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Pioneer Editorial: Lifting levy limits gives local options

The Minnesota Legislature, realizing how strapped local governments are under its current budget policy, took the first steps Tuesday to level the playing field.

At the close of the 2008 legislative session, Gov. Tim Pawlenty hung fast to imposing a property tax increase levy limit in order to agree to a tax bill that would end the session. The levy limit was imposed for three years, at an effective rate of 3.9 percent a year which was estimated as a cost of living allowance.

That would be fine if the state government had no further holds over local government spending. But not only does it mandate programs that local governments must provide but then not fund, it also has a say in the amount of state aid given cities and counties with poor property tax bases.

Affect either method and raising property taxes becomes the only balancing option. Affect both methods and severely limit property tax increases, and local governments have no choice but the hamper the services over which have control - police and fire protection, public libraries, snowplowing streets or social services to our most vulnerable citizens.

Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, advanced legislation Tuesday to remove the property tax levy limit. He would also remove a state mandate that hasn't worked - the costly provision of truth-in-taxation hearings at which few people attend.

Pawlenty's unallotment of Local Government Aid to cities and County Program Aid to counties in late December took away key state aid, and the next biennium's budget shortfall will no doubt be solved with a further cut in LGA and County Program Aid. That, Bakk says, busts the agreement the DFL Legislature had with Pawlenty over the levy limits.

We don't like to see higher property taxes - due in large part to a shift of state services to local governments without accompanying state funding - but we also don't like to see local governments faced with making decisions that might put public safety in jeopardy or which greatly affect our rural quality of life, such as shuttering public libraries.

Best yet is a state government that enacts a fair system of taxation to pay for what it orders, and not renege on its pledge to help local governments deliver the services it does order.

And citizens should pay attention to the budgets local governments prepare, and the taxes they raise, starting in late summer when preliminary budgets are submitted. The truth-in-taxation meetings are poorly attended because the public realizes that by that time, the budget and taxes are cut and dried and public comment is of little use.

Plus, one can't legislate civic responsibility. All government can do is be open and transparent at every step.