Lawmakers moved to clamp down on the Metropolitan Council on Monday, with a variety of measures that would restructure the body, hem in its authority and turn back one of its signature efforts, building the Southwest Light Rail Transit line.
House members spent much of the afternoon on a bill authored by Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, that would expand the council to 27 people. The new council would include one representative from each county, 16 represented by panels of cities in the council's individual districts and four transportation representatives.
The bill got a hearing in the House transportation committee and was set aside for inclusion in a larger bill later in the session.
"This is not about the issue of growing government," Albright said. "This is about growing the opportunity for citizens to have representation on a council that for the last 50 years has gone unaccounted."
The measure comes as the Met Council is preparing its most ambitious project ever. The Southwest light rail line is a $1.86 billion, 14.3-mile extension of Green Line light rail service from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. Lawmakers declined to approve or fund the project last session, but the council came up with a funding mechanism of its own to keep the project alive. It's now projected to open in 2021.
This isn't the first time the council has clashed with local governments over infrastructure and developments in the past. And some of the very officials that might serve on the new expanded council pushed back against the plan during testimony.
Edina Mayor Jim Hovland said he didn't think it was practical to expect part-time local elected officials to take even more time away from their regular jobs to attend to regional planning and regulatory matters. He also questioned whether city officials could set aside their local priorities.
"Do you really want to put local elected officials and county officials in a position where they're both 'the regulator' and potentially 'the regulated' and what kind of conflicts of interest could that create?"
DFL Rep. Cheryl Youakim noted that both Hennepin County and Dakota County would each get one seat under the plan.
"My concern is that it would greatly outbalance — I could see why Dakota County would like it because you would have the same voting power as a county that has three times your size. You're really giving people more say than their population."
But Republicans said the existing structure has given governors practical veto authority over much of Twin Cities' development and transportation planning, unchecked by the Legislature.
"People don't feel like they're being heard," said Rep. Nolan West , R-Blaine. "They have no recourse to what the council does. So now, our only alternative is to change the governance of the council, because it's only appointed by one man."
Lawmakers also weighed bills that would require transit riders to pick up a much larger share of the cost of their rides, which are currently subsidized by taxpayers, and another that would ban any light rail projects that don't get specific Legislative authorization. Members of both the House and Senate said they'd written resolutions asking the federal government to deny more than $900 million in transit aid to Southwest light rail and give it to the state for roads and bridges instead.
Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said the legislation contains a number of inaccuracies and misrepresents the Southwest light rail project.
"The project has undergone exhaustive public engagement and has broad support from business groups, labor organizations, the cities and county along the line," said Duininck in a written statement. "The project received state funding in the amount of $37 million from 2009, 2011 and 2013, as well as significant local funding from Hennepin County, Counties Transit Improvement Board and the cities along the corridor."
Gov. Mark Dayton said he was willing to hear out the proposed changes for the Met Council, as long as they were "intended to improve its effectiveness," he said in a statement. "This bill qualifies as such a measure, although it would cause a drastic change in the Council's governance, for reasons that have not been demonstrated. I look forward to meeting with the bill's authors and the present Council leadership to discuss this and other options."
It's the second such challenge to gubernatorial authority in just over a week. Two House committees have also approved a bill that would take away a governor's right to appoint most of the board that runs U.S. Bank Stadium, as well.