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Greater Minnesota takes center stage

Mike Mullen//January 7, 2015

Greater Minnesota takes center stage

Mike Mullen//January 7, 2015

House Speaker Kurt Daudt shakes hands with Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea after taking his oath of office Tuesday at the Capitol in St. Paul. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
House Speaker Kurt Daudt shakes hands with Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea after taking his oath of office Tuesday at the Capitol in St. Paul. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

The first day of session always throws up a few images that become memorable, if for no other reason than the improbability that their like will be seen again. Consider, for example, the sight of Eric Lucero, a freshman Republican whose campaign was grounded in his opposition to gay marriage, chatting amiably with Phyllis Kahn, the Minneapolis Democrat whose career is among the longest, and most liberal, in the history of the Minnesota House.

Another moment came soon after, with a hearty standing ovation from both sides of the aisle for the newly minted Secretary of State Steve Simon, formerly a five-term member of the lower chamber. Time will tell if all 134 members also opt to applaud Simon’s election law agenda.

Also receiving rare bipartisan applause on Tuesday was Kurt Daudt, the third-term Republican who took over as House speaker in the culmination of the brief opening session. Given the chance to wax philosophical to the body, Daudt urged returning members to look to their rookie colleagues for inspiration, saying the freshman class could bring a refreshing dose of optimism to the Capitol.

Should the House choose to take another cue from the new members, the most obvious might be to look far and wide in crafting its policy and political agenda. The vast majority of the 26 new members sworn in Tuesday come from outside the metro area, and Republicans claim their majority marks a step toward restoring parity among outstate communities and the Twin Cities.

The political calculus is similar in the Senate, where Democrats reopened the upper chamber Tuesday afternoon. The Senate’s two-year buffer is gone, and 67 re-election contests are scheduled for 2016. Several Capitol players pulling for a Greater Minnesota-friendly session said Senate DFLers and House Republicans might do themselves, and each other, a favor by paying heed to rural Minnesota.

To that end, committee chairs and interest groups are looking to address needs in housing, infrastructure and transportation, arguing that each deficiency was stifling job creation, weighing on local governments or both.

In one of the first signs of the GOP agenda, Daudt appointed Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, to chair a new House Greater Minnesota Economic & Workforce Development Policy Committee. Gunther, the second most senior legislator in his caucus, said he intends to use the new panel to trim regulations and permitting requirements that have stunted economic growth in less populous areas.

Gunther observed that 45 lawmakers in the 72-member House majority are from Greater Minnesota, and at least another three “claim they are.” That makeup, coupled with well-placed DFL leaders in the Senate, could lead to a variety of legislative moves aimed at preserving or kick-starting Minnesota’s rural economies.

“I think that before, perhaps, [House members] were the ones holding [the Senate] back,” Gunther said. He added: “We don’t want any more, or any less, than it’s going to take for us to become a viable partner with the metro.”

Further proof of the expected shift in focus comes with the latest hire at Flaherty & Hood, the lobbying firm that represents the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC). Marty Seifert, the former House minority leader and 2014 gubernatorial candidate, joined the firm’s government relations team in December. Seifert could prove a valuable resource in reaching Daudt, who has named Seifert as a mentor, as well as other rural members. As Seifert observed, he also served in the House with a number of Democrats who have since switched chambers, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk.

“I see everyone involved — from the governor’s office, the agencies, the House and Senate — taking keen interest in rural Minnesota that I didn’t see when I was a legislator for 14 years,” Seifert said. “I think the [2014] election hinged on those rural seats, and Senate Democrats see that, too.”

Themes for session

Several themes surfaced multiple times when interested parties were challenged to sketch out a “successful” session for Greater Minnesota. Among them:

  • Increased funds for nursing homes and long-term care to handle the state’s aging population; the demographic problem looms large for small towns, where the shift will have a disproportionate impact.
  • Housing, especially as it corresponds to new or proposed business ventures. Seifert and Gunther named examples of towns from “all over,” including Jackson, Roseau and Thief River Falls, where affordable housing was insufficient to adequately staff local industry.
  • Infrastructure, though Brad Finstad, a former GOP legislator who now heads the Center for Rural Policy and Development, concedes addressing wastewater treatment isn’t “politically fun or sexy.” Perhaps more appealing is the expansion of broadband Internet access, which received some $20 million last session.
  • Transportation, namely — in a phrase that has already begun to seem like an echo — roads and bridges, where the lack of traffic lanes and on- or off-ramps can cause bottlenecks in overcrowded industrial parks.

For his part, Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, acknowledged that issues like broadband and nursing homes are important. But he said the Legislature should also look into how its tax code and permitting requirements could hold back border areas like his own. Though he is still getting acquainted with fellow Republican freshmen, Backer was pleased to find that so many had a shared background in running a small business.

“It is so much easier to start a business in North Dakota and South Dakota than it is Minnesota,” Backer said. He added: “The guys and gals who want to take risks in starting a business, we’ve got to let them take risks.”

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, chair of the Senate Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Finance Committee, disagrees with that argument, pointing to Minnesota’s superior budget picture compared with that of neighboring Wisconsin, where taxes are generally lower.

“You can always use taxes as an excuse,” Tomassoni said. “I think you have to have the infrastructure, and in order to have the infrastructure, you have to have taxes.”

Tomassoni is more concerned about the need for new housing. He said the shortage is especially acute in mining country, where retiring employees, who often remain in or near their homes, must be replaced with waves of new laborers.

“I think we have to have an appetite for [housing funding],” Tomassoni said. “I think that’s a direction we need to go.”

Tomassoni said housing stock would be stressed even more if the PolyMet mine is approved for operation, which would attract long-term workers to the Hoyt Lakes area.

The DFL senator isn’t the only one interested in PolyMet’s possible impact for Greater Minnesota. Gunther said he also intends to push for the mine’s approval through his own committee, warning that if environmentalist Democrats held up the process, “we’re going to have a bunch of Independents in the Senate.”

Gunther’s interests this session will also include property taxes on agricultural land — he and other House Republicans want to lessen the burden on farmers whose profits have fallen — as well as the commercial-industrial property tax. Gunther blames those taxes, as well as overly strict regulations, for the severe loss in vitality seen in some corners of the state; population in his own south-central district has shrunk by 17,000 people since 1965.

Tomassoni said he plans to consider “the whole gamut” of factors relating to economic development in rural Minnesota, and anticipates a winding path in finding agreement with his newfound friends in the House.

“They’re not going to get everything,” Tomassoni said. “Governors are pretty successful at getting most of what they want, and I would imagine Senate Democrats aren’t going to get everything they want. In the long run, this will be a very interesting session.”

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