Local officials want more control, fewer orders from the stateby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
With the state facing a $4.6 billion budget deficit, officials say it's inevitable that cities and counties will see some cuts in funding. But, in exchange for the cuts, local officials want fewer mandates from the state telling them what they need to do.
St. Paul, Minn. — In the last two years, Hennepin County spent nearly $2 million to provide funeral and burial services for more than 1,700 people who didn't have the assets to pay for their own funerals. Ramsey County spent $713,000 during the same time period.
State law requires counties to provide funeral and burial services for the indigent. But a proposal at the Capitol would change the law and require cremation, a less expensive option, unless the family or next of kin raises a moral or religious objection.
At a recent committee hearing, Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, debated the merits of the proposal.
"If the family does have a preference, they will honor the preference," said Berglin. "But if the family doesn't have the preference, or if there is no family or next of kin, then why should we assume that burial is the proper way to proceed rather than cremation?"
"Just because somebody is poor or doesn't have enough money to pay for their funeral services, to start herding people in the direction of saying, 'No, you have to be cremated,' I think it's a pretty sad state of affairs," Koering responded.
The funeral option is just one of many state requirements that lawmakers are looking to eliminate. Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester, is leading the effort in the Minnesota Senate.
Lynch said she's looking for ways for local governments to save money, since it's likely they'll see a cut in state aid.
"We need to look at things in a different way. We need to look at things with recognition of the state that we're in and the financial situation we're in. We simply can't afford to do business as usual," said Lynch.
Local government officials offered dozens of suggestions to Lynch on which requirements or mandates are unnecessary.
Lynch said she and other lawmakers went through the list and scratched any proposals that would impact public safety, would cost the state money or would have other unintended consequences.
The items that lawmakers are still considering range from letting counties institute a four-day work week to cutting public meeting notices that have to be printed in local newspapers.
Jim Mulder with the Association of Minnesota Counties said the savings would be significant.
"Some of our proposals are $10 million to $15 million in and of themselves. Others are very small. It might be $10,000 or $20,000," said Mulder. "Our goal is to really rely on local government officials to make tough decisions about what they can and cannot have in their community."
Mulder said one of the two highest priorities for counties is to remove a requirement that they have to hold short-term offenders in county jails.
Another is the requirement to publish notices in local newspapers. Mulder says eliminating that requirement could save local governments up to $10 million a year.
But Mark Anfinson with the Minnesota Newspaper Association says that's a bad idea. He said the public is best informed when government has to publish a city's budget or a delinquent property tax list in the newspaper.
"Of all of the mandates on the list, public notices published independently by some of the newspapers are some of the oldest. Maybe we should look at the more recent ones and start examining them first," said Anfinson. "The other fact is that if you eliminate all public notices, it really wouldn't save government that much money."
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, not only wants to eliminate the published notice of Truth in Taxation hearings, he wants to eliminate the hearings altogether.
Lanning is one of several lawmakers pushing mandate reform in the House. He said the hearings, which are required before a local government passes its budget, aren't useful because they come right before a budget is finalized.
"If you go back and look, I bet it would be rare to find any change in any budget anywhere that resulted from a truth in taxation hearing, simply because it came too late in the process," said Lanning.
Lanning said local governments would still have to notify people about the proposed budget, and the time and place when a budget hearing will take place.
That's not good enough for Phil Krinkie with the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. Krinkie said there are plenty of requirements to get rid of, but the truth in taxation hearing should not be one of them.
"There's no huge cost to having a public hearing on property taxes and property tax increases and city budgets," said Krinkie. "I think it's time for legislators to get real about mandates that cost local units of governments money."
Krinkie also criticized Lanning for wanting to remove the current property tax cap on local governments in his bill. He said cities and counties that receive state aid should be expected to keep property taxes at a certain level.
Lanning, who served as mayor of Moorhead, said local elected officials, not the state, should decide when to increase property taxes.
- All Things Considered, 03/11/2009, 5:24 p.m.