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Agreement lacking on Legislature greater Minnesota accomplishments

Minnesota state Sen. Tom Saxhaug leads a pre-2015 legislative session meeting dealing with rural worker training issues. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL -- It has been a week since the Minnesota Legislature went into overtime and finished passing the state budget, but talk about how lawmakers treated greater Minnesota is far from finished.

So far, the grade is mixed. President Doug Peterson of the Minnesota Farmers' Union can provide insight from both sides.

On one hand, Peterson praised legislation that legislation included "strong investments in partnering with farmers through livestock investment grants and value-added projects, increased funding for state meat inspection and wolf depredation as well as the creation of new incentives for advanced biofuel and biochemical projects."

On the other hand, the former state representative said, his organization is disappointed that even with a nearly $2 billion state budget surplus, Democrats and Republicans could not agree on farm property tax relief or how to pass a comprehensive transportation funding package.

It should surprise no one that rural lawmakers and groups are most dissatisfied with how the Legislature treated residents from outside the Twin Cities. But House Democrats are the most vocal and have the most to gain in saying it was a bad greater Minnesota year.

"This session remains a failure for greater Minnesota," Deputy House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said.

His party lost the House majority to Republicans in last year's election thanks to a GOP gain in rural areas. Throughout the regular and special session, Democrats have pointed out what they see as greater Minnesota loses in the Legislature, particularly the Republican-controlled House.

Nearly as vocal have been some greater Minnesota organizations, led by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

"From our perspective, 2015 was a great disappointment," the coalition's Bradley Peterson told reporters during a Thursday conference call.

Worst, he said, was failure to increase Local Government Aid the state pays to cities. Also, he and others in his organization said, too little was put into broadband expansion in rural Minnesota: $11 million instead of $100 million the coalition sought.

Without state broadband help, there will be serious small-town consequences, said coalition President Heidi Omerza, an Ely City Council member.

Another failure, according to Dan Dorman of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, was providing just $4 million for workforce housing construction. He said that would produce 45 to 100 housing units.

Rural advocate wanted $50 million in tax credits to encourage construction of up to 1,100 housing units in areas with plenty of jobs but too few places for workers to live. It is one of the major issues outside of the Twin Cities and requires some plants to work at less than full capacity and others to bus workers in from communities far away.

Peterson said that greater Minnesota groups will work until the Legislature returns on March 8, trying to sell their agenda.

"The game plan, frankly, is later this summer and fall is to really hit the ground and meet with these individual legislators and city officials one-on-one," Peterson said.

Many rural legislators say they are proud of what they did this year.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, D-Grand Rapids, pointed to the little-known provision to give schools almost $15 million more for American Indian students, which he said is "a huge step forward in properly funding these students and the schools that serve them. This money will help strengthen and expand programs to support academic achievement, decrease the dropout rate and improve the school climate to be more culturally sensitive."

As a northern senator, Saxhaug said  he also is happy that more than $3 million in new funds is headed to forestry programs.

The most-mentioned rural win is gaining $138 million for nursing homes, which is expected to allow them to pay workers enough to keep them on staff.

Appropriating money to combat avian flu in the state's poultry flocks was well publicized, but not so for a law that limits the liability of farmers engaged in hosting agritourists. Farm groups praise a bill allowing experimental growth of industrial hemp, hoping it leads to being able to grow hemp as a full-fledged crop.

Also on the passed list if funding for the next phase of the Lewis and Clark southwest Minnesota water project.

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.