Below is a commentary I wrote in Sunday’s Pioneer Press:
Who would have thought that Gov. Dayton’s tax proposal could possibly get worse when he presented his revised plan this past week? Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of someone who was hoping for some level of reform of Minnesota’s antiquated tax system, the governor’s proposal did get worse.
In his initial proposal, Gov. Dayton would have dramatically increased taxes and spending, offering up a tidbit of tax reform in return. In his new proposal, the governor still dramatically increases taxes and spending but offers up absolutely no tax reform in return.
Unfortunately, the governor has now twice passed on an amazing opportunity to truly reform Minnesota’s tax system and instead has given us the same old proposals we’ve been getting from the left for decades.
Board supports Dayton’s transit tax increase
The county board voted 6 – 1 this week to support Governor Dayton’s proposed 1/4 percent dedicated metro sales tax increase to further fund light rail, streetcar and bus systems in the seven-county metro area. I was the “no” vote.
I have long questioned the wisdom and return on investment of light rail and commuter rail projects in the Twin Cities and believe it would be beneficial to the residents of Hennepin County if others on the board occasionally questioned their ROI, as well. That’s not to say that I would never support a rail project, but rather would need to be convinced that the congestion relief it would provide would be even remotely commensurate with the tremendous price tag attached to the project – both to build it and to heavily subsidize its operation year after year. But that’s a different blog posting…
I’ve been working on a proposal for over a year now to consolidate watershed organizations in Hennepin County. After much work and several drafts, I presented a plan to my colleagues a couple months ago.
My work on this issue arose after the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota completed a study and report on county water management for the Hennepin County Board last year. In the report, the U of M recommended, among other things, consolidation of watershed districts and watershed management organizations in Hennepin County. The U of M study also recommended that each of the new watershed entities have taxing authority.
Over the past decade, watershed organizations within Hennepin County have budgeted expenditures totaling over $230 million with an average annual increase exceeding 5%. These investments, combined with cities’ focus on storm water management, building standards and developer requirements and initiatives, have contributed to reducing the number of declining lake quality grades.
The most recent lake quality trends indicate that water quality in Hennepin County lakes has stabilized in the past ten years, with the majority of county lakes showing no significant upward or downward trend. The average lake grade in Hennepin County over the past decade is a “C”, regardless of watershed organization.
Despite this stabilization success, water governance in the county is still fragmented and often reactive, spending varies dramatically depending on location and, in some ways, transparency and accountability are lacking. There are many of us who believe we can improve upon the current system.
I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like…
I’ve got a bike.
You can ride it if you like.
It’s got a basket,
A bell that rings,
And things to make it look good.
I’d give it to you if I could
But I borrowed it.
- BIKE, by Pink Floyd
I’m a bit late with this post, but I thought it a good way to close out 2012. A couple weeks ago, the board voted to contribute $90,000 to the purchase and installation of bicycle-sharing kiosks in Minneapolis. The expenditure passed on a vote of 6 – 1. I was the “no” vote.
Board Passes 2013 Budgets with Levy Increases
The Board met for the final time this year to pass our budgets for Hennepin County, the county’s Regional Rail Authority and the county’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Each of these three entities has its own county-wide levy, which the county board sets each year at the same time as the budget. All three budgets passed this year on votes of 6 – 1 (with me voting “no”).
The general levy, which funds most county operations was just over $668 million for 2012 and will increase by about $6.2 million in 2013 (just under 1%). The rail levy was $18 million in 2012 and will increase by $3 million in 2013 (just under 17%). The housing levy was just over $5.6 million in 2012 and will increase by about $820,000 in 2013 (about 14.6%).
Overall, we increased the county tax levies by a total of 1.52% for 2013 (or about $10.5 million).
I did not support any of the three budgets or accompanying tax increases. As I pointed out to my colleagues (and have pointed out in previous blog posts) taxpayers in Hennepin County are still in a very tough place and are hurting financially. Unfortunately, our response as a board seems to always be: If our constituents are struggling, we need to spend more to help them.
There is a better response: If our constituents are struggling, let’s agree to not take even more of their hard-earned money and instead attempt to spend what we already have more wisely.
County Board Condemns the Voter ID Amendment and Urges County Residents to Vote No
Earlier this week, the Hennepin County Board voted in favor of a resolution introduced by Mike Opat opposing the Photo ID constitutional amendment and urging Hennepin County residents to vote no on the amendment. The resolution passed 4 – 1. I was the “no” vote; Randy Johnson abstained.
I opposed this resolution for two reasons:
First, we as a county board shouldn’t be in the business of telling our constituents how to fill out their ballots. While it probably doesn’t make any practical difference as I doubt any of my constituents were on the edge of their seats waiting to get instructions from the county board about how to vote, it is still a practice we have avoided in the past and should in the future.
We take positions on legislative proposals every year and lobby for what a majority of the board believes is in the best interest of the county. I frequently disagree with those legislative positions, but don’t believe it’s inappropriate for us to take such positions at the legislature. This, however, is quite different. Your county board is telling you how you should vote on Election Day.
The proponents of this resolution argued that we have a particular interest in this issue because it’s possible that a photo ID voting requirement could require the county to spend money. Fair enough. We then ought to be instructing you all who to support for President, U.S. Senate and the state legislature, because the outcomes of each of those elections will certainly affect the county budget down the road.
Again, I’m guessing that no one really cares where we stand on Photo ID, but I still think it’s a little arrogant for us to purport to tell our constituents how to vote.
Second, and much more importantly, I support the Photo ID Constitutional Amendment. Strongly.
Here’s our new re-election ad. You might note Chester’s resemblance to the taxpayer watchdog on this blog’s header…
A big thanks to Tyler Richter of td/Richter and Jeff Bakken & Gregg Peppin of P2B Strategies.
Below is an OpEd I wrote in this morning’s StarTribune:
Opposing higher taxes won’t doom America
JEFF JOHNSON, Star Tribune
Last week, Gov. Mark Dayton shared with us his thoughts on those who question his constant call for Minnesota income tax increases: “This unwillingness to pay taxes and seeing it as a threat to our freedom and our liberty and our way of life, to me, is going to be the death of this country if it’s not corrected.”
Really? Opposition to tax increases equals the death of America?
The governor’s statement exemplifies the frustration (and yes, anger) so many in America feel toward government today. Government spending grows year after year; its reach expands without restraint; we see endless examples of our money being wasted, and then politicians opine that those of us who question higher taxes must be somehow “corrected” or we will destroy America.
The truth is, many of us who are conservatives would not oppose higher taxes if the ruse that government has “cut to the bone” were true.
The fact, however, is that government spending at nearly every level has been increasing at rates greater than inflation for many decades — even during the past few years of supposed austerity.
Look at the state of Minnesota. According to Minnesota’s Office of Management and Budget, state biennial (two-year) spending increased from $1.2 billion in 1962-63 to $62.6 billion in 2012-13 (based on the biennial budget passed last year). That’s a 5,000 percent increase in 50 years.
Board votes to limit levy increase to 1.52% next year
Last week the county board set the maximum level at which we can levy property taxes on our constituents in 2013. Once that level is set, we cannot later decide to tax more, although we could choose to tax at a lower level when we pass our final budget in December. In the past, the final levy amounts have usually been very close to the maximum levels we have set.
Hennepin County has three tax levies. The largest – by far – is the general levy, which is currently set at just over $668 million. The rail levy is currently set at $18 million. The housing levy is currently set at $5.61 million.
When we met last week, county administration proposed that we set maximum levy increases at 1.3% for the general levy, 16.67% for the rail levy and 23.5% for the housing levy. All told, that would have been an overall maximum levy increase of 1.9%.
When we considered the general levy, Commissioner Opat offered an amendment to cut the maximum increase from 1.3% to 1.0% which passed unanimously. My proposal to limit the max levy to a 0% increase failed on a vote of 2 – 4 (with Commissioner Randy Johnson and I supporting the 0% option). The final vote on the 1% maximum levy increase was also 4 -2 (with Randy Johnson and I voting “no”).
The 16.67% maximum rail levy increase passed on a vote of 5 – 1 (I was the “no” vote). The board unanimously supported Commissioner Callison’s motion to decrease the maximum housing levy increase to 14.6%. The final vote on that maximum increase was also 5 -1 (I was the “no” vote).
Overall, we set a total maximum levy increase for 2013 at 1.52% (or $10.5 million).
I did not support any of the maximum levy increases. As I pointed out to my colleagues, taxpayers in Hennepin County (and throughout the country) are still struggling mightily. Unfortunately, the common response to that fact is: “We need to spend more money to help those struggling taxpayers.”
The Star Tribune on Sunday ran a story on the increasing price tag of the new Lowry Avenue Bridge in North Minneapolis. An excerpt:
‘As the new Lowry Avenue bridge has gone up, so have the costs and delays…
Initially on the hook for $9.4 million, county taxpayers are shouldering $66.5 million of a price tag ratcheted up by the addition of a “signature” design and a second bridge built as an approach to the main bridge.
“I understand that desire to have things that stand out and are special, but it means that you spend a lot more of your constituents’ money and I don’t think we’re there anymore,” said Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who called the new bridge a vestige of another era when government could afford to dress up its infrastructure.
The approach bridge, a plain concrete box girder design that stretches 700 feet from the river bridge nearly all the way to N. 2nd Street, is closer to what Johnson believes would have worked just fine on the river.
Supporters say the cost to create a strikingly modern bridge is well worth it because of its value to the community and future development of that corridor. They say it also continues the evolution of the city’s industrial riverfront to green space and parkways.
“It’s going to be there for a long time and tie those two parts of the city together,” said Mark Stenglein, the former county commissioner who spearheaded efforts to replace the former bridge and is now Minneapolis Downtown Council president and CEO.’