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Editorial: Rural Minnesota lawmakers must step up on Local Government Aid

When the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities speaks, northwest Minnesotans should listen.

So should northwest Minnesota lawmakers. Especially State Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, and State Reps. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, and Dan Fabian, R-Roseau. More about them in a minute.

The coalition's words demand attention because the coalition is the voice of rural Minnesota communities. East Grand Forks, Bagley, Bemidji, Crookston, Warroad, Roseau, Warren, Thief River Falls—these are the places where most people in northwest Minnesota live. Their solvency is vital to the region's prosperity. And they're all coalition members.

So, remember that when you read this:

A serious threat to the cities' fiscal health has emerged in St. Paul, the coalition announced last week.

The threat is a plan that skimps on Local Government Aid, the funding lifeblood for cities around the state.

Crookston depends on LGA for a full two-thirds of its General Fund revenue. In East Grand Forks, it's one-third.

But lawmakers have squeezed LGA for years, and not coincidentally, northwest Minnesota cities have suffered through shortfalls and uncertainties throughout those years.

That's why "an LGA increase is the No. 1 priority for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities this legislative session," the coalition declared earlier this year.

"The organization is advocating for a $45.5 million increase for the 2018-19 biennium, the amount needed to bring the program back to its 2002 funding level."

Now, keep those two statements in mind: First, the No. 1 priority of the coalition—the voice of towns and cities throughout rural Minnesota—is an LGA increase.

And second, the hoped-for increase is $45.5 million.

So, how much of an increase is the joint House and Senate Tax Conference Committee recommending? As of today, with only two weeks left in the legislative session?

Six million. And that's just a one-time, one-year increase; "LGA would revert back to its current funding level in 2019," the coalition reports.

No wonder the coalition is dismayed. "Greater Minnesota is once again left out and left behind in the tax bill," said Sara Carlson, mayor of Alexandria and president of the coalition, in a statement.

"With a $1.65 billion budget surplus and in the context of a $1.15 billion tax plan, the Legislature can and should do better for LGA."

Back to northwest Minnesota's lawmakers: As voters know, those lawmakers from rural District 01 all are Republican. That means they have both a special obligation to their rural communities—and special clout with their chambers' leadership, which also is Republican.

It's time for rural Republican lawmakers to step up to their leaders and insist on stronger LGA. Make no mistake, rural Minnesota depends on its cities, and those cities depend on LGA.

Now, LGA's fate depends on rural Republican lawmakers. They should pull out the stops to make sure the program gets the funding it needs.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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