Legislature: Rural Minnesota: ‘Left behind’ or a priority?
ST. PAUL — House Majority Leader Erin Murphy and Rep. Paul Marquart stood side-by-side Tuesday introducing House Democrats’ education funding plan.
Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, praised Marquart’s work as education finance chairman: "He has done such a fantastic job."
Indeed, politics can make unexpected allies.
Marquart had challenged Murphy to lead the House Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus after last November’s elections. Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis was elected House speaker, and Marquart said he wanted to make sure rural Minnesota was represented in leadership.
Marquart lost the leadership contest, but said he was pleased to land the job as education finance chairman. His committee decides the budget for the state’s largest spending area.
Marquart said he was relieved when he saw many other rural members named to committee leadership spots as well, allaying some concerns about a lack of input from greater Minnesota that many members outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area raised as the legislative session began.
"I thought, ‘here’s where the balance is,’" Marquart said.
Some rural lawmakers still are not convinced.
"I think we’re left behind, definitely," Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, said of rural Minnesotans under Democratic budget plans.
She said the proposals do not address real needs outside the Twin Cities area and could hurt small businesses and farmers.
"I think they need to re-examine their priorities," Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said of Democrats. "I definitely have concerns."
Many rural Republican lawmakers cited recent approval of the environment and agriculture finance bill, which included water usage fee increases, an example of plans they say will disproportionately impact greater Minnesota.
Before the legislative session began, Republican lawmakers said agriculture funding would be overshadowed by other issues when it was joined with environment and natural resources for finance talks, and they were not happy with the result.
The bill passed without any Republican votes.
"I think this is one of the first times we have had a lack of bipartisan support there," Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said. "I just don’t think this is a common-sense approach to how things work in rural Minnesota."
Murphy said Democrats intentionally aimed for significant rural committee leadership overall to ensure those voices would be heard and said the budget plan reflects that.
"I think Minnesota as a whole will experience the benefits," Murphy said. "We pay a lot of attention to different areas of the state."
"We said we’re not going to play games with the budget anymore," Marquart said. "That leads to balancing it on the backs of rural Minnesota often."
Marquart said those Republicans concerned about rural Minnesota should look at the difference from the past two years, when the GOP controlled the Legislature.
"Rural Minnesota took a hit," Marquart said. "We reversed some of those things."
"I think the overall budget is excellent for rural Minnesota," he added, citing his education finance bill, property tax relief and a 3 percent increase in funding for nursing homes. "I would say, look at the results."
Thissen said a possible public works borrowing bill also would include funding toward important projects in rural Minnesota.
Kiel acknowledged some rural cities might see more state funds from changes to Local Government Aid and property tax relief plans. But she said proposed alcohol and cigarette taxes, the water fee increases, education requirements and other policies would cost more than any benefit those communities might see.
"Even if we raise LGA, we’re going to turn around and spend it and charge more money," she said.
Kiel said other Democratic proposals such as raising the minimum wage will hit rural Minnesota harder than the metro as well. "That’s going to be detrimental to businesses."
Leaders "truly think they’re trying" to keep rural Minnesota in mind, Kiel said.
Murphy grew up around agriculture and said she has farmers in her family. She said she understands the ag industry’s strength is essential to the state’s success.
But top concerns are different from rural to metro areas, Kiel said, and it is hard to advocate for both.
"If everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority," Hamilton said.
Marquart said he thinks Thissen and other leaders have "made a concerted effort to make sure the results are beneficial for rural Minnesota."
"We know if greater Minnesota succeeds, we’ll all succeed," Thissen said.
Hamilton said the final results of the session remain to be seen in the last few weeks, and Democratic leaders still will be in place next year, the second of a two-year legislative session.
More policy issues likely will come up then, Anderson said, and the impacts on the state outside the metro area might be clearer.
"There could be a lot more issues that are near and dear to rural Minnesota," Anderson said. "It’s kind of a two-year trial here."
Reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.