Minnesota Cities Magazine

Let's Talk: Changing Perspectives—From City Hall to State Capitol

A discussion with Rep. Jeff Howe (R-Rockville) and Rep. Shannon Savick (DFL-Wells)

The Minnesota Legislature has many members who once served as elected city officials. Minnesota Cities talked to two members of the House of Representatives, both of whom served their first year in 2013, to find out how their perspectives have changed and what advice they might have for current city officials around the state.

Minnesota Cities: What prompted you to run for city government, and then for a seat in the House? Headshot of MN Rep. Jeff Howe

Rep. Jeff Howe: I got involved in city government because, having been a city government employee for many years, I noticed that many times we forget that the “city” is the citizens and not an entity by itself. I wanted to be a councilmember that the citizens could count on to make decisions in their best interest and spend their tax dollars with the understanding that they are their dollars—not the city’s. I ran for the House because I saw it as an opportunity to bring that same philosophy to state government.A headshot of MN Rep. Shannon Savick

Rep. Shannon Savick: Southern Minnesota is a very special place for me. I grew up there and worked with my mother in her restaurant. Being connected and invested in your community is such a big part of what makes Minnesota great. For me, living in Wells, I knew that I could help the community by serving as a city councilmember and mayor. When the opportunity arose for me to continue my service as a member in the House of Representatives, it seemed like a great chance to represent the area I love so much.

MC: Since becoming a state representative, have your views about city authority/autonomy changed at all? If so, how?

JH: I have always believed that the best government is at the lowest level and that is where the best decisions are made. That said, I also believe there are local governments that forget that they are not an entity unto themselves, but they are made up by their citizens and are there to represent them. I also believe that when we enact new legislation that gives more authority/ autonomy to local governments, we need to ensure that we protect the rights of citizens in those communities.

SS: So much of Minnesota is made up of communities like Wells. It’s a small community that addresses the needs of its local residents. So when a community like that has an issue where the state is involved, it changes the process. Whether an issue is under local or state authority, you really need to be communicating from day one. Having now served on both sides of that kind of situation, you really start to appreciate just how valuable communication can be for all the parties involved, especially when the question comes up of who is in charge. Each situation will probably have a different answer to that question.

MC: Have you noticed areas where state and local governments should be working more closely together?
JH: I include all the state agencies in defining state government, not just the Minnesota Legislature. In that respect, I would recommend that local government officials include your state legislators when dealing with state agencies. Invite them to the meetings and, although we may be busy and unable to attend, it will keep us updated with an understanding of the local matters that you are working through with the state agencies. I also have found there are plenty of areas that we can work better together such as in the matters of transportation, school funding, and data privacy, just to name a few.

SS: A big piece of our budget this year was an $80 million increase in local government aid (LGA). Communities really rely on LGA to balance their budget and offer the services that people depend on. During the budgeting process, I really saw great communication between city advocates and state representatives to make sure communities got the support that they needed. That kind of working relationship really paid dividends for getting the increase that those communities needed.

MC: What useful lessons could the state government learn from city governments in Minnesota, and what could city governments learn from the state?

JH: MN Rep. Jeff Howe speaks on the House floor.I believe the state government could learn to be more transparent in their reasons for enacting legislation. At the city government level, the citizens are right there to ask the questions and are usually much more involved. __________________________________________ Right: Rep. Howe speaks on the floor of the
House of Representatives.

Many times, at the state level, the citizen involvement is missing or limited due to distance and time available, so the right questions do not get asked. This is especially true with omnibus bills or conference committee bills, where the time to review is very constrained and eliminates the transparency and public scrutiny. City government could learn to look more long-range and refrain from taking the easy, quick answer. Many times, cities are not the first to deal with an issue and there are examples to work from, keeping in mind there are few “one-size-fits-all,” but it does give a basis from which to work. Long-term, we need to understand there may be second- and third-order effects of our decisions, and that is where both levels of government need to improve.

SS: At the state government level, I think we can always do a better job of looking through more of a problem-solving lens. Rather than focusing on partisan politics, I think we need to just sit down and talk about solutions. We really started doing that this year under our new leadership. At the city government level, it can always help to take a step back and learn from what other cities are doing. All the different communities across Minnesota deal with similar issues, but they probably find their own unique ways to address them. Taking a step back and looking at an issue from a broader, state-level view can definitely help cities find new solutions.

MC: What was your proudest accomplishment as a city official, and now, as a state legislator?
JH: It is hard to point at one thing, but if I had to, it would be changing the zoning to allow rural-residential development. It allowed the development of marginal agricultural properties to a better use. As a state legislator, it would be getting four bills signed into law as a freshman in the minority party.

Rep. Shannon Savick speaks at the Firefighters Memorial dedication at the MN State Capitol.SS: As a city official, it was always my goal to ensure we provided public services, no matter what financial hardships we were facing. __________________________________________ Right: Rep. Savick speaks at a
Firefighters Memorial Ceremony.

I served during the entire recession and it was really tough to balance those budgets while LGA and other income was being slashed. I’m still very proud that we were able to make it through those tough times. As a member of the House, I’ve pushed for more support for our firefighters and first responders. In 2013, I got a bill passed to help cut the red tape for local pension funds. I also introduced a bill to provide a tax credit for volunteer first responders and firefighters that I hope can move forward this year. I was also the chief author of the bill that increased funding for the Minnesota Investment Fund by $30 million. The money will help small businesses come to Minnesota or expand their operations by offering grants and low-interest loans. It’s going to help support a lot of job creation over the next few years.

MC: What advice would you give city officials about how to effectively advocate for their city at the Capitol?
JH: There are a number of ways to express your views on bills, and all have a measure of success, but it really depends on how much time is available. The best is to come down to the Capitol and testify in front of the committee hearing the bill. It’s not always very convenient for outstate cities, since the notification of when bills will be heard is relatively short, so having a good rapport with your legislator and meeting with them is the nextbest thing. Phone calls, emails, and letters are also important, but do not replace personal visits.

SS: I’m always happy to speak with any local official about concerns they may have. This last session, I had a lot of visitors to my office in St. Paul and I made a lot of visits to people in the district while I was home. The best way for Minnesota to move forward is to move together. Any time there are concerns or suggestions, I’d love to hear them. As a representative, I’m always looking for any input local officials might have.

MC: What issues or bills should city officials watch closely during the 2014 session?
JH: The bonding bill will be the biggest piece of legislation coming forward, with many more requests than the state can possibly support. I would also anticipate an attempt to increase minimum wage, implement a safe schools mandate, and another visit to the business-to-business taxes passed last session.

SS: Because 2013 was a budget year, most of our energy was focused on passing a balanced budget on time that invested in education, job creation, and property tax relief. For 2014, Gov. Dayton has already expressed his desire to have an “Unsession,” where we find ways to make government more efficient and effective. I fully support that idea. For local officials and businesses, this is really the time to make your voices heard. How can we simplify or improve parts of the state government? I think it’s going to be a very positive process and I hope to receive a lot of local input.

Read the January-February 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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