenty of frustration toward the Legislature, local representatives were spared direct criticism.

“I think they’re working hard down there behind the scenes to get the job done,” Barrows said while answering a question during the conference. “I think they’re kind of held hostage just like we are by the leaders of the two caucuses and the governor’s office. … I’m more concerned that the leadership isn’t sitting down and rehashing these issues over in a serious manner so that all the legislators can actually vote on this.”

More on the impacts

  • Medical Assistance recipients in Crow Wing County are no longer being transported by Medi-Van because the Legislature did not increase the reimbursement rate for non-emergency medical transportation. A letter from the Detroit Lakes-based company to nursing homes and counties stated as of June 1, the company can no longer afford to transport these low-income patients.

“This really hurts the elderly and the disabled,” Franzen said. “How will these people get to their doctor appointments? This creates a real crisis.”

  • There is no increase to county program aid because the tax bill did not pass. Crow Wing County would have received about $300,000 more, which Massman noted is a form of tax relief for local taxpayers.
  • Property tax relief provisions failed to pass. These changes to state law would have expanded the impact of the homestead market value exclusion and made more people eligible for the homestead credit refund. 
  • The county will not see an increase in its funding for solid waste management and recycling. Provisions would have shifted more revenues generated by the solid waste management tax from the state to the county to increase recycling efforts.
  • Increases to funding for the probation department did not happen. According to county officials, this translates to a reduction of $1.2 million per year for the largest providers of probation services in the state. Massman said counties are tasked with supervising 87% of those criminally sentenced in the state of Minnesota, and historically the state picked up about half of those costs. Without changes, counties now cover about three-quarters of the costs.

“All 87 counties collaborated over the last year to work with a third party entity to do a study and make recommendations to put a higher funding level in place that would distribute money more equitably across the state for those services,” Massman said. “And so that’s a key part of what didn’t get done.”

  • Without a transportation bill, several impacts occurred. There is no funding for the state’s Local Road Improvement Program, designed to help small cities and townships fund larger projects, nor is there funding for the Local Bridge Replacement Program. The local wetland replacement program also received nothing. Lawmakers did not reach an agreement on how to distribute sales tax revenue generated from auto parts, meaning it cannot yet be used toward transportation funding needs.

The failure to allocate matching funds required to leverage federal dollars authorized in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act garnered significant pushback Tuesday.
“If Minnesota doesn’t put in the matching funds for some of the competitive grants, other states will and they’ll get new roads and new bridges,” Franzen said. “We need to bring this money to our state.”

Barrows agreed. “Forty-nine other states are smiling because we didn’t want our share of it, and they will be happy to take it,” he said. “That’s frustrating to me, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get those dollars here.”

  • The bonding bill failed to pass, leaving scores of local transportation and other infrastructure projects without state funding.

“Without the passage of a bonding bill, when that’s delayed by a year, that really makes a difference,” Massman said. “There are hundreds of millions of dollars in local projects alone that are ready to move forward if the money is appropriated in the bonding bill. … Another year down the road, we’ll have more projects where we’re falling behind because more and more roads and more bridges will age.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or

chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com

. Follow on Twitter at

twitter.com/DispatchChelsey

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