Suburban Strains

In many legislatures, suburbs have the votes to prevail--if they can find a way to work together.
by | September 2007

The suburbs around Minneapolis and St. Paul should have plenty of clout in the state legislature. Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty hails from Eagan, just south of the Twin Cities airport, and the state House has seen a big influx of young Democrats from suburban districts--a major reason the party took control of the House last November. After the next Census and reapportionment, the Twin Cities will be home to a near-majority of the districts in the entire state. So why do the suburbs keep getting stiffed in the legislative process?

Here's a prime example: All the localities in Minnesota took a hard hit during the bleak budget year of 2003, when the state cut its local government aid program by 25 percent. Since then, much of that money has been restored. But the formula for disbursing the money has been changed, leaving the suburbs with a smaller share. A coalition of 85 of them lobbied the legislature for more this year--and got nowhere.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that not all suburbs are created equal. The inner-ring suburban communities that were built out by 1970 or so are largely made up of modest homes now filled with aging residents. In recent years, those suburbs have had difficulty capturing large-scale residential and commercial development. They have relatively little in common with the newer and wealthier outlying suburbs--the ones that form Pawlenty's main constituency--and so it has been hard to create a suburban bloc capable of arguing its case on a unified basis.

The suburbs' other problem is more strictly political. House Democrats may owe their majority to their new suburban members, but the fact that they have been freshly elected over the past election cycle or two means the suburbanites generally are not committee chairs or veteran power brokers. The suburban caucus has a lot less clout than senior members who represent less politically volatile urban or rural areas. All of a sudden, says Tom Goodwin, a city councilman in the suburb of Apple Valley, "we have Democrats in what have for the last 20 years been strong Republican districts." Apple Valley has lost $3 million in annual state funding in recent years.

It's traditional in most legislatures for outstate members to complain about extra aid going to the major cities. The new source of tension, in Minnesota and elsewhere, is likely to revolve around the efforts of the potentially dominant suburbs to overcome their own regional jealousies.