ST. PAUL—U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis on Wednesday, May 2, joined a group of mostly Republican state lawmakers in St. Paul taking aim at the Metropolitan Council, a non-elected regional body that oversees hundreds of millions in spending across the metro.
Lewis, a Republican seeking re-election to Minnesota’s 2nd District, successfully introduced a measure in the U.S. House that would essentially make the Met Council unable to receive federal transportation dollars unless it changes how it operates. The House passed the measure as part of a larger bill taking shape now in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Republicans at the Minnesota Legislature are pushing a bill that would reorganize the Met Council, changing it from a body fully appointed by the governor to one consisting largely of local elected officials from cities and counties.
In response, Gov. Mark Dayton, a group of metro mayors and the Met Council itself fought back, saying Lewis and those state lawmakers have got it all wrong and they’re just trying to attack mass transit. Lewis’ plan, they say, risks shutting off the flow of federal funds critical to mass transit and regional planning.
It’s unclear if any of this will actually become law, or what the effects might be.
Here’s some of what’s going on.
Reasons people hate the Met Council
The Met Council is a frequent punching bag of some. For examples:
• The Met Council levies taxes. If you hate taxes, you might hate the Met Council.
• The Met Council oversees Metro Transit. If you hate mass transit …
• The Met Council board consists of 17 non-elected people, appointed by the governor. If you hate the idea of non-elected people having power …
• The current Met Council is appointed entirely by Dayton, a Democrat. If you hate Dayton …
• The Met Council has influence over future land use and zoning. If you hate people telling you what to do with your land …
• The Met Council is focused entirely on the Twin Cities metro. If you hate the Cities …
So … if you hate the idea of non-elected people having the power to levy taxes to build mass transit and influence land use in the cities … you get the idea.
The Met Council is grandfathered
“We’re not here to beat up on the Met Council,” Lewis said at the outset of Wednesday’s news conference. “We’re here to talk about good governance,” Lewis said. Others joining him Wednesday echoed the point.
What they were getting at is that the Met Council is unlike any other governmental body in Minnesota, or perhaps the nation.
Since 1967, its board has been made up solely of governor-appointed members. It has power not only over mass transit, but also the region’s sewer system, and it doles out grants through its Housing and Redevelopment Authority. In all, it spends about $400 million annually.
In the case of transit, the Met Council has been the area’s designated “Metropolitan Planning Organization” since 1973, when Gov. Wendell Anderson made it such. The following year, the Legislature blessed that move. This MPO designation makes it eligible to be the conduit, for example, of the roughly half a billion dollars in federal funds that helped build the Green Line light-rail line connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Across the nation, many major metropolitan areas have regional entities that handle mass transit like this. Some are elected, some appointed, and some are a mix. Often, how they’re constituted is controversial. But few, if any, are appointed by one person and also have the additional powers of wastewater and regional planning. Lewis said the Met Council is the only such MPO and is allowed only because it’s grandfathered. Federal rules require elected officials on other MPOs, he said.
Lewis’ plan in Washington, D.C., would rescind that grandfather clause.
Love it or hate it
The Met Council’s weirdness is by design: The decision to not have mayors and county commissioners on the board is based on a philosophy that elected officials can be provincial, petty and self-serving, but non-elected citizens can rise above that and plan for the region as a whole. The Met Council board is advised by the Transportation Advisory Board, which includes elected officials. None of the Met Council critics at Wednesday’s event could recall an instance where a TAB recommendation wasn’t followed by the full Met Council board.
Edina Mayor James Hovland, who chairs the TAB, said he was thrown off by the Met Council’s weird design years ago when he first became involved.
“Over time, I’ve come to really appreciate this nuanced model that we have,” he said Wednesday, describing it as having an “exquisite elegance.”
Hovland was joined by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and several other mayors, and they were armed with letters from the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and Minneapolis Regional Chamber defending the Met Council’s makeup.
But opponents see it as runaway government with little accountability.
“We have an agency of un-elected appointees that have levying authority, taxation authority and a budget that dwarfs … any number of major metropolitan areas, and they report to a constituency of one,” said state Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, one of the sponsors of the state bill to remake the board.
Election year heightens controversy
In addition to any philosophical disagreements, all state House members, as well as every member of the U.S. House, including Lewis, will be on the ballot in November. Politicians of all stripes look for ways to score points in election years.
Lewis’ opponent, Democrat Angie Craig, said the following Wednesday: “Jason Lewis apparently believes in local control only when it suits his partisan political beliefs. His recent amendment would create chaos in our transportation planning. The move could cause Minnesota to lose over $2 billion in federal transit funds. He’s playing dangerous games with our federal transit funding.”
Also on the ballot will be the governor’s seat, and Dayton isn’t seeking re-election. If an anti-mass transit governor is elected to succeed Dayton, transit initiatives could be stymied even if nothing else changes.
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