Lobbyist brings St. Paul to Ely city council

by Tom Coombe
While council members in Ely have the final say in the operations of city government, many often concede that decisions in St. Paul have the most influence and carry the largest weight.
That seemed to be on display Tuesday, as members heard from a lobbyist from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
CGMC Attorney Bradley Peterson looked back at the 2017 legislative session and provided a sneak peak of 2018 during a presentation at the monthly study session.
Peterson, who is part of an organization that represents more than 90 cities outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
One of the group’s prime initiatives this year, and most years at the state capitol, is fighting to maintain a prime source of revenue for Ely and many other cities - local government aid.
While LGA levels remain about $45 million shy of where they were in 2002, not counting for inflation, action this year brought cities a bit closer to that goal as lawmakers increased funding for the program by $15 million statewide.
The net result is about $2.2 million from LGA program for Ely’s budget in both 2018 and 2019.
LGA has jumped substantially since 2013, when Ely received about $1.7 million per year.
Ely relies on LGA to fund the lion’s share of its $3.3 million general fund budget (see related story).
The lobbying group also turned its attention to other issues, including the potential enforcement of state regulations concerning sulfate levels in wild rice waters.
City officials in Ely and across northern Minnesota have cried foul, contending that the regulations could bankrupt cities or force massive utility increases.
The CGMC said enforcement could force cities to spend anywhere from $10 million to $20 million to make upgrades that bring them into compliance.
Peterson called these requirements “traditionally expensive and not necessarily effective” and said the group would continue to lobby for alternative measures.
Bonding is another major part of the CGMC’s work as it applies pressure to legislators to fund projects in greater Minnesota.
Bonding bills are traditionally done in even-numbered years, but legislators were unable to reach agreement in 2016 and instead passed a nearly $1 billion bill this year.
Peterson said it’s too early to predict with any certainty, but legislators may pass another bonding bill this year to get back into its previous pattern.
More certainty went into another Peterson prediction: that the state would face a budget deficit when the next forecast is made later this month.
That is likely to have an impact on legislators’ decisions next year, along with elections that will put all House and Senate seats on the ballot.
Even so, the CGMC says it won’t accept “a do-nothing legislature” and will push for further LGA hikes, more state spending for transportation and infrastructure and a bonding bill in 2018.
“If I go anywhere in Minnesota, top to bottom, left to right, people want to talk about the conditions of their streets,” said Peterson.
Peterson also said it’s likely that sexual harassment, given the resignation of two legislators, and child care would be major issues next year - in what’s expected to be a short session.
“There’s a clear need for child care,” said Peterson. “It’s not just a family issue. It’s a workforce issue and it’s an economic development issue in communities where there’s a lack of child care.”