Dear Mike Obermuller (or your favorite candidate)

 

Mike Obermuller

Mike Obermuller is running for Congress here in CD2 looking to unseat John Kline.  At a campaign event last night, an interesting exchange and opening for new conversation emerged -

Dear Mike Obermuller,

I enjoyed having the chance to talk to you again at the campaign event in Northfield last night and was impressed at how you’ve evolved as a candidate since 2012. I’m writing to follow up on your responses to questions about carbon and the environment.

You talked a bit about carbon taxes and reducing subsidies to oil as ways to address climate change.  Two bits of your remarks caught my attention

(1) Addressing climate change will require decisions for actions which (far) exceed election cycles.  Bravo!  Making decisions to minimize the impact on the immediate bottom line limits the innovation and action which could make for significant change in environmental policy…and many other policy areas.

(2) You’re working to change the conversation on the environment to help more people understand why action is critical (and long-term).

(1) should be obvious. The desire to package policy for (quickly) deliverable results leads to simplifying complex issues, isolating problems and siloing information to be able to formulate the quick fix and deliverable project while ignoring long term or downstream costs.  I don’t tend to be a one issue voter, but if there is one issue which will ensure not only my vote but my commitment and energy, this is it.

As for (2), here’s how I’d like to see the conversation change. Most of the time, I advocate for better transportation and land use policy and spending. In these areas, as with the environment, decisions tend to be isolated – approving this development, designing that road segment, and funding a particular non-motorized project.  In thHowever, the bigger picture of the pattern in which we guide the growth of our cities (I do remember you once said you were interested in seeing cities grow up and not out), how we reverse the trend of designing transit, cycling and walking out of our transportation system, and how we think through our incentives for more sprawling, car dependent land uses and transportation is going to impact the environment.

So, you can talk about carbon taxes or we can reframe the conversation about how we build sustainability and equity into our places by connecting fossil fuel use, air quality, transportation, land use and public health.  Right now, messages are mixed – charge a carbon tax, but keep building roads and encouraging sprawl.  Fret about obesity, but make active transportation fight for funding crumbs. How about we look to how to get the incentives for sustainable, healthy development aligned and funding aligned for incremental change for better air, water, and health.

Many thanks for being willing to serve,

Betsey Buckheit

 

More TIGER news

“MnDOT recognizes the impact Hwy. 3 has on the divide between the two halves of the city. They want to see this project happen”

Public Works Director Joe Stapf was quoted as saying in the Northfield News.  MNDoT has demonstrated their recognition by agreeing to fund 80% of the cost of the TIGER trail over the original estimate currently estimated at about $600,000.

Wow.  The money is very helpful, of course, but I’m really more impressed with the rationale which is the clearest statement of a change of philosophy at MNDoT I could imagine.

But back to the money.  Grant funding has its problems, certainly, and is probably worth a blog post itself.  Biggest problem is the risk evaluation – my sense is that projects are chosen for grant applications not because they are considered essential and would be funded by the local government anyway, but because if we win the grant lottery we’ll get free money for a one-off special project.  But grants, like tax breaks and statutes, are also tools to carry out policy by awarding grants to particular projects, the Federal government picks what it wants to encourage (but that’s the ideal – see another TIGER criticism at Strong Towns of the Feds not applying their own policy rationally).

The TIGER grant project, according to the grant guidelines,

“is multi-modal, multi-jurisdictional or otherwise challenging to fund through existing programs. The TIGER program enables DOT to use a rigorous process to select projects with exceptional benefits, explore ways to deliver projects faster and save on construction costs, and make investments in our Nation’s infrastructure that make communities more livable and sustainable.”

Northfield’s trail is multi-modal (bike/pedestrian – and “multi-modal” really just means “not cars), multi-jurisdictional (city, state and railroad) and it is challenging to fund given MNDoT’s previous planning and construction of TH3 and by adding value to the core of the city and connecting the two sides of town, I believe it does make Northfield more liveable and sustainable with a very small bit of actual infrastructure construction.  The faster, cheaper requirement seems to have been negated by the multi-jurisdictional component, but it’s still moving pretty quickly for a complicated project.

I fully accept the Strong Towns criticism of the teeny tiny amount of funding for Safe Routes to School or Complete Streets or multi-modal TIGER projects – yes, the grants and special programs (can) miss the larger point that Federal funding of massive highway expansion and car-only planning (along with mortgage interest deductions and more policies) has massively contributed to the problem we are now trying to solve (or at least mitigate).

However, Federal transportation funding will not be revised or rescinded quickly nor will attitudes be changed overnight (and however much I like the Hatch/Baucus proposal to start tax reform with a blank slate, I cannot believe it will happen that way).  So, for the short term, I’m in favor of these programs to help raise consciousness, publicize noteworthy projects, and gradually change the state of transportation in the US.  I’m in favor of this project in particular because it is so well grounded in city policy and earlier projects (read the history in the grant application) and not just plucked out of the air.  MNDoT’s decision to help with funding underwrites this gradual shift in design and planning and gives Northfield a little boost in the right direction.  Not perfect, but a good step forward.

Now we wait for the bids and the Council must act to move forward, but in the meantime:

Thanks, MNDoT!

 

Could Northfield be the next Vancouver?

I’ve never been to Vancouver, BC, although it’s been on my “to go” list for a long time.  Now, even more, I’d like to visit.  Why?  Their transportation policy (and the cross country skiing in BC is excellent).

Here in Northfield, we’ve struggled to make even small changes in policy to help Northfield grow in ways which encourage active transportation, productive land use, and a viable transit system.  Even so, every policy gets challenged (or simply ignored) when a new small decision needs to be made.  Complete Streets?  Great, until a street project must be approved.  GreenStep Cities and sustainability?  Wonderful, but seldom considered.  Smart Growth Comprehensive Plan?  Super, until we try to take steps to implement it.

Vancouver, however, thinks big and has since 1997 when it approved an influential Transportation Plan which prioritized – rank ordered – modes of transportation.  Vancouver has just approved Transportation 2040 which affirms the priorities for moving people (for moving goods, etc. there are separate rankings): Walking, Cycling, Transit, Taxi/Commercial Transit/Shared Vehicles, and Private Automobiles.

The hierarchy is intended to help ensure that the needs and safety of each group of road users are sequentially considered when decisions are made, that each group is given proper consideration, and that the changes will not make existing conditions worse for more vulnerable road users, such as people on foot, bicycle, and motorcycle. Each time a new roadway is designed or an existing one changed, opportunities for improving walking and cycling will be reviewed…This is a general approach and does not mean that users at the top of the list will always receive the most beneficial treatment on every street. In highly constrained urban environments, it is not always possible to provide the ideal facilities for all users’ needs.

Even better, Vancouver links transportation and land use (“Use land use to support shorter trips and sustainable transportation choices”), does not flinch from saying the goal is to reduce auto-dependence (“Manage the road network efficiently to improve safety and support a gradual reduction in car dependence. Make it easier to drive less”) and understands that the economic vitality and emergency response must also be part of the overall plan (“Support a thriving economy and Vancouver’s role as a major port and Asia-Pacific gateway while managing related environmental and neighbourhood impacts. Maintain effective emergency response times for police, fire, and ambulance”).

Here in Northfield, we need to try to be more Vancouverish (at a scale appropriate for a community of our size/location) for the long term health (financial, physical, environmental) of the city.  

Dear Representative Bly

A very nice deck chair from the Titanic

Still a very nice deck chair from the Titanic

So, Senator Kevin Dahle’s tweet about LGA sparked a recent post and now my state representative David Bly’s newsletter has me blogging on a related issue.

Really, the issue is how can the public conversation begin to address the relationship between property taxes and their friends (LGA, tax relief of various kinds, business subsidies), the crumbling infrastructure and the services taxes must fund, and what spending decisions we can make to change this landscape for the better.  Perhaps Rep. Bly and Sen. Dahle understand these issues very well, but so far they are only choosing to write the quick and easy stuff for constituents.

Dear Rep. Bly,

Congratulations on your return to the legislature and thank you for your continued service. Just as I took your senate colleague Kevin Dahle to task over his tweet about increasing LGA in response to requests from district mayors, I’m writing to challenge you to consider and, even more important, talk about the larger picture.

In your weekly newsletter of February 8, you said:

I agree with the Governor on his assessment that we need to reduce property taxes. The consistent increase hits low and middle-income earners much harder. Middle class families have been squeezed too much in the last ten years. Wages have remained flat while the cost of living has steadily increased. Many Minnesotans are finding it harder to save for retirement and send their kids to college. As the Governor said, this is not the Minnesota we want to leave our children. We need Minnesota to be a state that invests in its people and provides quality, efficient services.

Your remarks indicate you are concerned about equity for middle and lower income families.  I agree, but question the strategy you endorse for achieving it.  As with my letter to your colleague Senator Dahle, I question whether you are going for the quick fix without even attempting to figure out how to improve the tax system in the longer term for a sustainable state budget.

In particular, the relationship among taxes, local government costs, and policy choices which have skewed the market and the landscape remains unexamined, but it is these structural issues which desperately need your attention. My vote in the next election for you or any politician depends entirely on your contribution to shifting the conversation from short term fix to sustainable policy.  In addition the issues I raised for Senator Dahle, I have these questions:

How regressive are MN property taxes?  A new report Who Pays? evaluates state tax systems for regressiveness; sales taxes are much more regressive than property taxes, but I urge you to take a look at Minnesota’s overall tax burden on its residents and how regressive it is.  Minnesota’s sales tax was created to fund property tax relief back in 1967; this seems like a very inequitable method for change.  Please also consider how previous legislatures have tried to shift the burden to commercial/industrial property with higher class rates and the state general tax; this shift creates superficial equity for homestead tax payers while imposing an obstacle to our economic drivers who, typically, require fewer city services.  Again, please evaluate how the system is balanced rather than simply reducing one component.

Property taxes, housing costs and location: The size of homes has been increasing since the 1950s and, as a result, so have the taxes.  Part of the housing and transportation cost equation depends on where we live relative to where we work, too.  Since your district has Northfield, Londsale and other communities which became more attractive to commuters to the metro area in the last decade, there are also many homeowners who pay a great deal in transportation plus housing.  “Drive ’til you qualify” may have yielded more house for the money for individuals, but also increased household costs. So, it is not too surprising to read that housing and transportation costs taken together are outpacing incomes.  If households are paying more of their income for housing and transportation, then property taxes will be more of a burden.  Before cutting taxes, think about how the incentives for more efficient and economical development can help reduce both government and homeowner costs.

How good is Governor Dayton’s plan?  I’m not impressed.  MinnPost’s Steve Dornfeld critiques the plan and finds 3 big issues: increased complexity (see the final report from the Property Tax Working Group, too), creating new inequities, and providing incentives for local governments to raise taxes in the future. I’d add that Gov. Dayton’s plan adds economic development policies which will continue to incentivize the race to the bottom which will continue to use tax dollars to lure business to Minnesota through tax abatement and infrastructure subsidies while also including new sales taxes for business services which follows the historical pattern of trying to offset property tax issues with sales tax.

As I said to Senator Dahle, I’m counting on your leadership to help develop policies which benefit all Minnesotans for the long term, not just the constituents yelling at you right now.  Of course, I also know that change happens incrementally as you work to build support and make compromises (and that’s just within the DFL) and that I am asking for a staggering amount of reform, but I am looking for you to shift the conversation away from reactive government to thoughtful, sustainable policy-making.  Good luck!

Sincerely,

Betsey Buckheit

Rarely economical disappointing development

First, the NY Times series on subsidies and now the Strib has Art Rolnick (former head of research at the Minneapolis Fed) and business writer Mike Meyers bringing the Times’ information back to Minnesota in the context of Governor Dayton’s tax plan in The Subsidy Bonanza.

A few highlights:

  • Stadium subsidies are “part of a national pattern of taxpayers subsidizing some of the richest people in America.”
  • Minnesota outpaces the nation in job growth, but is not a big subsidizer.  So adding more taxpayer money to lure companies hasn’t proven effective, although it is expensive even for the small players (about 1 cent of every dollar in the Minnesota state budget).  Yet, “Study after study has shown the education of Minnesota’s workforce has been the key to the growth of high-quality jobs for the last half-century.”
  • A catalog of the Twin Cities projects which have been subsidized and not delivered on the promises: Best Buy, stadiums, City Center, Lawson Software…

Rolnick also commented on the Mayo deal over in Minneapolis/St Paul Business Journal comparing Mayo to the Vikings stadium deal.

 

 

Dear Senator Dahle

With the power shift in the state legislature, I’m looking forward to the legislative session with a teeny tiny bit of hope and a whole lot of apprehension.  My apprehension level rose precipitously yesterday when I read my new state senator’s tweet (@KevinDahle) that he’d been meeting with a district mayor as part of working to increase local government aid.  Oh dear, Senator Dahle, but that’s starting at the wrong end of the policy process and so early in the session, too.

Dear Senator Dahle,

A very nice deck chair from the Titanic

A very nice deck chair from the Titanic

Congratulations on your election and the start of the new session!  As a recovering local government official, I know that the state legislature has a great influence on how cities can do their business. I write today to offer a few ideas about how the state could help rather than hinder local governments.  I encourage you (indeed my support in any future election depends on it) to look at the larger, longer term policy picture rather rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic ship of the state of Minnesota.

More than 20 years ago, the Citizens’ League published Remaking the Minnesota Miracle which studied the state/local fiscal system to determine what “realigning of responsibilities and revenue raising authority would have to occur” to finance state and local services and increase accountability.  Although the specific recommendations are interesting (the report calls for eliminating LGA), I hope you’ll consider the 4 principles for evaluating the fiscal system which seem very relevant and not time-bound:

Accountability: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity that is accountable to the electorate, the recipient of the service, and the governmental unit or persons paying for the service

Effectiveness: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity, public or private, that gets the job done well and measures for results.

Economy: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity, public or private, that can supply the service at the lowest possible cost.  For instance, in developed areas, water treatment and sewage facilities can be provided less expensively on a regional basis than on an individual city basis.

Equity: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entities that can finance the service equitably and ensure equity in the delivery of services to all persons.

Certainly, almost any proposal will address some of these values strongly and others more tentatively or will demonstrate the tension between values.  Equity or accountability might strain economy, for example.  Still, these values can help think about what level of government or what private entity is best situated to deliver or fund services and, as a result, where decision-making control should reside.

I hope you have received a copy of the Property Tax working group’s report which also addresses what property taxes are intended to fund and to disentangle state control from local functions.  The history of the development of the property tax in Minnesota is well worth reading as “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

Finally, consider how other regulation affects the tax picture and how the state legislature can incentivize better spending strategies and foster innovation at the local level.

  • The “grow our way to prosperity” model must be reexamined to allow cities, counties and the state to maximize their existing investment in infrastructure rather than expanding infrastructure (and the obligation to maintain it) in the hope of attracting enough new business to pay for the existing system.  There is a burgeoning amount of data showing the cost of this strategy to local and state government.
  • Consider school siting philosophies which demand open space and favor new schools rather than renovation also make it harder for children to walk to school (adding busing costs and congestion).  
  • Think about how state government, with its larger scope, can help local entities work collaboratively (especially those outside the Metro Council’s jurisdiction) to deliver services efficiently and economically rather than pitting them against each other or forcing a sort of local protectionism.  We need to be able to develop shared solutions for transportation, land use, resource protection, and service delivery.
  • Transportation and infrastructure spending is a big deal at all levels of government.  Land use, environmental regulation, public health and quality of life are deeply intertwined with transportation policy; please try to see the whole landscape to make policy which helps local and state government invest wisely, support productive growth patterns, and build places where we want to live, work and invest time and effort.

Thanks for reading and I await your updates and other news of what’s happening in St. Paul.  I’m counting on your leadership to help develop policies which benefit all Minnesotans for the long term, not just the ones yelling at you right now.  Of course, I also know that change happens incrementally as you work to build support and make compromises (and that’s just within the DFL), but I am looking for the conversation to shift away from reactive government to thoughtful, sustainable policy-making.  Good luck!

Yours sincerely,

Betsey Buckheit

 

 

 

Revenue handcuffs on local government

Thanks, Minneapolis Fed!   Latest issue of FedGazette has a piece on unfunded mandates and other ways local government is burdened by the folks upstairs:

Even the most flexible, forward-thinking government can run into roadblocks not of its own making. Numerous local government sources said unfunded state and federal mandates often prevent cities, counties and school districts from cutting costs and becoming more efficient.

Don’t believe it? Here’s a simple example, born of tradition: Many states still require local governments to post meetings and other official news in a printed newspaper, when web posting is readily available, free and arguably more accessible to the public.

Northfield’s Council brought up the printed official newspaper problem at its organizational meeting a few weeks ago with the plan to follow up with state legislators, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Property tax class rates, sales tax paid by local government, local government aid (and levy limits), and more.  I hope state and federal legislators are listening and will attempt thoughtful reform, rather than continuing to balance state budgets on the backs of cities or simply adding regulations without considering the downstream consequences.

New tax report from MN Dept of Revenue

Not a fiscal cliff, but a very nice cliff in Cornwall

Not a fiscal cliff, but a very nice cliff in Cornwall

As we approach the fiscal cliff in Washington, there’s a new report from St. Paul about property taxes which give some hope for the longer term.  In addition to recommendations for reform, the quick education on tax policy and the history of property taxes in Minnesota is well worth reading.

I admit, I still have a wee bit of small liberal arts college idealism (even after 10 years in and around local government!), but I’d like to think tax reform could be a bipartisan effort.  Rather than arguing (at the start, anyway) about raising or cutting taxes, let’s take a look at Appendix B and admit we (everybody take some responsibility here) have managed to incrementally complexify the property tax system to the point where it is collapsing under the weight of special interest protections and it is time to return to the fundamental purpose of property taxation (from the Guiding Principles of the report)

The purpose of the property tax is to provide a local revenue source to pay for local ser- vices. Although the state should define a uniform structure, the tax should be accountable to local people and the state’s involvements should be very limited. It should not be an arena for state legislators to serve constituent interests. The property tax is foremost a local revenue system, not a vehicle for state policies.

 

Different debate questions

Presidential debates usually make me think about moving to Canada since the likelihood of either candidate actually answering a question is abysmally low and the only excitement comes from the random zinger of a comment, factual screw up, or public speaking trainwreck (I depend on the Brits for the most entertaining and pointed commentary and American media for the transcript).  I’d like to believe, however naively, that the President of the United States does more than repeat familiar phrases or score points for verbal jabs in the course of his employment.

I would like some answers from candidates, though, and Chuck Marohn has a different list of questions over on Strong Towns which get at some of the issues I care about. It might be fun to ask them on the local level, too, and see if we can get beyond repeating the usual answers and catchphrases about growth, infrastructure, regulation and the like to ask what would really work and what it would cost.