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Daniel Larson: Define Minn. concerns while leaders listen

By Daniel Larson

Ask somebody from rural Minnesota what they find most amusing about their governance, and they will likely tell you it's remarkable how important rural Minnesotans become to political leaders in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul every other November in election years. This year is no different, and with rural counties continuing to trend as a factor in what pundits are calling the most important election in a generation, we think it is more important than ever to define rural concerns as we see them.

"Frustrated" is the word rural leaders use most often to describe how their priorities are perceived by metro people, politicians and media. "They just don't understand us..." And the divide gets deeper with each generation removed from the farm or forest. In today's reality, any issue that finds its way to the hallways of the state Capitol is as likely to split metro-rural, as it is along party lines.

Rural people? They don't understand environmental concerns and they're so backward with their traditional values. City people? They want to regulate us to death, and what's with all those protesters?

We support the industries that are most often the focus of those protests - because they are ones that provide the jobs that build our communities and feed our families. We embrace extraction industries like mining, oil and pipelines, timber and agriculture, which are the foundation not only of the rural culture and economy but of the entire state.

So we recoiled when opposition groups celebrated Enbridge pulling the plug on the $2.6 billion Sandpiper pipeline project after stringing it out with "extensive and unprecedented" legal and regulatory delays. We didn't stop traffic, or shut down public meetings, but we were heartbroken because we knew it would cost millions in lost annual property tax revenues to some of the smallest and poorest counties in the state facing insurmountable problems with opioid, child and elder care needs. Sandpiper oil is now flowing through a pipeline in South Dakota and Iowa where counties in those states are benefiting from the windfall. Opponents have since turned their sights toward defeating the Line 3 upgrade where delays and costs are piling up.

And that's just the start. New technologies in wind turbines, alternative fuel vehicles, smartphones and other products are opening demand for new metals. The Duluth Complex on the Iron Range holds oceans of undeveloped non-ferrous metal, and we have a choice: Mine the materials in Minnesota under state and federal regulatory oversight, while providing good jobs and generating millions in additional annual revenues to state, local, and school district budgets (statewide), or farm it out to India, China, or the Congo, where the environment is exploited with little or no oversight, and the labor potentially conducted by children and/or slaves. The mining issue in Minnesota is a social justice issue.

Opposition to mining and pipelines are just the tip of rural concerns. In an instant-access, online world it's unacceptable that farmers, small businesses, schools, hospitals and local governments are still on the dark side of the digital world in over half of the state. State legislative leaders whiffed last year on funding to keep the state on pace to meet its broadband goals. This must be corrected in 2019. Bureaucratic obstacles to innovative health care cost-sharing plans for farmers, rural businesses and individuals must be eliminated. Workforce day care and housing needs must be addressed. And we must find relief for the devastating effects opioid addiction is wreaking on rural Minnesota.

We don't have a ready answer for bridging a growing issues gap between metro and rural sensibilities. Talking seems like a good start and we are seeing more national reporters making anthropological ventures from east coast cities into the heartland. We thought we would start by defining what is important to rural counties, while our elected leaders are still showing interest.

Daniel Larson, of Apple Valley, Minn., is executive director of Minnesota Rural Counties.