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New rural agenda being prepared

By Don Davis

FORUM NEWS SERVICE

Republicans who will control the Minnesota House the next two years make it abundantly clear they will focus on rural Minnesota when the legislative session starts Jan. 6.

Or, as they prefer to say, GOP members will drop what they call a Minneapolis-St. Paul focus they claim has been the norm under Democratic control.

“House Republicans understand all of Minnesota matters – not just one part of the state or another – and we are proud to bring those priorities forward over the next two years,” majority leader-elect Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said.

“I think they are going to get a fair deal this time,” Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said about rural Minnesotans.

Several new House committees are aimed at greater Minnesota issues, such as two dealing with agriculture and the newly minted Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee.

Republicans say it is time for rural constituents to catch up with their urban cousins after two years in which Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office. But the House will not be able to “catch up” by itself, since Democrats retain control of the Senate and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton was re-elected in November.

“We are just kind of bringing the state government back into balance,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said.

Minnesotans can expect to see an emphasis on issues of particular interest to greater Minnesota residents, such as increasing aid for nursing homes and other elderly and disabled care programs, farm issues and road construction.

House speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has had little time to craft policy priorities as he reorganized the House, but when he has time for broad stroke comments, he emphasizes the need to look at rural issues.

While Dayton will present his budget proposal first, by Jan. 27, it technically is Daudt’s chamber that must first pass a two-year budget expected to top $40 billion. When that comes in March or April, Minnesotans will have an idea about what helping out greater Minnesota really means to GOP leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said there are general agreements among Dayton, House leaders and Senate leaders. For instance, rural manufacturers and other businesses are having trouble finding qualified workers and then getting housing for them, something all sides say must be addressed.

“There is a critical problem,” Bakk said of rural housing.

“It costs about the same to build a housing unit, no matter where you build in the state,” the former carpenter said, but it is much easier to afford in the Twin Cities thanks to higher wages. “It seems like some kind of state bridge to make those projects work is going to be required.”

It is not just the House Republican majority that wants to help greater Minnesota, he said.

“I’m a rural guy,” Bakk said. “I understand the challenges that exist in rural Minnesota. I think my colleagues in the Twin Cities want a strong rural Minnesota, too, but they don’t understand the extent of the problem.”

In the House, a rural lawmaker who will be one of three assistant minority leaders said that he and his fellow Democrats have done well for rural Minnesotans in the past two years, but he appeared happy that the new GOP leadership is talking about doing more.

“I think there is a somewhat disconnect between the urban and the rural, probably in both parties,” Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth said. “Making sure the positive momentum we saw in greater Minnesota continues is my No. 1 goal.”

But Marquart worries that the House could pass bills that would cut state payments to local governments, thus forcing up property taxes.

Marquart said he hopes Republicans agree with three of his rural priorities: improving early-childhood education, funding more school construction and lowering farm property taxes.

For Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, the coming session looks like it could be much better than the last two years, when agriculture funding was decided in a committee with an environmentalist as chairwoman.

“I am absolutely thrilled,” Hamilton said of his chairmanship of the Agriculture Finance Committee. “I am ready to go to work.”

Hamilton said one of his top priorities is finding workers to fill thousands of vacant agriculture-related jobs. “There is a huge shortage of agriculture professionals.”

Part of the solution, he said, is to encourage the state’s universities and colleges to train more high school ag teachers. The state also could support a variety of organizations that promote farming to young people, he added.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said that he fears many young people do not realize how technically advanced agriculture is today.

“Agriculture is really changing, becoming really advanced,” said Anderson, who will lead the Agriculture Policy Committee. “We need more training and that is where it all starts.”

Also, Hamilton said, the University of Minnesota needs to increase spending on crop and livestock disease research. “It is an absolute must that we invest in more research at the University of Minnesota.”

Hamilton said money to support more ag spending could come from rethinking budget priorities, and freeing some money now going to other programs.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said that another way to help Minnesota is to encourage people to leave the Twin Cities for rural areas. The state can help convince them “there is a way to earn a living in greater Minnesota,” Nornes added.

Many Minnesotans do not realize jobs are available in rural areas, he said.

Anderson said he expects rural bills to be bipartisan. “I think there is a realization that agriculture is important to the state economically.”

He said that he expects the issue of labeling products as being genetically modified will come up. He suggests turning it around and labeling food that has not been genetically modified.

“I am kind of interested in hearing the arguments,” Anderson said of the controversial topic. “I don’t have anything to hide.”

Bakk said that rural lawmakers are the best to balance spending statewide.

“We understand the entire state better,” Bakk said. “We live in St. Paul almost six months of the year. ... I think I have a pretty good sense of what is going on around the Twin Cities. Because I live in rural Minnesota, I also understand what is going on out there. So I think we bring a more global view of the state.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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