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Below is a column by CGMC President and Bemidji City Councilor Ron Johnson. It has appeared in the Star Tribune, Winona Daily News, Bemidji Pioneer and other newspapers.

“I am preaching to the choir but what I’m asking is for the choir to sing loudly for the next three months.”

Gov. Tim Walz was touting his plan to boost Local Government Aid funding when he said this at a Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) event earlier this year. He told the audience of Greater Minnesota city officials that while he was planning to include a $30.5 million LGA increase in his then-unreleased budget, he was going to need our help to get the proposal across the finish line.

As a Bemidji city councilor and president of the CGMC, I am a proud member of LGA “choir.” I have been warming up my voice and now — with the halfway-point of the legislative session fast approaching — I’m ready to sing.

The average Minnesotan likely knows little about LGA, but it is a key reason why Minnesota consistently boasts a stronger economy and better quality of life than neighboring states. Created in 1971, the LGA program distributes aid to cities using a formula that compares a city’s property tax base to its needs. Its purpose is to ensure that all cities are able to provide a similar level of services regardless of the strength of their tax base. For some cities, LGA constitutes nearly half of their annual budget.

As the Legislature debates the merits of Gov. Walz’s budget proposal and the House and Senate craft budgets of their own, I urge lawmakers to keep the $30.5 million LGA increase in their plans. Here’s why:

LGA benefits all Minnesotans. Approximately 90 percent of Minnesota cities receive LGA — from tiny rural towns to the largest cities. It helps narrow disparities between communities so that every city can provide important services and amenities like public safety, libraries, parks and plowed streets. If you live, work, go to school, visit the doctor or shop in a Minnesota city, chances are you benefit from LGA.

LGA has not kept up with rising costs. The proposed $30.5 million increase would bring LGA funding back to its 2002 highpoint, not counting for inflation. In the ensuing years, costs have gone up for everything from employee health insurance to construction materials. When there is record-breaking snowfall, we can’t leave the streets unplowed. If there is a fire, we need equipment and trained firefighters to put it out. City officials make tough financial decisions every day, but needs do not go away. That struggle is even harder when LGA is underfunded.

LGA helps restrain property taxes. Without LGA, the average city receiving aid would have to increase its property tax rate by more than 65 percent in order to continue to provide the same level of services. LGA also has a proven track record of helping slow the growth of city levies. From 2013 to 2014, the last time there was a significant LGA increase, many communities kept their levies flat or even reduced them.

LGA has bipartisan support. Republican and Democrat legislators have teamed up to sponsor legislation to increase LGA, and their bills have support from rural and urban legislators on both sides of the aisle. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican, has also voiced support for LGA. In a time when nearly everything has become uber-political, lawmakers should embrace this opportunity to find common ground.

LGA is a small investment with a big payoff. LGA currently represents less than 3 percent of the state budget. The proposed $30.5 million increase is just a fraction of the Governor’s budget proposal. It is a relatively small price to pay to boost a program that has a tremendous impact on cities across the state.

City officials in the 758 Minnesota cities that receive LGA can attest to the integral role it plays in keeping our communities afloat and our state strong. As legislators and the Governor continue the daunting task of creating the state budget, I hope they keep the health and prosperity of our cities in mind by including the $30.5 million LGA increase in the final product.

For Immediate Release
Contact: Julie Liew, jlliew@flaherty-hood.com
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Below is a statement from CGMC President and Bemidji City Council Member Ron Johnson on the passage of H.F. 80. The bill includes a provision to convert the Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund bonds that were part of the 2018 bonding bill — but have since been tied up in litigation — to general obligation bonds, thus freeing up $59 million in state funding for municipal water infrastructure projects.

“We are elated that Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate worked together to find a meaningful solution that will allow essential clean water infrastructure projects to move forward in Greater Minnesota. As a result of this legislation, numerous cities across the state will be able to proceed with critical water, wastewater and sewer projects that are necessary to help protect Minnesota’s lakes and rivers. We’re hopeful that the passage of this bipartisan bill bodes well for continued efforts by lawmakers to compromise on other important issues this legislative session.”

“While we are pleased that this bill finally opens up the funding that was approved last year, it does not alleviate the massive need for more funding going forward. With the state facing a $5 billion need over the next 20 years for wastewater infrastructure improvements alone, the Legislature cannot shove this issue aside. We urge the Legislature to pass a bonding bill this year that includes the Governor’s request for $67 million for clean water infrastructure grant and loan programs.”

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The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization representing 97 cities outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The Coalition educates legislators about issues important to Greater Minnesota. Visit the CGMC online at greatermncities.org and follow us on Twitter @greatermncities.

 

For Immediate Release
Contact: Julie Liew, jlliew@flaherty-hood.com
PDF version

Below is a statement from CGMC President and Bemidji City Council Member Ron Johnson on Governor Tim Walz’s budget proposal:

“The Governor’s budget proposal makes key investments that will go a long way toward strengthening Greater Minnesota communities.

“City leaders have long been seeking to bring the LGA program back up to its 2002 high-water mark, and the Governor’s proposal would finally get us there. We’re grateful that Gov. Walz recognizes the vital role LGA plays in making sure that all Minnesota communities can continue to provide the same great opportunities to work, raise a family and start a business. We’re hopeful the Legislature will follow the Governor’s lead to restore funding for this critical program.

“I also want to thank the Governor for acknowledging other important issues that impact Greater Minnesota. Not a day goes by when I don’t hear from a constituent about the need for better roads, so it’s encouraging that Gov. Walz is exploring ways to put additional revenue into our state transportation system. Child care is another issue that in recent years has emerged as one of the top impediments to economic growth in rural communities. I’m glad to see that the Governor’s budget plan includes funding to help address this need.

“I look forward to joining other city officials to work with Gov. Walz, legislative leaders and our local legislators to make sure that Greater Minnesota’s priorities continue to be a major focal point of discussions and are hopefully included the final budget.”

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For Immediate Release
Contact: Julie Liew, jlliew@flaherty-hood.com
PDF version

ST. PAUL—City officials are hopeful that bipartisan legislation introduced today in the Minnesota Legislature will give a long-awaited boost to the state’s Local Government Aid (LGA) program.

SF 1304/HF 1102, led by chief authors Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne) and Rep. Dave Lislegard (DFL-Aurora), aims to increase LGA funding by $30.5 million, the amount needed to bring the program back up to its 2002 high-water mark. The proposal has generated strong bipartisan support from numerous Republican and Democrat co-authors who represent rural and metro districts.

“As former city officials turned state legislators, Sen. Weber and Rep. Lislegard have first-hand knowledge of the important role LGA plays in keeping Minnesota’s communities strong.” said Ron Johnson, a member of the Bemidji City Council and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC). “I want to thank them, as well as the powerful group of co-authors from both parties, for taking on this critical issue.”

Rep. Lislegard, who served as mayor of Aurora until getting elected to the Legislature in 2018, said he is proud to author the LGA bill as one of his first pieces of legislation.

“This legislation is key to helping cities all across the state keep up with maintenance and infrastructure, and provide public safety and other critical services Minnesotans count on while keeping property taxes in check,” Rep. Lislegard said. “Funding from LGA isn’t a want, but is a need for communities like those I represent, and I look forward to working with my colleagues and city leaders to deliver this much-needed boost.”

A former mayor of Luverne, Sen. Weber has long been one of the most active and vocal LGA supporters in the Legislature, having previously authored similar legislation to increase funding for the program.  

“I’m proud to stand with Greater Minnesota communities and take the lead on this important legislation in the Senate,” he said.

The $30.5 million LGA increase is the CGMC’s top priority this legislative session. While LGA has had modest bumps in funding in recent years, Greater Minnesota city officials are optimistic that 2019 will finally be the year that the program is restored to its 2002 high point, before it was plagued by a decade of cuts and stagnant funding.

One reason for the renewed enthusiasm is that Gov. Tim Walz has frequently pledged his support for LGA, both on the campaign trail and since taking office. Speaking at a CGMC event last month, Gov. Walz said he plans to include a $30 million LGA increase in his budget plan, which is anticipated to be unveiled next week.

“LGA really embodies the ‘one Minnesota’ vision that the Governor often mentions,” said CGMC President Johnson, noting that nearly 90 percent of Minnesota cities receive LGA. “Whether you live in the heart of downtown Minneapolis or on the edge of Ortonville, LGA truly is a program that benefits the entire state.”

In addition to the funding appropriation bill, the CGMC is advocating for SF 1305/HF 1101, authored by Sen. Kent Eken (DFL-Twin Valley) and Rep. Jeff Brand (DFL-St. Peter), which would increase LGA funding each year to account for inflation and population growth. Despite the program’s recent appropriation increases, LGA funding is still well below where it should be if it kept up with inflation and population growth.

Rep. Brand, a former St. Peter City Council member, said the bill will help communities stay on top of their growing needs.

“Health insurance premiums, construction materials and — as we’ve sure seen this winter — costs for essential services like snow removal and salting continue to go up year after year,” he said. “Cities are pretty adept at trying to do more with less, but it gets more difficult as LGA fails to keep pace with rising costs.”

Sen. Eken added, “While LGA funding growth has stalled, city costs and service pressures continue to rise. Without adjusting the program for these realities, cities that depend on LGA will struggle to continue making the investments that create a high standard of living and quality of life in Minnesota.”

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The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization representing 97 cities outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The Coalition educates legislators about issues important to Greater Minnesota. Visit the CGMC online at greatermncities.org and follow us on Twitter @greatermncities.

For Immediate Release
Contact: Julie Liew, jlliew@flaherty-hood.com
PDF version

CGMC calls on legislators to pass $128M in funding for critical clean water infrastructure projects

ST. PAUL—As communities across the state grapple with aging water treatment facilities and rising construction costs, Greater Minnesota city leaders are on calling on the Legislature to pass a bonding bill this year that includes $128 million for clean water infrastructure.

“Cities are the front line of protecting our lakes and rivers from pollution and making sure residents have clean water,” said Ron Johnson, a member of the Bemidji City Council and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC). “We are proud to play a role preserving Minnesota’s clean water legacy, but cities simply don’t have the resources to make the necessary improvements to their water facilities without assistance from the state.”

A bipartisan bill introduced today at the Minnesota Legislature aims to keep up with the growing demand for state funding to help cities offset the costs to upgrade and rebuild water treatment plants and other clean water infrastructure. SF 587/HF 411, authored by Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) and Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin), provides $128 million in general appropriation bonds to the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority (PFA) for water infrastructure grant and loan programs available to cities.

“We’re thankful that Sen. Dahms and Rep. Poppe are stepping up to the plate to address the dire need for more funding for water infrastructure,” Johnson said. “Cities across the state—and especially in Greater Minnesota—will benefit from this legislation.”

The funding allocated under SF 587/HF 411 is especially critical this year as several cities have been forced to put important projects on hold after funding approved by the Legislature in 2018 hit a major snag. The bonding bill signed into law last spring included $59 million for the PFA programs; however, a group of nine environmental groups initiated a lawsuit against the state challenging the funding mechanism used in the bill. As a result of the lawsuit, money that many cities were anticipating is now in limbo.

The $128 million funded under SF 587/HF 411 is the amount needed to keep up with the growing demand for PFA grants and loans and cover the amount that has been indefinitely held up due to the lawsuit.

“The longer we have to wait for funding, the more expensive our project becomes,” said Little Falls Mayor Greg Zylka, whose city is among those affected by the funding delay.

Zylka said Little Falls was slated to receive a $7 million grant to upgrade its treatment plant to reduce pollutants in wastewater that flows into the Mississippi River. Without the state grant, the entire $22 million project cost would fall on city residents and businesses.

Little Falls is not alone. Austin, Marshall and Mountain Lake are also near the top of the project priority list and were hoping to receive funding through the 2018 bonding bill. In total, more than 300 cities in Minnesota currently have water infrastructure projects in the works. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, more than $5 billion is needed over the next 20 years for water and wastewater infrastructure.

“Cities need help now – and that need is only going to grow as time goes on,” Zylka said. “The Legislature must pass funding this year with the full $128 million request.”

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The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization representing 97 cities outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The Coalition educates legislators about issues important to Greater Minnesota. Visit the CGMC online at greatermncities.org and follow us on Twitter @greatermncities.

For Immediate Release
Contact: Julie Liew, jlliew@flaherty-hood.com

Below is statement from CGMC President and Bemidji City Council Member Ron Johnson regarding today’s announcement that Minnesota’s budget surplus has increased to $1.5 billion:

“With the state clearly on solid financial footing, I’m hopeful that Governor-elect Walz and the new Legislature will seize this opportunity to strengthen communities across the state by increasing Local Government Aid. City leaders in Greater Minnesota were encouraged that Walz frequently campaigned on the idea of boosting LGA, and this new budget forecast will allow him to make good on that promise.

“The CGMC’s top priority for the upcoming legislative session is a $30.5 million LGA increase, which is the amount needed to bring the program back up to its 2002 high-water mark. LGA is the most important state program to help cities restrain property taxes and afford essential services like public safety, libraries and snow removal. As city officials, we try our best to craft responsible budgets, but it has been a struggle in recent years as LGA funding has failed to keep pace with rising costs. We are eager to work with Walz and the new Legislature to make an LGA increase a reality this session.”

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The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization representing 97 cities outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The Coalition educates legislators about issues important to Greater Minnesota. Visit the CGMC online at greatermncities.org and follow us on Twitter @greatermncities.

For Immediate Release
Contact: Julie Liew, jlliew@flaherty-hood.com
PDF version

With first Greater Minnesota governor in decades, city leaders see major opportunity with Walz Administration

ALEXANDRIA, MINN.—For the first time in more than three decades, Minnesotans have elected a governor who resides in Greater Minnesota. With Governor-elect Tim Walz’s outstate roots and campaign-trail focus on uniting rural and urban interests into “One Minnesota,” rural city leaders are optimistic that the upcoming legislative session will see a renewed emphasis on advancing Greater Minnesota priorities.

“It’s no secret that a strong Greater Minnesota strengthens the entire state,” said Audrey Nelsen, a member of the Willmar City Council and vice president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC). “Tim Walz didn’t shy away from that message on the campaign trail. As city leaders and residents of Greater Minnesota, it is our job to make sure he doesn’t lose that focus when he takes office.”

That message reverberated this week as more than 100 mayors, city councilors and city staffers from across Greater Minnesota convened in Alexandria for the CGMC’s annual two-day fall conference. At the event, CGMC members adopted the organization’s policy positions and discussed priorities for the 2019 legislative session, including securing an increase in Local Government Aid (LGA), funding for wastewater infrastructure and finding solutions to the state’s child care shortage. They also emphasized the need to work closely with Walz and the Legislature to ensure that Greater Minnesota has a seat at the table when it comes to crafting the state budget and other legislative priorities.

While the 2018 election appeared to highlight Minnesota’s so-called rural/urban divide—with rural areas continuing to lean heavily Republican and Democrats picking up 16 seats in the suburbs and strengthening their hold on the urban core—many city leaders say talk of the divide is overblown.

“Everyone is sick of the divisiveness,” Nelsen said. “There are so many issues that matter to all Minnesotans, not everything has to be red versus blue. We all need safe roads, clean water and good jobs. There is plenty of common ground to be found if our state lawmakers are willing to look for it.”

For CGMC members, the main issue in which they hope Walz, the GOP-led Senate and the DFL-led House can come to agreement is on a boost in Local Government Aid (LGA). With the tax bill slated to be one of the main items on the agenda when the Legislature convenes in January, the CGMC is seeking a $30.5 million LGA increase, the amount needed to bring the program back to its 2002 level. Because the costs for cities continue to rise each year, the organization is also seeking to add a permanent annual inflationary increase for LGA into law.

“There is probably no single issue that embodies the concept of ‘One Minnesota’ as clearly as Local Government Aid,” said Bradley Peterson, executive director of the CGMC. “The exact purpose of the program is to level the playing field to make sure that all communities can provide essential services and quality-of-life amenities regardless of their wealth.”

CGMC members have reason to be optimistic about the prospects of an LGA increase this year. Walz repeatedly affirmed his support for bolstering the program during the gubernatorial race, and there is strong bipartisan support for LGA among rural, urban and suburban legislators alike.

“LGA is a great example of a program that bridges the divide between large cities like St. Paul and small ones like St. Charles,” Nelsen said. “If the push for ‘One Minnesota’ is going to work, Governor Walz and the Legislature will have to look for issues like LGA where they can put politics aside and work together to improve our communities and state.”

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The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization representing 97 cities outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The Coalition educates legislators about issues important to Greater Minnesota. Visit the CGMC online at greatermncities.org and on Twitter @greatermncities.

For Immediate Release
Contact: Julie Liew, jlliew@flaherty-hood.com

ST. PAUL—Bemidji City Councilor Ron Johnson was elected to serve as president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) July 27 at the Coalition’s three-day summer conference in Mankato. As president, Johnson will help direct efforts to inform state legislators on issues unique to Greater Minnesota, such as Local Government Aid (LGA), economic development, transportation and environmental policy.

Johnson was elected by fellow mayors and city officials from across the state to lead the CGMC, long considered one of the most active, high-profile organizations to represent rural communities at the State Capitol.  

“Ron is passionate about ensuring that Greater Minnesota communities continue to be a great place to live, work and raise a family,” said Bradley Peterson, executive director of the CGMC. “He has been an active member of the CGMC Board of Directors for many years and is a fixture at our lobby days, conferences and other events. With his knowledge and experience, I’m confident that he will be a strong leader for our organization.”

Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski, whom Johnson is replacing as president, echoed Peterson’s comments.

“I have gotten to know Ron well over the years and I’m impressed with his ability to advocate for important issues such as LGA, city-street funding and economic development needs,” Smiglewski said. “With a new governor and Legislature waiting in the wings, we will certainly have a lot of work to do this upcoming year. The Coalition is fortunate to have Ron leading the way.”

CGMC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization representing 97 cities outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The Coalition educates legislators about issues important to Greater Minnesota.

PDF version

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Join the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, Greater Mankato Growth and the Greater Minnesota Partnership on Thursday, July 26 for a forum featuring the leading candidates in the running to be Minnesota’s next governor! Confirmed participants are DFL candidates State Rep. Erin Murphy, Attorney General Lori Swanson and Congressman Tim Walz and GOP candidate Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. Former Governor Tim Pawlenty, who is challenging Johnson in the GOP primary, declined our invitation to participate. Marvin Rhodes, general manager of KEYC News 12, will serve as moderator.

The 90-minute forum will be from 7:30-9 p.m. in the Grand Hall at the Verizon Center in Mankato. The event is free and open to the public; doors open at 7 p.m. Please see this event flyer for more information.

The forum will focus on issues important to Greater Minnesota communities such as Local Government Aid, the child care shortage, water quality regulations, transportation, infrastructure needs, housing and job training. It will be one of the few opportunities to learn about where the candidates stand on these crucial issues prior to the Aug. 14 primary.

For those who are unable to attend the forum in person, we are partnering with the award-winning KTV public access station to do a live broadcast online at accessktv.org/watch. It will also be televised live on KTV in the Mankato area on Channels 7 and 507 on Consolidated Communications and Channel 181 on Charter. A rebroadcast of the forum will air on FOX 12 Manktao from 1-2:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 28.

If you have any questions about the event, please contact CGMC Media & Communications Director Julie Liew at jlliew@flaherty-hood.com or 651-259-1917.

The CGMC Summer Conference is less than two weeks away! If you have not yet registered, please do so at greatermncities.org/summer18/. The deadline to register is Wednesday, July 18.
 
We have a great agenda lined up for the conference, which will be held July 25-27 and co-hosted by the cities of Mankato, North Mankato and St. Peter. Highlights include:

  • An interactive discussion/presentation on “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the 2018 legislative session and a preview of the upcoming election
  • A keynote luncheon featuring speaker Kevin Lindsey, Commissioner of the MN Department of Human Rights
  • A legislative panel discussion on economic development
  • A gubernatorial candidate forum focused on issues that affect Greater Minnesota communities
  • A panel discussion on the ways farmers, ag industries and cities can work together to address water-quality concerns
  • Opportunities to explore the cities of Mankato, North Mankato and St. Peter
  • An awards dinner honoring legislators and city officials who were instrumental in advancing CGMC priorities over the past year
  • …and much more!

If you have any questions about the conference or the gubernatorial forum, please contact Julie Liew at jlliew@flaherty-hood.com or 651-259-1917.