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Many Greater Minnesota priorities unaddressed

Capitol staffers will probably hope that Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, is the exception. After what seemed like a relatively light output, Gunther is expecting — hoping, really — to double his workload next session.

As chair of the House Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee, Gunther saw relatively few bills come through that newly formed panel, and now he thinks some lawmakers were not fully aware of the committee’s scope.

“Every finance committee in the House is my finance committee,” Gunther said. “We didn’t really prepare for it, or didn’t look for the place it would fit [before the session]. But I heard 50 bills this year, and I anticipate having double that next year.”

The very creation of the committee is a reflection of the overt commitment House Republicans made to boosting the state’s rural areas, and Gunther was happy that a number of bills that passed through it were signed into law, including provisions in the jobs and economic development omnibus or the agriculture and environment bill.

But he’s not alone in thinking legislators left a few items on the table this year. Heidi Omerza, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC), said her organization was excited about the amount of discussion of outstate needs after the 2014 election and prior to this year’s legislative term.

“Then the session happened,” Omerza said, sighing. “I was very frustrated with this session. We got a little bit of money for cities under 5,000 [in population] for transportation. That’s what we got this session.”

It’s a harsh judgment, and even Omerza admits she’s exaggerating slightly. There were still a handful of victories claimed by rural interests this year. But the most important priorities, including transportation, local government aid (LGA), workforce housing and broadband infrastructure were either ignored altogether or inadequately funded, according to lobbyists and legislators from both sides of the aisle.

Topping the list of the scant accomplishments this session is an increase of $138 million for nursing home funding, which will have a disproportionate affect on rural areas with smaller, older populations. The bill was especially important for Rep. Jason Rarick, R-Brook Park, whose district includes a nursing home that had shuttered one of its wings because of a lack of funding and staff.

“Priority was put onto nursing home funding,” Rarick said, adding that other important rural needs became “secondary items.”

Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said the nursing home funds would “help to close some of the disparity between rural Minnesota and the metro,” and also cited a pair of agriculture bills for the outsized effect they might have outstate. The agriculture budget contained funds for farm business management, which offers financial advice to farmers, as well as a pilot program to study the prospects for growing industrial hemp. Eken, who carried the Senate bill legalizing hemp research, said soil in his northwestern district would be ideal for future hemp farms, which thrive on neighboring Canadian farmland.

Eken and Senate Democrats also wanted to add more money to the LGA formula to return the municipal aid program to its 2002 levels, but instead wound up playing defense. House Republicans moved to cut LGA funding this session, with a targeted slashing of funds for Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.

“That placed the whole program in jeopardy,” Eken said. “I think that was extremely anti-rural … and I was  surprised, with all the talk there was from the leadership of the House about Greater Minnesota, that they would go after a program that was so vitally important.”

Eken cited the LGA dispute as one of the key reasons the House and Senate failed to compromise on a tax bill this session. That bill’s failure was also a “big lost opportunity” for property tax relief for farmers, according to Thom Petersen, lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union. A targeted property tax break advanced in both chambers this year, with the House’s the more generous proposal of the two, effectively cutting farmers’ tax tab for school buildings in half.

“When these people go out campaigning,” Petersen said, “it’s going to be very hard to explain to constituents how you had a $2 billion surplus, and were not able to come together to provide any kind of tax relief.”

Petersen said the shortcomings on rural legislation can be seen already through campaign finance registrations, as a half-dozen rural Democrats who lost their House seats last year have already re-registered to seek those offices again.

“I think what you see in those filings is, those Democrats … are seeing things that did, or didn’t happen for Greater Minnesota,” Petersen said.

Several of the House GOP freshman did distinguish themselves this year in the eyes of former House minority leader Marty Seifert, who lobbied for CGMC during the session. Those who came off best, such as Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, managed to latch on to issues — such as avian flu, and its devastating effect on the poultry farms in Baker’s district —  specifically tailored to their constituencies. Likewise, those same members could do themselves a favor by wrangling bonding projects for their small towns during next year’s shortened session.

Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, said he is hopeful to see a transportation bill next session, but said a gas tax increase, as sought by Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate DFLers, would be particularly harmful to areas like his district, with its 101 townships spread across a wide area.

“It’s almost one person per mile here, so a person puts on a lot of miles,” Backer said. “We were able to stop largest increase in the gas tax, which was extremely unpopular with my constituents.”

For her part, Omerza said any transportation package passed in 2016 “has got to be something other than just a ‘lights-on’ bill” to be considered a success. This year, lawmakers did approve a small pool of money to fund infrastructure in cities with populations of less than 5,000, which had previously been left out. But Omerza compared those funds to the $10 million approved for broadband internet expansion projects, saying both are just small steps in the right direction.

“All of these economic drivers that will help Greater Minnesota are still out there,” Omerza said. “They’re still on the horizon. And we’ll continue to keep asking for it.”


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