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Greater Minnesota issues on legislative agenda

ST. PAUL -- Greater Minnesota issues dominated much of the legislative debate in 2015 and likely will again this year as control of next year's Legislature could be decided in rural areas. Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders fielded a questi...



ST. PAUL -- Greater Minnesota issues dominated much of the legislative debate in 2015 and likely will again this year as control of next year's Legislature could be decided in rural areas.

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders fielded a question about what a successful rural session would look like at a recent Forum News Service-sponsored forum.

"It'll be a successful session for rural Minnesota if the state becomes a stronger partner in helping deliver services there through additional Local Government Aid, or County Program Aid," Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said. "I also think that transportation -- if we can come up with a transportation plan, long-term plan -- for them that will be a successful session for rural Minnesota."


Many Democrats line up behind increasing state aid to local governments, which became more difficult on Feb. 26 when state officials learned that the expected budget surplus shrank from $1.2 billion to $900 million.

Democrat Dayton agreed on the need to improve rural transportation.

"I think that's the lifeblood for greater Minnesota," Dayton said.

The governor suggested property tax relief is needed for farmers. He also promoted his public works funding bill, which would provide millions of dollars to help small, rural communities provide clean drinking water.

Other legislative leaders agreed transportation is important to greater Minnesota, but said other actions also can help the rural economy.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the state should encourage private investments. "With the tax structure we have today, I don't think you can compensate for that by giving more government assistance to rural Minnesota."

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said greater Minnesota continues to lag behind the Twin Cities in recovery from the recession.

He agreed with Dayton that farmers need property tax relief and added that businesses need relief, too, to help the economy grow.


House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said House Democrats have presented a package for rural Minnesota, "stuff that the Legislature forgot in 2015 somehow, even though it was supposed to be the year of greater Minnesota."

Thissen promoted plans to increase investment in broadband high-speed Internet expansion, more transportation funding, connecting higher education and other schools with manufacturing plants and boosting home care workers' pay.

Bakk recalled the time more than a decade ago when he and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty got lawmakers to pass a bill giving new and relocated rural businesses a dozen years without taxes. It did not work, Bakk said.

"At least we tried something," the senator said. "But we have got to learn from those mistakes, and the interesting thing I learned is even total tax-free environment, totally tax free for 12 years, did not drive an economic recovery in rural Minnesota. So that's not going to be the thing that helps rebuild main streets and rural towns."

Now, he said, he is looking at tax relief for small businesses.

Changing property taxes is tricky he said, because when taxes are lowered on one type of property they go up on another. He said tax relief should be targeted to small businesses so stores like Wal-Mart do not benefit.

While other legislative leaders and the governor did not see a need to change how the state deals with aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels and Asian carp, Bakk has his own idea.

"Getting our arms around these invasive species and how they're getting into more and more lakes – one of the contributing factors is that we have too many boat landings," Bakk said.


His plan closes many of the state's boat landings, leaving fewer access points. With fewer places to put in a boat, it would be easier to wash off items such as mussels, he said.

"We can start to get our arms around how we're going to deal with this problem or this problem is only going to get worse," Bakk said. "We do not need six, eight, 10 boat landings like many lakes have."

The cost to enforce laws against invasive species transportation is prohibitive with so many landings, Bakk said.

"We've got to find a way to install technology at the boat landings so that boats that come in and leave are clean," he said.

With just 10 weeks in the legislative session, far less time than in most sessions, getting Bakk's proposal passed may be difficult.

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