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OUR OPINION: Build consensus by meeting rural Minnesota's needs

The Minnesota House and Senate are at loggerheads—which probably is to be expected, given that the House is in Republican hands while Democrats control the Senate.

But time is short; the legislative session ends Monday. And as similar episodes in previous sessions have shown, this showdown could very well end in a shutdown of state government services.

What to do?

Here's an idea:

Come to terms on the two big issues affecting rural Minnesota. Because getting to "yes" not only would put rural Minnesotans in a good mood, but also would build trust among the party leaders, and oil the negotiating gears.

That would make it easier to craft agreements on the larger issues of the state's tax and transportation plans.

▇ Actually, while rural Minnesota would like to see the Legislature agree on Local Government Aid—the first of these Main Street Minnesota issues—so would Duluth, Minnesota and St. Paul.

That's important, because while House Republicans now represent great numbers of people in small-town Minnesota, Democrats retain their majority influence in the three metro areas.

And those metro areas were especially hard-hit by LGA proposals, especially the House Republicans' plan.

For example, the House GOP's budget would cut Duluth's LGA annual grant by $19.9 million. But that's two-thirds of the city's yearly LGA allotment, and fully 20 percent of the city's entire operating budget.

"One could lay off the entire Duluth police force and not quite save $20 million," the Star Tribune's Lori Sturdevant write this week.

"If you scrapped the entire fire department, you'd still have to find $5 million more in cuts."

Clearly, the House never should have proposed an LGA cut of that size, as doing so was both cynical and cruel.

Just as clearly, LGA is one of those rare creatures in government at any level: a popular program that unquestionably works. Small-town and metro-area governments alike depend on the grants, which help make sure that homeowners across Minnesota—even in communities with weak property-tax bases—can enjoy good police and fire protection

The program "makes sure every Minnesota city and town shares in each other's successes and failures," as a Duluth News Tribune columnist has written.

House and Senate leaders should take advantage of Minnesota's budget surplus, fund this vital program generously and move on.

▇ And here's a place they can move on to: making sure rural Minnesotans have broadband access, exactly as metro-area residents have grown accustomed to.

Businesses run on broadband Internet connections these days—and iPhone- and iPad-toting Americans do as well.

But as happened in the 1920s, when electricity kept lighting up more and more American cities, small towns lag far behind. "In 1934, less than 11 percent of U.S. farms had electricity," as Wikipedia recounts. Enter rural electrification: "By 1942, nearly 50 percent of U.S. farms had electricity, and by 1952, almost all US farms had electricity."

Rural areas' access to broadband can and should undergo the same transition. Democrats and Republicans in St. Paul should resolve to make that happen—and in doing so, they could set the stage for broader agreements, restoring Minnesotans' trust in government and avoiding the shutdown that residents dread.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald