by CHRIS ROGERS
The Winona County Board told state lawmakers to fund state programs or take them over. With the legislative session a few weeks away, local state representatives Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona) and Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) and state senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) sat down last month to listen to the county leaders’ concerns. Their concerns were significant.
Winona County Board member Jim Pomeroy pointed to the county’s community services department, which ended 2017 with a -$1.2-million fund balance. The county had to tap its reserves just to bring the fund balance up to zero, and the year before that, the department needed a $1.6-million bail out. Those kind of numbers have a big impact on local property taxes, Pomeroy said. The state requires counties to run community services programs, but it does not fund them sufficiently, he stated. “The only reason we raised taxes this year was to fund unfunded mandates in the community services area,” Pomeroy asserted. “You squeeze it, and it comes out,” he told the legislators.
The county levies millions every year for unfunded state mandates for programs that property taxes were never meant to pay for, County Board member Steve Jacob stated. “If you don’t want to fund them, I wouldn’t mind if you would take them back and implement them yourself, if you think you could do it better,” he told the state leaders.
County leaders have been grappling with the problem of unfunded mandates and talking about how they need to get the state to do something for years. Lately, the county has been getting more aggressive in putting pressure on the state government.
How did the local lawmakers respond? “We have the resources to do what you want. It’s a matter of implementing,” Pelowski said. The state should talk about increasing the base funding for counties, he stated.
Drazkowski focused on the possibility of the state offering regulatory relief instead of increased funding. Maybe instead of increasing funding for the current mandates, the state could trim the mandates, he suggested. In an apparent reference to tighter rules for how quickly county child protection workers needed to respond to child welfare complaints that were passed in reaction to the death of child in Pope County, Minn., Drazkowski said, “The legislature responded by going way overboard because it’s politically expedient at that point. Who’s going to vote against kids?” Drazkowski pointed out that he has sponsored bills to cut mandates. The trouble is, he said, “Every one has its own constituency that fights like the dickens against you on it.”
“Everyone wants to defend what’s on the books. Some of this stuff on the books doesn’t work anymore. Times have changed. We need to change,” Pelowski agreed.
In a similar vein, Miller expressed interest in learning more about what would happen if the state eliminated complex reimbursement systems for community services programs and gave counties lump sums with fewer strings attached.
The county should continue working with the Association of Minnesota Counties, because when all 87 counties speak with one voice, the legislature listens, Drazkowski added. He also suggested that the legislature start producing “local fiscal notes” that would summarize the financial impact of bills on local governments in the same way it produces fiscal notes for bills affecting the state budget.
That’s a nice idea, but the legislature is not even producing state fiscal notes on the most important bills because they are written during the final hours of session, Pelowski said. “It would be great if we finished our work on time, and if we knew what was in the bills when we voted on them,” he stated. The legislature cannot pass sensible mandate reform if the trend of last-minute dealmaking continues, he argued.