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OUR OPINION: Special session gives rural Minnesota one last chance

Take an improved Minnesota state budget. Add a House Republican majority that had won power thanks to many members' victories in Minnesota's small towns.

Toss in as Senate majority leader a Democrat who hails from the Minnesota lake-country community of Cook, pop. 574.

What have you got?

You've got the high hopes that rural Minnesota's advocacy groups had as the Minnesota Legislature's 2015 session began.

And now that the session is over, you've got the groups' gloomy disappointment, as lawmakers failed on issue after issue to pass laws that'll make a difference.

But wait; there's still hope. A special session approaches—and that's another opportunity, even if the session is likely to last only one day.

Will the Legislature come through?

Let's hope so—but let's do more than that. Northwestern Minnesotans should urge their lawmakers to strongly consider the action items listed by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and the Greater Minnesota Partnership.

The groups are calling for reasonable support for Local Government Aid, broadband funding, highway repair and other small-town priorities. Small-town legislators should sign on, and fight to get those priorities included in the bills that the Legislature will consider during its very busy special-session day.

A chart that the groups updated throughout the session illustrates the as-yet-underwhelming results. The chart lists the groups' priorities in the left-hand column, documents the House, Senate and governor's actions as you move across—and then, in the far-right column, shows the end result.

There are eight priorities in the first column, including LGA, workforce housing tax credits, environmental regulatory reform and a transportation package.

But the far-right column shows a litany of disappointment. Five of the priorities end in boxes stamped "VETO," showing that their bills fell victim to Gov. Mark Dayton's veto pen.

Two priorities hinged on being included in the Legislature's overall tax bill. But the session expired with "NO TAX BILL," among the reasons why the special session is being called.

And as for the eighth priority—a transportation package—it's first described in the hopeful language of January: "Comprehensive plan with new gas tax revenues and limited general fund money, including funding for local city streets (all sizes) and Corridors of Commerce."

But now it's May, and the language is downbeat on the net result side of the chart: "No comprehensive plan, no new revenue, no Corridors of Commerce."

As Heidi Omerza, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and a member of the Ely City Council, says in an accompanying press release, "Unless the special session results in meaningful progress on rural priorities, this year will be one of the worst sessions ever for Greater Minnesota."

As mentioned, though, there's still hope—and the big "VETO" and "NO TAX BILL" stamps allude to it. For the special session could consider not only a tax bill, but also retooled versions of bills that Dayton vetoed.

Northwestern Minnesota's lawmakers should urge their party leaders to strengthen the bills' provisions that deal with rural Minnesota. Generally, the governor did not object to those provisions, and instead based his vetoes on other elements, such as one bill's elimination of a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency advisory board.

And that's all the opening rural Minnesota lawmakers should need. Smart lobbying today can result in meaningful measures being passed during the special session. Northwestern Minnesota's lawmakers should roll up their sleeves and take up the CGMC and Greater Minnesota Partnership's charge.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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