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PRIOR LAKE — More than 70 local officials recently packed into Prior Lake City Hall to discuss their priorities for the legislative session.

The Scott County Association for Leadership and Efficiency gathered to meet and lobby the seven Scott County legislators on SCALE priorities. Lawmakers from Prior Lake, Shakopee, Savage and other area committees attended.

The majority of SCALE’s priorities revolve around securing state funding for initiatives already partially funded by the county. SCALE wants the state to match investments in projects like updates to Highway 169, expanding workforce housing, youth training and the growth of county mental health services.

The group is also asking for the expansion of state programs like basic fee scale child care — a program that covers parents’ partial or total child care costs while they attend work, training or school.

While the state has a projected $1.5 billion surplus this year, Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, and his Republican peers cautioned SCALE members against viewing the surplus as definite funding for this year’s priorities.

“I think one thing that I will say right off the bat is that we do have a surplus, but it is illusory,” because of all of the possible places it can go, Albright said. “Not to be a Debbie Downer, but $1.5 billion doesn’t go as far as it used to.”

Albright also noted the recent shift in power in the Legislature — the Democrats now control the House, and Republicans only hold a Senate majority by one — could throw a wrench in SCALE goals this session.

Brad Tabke, D-Shakopee, the former mayor of Shakopee who was elected to the House in November, offered a more optimistic take.

“I’m also really excited about the great dialogue so far that’s been going on between Democrats and Republicans and also between the Senate and House. We’re getting things done,” Tabke said. “I’m going at this the same way I did as mayor, which is with completely naive idealism to get things done, and I’m really looking forward to and excited about working with everyone new.”

Though divided on whether the Legislature’s makeup will produce gridlock, several legislators agreed on SCALE’s prioritization of mental health care expansion, addressing health care costs and funding transportation programs that help connect the metro and regional workforce.

Transportation

Some changes SCALE hopes to see during the upcoming session include legislative support funding for local bridges and roads and the continuation of state programs like the Corridors of Commerce or Transportation Economic Development Funds. Scott County Transportation Services Director Lisa Freese described these programs as “bread and butter programs for the county.”

SCALE members hope legislators will repeal a 2002 gag order preventing the study of the Dan Patch Line. The rail corridor, constructed in 1908, became a controversial when lawmakers from Edina, Bloomington, and Lakeville halted the development of a passenger line in the area. Savage City Administrator Brad Larson compared the gag order to “putting your head in the sand.”

Prior Lake Mayor Kirt Briggs asked legislators to pass protections for cities that charge developers fees for future road improvements.

Until the state Supreme Court’s decision in the Harstad v. Woodbury case last year, growing cities regularly charged developer fees to offset the cost of future infrastructure changes. Briggs called on the legislative delegation to help defend cities like Prior Lake that “are being targeted and looked at because we are growing and we have been able to save funds in order to build the infrastructure for tomorrow.”

Early literacy

SCALE is also asking for legislators to support changes to data-sharing practices between human services, public health and education departments in an attempt to improve early literacy and education.

County officials believe opening data sharing pathways between the departments will help identify at-risk youth and track the long-term progress of the county’s educational programming.

Scott County Library Director Jake Grussing explained there is a noticeable, and expensive, gap in the information school districts have on students. He said that county school districts were missing about 20 percent of data on area children, resulting in underfunding of early childhood programs.

“The early childhood staff thought that (gap) was about $10,000, just for that one month of data, that the school districts weren’t receiving for the early childhood programs because they didn’t have accurate information that the state has just in two different departments,” Grussing said.

Responsible government

SCALE members selected reform of the Metropolitan Council governance model as their main governmental priority. County officials hope legislators will reduce the number of appointed members and increase the percentage of elected officials on the council.

There was also discussion of creating a separate state account for the cost of care for wards of the state. Currently, the child’s home school district when they become wards are tasked with covering their educational cost.

Jordan Superintendent Matthew Helgerson discussed how this system is a financial strain on his district because Jordan schools are responsible for the education of students in the county’s juvenile alternative facility.

He gave the case of one student who came from the Chisago School District before moving to Missouri. Helgerson said since February the district has been billed $10,500 for the student and is still waiting to be reimbursed by the state.

“Quite frankly, Minnesota is really kind because if it was the other way around, they wouldn’t pay us,” Helgerson said. “We’ve had those situations where we billed another school district from a different state and we never received a dime. So part of it is that Minnesota law is Minnesota nice.”

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