Candidates talking 'reform LGA'? Brace yourself for higher property taxes
This summer, candidates for governor will be traveling across the state to share their vision for a better Minnesota, a vision that is likely to include words such as "reform" and "redesign."
These buzzwords play into the public's concern that Minnesota isn't working like it used to -- unemployment is high and the days of prosperity and growth seem far away. Minnesota is indeed ready for a leader who views "reform" as a way to strengthen our economy and quality of life, but there are some that consider "reform" as a license to swing the budget ax on the state programs that matter most to Minnesotans. If directed at the Local Government Aid (LGA) program, this type of reform could cost property taxpayers dearly.
As mayors, we have learned first-hand what state level decisions to "reform" the LGA program have meant to local residents. Since 2002, the state has cut LGA by more than $1 billion cumulatively, and as a result, property taxes have increased more than 60 percent. Additionally, communities across the state have been forced to make painful cuts in core services such as police, fire protection, libraries and street maintenance. While we all understand that when cuts are made at the Capitol, everyone has to "share in the pain," cities have taken more than their fair share. Even though city aid programs account for only 3.4 percent of the state budget, they have taken more than 16 percent of the state's budget cuts in 2010 (this assumes that the state will pay back shifts in K-12 funding).
State lawmakers who pushed for LGA cuts need to acknowledge that Minnesotans now pay $3 billion more per year in property taxes than in 2002. In fact, Minnesotans are now paying more in property taxes than state income taxes. In 2009, the property tax tab stood at $7 billion, up from $4 billion in 2002. Shifting the tax burden to property taxes in this way disproportionately hurts middle class families and our main street businesses, who pay a greater portion of their incomes in property taxes than wealthier individuals do.
Deep cuts to LGA have taken Minnesota in the wrong direction and have weakened a program that successfully improved the quality of life in communities across the state. LGA has been a part of Minnesota's history for nearly 40 years and was part of the Minnesota Miracle that brought significant property tax relief to the state. Facing declining populations, higher unemployment rates, and a significantly lower property tax base than metro cities, LGA remains critical to ensuring greater Minnesota communities have access to essential services at an affordable price for property taxpayers.
If there was ever a time for families and businesses living in greater Minnesota to speak out, it is now. The next governor and Legislature will set the governing landscape for years to come, so it is important to stay politically engaged this summer. When the candidates for governor come to your community, go and listen, but also ask them if their plan to reform government includes cuts to LGA. If the answer is yes, ask them how they plan to curb the significant property tax increases that will follow and how your city should maintain police, fire and other critical services.
To be frank, it is time for greater Minnesota communities to set aside Minnesota Nice for Minnesota Tough. If the next governor can offer nothing more than empty buzzwords in support of local communities, then they must be told that they will be held accountable for the consequences.
Submitted by Timothy Strand, mayor of St. Peter and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC), and Nancy Carroll, mayor of Park Rapids and CGMC board member.