Some background: Local Government Aid was started in the late sixties/early seventies to help poorer cities in outstate Minnesota afford some of the newer infrastructure – schools, roads, police, water treatment, etc – that they couldn’t have on their own tax bases.
The local leftyblogbuildup has been carping about this piece in Polinaut, which “fact-checked” one of Tom Emmer’s off-handed statements in a recent debate:
“I don’t know how many of your viewers understand that only about half the cities in this state get any local government aid and frankly only a handful get the lion’s share,” he said during a debate Sept. 17, 2010.
Now, Emmer is a hip-shooter; on many bedrock conservative issues, the infinitesimal details are less important than the high level vision.
But the left – and Minnesota Public Radio’s “Poligraph” – took umbrage; some 85% of Minnesota cities get some form of LGA, and, MPR’s Catherine Richert pointed out, many smaller cities get more money per capita than the “Big Three”, Minneapolis, Saint Paul and Duluth. Richert concluded:
Emmer’s claim is fraught with inaccuracies. He’s wrong that only half of Minnesota communities are getting aid. It’s far more than that. And while Minneapolis and St. Paul come out on top in terms of dollars of aid, it’s the smallest cities in the state that are getting the most aid per person – precisely the aim of the local government aid program.
This claim is false.
Well, no. It’s not.
I mean, yes – some smaller cities get very, very high per-capita Local Aid numbers. The highest per-capita numbers in the state are, in fact, from some of our smallest towns (and Hibbing).
But who really gets LGA in Minnesota? Using the exact same figures MPR used in their story, let’s go through MPR’s “fact-check”.
Emmer’s campaign said it could not back-up his claim that only half the cities in the state get aid. In fact, most do. This year, 85 percent of communities – or 727 out of 854 communities — will get local government aid after unallotment cuts, according to data supplied by the Minnesota State Legislature House Research Department, which tracks these payments annually.
But if you count the populations of cities and towns that get zero LGA (about 1.7 million) and the people who don’t live in incorporated cities, it adds up to about half the people in Minnesota.
Should Emmer have distinguished between people and cities?
Enh. Maybe, maybe not. We’ll come back to that.
Emmer’s second point, that a handful of commun ities get the most money, is more complicated. This year, the state will give out $426,535,440 in local government aid. Nearly half of that – about $200 million – goes to 14 cities, including Duluth, Minneapolis, St. Cloud, St. Paul, and Winona.
That much is true, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story.
The top 14 cities in terms of Local Government Aid – Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Duluth, Saint Cloud, Winona, Hibbing, Austin, Moorhead, Mankato, Rochester, Faribault, Albert Lea, New Ulm and Virginia – do indeed soak up over half of the state’s entire LGA budget.
More interestingly, the top thirty cities in population – from Minneapolis (population 390131) down through Brooklyn Center (30330) get a grand total of about 172 million dollars from LGA.
But twenty of the top thirty cities - Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, Plymouth, Eagan, Eden Prairie, Burnsville, Maple Grove, Woodbury, Blaine, Lakeville, Minnetonka, Apple Valley, Edina, Saint Louis Park, Maplewood, Roseville, Cottage Grove, Shakopee, Inver Grove Heights and Andover – receive absolutely no local government aid.
Every one of them is a metro-area suburb. Most, if not all, of them are successful cities with more-or-less thriving business communities. Each of them has between 30,000 and 85,000 people; 1.05 million people altogether, a fifth of the entire population of Minnesota.
We’ll come back to that too.
However, Emmer’s statement glosses over some important context. Local Government Aid was created to help towns with limited tax bases provide services to its residents. Funding is doled out based on a city’s fiscal needs and its ability to pay for them, as well as other factors, including population.
This brings us to the part of the story that doesn’t get contained in a spreadsheet – much. LGA isn’t just a bit of help to parts of the state that can’t afford the better things in governmental life on their own. It’s not even merely a program forcing the parts of this state that don’t work to subsidize spending on the parts of the state that either can’t afford them, or spend more than they want to account for to their own voters. It’s a political football.
But let’s go back to the numbers.
So on one hand, it makes sense that large cities, like St. Paul or Minneapolis, would be getting a lot of money.
But dollar amounts don’t reveal much. To really understand how the state is spending the cash, it makes more sense to look at aid per capita. By this measure, some of the state’s smallest towns are getting the most money per person. For instance, Leonidas, population 57, got $35,240 this year, which breaks down to about $618 per person. By comparison, Minneapolis, population 390,000, got $63,986,731 in local government aid – or about $164 per person.
So far, so good. Minneapolis gets $164 a person; Saint Paul, closer to $175. Duluth, a whopping $322 per person.
If you take the Big Three cities together, the average Local Government Aid comes to almost $186 per person.
If you take those “Top Fourteen” cities with a fifth of Minnesota’s population that the MPR report talked about up above the fourteen cities that soak up half the LGA, the average is about the same; $187 per person, ranging from a low of $49 in Rochester to an incredible $495 and change for each of Hibbing’s 16,000-odd residents.
Indeed, some of Minnesota’s smallest cities do get the most money per capita; tiny Leonidas, population 57, got a grand total of $35,000; that’ll buy you two-third of one of RT Rybak’s drinking fountains in Minneapolis.
So let’s compare and contrast the average populations of cities outside the “Top Fourteen” – Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Duluth and the eleven other cities listed above that soak up half the budget – that actually get above the average of the Top Fourteen in LGA receipts (I took every city that got over $188 per capita) with those that don’t. They account for a total of 397 cities – a little less than half of Minnesota’s cities – with a combined population of almost exactly 540,000 people. They soak up $157,319,854 – a total of $290.79 per capita. And their average population is 1363.
We are talking small towns, here.
Compare that to the 383 cities that get less than $186 per capita – the average for the Big Fourteen recipients and the Big Three population centers. They total 2,621,451 people – about half the population of the state – and get $55,550,284, or a little over a ninth of the total LGA budget. They have an average population of 6844 – almost five times the size of the cities that get above-average aid.
So the pattern so far is this:
- The big fourteen LGA recipients, and the three largest cities in population, all get $186 per capita in LGA.
- The smaller towns and cities that get more than that average are quite small indeed.
- The larger towns and cities that get below that average are considerably larger.
But what about the large number of cities that get no aid? The MPR report points out that some cities get no money whatsoever from LGA.
Those 127 cities total 1,770,912 people – about a third of the state’s population – and have an average population just shy of 14,000.
So here’s how LGA breaks out:
- the 14 biggest recipients, and 300-odd cities averaging just over a thousand people eat up almost $370 million in LGA ($141 million to the Twin Cities and Duluth); that is 87 percent of all LGA.
- The remaining just-shy-of-half of Minnesota towns and cities – those in the middle of the pack, averaging around 6,000 people – get what’s left.
- 15% of Minnesota towns and cities holding about a third of the people get no LGA. Zip. Nada. Zilch.
Had enough yet?
Tough. There’s more.
I split out the cities that make up the Twin Cities metro area – 101 total cities and towns (I may have missed a few, but they’re useful for comparison purposes).
Of the 101 total cities in the Metro, from huge Minneapolis to tiny Coates (population 177), averaging 28,500-odd people receiving a total of $158664,026 of LGA, averaging $57.20 per capita.
But only 28 cities in the Metro area actually get Local Government Aid. So if you leave out Minneapolis and Saint Paul, with their 678,186 total people and roughly $170/person allotment, you get a total of 99 cities with 2,010,299 people, averaging a minuscule $8.31 per capita.
Local Government Aid gives immensely disproportionate aid to Minneapolis, Saint Paul and Duluth, as well as the smaller towns that the program was originally intended to aid. It takes money from the parts of the state that are prospering – the Metro suburbs.
There is, in between the lavishly funded Twin Cities and Duluth and the smaller communities where a small contribution translates into a huge per-capita expenditure, a large donut hole of Minnesota communities, largely prosperous, heavily outer-tier Metro or from the southern part of the state, between 5,000 and the mid-five figures that get nothing – but most definitely pay in.
And Minnesota Public Radio stopped looking for conclusions when they found something they could use to bag on Tom Emmer.