Elected officials from in and around St. Paul gathered Wednesday to celebrate a legislative session that delivered hundreds of millions of dollars for a wide range of local projects.
St. Paul will get $25 million to spend the next three years replacing the deteriorating Third Street Bridge that connects downtown’s Kellogg Boulevard to the East Side.
And the Walker West Music Academy on Selby Avenue can expect $4 million for a new facility, while other community spaces, such as a Latino economic development center, the Mississippi River Learning Center, Playwrights Center and North End Community Center will benefit, too, from the priciest and arguably most productive state legislative session in history.
“We are giving this city an extreme makeover,” said Mayor Melvin Carter, flanked by the city’s elected state lawmakers, leaders of the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners and the entire St. Paul City Council during an unusual media event in the City Hall’s grand foyer.
They gave a lengthy recap of legislative wins from an unprecedented legislative session, then gathered for group selfies, hugs and promises of further cooperation.
With Democratic-Farmer-Labor majorities in the House and Senate, some level of boosted local government aid and other funding for St. Paul’s legislative priorities was never in doubt, but a $2.5 billion state infrastructure package — a combination of borrowing and cash from the state $17.5 billion budget surplus — delivered an additional $120 million for major construction in St. Paul, a whopper of a payout that never was guaranteed.
When it came to city, county and state officials from St. Paul, “we were all always on the same page,” said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, a key leader in the Democrats’ down-to-the-wire efforts to negotiate the $2.5 billion infrastructure package with Republican counterparts.
“I have never seen this close relationship between the city, the county and our legislative delegation,” Carter said.
Sales tax vote
For St. Paul voters, there’s a big choice ahead this November. State lawmakers have given the city the option of imposing a 1% local sales tax to raise nearly $1 billion over 20 years for arterial road reconstruction and parks and recreation improvements, pending voter approval.
It would come on top of a new metro-wide 1% combined sales tax for public transit and housing programs, and make sales taxes in St. Paul the priciest in the state, with the likely exception of some special entertainment districts. Critics such as the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce have called the potential back-to-back sales tax increases a double whammy, especially for restaurants and small businesses still trying to get their footing after the pandemic.
“We’re still concerned,” said Amanda Duerr, vice president of public affairs for the Chamber of Commerce. “That would put us at 9.875%, which would be the highest (sales tax) in the state from the cumulative effect of all these sales tax increases. We’ll become an outlier, when it’s just as easy to go to a surrounding community and end up spending less.”
St. Paul leads on policy
Beyond spending items, St. Paul’s legislative delegation sent major policy reforms to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz, a fellow DFLer, many of which survived tight party-line votes.
Rep. Dave Pinto, chair of the city’s delegation, authored two gun violence prevention measures that will require criminal background checks on all gun sales and establish “red flag” protections designed to temporarily remove guns from those deemed a danger to themselves or others.
“You can see the group standing behind me standing together,” said Pinto during Wednesday’s press event.
As a freshman, Rep. Leigh Finke didn’t necessarily expect to become the face of new “Trans Refuge” legislation, designed to protect people seeking or providing gender-affirming health care in Minnesota. She also didn’t expect the amount of vitriol the bill would trigger from its many Republican opponents before it was signed into law last month.
“I was really given space to do the work that I wanted to do, both as the Queer Caucus chair and as (a new lawmaker),” Finke said in an interview. “I was perhaps naive to how much animosity there was, both in the chamber and outside.”
Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten worked closely on a statewide ban of police no-knock warrants, which allows exceptions in special circumstances, and on residential tenant protections designed to expunge court eviction records after three years or in the case of a settlement or successful appeal of an eviction.
A statewide first-time homebuyer program will open doors, quite literally, allowing many families to begin accruing generational wealth, she said.
“None of this would have been possible without our strong local partners,” Verbeten said. “In St. Paul, we’re organizers. We demand justice.”
Rep. Athena Hollins carried legislation that allows St. Paul and other cities to go to the polls this November and request the authority to impose a new local option sales tax — a proposal that was blocked for a time by DFLers invested in the metro-wide tax to fund housing and transit.
Hollins noted that St. Paul’s parks, zoo and regional amenities like the state Capitol and college campuses swell with visitors from far outside the city, putting wear and tear on city streets, but the costs for road repair are borne by the city’s property owners.
“We serve the entire state. We all know that our roads are failing,” Hollins said. “The No. 1 complaint I heard when I was door-knocking was folks did not want their property taxes to go up. The East Side of St. Paul, where I live, and the North End where I represent … they can’t afford to have higher property taxes.”
Major spending items
Session highlights for the area include:
• An $8 million boost in state legislative aid for St. Paul, about a 10% increase, and an extra $6 million for Ramsey County, nearly equivalent to 2% of the county’s property tax levy.
• $13.6 million in one-time funding for St. Paul public safety initiatives, including community violence prevention and intervention programs, mental health crisis responses, victim services, first-responder wellness, fire and rescue equipment, and other personnel or equipment costs.
• The 1% sales tax ballot measure for roads and parks; the city council is expected to present a supportive resolution to the state auditor by Aug. 31.
• A 10-year extension for a sizable Downtown TIF district, with a new expiration date of Dec. 31, 2033.
• $25 million for the Third Street Bridge connecting downtown Kellogg Boulevard to the East Side; total project costs once were estimated at $64 million, but that’s likely gone up with time.
• $11.4 million for direct services for Heading Home Ramsey County, a network of 29 homeless service providers that work closely with the county. In future years, the group can apply for state funding administered by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
• A share of $2.5 billion in state infrastructure funds for more than 30 major nonprofit, state Capitol and local government projects based in St. Paul. They include the former Hillcrest Golf Club site now known as the Heights, the Listening House shelter, Keystone Community Services food bank and the Ain Dah Yung Center emergency shelter.
A full list of east-metro projects is online at tinyurl.com/eastmetro2023.