Metropolitanism as a Fact that Must Be Faced

August 22, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA. — St. Paul, Minnesota.--A quarter century ago, the Minneapolis-St. Paul region won national fame for its cohesive approach to governing.

Now in the '90s, despite some contentious politics, it seems the phoenix is rising again.

Top on the agenda is restoring power and verve to the Metropolitan Council, a limited regional authority that was the centerpiece of reforms of the '60s and '70s, but of late has been politically neglected and fearful of asserting itself.

The Minnesotans are focusing on an intensely '90s issue as they plunge afresh into the regionalism debate: the growing chasm between haves and have-nots, the clash of poor and affluent communities pitted against each other across a single city-state region.

The Twin Cities are diversifying racially and seeing their poverty rates worsen. State Rep. Myron Orfield (D) has been making a name for himself by arguing it's morally wrong for 74 percent of the region's poverty to be concentrated in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and an inner ring of older, working-class suburbs.

Fast-growth suburbs on the region's southwestern flank, Rep. Orfield argues, snapped up 75 percent of the region's new jobs, and virtually all new manufacturing jobs, in the '80s. While poverty rates rose sharply in the older communities, the wealthy suburbs actually reduced their poverty levels.

Rep. Orfield twice introduced -- and Gov. Arne Carlson (R) vetoed -- bills to set affordable housing goals for the suburbs. If a locality continued to zone out medium- and low-income people, Mr. Orfield advocates, it should suffer the penalty of reduced state government aid.

Another, even more revolutionary, Orfield idea was to oblige localities in the seven-county metro region to contribute part of the property tax from homes valued over $150,000 to a metropolitan-wide reinvestment fund for affordable housing.

Republican critics charged all this was punitive, that it smacked of quotas, that it would simply export poverty to the suburbs.

Mr. Orfield's allies (including the leading metropolitan dailies) replied that the more likely beneficiaries would be young adults and newly divorced wives who find themselves forced to move out of their suburban communities in search of affordable housing.

The issue became personalized. Opponents accused Rep. Orfield of being an unbending zealot and untrustworthy in legislative negotiations.

Mr. Orfield (a second-term, 32-year-old legislator) noted his willingness to compromise on penalties, and asserted, ''I'm just a little squeaky guy.'' His defenders said he'd raised the critical regional issue of the times.

Significantly, Republican State Rep. Tim Pawlenty and allies from the southwestern suburbs produced a metropolitan housing bill of their own.

Quickly dubbed ''Orfield Lite,'' it included a pilot project for scattered-site, low-income housing in wealthy Eden Prairie and an ''Express to Success Transit System'' to transport low-income city residents to suburban jobs.

And when the Minnesota legislature adjourned this spring, it had approved the most significant shake-up in Twin Cities regional government in a generation:

Mr. Orfield's bid for popular election of Metropolitan Council members failed.

But accountability for the council's performance was lodged clearly with the governor.

Starting next January, the governor will appoint members who will serve at his pleasure and may be removed at any time. A single regional administrator -- a professional super-manager -- was authorized.

Already, the council has begun a fresh debate on whether housing should be viewed as a regional system that assures affordable units everywhere, or whether it's enough to exhort developers and suburban cities to respond voluntarily.

Since the '70s, the council has had power to set an urban growth boundary to curb leap-frogging suburban development, yet by inaction has let developers defy and walk around the line it set.

Now there's serious talk of setting a clear, enforceable line following the model of Oregon's law.

The legislature also expanded the council's powers, with authority over previously separate boards for metropolitan transportation and sewer systems, three agencies with 4,000 employees and a combined budget of $600 million.

The bottom line is a much stronger council and a growing consensus that such intimately entwined issues as housing, transit and jobs need to be addressed on a coherent, region-wide basis.

And Rep. Orfield, still at the leading edge, argues that the base issue remains: wealth and jobs move to localities that can wall off their social responsibilities to an entire region.

The same issue, he argues, runs through the history of America's federated democracy: ''How much power goes to the center for the common good?''

Americans first decided the issue by adopting a Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation that made unified national decisions virtually impossible, Mr. Orfield notes. The Civil War was fought to curb recalcitrant states trying to go their own way.

''We don't want all power'' with a regional government, he says. But he insists that for city-state regions to function democratically and effectively in our time, ''More power over land use and the tax base has to be at the center.''

Simply debating that issue head-on could make Minnesota again a model for city-states nationwide.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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