By Andrew Tellijohn
The new year brings Minnesota a new governor and state auditor, as well as a secretary of state returning for his second term. What are their priorities? Where do they stand on city issues? The following profiles provide some insights for city officials as the 2019 legislative session begins.
Walz Supports Local Control and State Aid for Cities
A couple weeks after Tim Walz was elected Minnesota’s governor-in-waiting, he embarked on a statewide listening tour.
Walz won with the most votes ever cast for a gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota, but he acknowledges that more than a million people supported his opponent. Many of the stops on his five-day trek were to areas where he didn’t get the most votes. “I want to know where I was not connecting,” he says.
Although Walz realizes compromise has been lacking at the state Capitol, he says that part of the reason he’s returning to Minnesota after 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives was the possibility that bipartisanship might be easier to achieve.
“I haven’t said that it’s going to be my way because I won overwhelmingly,” he says, adding that he wants each state legislator to be able to go “back home as a Republican or Democratic legislator knowing that you served your constituents. That’s a win.”
While he’s open to compromising on some issues, he feels strongly when it comes to fully funding city aid programs. He wants full funding restored for programs like local government aid (LGA), the Wastewater Infrastructure Fund, and city street funds such as Municipal State Aid and the Small Cities Assistance Account. This funding will help alleviate higher property taxes and keep cities from needing to choose between important services like water infrastructure and public safety, Walz says.
“I was very clear to Minnesota’s voters that I thought a restoration of local government aid and enhancing some of the programs I proposed, like community prosperity grants that allow for local control and local decision-making, was the right way to go,” he says, adding that he expects to propose restoring LGA to the 2002 level.
He also plans to push for a comprehensive, long-term plan for dealing with transportation infrastructure, which he has found generally to be in substandard condition.
“It’s putting people at risk, safety-wise, and it’s slowing down our ability to grow our economy,” Walz says.
He’s proposed increasing the state’s gas tax, though he’s open to any idea that paves the way to better roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure, as long as it’s a long-term solution that doesn’t come from the general fund and that the onus doesn’t fall completely on Greater Minnesota.
He also generally supports local decision-making. He says he thinks statewide uniformity makes sense for some issues—such as, perhaps, establishing a legal age for the purchase of tobacco or the minimum wage. Otherwise, though, he says he thinks local officials should deal with local issues.
“Those local officials are keenly aware of the issues in their community,” Walz says. “They’re very accountable. I always mention, only half-jokingly, that folks know where they live if they don’t get something done.”
As of this writing, Walz says he is still defining plans for his opening days in office, though strengthening the state’s education programs, from pre-K to apprenticeships in the trades, will be among them, as will tackling the price and availability of health care. He also plans to push the Legislature to think of delivering services—whether health care, education, housing, or others—in a more holistic manner.
Walz grew up in rural Nebraska and joined the Army National Guard at 17. He arrived in Mankato in 1996 after marrying Gwen Whipple, whom he met while teaching in Nebraska. He’s been in Congress since 2006, and says he’s tried to be an effective bipartisan member. He hopes to continue that on a statewide level starting in January.
He says he knows Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) is obligated to advocate strongly for positions espoused by his voters, colleagues, and supporters, but hopes they can work together to solve problems.
“We’re in the unique position where more people in the history of Minnesota voted for our ticket than anyone ever before, and it was the largest margin of victory in 25 years,” Walz says. “So, obviously, something we were saying to them was resonating.”
Blaha Seeks to Collaborate With Local Governments
While Julie Blaha was growing up, her mother Sandy was the first woman elected to a government position in Burns Township. Sandy Blaha was fed up with dirt roads and wanted to do something about it.
In the process, she became one of her daughter’s inspirations for getting involved and, ultimately, running for office.
“She and her neighbors were able to find a way to not just pave our roads but the roads in a couple neighborhoods around us,” says Julie Blaha, who was elected state auditor in November. “And when my friend down the street could go riding bikes with us again with her asthma, I really saw this is what local government does. It was something that was very real.”
As state auditor, Blaha will oversee $20 billion in spending by cities, counties, and other local governments. She is the first new state auditor since the 2006 election of Rebecca Otto, who stepped down last year to run for governor.
Blaha is excited to get started but realizes her first task is to listen and learn. “One of the biggest things I need to do in my first year is travel around the state and listen to as many people as I can about what they want to do next,” she says.
With a lot of new elected officials starting up in 2019, she encourages city leaders to connect with the auditor’s office and discuss their needs. She wants to be a resource for solving problems.
One issue Blaha is passionate about is pensions. Her most recent role as secretary-treasurer of the local AFLCIO labor union had her involved as the 2018 Legislature passed legislation improving the solvency of public employee pensions. She says vigilance will be required to ensure that progress is maintained.
“The times when we’ve had major problems with our pensions is when we’ve put off solutions,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to do small fixes along the way instead of waiting for a big problem. Early fixes are far more cost-effective.”
Another issue of importance to cities is tax increment financing, a tool used to promote economic development. Blaha does not envision any major changes initially but wants to offer her office as a resource to cities to ensure they understand how the often-misunderstood strategy works.
“It’s something that can be daunting for a new city councilmember or a new committee member,” she says. “One of the things we need to be doing is promoting the training materials that are available out of the auditor’s office.”
When it comes to financial oversight of local governments, Blaha says she sees her role as being like the critical friend who is unflinchingly honest and holds you accountable, in an effort to help you be more successful.
“It’s not a ‘gotcha’ approach,” she says. “The approach is: how do we make sure you are saying what you’re going to do, and you’re doing what you said? That’s just good government.”
Blaha grew up in Burns Township, which became the City of Nowthen in 2008. She has also lived in Elk River and Big Lake, attended St. Cloud State University, worked in the metro, and now lives in the City of Ramsey. Living in suburbs and rural areas while working in the metro has helped her understand the different ways people look at issues.
“The most important thing about being auditor is having experiences with small cities or townships, because they have some really unique needs,” she says. “When every dollar counts and so many people are doing so much as volunteers and are putting their heart and soul into stuff, you really have to understand that.”
Most of all, she wants a collaborative approach. “I think it’s important that this office is responsive to what local government needs,” she adds. “Our office is successful when local government is successful.”
SECRETARY OF STATE
Presidential Primary Top of Mind for Simon’s Second Term
When Steve Simon became Secretary of State in 2014, Minnesota had fallen to sixth in the country in voter turnout. He set a goal of reclaiming the nation’s top spot and his office worked with businesses, schools, nonprofits, and others to do so.
The efforts were many. In targeting the state’s youngest voters, for example, the office instituted Minnesota College Ballot Bowl, a competition between campuses to see which can register the most voters.
Though most high school students aren’t eligible to vote, the office also instituted a mock election called Students Vote. Studies show “if you can get young people thinking of themselves as voters,” they are more likely to make voting a lifelong habit once they reach voting age, Simon says.
Mission accomplished. In 2016, Minnesota regained the top spot and in 2018 the margin widened. Simon names voter turnout improvements and maintaining election integrity through the controversial 2016 election, where security issues hampered other states, as his top first-term accomplishments. As he approaches his second term, earned with a win in last November’s election, the state’s first presidential primary election is top of mind.
In 2020, the state will administer a presidential primary separate from the caucus meetings. And he wants the Legislature to address concerns over the fact that voter party choice is currently considered public information.
“As I’ve traveled around the state, I’ve heard a lot of anxiety from a lot of citizens and elections administrators about that possibly chilling participation,” Simon says. “I would like the Legislature to fix that. If the political parties need that information, fine, but that shouldn’t be public.”
There are also concerns about the cost of a primary and how it will be administered. “That is going to create some real staffing and bandwidth challenges for a lot of cities and counties around the state,” he says.
Expanding vote-by-mail for the primary may be an option “up to and including running the whole thing by mail,” he says. “There are states that run all their elections by mail. It would relieve some pressure on local governments.”
With the popularity of the state’s early voting in recent years—24 percent of Minnesotans cast their ballots before Election Day in 2018—Simon also thinks there may be an appetite among legislators to move further toward a true early voting system, where a voter could go to city hall or a county office, complete a ballot, and place it directly into a tabulator instead of a series of envelopes.
“You can do both,” he says. “You can still maintain an absentee period that is very long, like ours is, and you can have true early voting.” Simon says communication between his office and cities, counties, and other partners has traditionally been strong. Following the 2017 legislative session, Simon’s office reached out to those partners to seek representation on a working group aimed at figuring out how to allocate federal money for maintaining election integrity.
“No one made us do that, but we want to do that,” Simon says. “They are our partners. Through processes like that, we’ve come to know each other and trust each other.”
That communication often comes in person. Other than leaving the state for college and a short work stint, he’s always lived in the metro-area cities of St. Louis Park and Hopkins. But he’s committed to hearing from every corner of the state, having visited all 87 counties four years running.
“It is really one of the best parts of my job,” he says. “You discover early on that the best ideas come from all over the state.”
For example, on one trip he met a business owner who asked why there wasn’t a way he could identify his company as veteran-owned. That spawned several discussions that led to establishing a database where people can search demographic information about any business owner who opts to fill out a five-question survey.
“You cannot do this job well by just sitting in a bubble in St. Paul.” Simon says. “We have too many partnerships with too many people and organizations around the state. It’s very important to get out there.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.