ANOKA -- As a legislator, Rep. Jim Abeler is a strong supporter of using state money to help build the proposed Northstar commuter rail line. As a landlord, the Anoka Republican stands to benefit financially if it's built.
Abeler owns two properties adjacent to the site of an Anoka station planned for the line, which would run from St. Cloud to Minneapolis. The buildings are within a redevelopment zone proposed by the city, which envisions new housing and stores in it.
Bob Kirchner, the city's development director, said comparisons from similar stations elsewhere in the country lead him to expect perhaps a 10 percent increase in property values attributable to the station. The estimates apply to properties within a quarter mile of the station, such as Abeler's.
But the station won't move forward unless the Legislature approves money for the train line. Votes from Abeler and the handful of other Republicans with districts along the line are crucial if that is to happen.
Abeler said there's no conflict of interest, and he's proud of his support.
"This is one of the biggest single issues for my district these days," he said in an interview. "It'll need every ounce of help from legislators in the region to get it to go if it's going to go."
Abeler noted that he disclosed his ownership of the properties, and their proximity to the proposed station, in a letter to the Speaker of the House last year. "This may create for me a potential conflict of interest, which I am hereby disclosing," it read.
But Abeler said Friday that he no longer thinks the issue is a conflict for him because he's not convinced his property values will rise.
The letter was written after the same properties were questioned as part of an ethics committee hearing. DFL colleagues alleged that Abeler had a conflict of interest because he voted for bills that provided state aid to a charter school that leases buildings from him.
Ruling that legislative ethics guidelines are unclear, the committee took no actions against Abeler based on that complaint, but he did take to the House floor to formally disclose his links to the charter school. He apologized that he hadn't before, noting that he thought the connections were well known.
Abeler didn't disclose the Northstar situation on the floor, however, and the letter was never published in the legislative record. House GOP spokesman Dan Wolter said the letter wasn't distributed to other lawmakers or otherwise made public.
Abeler continued to cast votes related to the line, though lawmakers often don't vote on matters where a potential conflict may exist.
The Legislature's ethics rules say lawmakers must disclose potential conflicts of interest for any measures that benefit them individually if they don't also benefit a large class of people.
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