Rural Republicans worried ag could be put on back burner in Minnesota House
ST. PAUL - The Minnesota House agriculture committee chairman for the past two years is concerned Democrats are putting agriculture on the back burner as they take control of the chamber.
Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said agriculture and rural finance issues were discussed in their own committee for years. But when Democrats become the House majority on Jan. 8, those issues will be considered with environment and natural resources matters.
"My concern is it will be playing a diminished role, if you will, and we just shouldn't let that happen," Hamilton said.
To further frustrate Hamilton, the House speaker and majority leader are from Minneapolis and St. Paul, shutting rural Minnesota out of the two top posts.
Democrats counter with their own argument: More than 80 percent of state funding will go through finance committees led by rural chairmen.
House Majority Leader-elect Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said House leaders aim for balance among rural, suburban and urban areas.
"Our job is to make sure we are focusing on Minnesota as whole," said Murphy, who grew up surrounded by farm country in the southern Wisconsin communities of Columbus and Janesville.
"I have farmers in my family," she said. "It is not lost on me that we live in an agricultural economy and an agricultural state."
When House Democrats made Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis their choice for speaker and elected Murphy majority leader, it raised some rural eyebrows. It is uncommon for a party to make Twin Cities urban lawmakers their top two leaders.
"I worry about what direction that is going to steer," said Rep. Kurt Daudt, the man House Republicans named their leader.
So far, he said, DFL leaders have been fair to him but he is concerned since he comes from Crown, a rural area just north of the Twin Cities.
In the past, Daudt said, "very often the DFL will push the funding formula to be more beneficial to the urban area." For instance, Minneapolis schools receive 50 percent more funding per pupil than in his rural area, he said.
"What makes a kid in Minneapolis worth 50 percent more than a kid in my area?" Daudt asked. "Rural areas sometimes get forgotten about."
Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, promised that rural Minnesota will be remembered while he is chairman of the House Education Finance Committee.
Marquart ran against Murphy in a DFL caucus election just after Election Day to give rural Minnesota a voice in the leadership circle. After losing that vote, the high school social studies teacher strongly defends Thissen's pick of committee chairmen.
"Rural Minnesota has a lot of strength on these committees, which I was very pleased to see," Marquart said. "I think it was important that Speaker-designate Thissen wanted to make sure ... that there was a rural voice at the table when it comes to education finance."
Hamilton said Marquart "is a good person," but he joined Daudt in concerns about lower rural funding for schools and nursing homes. Still, he is most worried about agriculture spending.
Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, will be chairwoman of the new Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance committee. The 26-year House veteran, who could not be reached for comment, long has been a DFL leader on environmental issues.
"I'm not trying to pick a fight with Rep. Wagenius," Hamilton said. "She is a champion on environmental issues, there is no question about it."
In the Senate, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, will lead a finance division that includes the environment, economic development and agriculture. Tomassoni is from a smaller community, but one without much traditional agriculture in the area.
With agriculture funding now mixed with environment and natural resources funding, Hamilton said that he fears money that has been set aside for agriculture could go elsewhere.
If agriculture were to remain separate, he said, Democrats have "wonderful rural members" who could be chairman.
If agriculture ends up getting a fair treatment, he added, "I will be the first to apologize."
Hamilton wondered if putting agriculture last in the committee title was a signal of its lack of importance.
"I want to keep an open mind, but I do want to raise my concerns," Hamilton said. "If you don't bring them up and they are not addressed right up front, then don't be complaining at the end if things don't go the way you want."