You Can't Get There from Here

Transit strikers have Pawlenty to thank for getting them this far, and probably no further
Marie Foss

Three years ago, I interviewed Ted Mondale in a second-floor conference room at Metro Transit's headquarters on the northern edge of downtown Minneapolis. Mondale was chair of the Met Council, this area's regional planning body, and had come under fire from an increasingly fiery group of conservatives, most of whom saw him as a bogeyman, eager to inflict his liberal will on unsuspecting taxpayers.

Critics skewered the Met Council's oversight of everything from affordable housing to sewer lines in a metro area projected to grow by more than a million people over the next two decades. But Mondale warned that the biggest question the region would face regarded mass transportation. Despite the blessing of transit-friendly Governor Jesse Ventura, Mondale knew that Metro Transit--the area's biggest bus system run by the Met Council--would lose out in the legislature.

"These people want to deal with congestion by building more roads, and that's it," Mondale, a true centrist if there ever was one, told me at the time. "Buses never figure into the equation." He then wondered aloud whether Metro Transit would even continue functioning in years to come.

Looking back, it's easy to see how last week's walkout by some 2,200 Metro Transit workers came to pass.

Days after my interview with Mondale, legislators grappled with a bill that proposed some $335 million for transit, but transportation advocates argued that more than $1 billion would be needed. The bill's sponsor was State Rep. Carol Molnau, who is now the Pawlenty administration's lieutenant governor and "transportation czar." Critics of the bill were most unhappy with the money marked for Metro Transit, which would see just a half-percent increase in its budget--some $22 million less than Ventura had sought.

But one of the bill's biggest supporters in 2001 was Governor Tim Pawlenty, who was then the House majority leader. "It's that never-ending chorus of 'It's not enough,'" Pawlenty told the Star Tribune in response to those who decried the bill. In the end, Metro Transit received enough money to "maintain" services, but not expand them. A fare increase was soon to follow, and the annual number of fares soon dropped by nearly four million.

But Pawlenty wasn't finished. During that same session, he was a proponent of a sweeping property tax reform. The plan shifted the burden of property tax revenue from businesses and high-end homeowners to lower-valued homes and landlords. At the same time, Metro Transit, which had a budget largely dependent on property taxes, was cut out of the levy. From that point on, the bus system would have to rely on the state's general fund and a sales tax on motor vehicles for most of its money.

Which might have been fine in an era of budget surpluses, but last year the pain was acute. Pawlenty, facing a $4.2 billion deficit, started slashing funds for any number of programs, holding fast to a "no new taxes" pledge he signed as a candidate. Money for Metro Transit dropped some 5 percent last year, with Pawlenty and his like-minded backers holding the purse strings. Met Council records show the 2004 transit budget holding steady through funding transfers. But according to figures from the Transportation Alliance, a statewide coalition of highway and mass-transit organizations, Metro Transit will see some $54 million in total cuts from 2003 through 2005.


All of this should have been part of the public dialogue when Metro Transit's buses went idle. But discussion of the strike focused instead on the main sticking point in negotiations: a health care package that ensured full retirement benefits to members of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Current Met Council chair Peter Bell, a Pawlenty appointee, fired the first shot in the class warfare by calling the insurance policy a "Ferrari" plan.

Bell insisted, correctly, that there is "no more money to put on the table." And he noted that no one--including some 75,000 daily Metro Transit riders--wins in a strike, likening it to a failed marriage. What he didn't say was that the failure had mostly to do with the political motives of his boss.

No matter how the strike is resolved, the area's transit system will either be undercut to the point of inefficiency or made to look like another wasteful public service. (In fact, service cuts ensured that ridership dipped another one million in the last year). The Met Council will most certainly incur collateral damage.

Yet there's reason to believe this is exactly what some of Pawlenty's inner circle wants. When Pawlenty made his appointments to the 16-member Met Council as he took office a year ago, there was much ado about his "centrist" selections. A year later, however, it's clear that the Met Council has been taken over by the radical right.

In December, a study released by the Center of the American Experiment, a Minnesota-based conservative think tank, called for the abolition of the Met Council. Never mind that the study was authored by Annette Meeks, who actually sits on the Met Council. Meeks, who was appointed by the governor, was once an aide to Newt Gingrich and was a major player in President Bush's 2000 Minnesota campaign. (DFL lawmakers made noises about blocking her appointment--too little, too late.)

Since its inception in 1967, Meeks offers in the report, the Met Council has been "one of the most controversial and divisive aspects of state government." She goes on to decry the council's role, as a planning agency, in "skyrocketing land prices" and "overregulation," while being "increasingly concerned with social planning." While arguing the need for more "local control" and the usual smaller-government gambits, Meeks concludes that the Met Council should be replaced by a Department of Regional Planning.

In other words, Meeks wants to ensure that the conservative power brokers at the Capitol hold all the cards. In regard to transportation, Meeks casts a skeptical eye toward Light-Rail Transit, and even surmises that Metro Transit is overcounting its number of bus riders. But beyond that, as Mondale warned, Meeks sees more highways as the only way to lessen traffic snarls that plague the metro area. (It's worth noting that a more comprehensive 1998 study by *the center floated the notion that bus systems should be privatized, with state government getting out of the business altogether.)

The Meeks report was decried for embodying the worst kind of partisanship, but only drew a mild rebuke from Peter Bell initially. Then the chair went on to endorse many of the report's suggestions. Not a peep was heard from Governor Pawlenty.

Hardly anyone noticed that just a few weeks later, a February 9 story in USA Today lauded the Met Council. More and more cities across the country, including Louisville, Atlanta, and Seattle, were gravitating toward regional planning task forces, taking quite a few cues from the Met Council in the Twin Cities. The story went on to note that "the Met Council's regional approach has generated tax savings of $2 billion by planning growth and eliminating duplication in the construction of roads and sewers."

So why would Meeks and others seek to do away with it? One can only presume it has more to do with race and class than any real taxpayer benefit. The Met Council has been viewed as a national model for affordable housing, scattering low-income development throughout 15 different suburbs. This is hardly the kind of local control that conservatives want to see.

Similarly, It's hard to ignore race and class in the bus strike. Politically speaking, Metro Transit couldn't be in a worse position. For starters, Minnesotans are clinging fast to a car culture that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. Also, unions hold less currency with the general public than at any time in recent memory. And finally, with explosive growth in second- and third-ring suburbs, buses are seen as a uniquely urban amenity, used exclusively by the working class and minorities. In fact, David Strom of the Taxpayers' League--the man behind Pawlenty's no new taxes pledge in the first place, who apparently has no small hand in charting and advancing the governor's agenda--disingenuously claimed over the weekend that low traffic levels proved buses aren't needed after all.

In short, there's no political capital to be gained by settling the strike, and one is left to wonder whether Bell and Pawlenty even have an interest in doing so. Pawlenty's spokeswoman Leslie Kupchella has noted that the governor "is in constant contact with the Met Council folks and watching this very, very closely." There's probably more than a little collusion going on.

Ron Lloyd, president of the transit union, has repeatedly called for Pawlenty to come to the table, but that's probably just wishful thinking on his part. As he told the Star Tribune last week, Pawlenty "orchestrated this from day one. It's his responsibility--he appoints the Met Council." Pawlenty, in his own way, has already intervened.

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