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Home / News / GOP rural caucus isn’t out to make big waves in budget negotiations, but may be forced to do so
Rep. Bob Gunther doesn't want the Republican rural caucus he helped form this session to be seen as adversarial to suburban and metro legislators. In his view, the bicameral caucus' main purpose is to educate the large number of rural GOP members of the House and Senate, many of them freshmen, on issues of special concern to outstate members.

GOP rural caucus isn’t out to make big waves in budget negotiations, but may be forced to do so

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

GOP Rep. and rural caucus co-founder Bob Gunther wants rural members to be ready when cuts to LGA are considered. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Rep. Bob Gunther doesn’t want the Republican rural caucus he helped form this session to be seen as adversarial to suburban and metro legislators. In his view, the bicameral caucus’ main purpose is to educate the large number of rural GOP members of the House and Senate, many of them freshmen, on issues of special concern to outstate members.

But Gunther admits that the education they are getting may be ammunition for budget debates later in the session, when the cutting starts in earnest and programs like local government aid (LGA) are on the chopping block.

Aids to cities and counties have been a major topic of discussion in the rural caucus. The Republican leadership has indicated that they plan to go after local aid as a means of solving a $5 billion budget deficit. They chopped the program by more than $480 million in their already vetoed phase one budget-cutting bill – reductions that stand to have a more immediate and dramatic effect on rural areas, where communities are dependent on the aid. Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget holds aid to counties and cities harmless, a strategic maneuver that sources say could increase factionalism in the GOP caucuses between rural and suburban legislators.

As Gunther sees it, “When they start stepping on our toes, we will have those meetings and that information ready.”

Participants in the caucus say the GOP leadership in both chambers has been supportive of their efforts to gather and educate rural members, but some veteran Capitol players say the leadership is bound to eye such efforts warily. “Anything that challenges leadership’s ability to keep people on task is something that they would rather not have to deal with,” noted one lobbyist who wanted to remain anonymous. “If you look at the votes on House File 130, a couple of rural members flaked off on the LGA issue. I would guess when they start putting the $5 billion cut package together, you might really see rural members break off.”

Another lobbyist said: “In general, these extra caucuses are a pain to leadership. But they are only as effective as their members.”

GOP Sen. Dave Senjem, who helped form the caucus with Gunther last fall, said the group is at a “state of indecision about its action plan” going forward. But he knows one thing for sure: The rural caucus wants to be at the table when reforms to LGA are discussed.

Rural members talk education, demographics

Despite its 6:45 a.m. meeting time every Tuesday, the rural caucus attracts between 30 and 40 House and Senate Republicans each week. The cast of legislators is ever-changing, as all Republicans are invited to attend.

In the group’s first meeting, members elected Sen. Doug Magnus of Slayton and Mountain Lake Rep. Rod Hamilton as co-chairmen of the caucus, while Senjem, Rep. Mary Franson of Alexandria and Iron Range Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick were picked to sit on the caucus’ executive committee.

At its first meeting, the group heard from State Demographer Tom Gillaspy about demographic changes in rural Minnesota – another concern for rural members, since the redistricting that follows the 2010 U.S. Census results will likely erode outstate power. Other presenters have included Brad Finstad, executive director of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, and Bill Glahn, former director of the Minnesota Office of Energy Security.

A discussion on education funding spilled into a second meeting, Senjem said, because rural members had many questions on the intricacies of the formula. Eric Nauman, a fiscal analyst for the Senate, detailed the elements of the education formula, the K-12 budget and school aid shifts.

“That’s a huge part of the state budget, and [rural] members have a lot of concerns about equity in the funding formula,” Senjem said. “That’s a very important issue going forward for rural members.”

LGA pressures

The main source of discussion has been aid to cities and counties. At one rural caucus meeting, House Research staffer Pat Dalton gave a presentation on aid programs titled, “Where are we and how did we get here?” The presentation detailed the origins of LGA, its regional distribution and changes to its funding formula through the years, and offered an in-depth analysis of certified versus paid LGA dollars.

Freshman Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, said he has found the presentation extremely helpful in sifting through the complicated LGA funding formula. “There are a lot of freshmen here with a lot to learn,” he said.

Murray was one of only a handful of Republicans to vote against the leadership’s first budget cutting bill on the House floor. The swing-district GOPer won his election by a scant 57 votes, and has been pressured by mayors and his local chamber to defend aid to cities. LGA is an ongoing concern for him, he said, adding that some other members of the rural caucus are feeling similar pressures to protect the aid.

McElfatrick, a freshman representative who defeated 13-term DFL Rep. Loren Solberg, said she thinks all of the members of the rural caucus are watching the LGA negotiations carefully, “because it does make a difference in our communities,” she said.

Senjem said LGA has been a focal point of the discussions because funding cuts and program reforms will be a big debate.

“We all understand that we have a $5 billion deficit, and when you look at the available places to cut, LGA is on that list,” he said. “But we feel if reductions are unavoidable, how can reductions be framed so they are as fair as possible?” Senjem believes that could mean a rejiggered formula that focuses on funding necessities in communities, such as police, fire and water.

Magnus said the LGA formula has been reformed many times over the years, and a few times since he first joined the Capitol as a House representative in 2002. Reform is on the minds of the new GOP-led Legislature, and rural members want to be at the center of the discussion.

One of the most significant instances of rural influence on LGA so far this year was Rep. Greg Davids’ amendment to the budget cutting bill that made permanent cuts to the program one-time only. Surprisingly, the Preston Republican and Taxes Committee chairman opted not to join the rural caucus, saying he does not like the “splits” that can result. He added: “I’m a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives caucus.”

What’s next?

At this week’s Tuesday meeting, Senjem said rural members reviewed all the information they have received and started discussing where they go from here. Whether that means crafting bills or taking a more active role in budget negotiations isn’t clear yet, he said.

But more information sessions lie ahead, including presentations on health and human services. Cuts to nursing homes and hospitals could hurt more in rural areas, where facilities are fewer and farther between. As one longtime DFL lobbyist noted, the issue could also increase tensions between rural and suburban members, as most nursing homes in suburban areas are private pay, while rural nursing homes are more dependent on state-subsidized care. “Over the years, even when the Republicans were at their most heartless, they have always protected those rural nursing homes,” the lobbyist said.

Nursing homes have been an area emphasized by Magnus, who represents southwest Minnesota, an area with a growing elderly population. Many of the new rural members are also from the southwest part of the state.

In the end, Senjem emphasized that the purpose of the group is to strengthen rural Minnesotan legislators in their policies and decision making, no matter what the topic. “If rural Minnesota is not strong,” he said, “everyone suffers.”

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