By Mary Jane Smetanka
In the hubbub that is the nation’s capital, the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) is trying to make sure the concerns of our state’s municipalities are heard at the federal level.
The timing is right for that, says LMC Executive Director David Unmacht. Many of the most pressing issues that Minnesota cities face at the state Legislature, like how to improve transportation and water infrastructure, are affected by decisions in Washington. And it’s inefficient for all cities to try to lobby for themselves when the League has the knowledge and resources to provide leadership and support for issues common to municipalities across the state.
“We have the opportunity to do more at the federal level without it being a costly or overreaching program,” Unmacht says.
“It takes time, and it takes effort, and the size of the federal government is so large and complex, but the League has the ability to coordinate resources, facilitate conversations, and advocate for our members’ interests,” he adds. “The League can speak really well for cities as a group. Since we are early in our efforts, our immediate focus is on building relationships, communications, and awareness.”
When the League surveyed member cities last year on their priorities at the federal level, about 80 cities responded. The top areas of interest were infrastructure and transportation funding, and opportunities for grants and federal aid. The League is focusing on five areas that affect most Minnesota cities:
In March, Unmacht, other LMC staff, and about 60 representatives of Minnesota cities attended the National League of Cities (NLC) Congressional Conference in Washington. On the meeting’s final day, they set out to strengthen Minnesota cities’ ties to their congressional delegation.
In a whirlwind day, groups of LMC staff and Minnesota city officials from across the state met individually with Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith; Reps. Rick Nolan, Keith Ellison, and Betty McCollum; and staff for Reps. Jason Lewis, Tom Emmer, and Erik Paulsen.
LMC President Jo Emerson, the mayor of White Bear Lake, was on the trip and said the visits went well. “They need to hear our stories; it puts a face on issues. It reminds them that they are working for us. That’s why I think this is a good move,” she says. “The issues that we stressed are those that basically help all cities. I think they understand that Greater Minnesota and the metro are intertwined.”
Loss of local control, or pre-emption, is a particular concern for city officials. In the Minnesota Legislature last year, more than 30 bills proposed to remove or limit city control over issues like worker benefits, garbage collection, and procedures used to determine local taxes. While just two of those bills passed, some have returned this year along with new pre-emption proposals. This trend toward overruling cities at the state and federal level is frustrating and scary for city officials, Emerson says.
“I’ve told both state and federal representatives that we balance our budgets, we get our projects done, and we need the authority to do and complete them,” she says. “If you start chipping away at our authority, why do you need a city?”
The League’s action plan for this year is to keep cities and LMC staff informed about federal issues that affect Minnesota cities, build and strengthen relationships with the congressional delegation and its staff, and coordinate federal lobbying efforts with the National League of Cities.
LMC staff hope to regularly meet with congressional representatives, including during the coming summer, and talk with the National League of Cities about playing a bigger role in NLC efforts. Members of the Minnesota congressional delegation will be invited to attend or send their staff to LMC meetings and events.
As of now, the same staff that promote city interests at the Minnesota Legislature will work on federal priorities as well, says Ann Lindstrom, an LMC intergovernmental relations representative who coordinates federal relations and advocacy.
“We almost always have a seat at the table in Minnesota on issues impacting cities, and with our congressional representatives, we want to have a seat at their table, too,” Lindstrom says. “The political winds are constantly changing, so we’re trying to establish a long-game approach.”
Member cities have indicated they want the League to advocate more at the federal level, Lindstrom says. Some have been trying to lobby their congressional representatives themselves. Other cities report that congressional representatives or independent groups have asked them to take a position on bigger issues that they’re not always familiar with. They end up calling the League for more information.
“They can check with us. We can help assess issues, and I can tell them what we’re doing,” Lindstrom says. “Coordination is big, and will make working at the federal level easier.”
One of the messages the League wants to convey in Washington, she says, is that cities have a finite amount of money. The trend of pushing responsibilities down to cities without new funding simply doesn’t work. That’s another reason why establishing LMC as the voice of Minnesota cities in Washington is so important, Lindstrom says.
“In the long term, we want to raise our level of importance and our value to those who represent us in D.C.,” she says. “The gauge of our success is when congressional representatives say, ‘I want to know what our state League thinks of this bill.’”
Another key idea that the LMC groups conveyed during the March meetings was that, as the government that is nearest to the people, cities often have more impact on citizens’ lives than the federal government does. So, federal decisions about cities affect the lives of Minnesotans more than many other decisions made at the federal level, Lindstrom says.
That’s what makes the LMC effort important, Mayor Emerson says. “The mindset of people in general is that we can’t do anything about what they do in Washington. But it’s apparent that [members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation] do listen. So, we have to have a presence. All cities can’t do this, but the League can, and the League’s efforts can help all of us.”
Mike Laven, a Mankato city councilmember, was one of the Minnesota city officials who went to the NLC Congressional Conference and attended the meetings with congressional members in March. He believes the League effort is especially important because Minnesota could lose a congressional seat if the 2020 Census shows population is growing faster in other states. Now’s the time to build political connections and influence, he says.
“Getting the groundwork laid now will help us, regardless of what happens. Without a backbone of strong effort and talk about what matters to Minnesota, it doesn’t matter if we have 20 congressional seats or seven. We need a strong presence there,” Laven says.
“I can’t imagine trying to figure out housing and transportation in Mankato without knowing what our federal representatives are thinking,” he adds. “Somebody needs to be there and advocating for that.”
Marvin Johnson, mayor of the City of Independence, also went to Washington in March. He points out that after the 2007 recession, many cities had to cut their budgets. They simply can’t afford to cut anything more, he says, and that message needs to be conveyed in Washington.
“Everybody feels we can’t let our road and infrastructure needs slide any further, or things are going to fall apart completely,” he says. “All of us face the same issues.”
Johnson was pleased with the reception the LMC groups got from Minnesota senators and representatives. Both Democrats and Republicans listened respectfully, and the discussion was nonpartisan and positive, he says.
“I think it’s important for them to see a mayor in person, knowing that you’ve made the effort to come to them. That carries weight,” Johnson says. “It’s always good to try to be in contact and know who these people are, so they can call you up and have confidence and trust in you. Seeing people face-to-face really does make a difference.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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