Is Met Council Reform in the Cards this Session?

With majorities in both houses and a president looking to cut budgets in Washington, there were several factors working against the Met Council this session.

Last session the Republican House held the line against building new light rail lines in the South West Corridor and the Northwest Bottineau Line. Although Advocates used every trick in the book to get these projects started with borrowed money, they are now having to come to grips with the idea that the state and the Feds won’t be underwriting them.  They will be paid for by the cities and counties that want them and by whatever they can get from the fair box. 

The Met Council governance structure has presented a problem for some time. It’s made up of 14 members who are supposed to represent districts in the metro region. These districts overlap counties, cities and legislative districts. The members are appointed by the Governor, giving him the biggest role in the Met Council’s direction.  The director of the Met Council was formerly a part time position but under Governor Dayton, it has become a full-time position on the same level as a commissioner. 

In the past, there have been 2 ways that Republican critics have seen to address the Met Council. One is to abolish it and assign its roles to state agencies.  The second is to change the governance structure. (1) Make its members local government officials who are elected in their own districts, cities or towns. (2) Stagger the terms so that all the members don’t turn over at once. 

We have always supported the first solution, abolish and reassign because we don’t think changing the governance structure will do enough to limit the Met Council's power, which is the heart of the problem here.  It’s an executive encroachment on both legislative and local government power. Putting a few mayors or commissioners on it won’t solve that.  Nor will staggering the terms. Instead, what is most likely to happen is that it would continue to grow, unchecked and unaccountable by any other layer of government. 

Testimony from local government officials and lobbyists was uniformly opposed but revealed some interesting facts.  Minnesota has a TAB (Transportation Authority Board) which advises the Met Council on Transportation related matters. The members of the TAB board are elected officials.  But in the end, the Met Council makes the decisions so an unelected board makes decisions but the elected board serves only in an advisory capacity.  This is backward in terms of accountability and in the eyes of the Federal Government.  Opponents did raise the issue the issue of conflict of interest of having city and county officials also serve on the Met Council.  But this only points to the tangled, multiple levels of government that serve government and not the citizen/taxpayer, making accountability nearly impossible. 

 At the heart of the question is the issue of “regionalism.”  Do we really need to have another layer of government which reflects the needs of regions, which exist outside of other geographical political entities like legislative districts, cities, counties and school districts?  Especially when this regional authorities’ power trumps all the other regions?  A Met Council district is roughly the size of 2 Senate Districts.  The Met council’s capital and operating budget are not contingent on legislative approval.  They get money from the state and directly from the federal government.  What we have here is an entity which is essentially competing with the legislature for power and resources. 

But the Governor plays a key role here since changing the Met Council through legislation requires a bill with his signature. And this Governor supports the concept of a Met Council and would like to expand it's reach and powers further into the suburbs.  So anything that curtails or limits it's automony or authority is likely to be stopped cold.

 

Major Points of HF 1866 The House Transportation Policy and Regional Governance.

 

  • Legislative approval of light rail projects. Prevents a county or city in the Twin Cities metropolitan area from spending any funds for study, project development, or construction of a light rail transit project, unless the project is specifically authorized by the legislature.
  • Metropolitan Council Governance Reform.  Provides that the Metropolitan Council consists of 27 members, instead of 17. Provides for:
    • (1) each county board to appoint one member to the council;
    • (2) a local elected official appointed from each of the 16 council districts by the municipal committee* in each district; and
    • (3) the commissioner of transportation and three other persons appointed by the commissioner of transportation to represent modes of transportation.
    • Specifies that local elected offices are compatible with serving on the Metropolitan Council.
    • Each appointee serves two years.
    • Members to be paid $20,000 per year and the chair, $40,000 per year This is, in addition, to pay as a local elected official. Provides that the commissioner of transportation does not receive compensation but may get reimbursed for expenses, as may the other members. (Governor Dayton promoted current Met Council Chair Adam Duininck to full time and set his pay at $123,000, like other commissioners.)
    • The chair of the Met Council will be appointed by and from among the council members.

*Municipal committees are committees made up of representatives of all the cities in a Met Council district. 

  • Metropolitan Council Fiscal Reform. Requires the council to present its proposed budget to the legislature approximately 11 months before its implementation (by February 15) and prohibits the council from adopting a budget for the next calendar year until the legislature enacts a law authorizing a budget. Freeze: If no law is enacted by August 1, the council may proceed to adopt a budget and certify levies at the same level but with no increases.
  • Farebox Recovery. Directs the Metropolitan Council to set a farebox recovery objective of 40 percent by 2022. The recovery ratio is calculated as the average across all regular route bus, bus rapid transit, light rail transit, and commuter rail lines of the council (so it excludes dial-a-ride and Metro Mobility service).
  • Eliminates the Transportation Advisory Board. The TAB board duties would essentially be taken over by the newly constituted Met Council under this bill. 
  • Prohibits expansion of the metropolitan planning organization boundaries beyond the area already included until two years after the federal notice of Qualifying Urban Areas after the 2020 federal decennial census. This provision mirrors a bill authored by Congressman Jason Lewis that would prevent the Federal government from allowing “metropolitan planning organizations” (MPOs) like the Met Council to expand their jurisdictions and planning authority at will. A last-minute Obama Administration executive order allowed them to do so.
  • Legislative approval of light rail projects. Prevents the Metropolitan Council from spending any funds for the study, project development, or construction of a light rail transit project, unless the project is specifically authorized by the legislature. Effective the day after enactment. 9 Project development requirements; co-location. Requires the Council to establish standards and criteria for co-location of freight rail and light rail transit. Lists criteria and standards that must be included. Effective the day after enactment.
  • Project development requirements. Requires the responsible authority for a light rail transit project to perform an alternatives and benefits analysis before beginning an environmental analysis or preliminary engineering. Lists topics to be included.
  • Local government ability to challenge.  Local governments will be able to challenge the reasonableness of a metropolitan system plan or part of one when objecting to a system statement. Effective the day after enactment for system statements prepared on or after that date.

 HF 1866 is waiting to be heard in the Ways and Means Committee.  It may get held back as part of a global deal for the session However, it may also get voted on by both bodies and sail through conference committee and to the governor's desk for a quick veto. In fact, the faster it appears, the less likely it will be that it is part of some negotiation and is destined for failure this session.   

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