In Minnesota, the Legislature is required to have finished its business today and to adjourn for the year by midnight. That means all bills must be passed and all business finalized. Anyone who is even vaugly familiar with Minnesota politics knows that we have not had an on-time finish in a budget year for a long time.
And as the clock ticks down this year, small towns across Minnesota should be aware of a few happenings.
The Minnsota Legislature (Democratically-controlled) made a tactical blunder when they sent the Governor (Pawlenty - a Republican) a "keep the lights on" bill. The bill funds the government at current levels for the next two years, which in this case would be at a huge deficit. Nonetheless, the thought from the Legislature was that they would put it in the Governor's lap and force him to either keep the government running or shut it down.
Apparently a third option did not occur to them, or they considered it so draconian that they did not believe it could happen. That third option: unallotment.
In Minnesota, the Legislature meets every other year to address a two-year budget. In between, if there is a shortfall in revenue one of two things can happen. The first is that the Governor can call a special session, bring the legislature back and they can figure it out. The second is that the Governor can unilaterally cut expenditures until there is no more deficit. This is called unallotment, and it is what the Governor apparently intends to do.
And now that the Legislature has given the Governor this "poison pill", they are powerless to stop him from using it. Just today, the DFL-controlled House failed to override the Governor's veto in a strictly party-line vote. If the party holds the line, unallotment will happen.
And while every Minnesotan will have an opinion on this one way or the other, what I think is interesting and what I want readers of TPB.com to understand is how this is going to impact small-towns.
Over the past few years there have been repeated cuts in Local Government Aid (LGA) - this is money from the State sent to cities across Minnesota, and it is used for everything from building roads to paying for police. For many small towns, LGA is a significant part of their budget. I know small towns where half of their budget is LGA.
The Governor is now proposing an additional $450 million in cuts to LGA. This is three times the level previously floated, which many cities considered devastating. And if those cuts are done through an unallotment process, I don't believe the executive branch can spare the smallest, and most vulnerable, of the towns from cuts.
And so the clock is ticking, not just on the legislature, but on the way of life for many small towns. And I'm not writing this to lament this development or to applaud it, but to point out a sobering fact:
Many small towns today have no reason to exist beyond the fact that they do. They are economically insolvent, and years of subsidy has not changed that fact. That a suburban governor would offer, to the urban leaders of the Minnesota House and Senate, cuts that would devastate many parts of rural-Minnesota should come as no surprise. The fact that those urban centers would also be hard hit is the only thing that has stalled more dramatic cuts in the recent past.
Unallotment changes that, because the Governor doesn't need permission.
For too long many of our small towns have relied on subsidy for many of their core functions. The subsidy (and I am talking about more than just LGA) has allowed many towns to make ridiculous choices (drive through any small town and you are almost guaranteed to see a hydrant in a field or along a large wetland - when you do, you are seeing a ridiculous choice). These were choices that were intended to build strength, but instead have actually weakened the community.
The clock is ticking, because our government's desire and ability to continue the subsidy is waning. Without the subsidy, some of our small-towns will cease to exist.
The clock is ticking. The time to embrace a different approach is now. That may require bold action in the most desperate of cases, but even if not, the time to start building a Strong Town, to adopt a truly different approach, has arrived.
We've been a little extra busy at Community Growth Institute since returning from the APA Conference. Some staffing changes along with some major projects reaching key moments has strapped us for time. I wanted to say thanks to those of you that stop in here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning and to let you know that it is literally me falling asleep at my keyboard that has prevented me from publishing on time the past couple of weeks.
For anyone who may be interested, CGI is currently hiring (I have three interviews today with what I hope are some idealistic planners that are yet to be corrupted by the system). If you are seeking a job in the planning profession, are interested in working to Build Strong Towns, have a passion for rural-America and enjoy a job that challenges your noggin on a regular basis, I encourage you to apply.