By Tad Simons
Governance in the state of Minnesota has always been a balancing act between the priorities of the state Legislature and those of local municipalities. There are 853 cities in Minnesota, each with its own challenges, and legislators at the Capitol generally tend to agree (in word, if not always in deed) that local elected officials are in the best position to decide how the needs of their communities should be addressed.
Given this historic preference for local control, it was disappointing for city officials to see a flurry of bills proposed in the 2017 legislative session that sought to limit, undermine, or eliminate local decision-making in favor of regional control or one-size-fits-all mandates from the state. The League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) counted more than 30 such bills in 2017, covering everything from worker benefits, garbage collection, and building codes to the procedures for determining local taxes, levies, and other crucial financing vehicles for cities.
Only two of the bills passed, but taken together, the League believes they point to a potentially troubling trend in Minnesota politics: the desire on the part of some legislators and supporting interest groups to pass so-called “pre-emption” bills that, if enacted, would prevent elected officials in local municipalities from governing as they see fit or, in some cases, even governing at all.
Unprecedented pre-emption focus
“Every year, there are a handful of pre-emption bills—to do things like prevent cities from increasing levies, for instance—but this year there were more than I’ve ever seen,” says Anne Finn, LMC assistant intergovernmental relations director. The League does not typically stake out positions on the local policies identified in pre-emption legislation, but it does advocate to preserve local control in Minnesota politics as a matter of principle.
Though it is difficult to generalize about legislation that covers such a broad range of issues, the common denominator in pre-emption bills is that, intentionally or not, they undercut or “pre-empt” city officials from exercising authority and making their own decisions.
In response to the 2017 Legislature’s unprecedented volume of pre-emption bills, the League drafted a letter (along with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, Minnesota Association of Small Cities, Metro Cities, and Municipal Legislative Commission) expressing concern over legislation that would threaten “established local decision-making authority.” The letter emphasized the crucial role local elected officials play in Minnesota politics (if not democracy in general), as well as the dangers of upsetting the historically respectful balance between state and local authority.
Some of the bills introduced in 2017 involved such hot-button issues as increasing the minimum wage, paid family/sick leave, and “sanctuary” cities, while others dug into the details of public financing in an attempt to alter the rules cities use to pay for necessary expenses such as pothole and sewer repairs.
A national trend
And it’s not just a Minnesota problem. LMC Executive Director David Unmacht says pre-emption is a prominent topic when he attends meetings with the leaders of other state municipal leagues. “Legislative pre-emption at both the state and federal level continues to come up for discussion during our meetings,” Unmacht says. “It’s interesting to see that Minnesota is no different, but each state is distinct in its own political motives and legislative policy items.”
In a 2017 report on this topic, the National League of Cities called this the “era of pre-emption,” because of the unprecedented number of pre-emption bills being introduced and passed around the country.
“There’s a coordinated national effort to pass these types of bills, and there’s a strong push in Minnesota now,” says state Rep. Mike Freiberg (DFL-Golden Valley). “It’s a power grab.”
The politics of pre-emption
Paradoxically (and ironically), most of the 30-plus bills on the League’s list were introduced by Republicans, whose historic preference for local over state control has long been a guiding principle. To be fair, however, Republicans aren’t the only ones in favor of selective pre-emption when it suits them. Several bills on the League’s list have DFL co-sponsors and, over the years, Republicans have accused Democrats many times of proposing pre-emption measures.
The core dynamic at work nowadays is that, as many observers have noted, the liberal/conservative, urban/rural divide in contemporary politics has made cities the focus of legislative tension. Many large cities (including Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth) have gotten more aggressive about passing ordinances banning or taxing plastic bags, for instance, or advancing such worker-friendly laws as paid sick leave and a higher minimum wage.
Lawmakers and interest groups who disagree with these policies (or whose constituents fear the spread of such policies beyond the metro area) often push back with pre-emption bills aimed at preventing such ordinances from ever taking effect. For instance, the reason Minneapolis never implemented a ban on plastic bags in 2017, as it had voted to do, is because of a pre-emption amendment blocking the measure. The amendment was submitted by Republicans, supported by several business organizations, and signed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
Media attention on these matters tends to gravitate toward divisive, easy-to-understand issues that affect people who live in or near the state’s major metropolitan areas. However, the laws most likely to impact people who live in small cities throughout the state do not necessarily make for splashy headlines. As anyone who has tried to read them knows, some of the pre-emption bills proposed in the 2017 Legislature are hard to understand.
For example, one alarming trend involves attempts to withhold local government aid (LGA) in order to force compliance with immigration laws, say, or to punish cities for enacting ordinances that some legislators dislike. The LGA formula that determines the amount a city receives assesses “unmet needs,” not regulatory compliance, so there is no connection in these bills between the threat to withhold LGA and the formula used to determine it. For small cities that rely heavily on LGA, however, taking it away would be nothing short of disastrous.
“LGA has been a huge source of funding for 40 years, and if we didn’t have it, we’d have to raise property taxes,” says Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski.
“Threatening to take LGA away just because you don’t agree with what a city is doing—that’s short-sighted. It’s wrong.”
It’s also misguided, Smiglewski adds, since some cities receive no LGA at all, and hence could not be punished by withholding it.
Let city officials do their jobs
Even more disturbing to some mayors in small cities was the number of proposals in the 2017 session calling for reverse referendums that would subject such decisions as levy increases, lease purchases of public buildings, and certain utility fees to a public vote. That may sound laudably democratic, says Smiglewski and other city officials, except that the whole point of electing mayors and city councilmembers is so they can study the issues and make informed decisions on behalf of the citizens who voted for them.
“Some things, like jails, are difficult to build, and referendums are hard to pass,” notes Smiglewski. “Nobody likes to pay for these things, but you have to have them.”
Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson is also critical of legislators’ attempts to pre-empt city authority. “I understand that the state and feds have to regulate certain things,” she says. “But state legislators have no business interfering with city business. They have no idea how these issues would affect different cities. They can’t know. There’s no way to know unless you’re sitting in that city council chair yourself.”
Aside from the individual bills themselves, another concern is the nagging perception of an increasingly adversarial relationship between the state and cities. “What really troubles me about all this is the underlying message from the Capitol that they don’t trust local officials,” says Smiglewski. “Whether or not that’s the message they want to send, that’s the message I’m getting.”
Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa), author of bill HF 654, which calls for a reverse referendum process on property tax increases for general city operations, says “trust” between the state and cities is a twoway street.
“Legislators want to trust local officials, and they do trust them when they act responsibly,” says Drazkowski. “It’s a minority of local officials who make irresponsible spending decisions, with those bad decisions contributing to increasing property taxes. They also contribute to increased calls for more LGA, which burdens state taxes.”
Preventing government waste and overreach is Drazkowski’s primary motivation, he says. “When the Legislature acts to protect taxpayers, we are doing what we told voters we would do, and it is our duty to do just that.”
The problem with most pre-emption bills, according to the League and other proponents of local decision-making authority, is that they seek to prevent elected government officials from doing their duty. Intentionally or not, pre-emption can have a negative impact on democracy and citizenship in city halls everywhere.
“Local governments are laboratories for democracy and effective public policy,” says Rep. Freiberg. “If you limit their control, you limit their ability to foster innovative policy, and innovative policy— which often starts in cities—is what spurs the state forward.”
Removing decision-making power from local officials also dissuades people from getting involved in local politics to begin with, says Mayor Smiglewski. “We need people. There are hundreds of [city council] seats in Minnesota that aren’t filled, and the demographics are getting worse. Taking power and control away does not entice people to get involved.”
“We already have systems and procedures in place for citizens to come forward and be heard,” says Mayor Carlson. “In general, the state should not interfere where local government is doing its job.”
2018 and beyond
True, most pre-emption bills went nowhere in 2017, but that doesn’t mean they’re going away. Bills introduced in odd years (the first half of the state’s fiscal biennial cycle) remain viable in even years. The political dynamics that created them in the first place and the groups that support pre-emption will persist in 2018, and many of the bills rejected in 2017 could get hearings this year. New bills will inevitably get introduced as well.
The League will continue to monitor the Legislature for pre-emption efforts and work to defeat them, Finn says. And once again, the help of city officials will be critical to their success.
Cities are encouraged to contact their legislators and take other actions in support of local decision-making authority. The League has put together an advocacy toolkit on this issue that includes a sample resolution to help cities with these efforts. The toolkit is available at www.lmc.org/localauthority.
Tad Simons is a freelance writer from St. Paul.
2018 Legislative Priorities
Protecting local authority is one of the League's 2018 legislative priorities. Read about all the priorities in a special four-page report.
* By posting you are agreeing to the LMC Comment Policy.