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Group for municipalities outside Twin Cities asks legislators to give them more funding

With the upcoming Minnesota legislative session less than a month away, lobbyists are calling on legislators to act on a number of issues cities outside the Twin Cities area face.

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities has outlined several priorities on behalf of its members, which include regional cities such as Crookston, East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls.

On the top of that list is increasing local government aid by $45.5 million in 2017. Local government aid, also known as LGA, is funding dispersed by the state based on need and can be used for any lawful expenditure by a city.

The latest legislative session ended in May with no tax bill passed, keeping a funding increase to the Local Government Aid Program from becoming a reality in 2016. The Senate's version of the bill at that time included an increase to LGA, while the House version sought a decrease.

"What we've been encouraging individual legislators and the leadership of the House to do is get out in front of it and, as you're setting your priorities for your tax bill, ... an LGA increase could be part of that discussion," Bradley Peterson, an attorney hired as a lobbyist for the coalition, said during a meeting with the Herald editorial board.

At least 63 of the coalition's member cities have passed resolutions in support of increasing local aid this session.

The bump in aid seeks to return LGA funding to pre-2002 levels, before a state budget shortfall resulted in a overhaul of the Local Government Aid Program and a decrease in its funding.

From 2002 to 2003, the total amount of aid paid to cities dropped from $565 million to $464 million, according to data from the Minnesota House of Representatives Research Department. The decrease has been felt locally by cities such as East Grand Forks, which relies on the aid for about 25 percent of its overall income—about $2.5 million.

In total, cities in the state's six most northwestern counties—Kittson, Marshall, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake Falls and Roseau—received $15.6 million in aid in 2014.

This year, the state is expected to distribute more than $519 million in aid to Minnesota cities.

Other priorities

The coalition's lobbyists also will push for movement on a number of other issues during the legislative session.

Improving broadband infrastructure is among the priorities. Gov. Mark Dayton wants to see $100 million in state funding dedicated to upgrading the service to improve speeds in rural areas of the state, but it's unknown how much the Legislature will spring for when it comes to funding the initiative.

A map of broadband service in Minnesota produced one year ago shows much of Kittson, Marshall and Roseau counties are unserved by broadband wireline. To the south, large portions of Pennington, Polk and Red Lake counties meet the state's minimum standard for upload and download speeds.

A tax credit to spur the creation of workforce housing also is a priority for the coalition.

"The issue isn't necessarily having jobs, it's having a place to live," Peterson said.

Employers have reported difficulty hiring workers because of a lack of housing in northwest Minnesota and other rural portions of the state. Several cities have used grant programs to help some projects off the ground, but a tax credit could provide an opportunity to build even more housing.

Peterson said the credit is in the Senate version of the tax bill but not in the House.

"I think there's still a lot of energy and discussion around this issue, and hopefully we can push that over the line," he added.

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