BEMIDJI – Populations are shifting, but the total number of legislators going to St. Paul is not.
That simple mathematical truth presents a dilemma for Minnesota legislators representing rural constituencies. As the portion of residents living in metropolitan areas grows, there are fewer legislators in rural parts of the state.
The Legislature convened last Tuesday with fewer legislators from those districts thanks to the latest round of redistricting, a once in a decade process that divides districts based on relatively-equal populations.
This shift is nothing new, however.
In 1961, 26 percent of the 199 legislators were from the Twin Cities, and 66 percent were from rural areas. By 2001, before the latest round of redistricting, 55 percent of the state’s 201 legislators were from the Twin Cities while only 31 percent were rural lawmakers, according to research by Jack Geller, head of the liberal arts and education department at the University of Minnesota-Crookston.
“The question becomes what does that mean in terms of rural legislation, what does that mean in terms of legislators understanding rural issues?” Geller said.
Rural lawmakers are aware of their declining numbers, and say they must work harder to make their colleagues from metro areas understand the issues affecting people far from their St. Paul offices.
In 2000, 71 percent of people were living in urban areas of the state according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to the 29 percent living in rural areas. According to 2010 figures, urbanites account for 73 percent of the population, compared to 27 percent in rural areas.
Multiple socioeconomic factors are causing the population shift in Minnesota and elsewhere.
Brad Finstad, executive director of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, cited a changing labor market, an aging population and different attitudes about where to find job opportunities as affecting rural Minnesota.
“A lot of us were told to go to the cities and go to college and get a good job,” Finstad said. “There wasn’t a strong cry for ‘Get your education, come back and help run rural Minnesota.’”
Minnesota isn’t alone in facing these challenges. In 1900, 39 percent of people lived in urban areas nationwide. By 1950, it was 64 percent and in 2010 it was 80 percent, said Morgan Cullen, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“What you’re seeing is a migration,” Cullen said. “That means that there are fewer legislators who represent those districts, which means over time, it makes perfect sense that issues that rural voters care about are not going to be as prevalent at the Capitol building as they once were.”
Sen. Tom Saxhaug can recall instances when his colleagues from the metro have voted against a bill of his. But the DFLer from Grand Rapids said much of that pushback has to do with not understanding rural issues.
“It is important that we get to know the legislators from the inner city and from the outer suburbs so they trust us about what we tell them about northern Minnesota,” Saxhaug said.
Saxhaug noted that there are several rural legislators in powerful positions this year, like Senate Tax Committee Chair Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.
“The real question is what happens when everybody retires?” Saxhaug said.
Even with fewer legislators, however, rural voters still have influence. When Republicans took control of both chambers of the Legislature in 2010, 10 of the 16 Senate Districts that changed from DFL affiliation were located outside the metro, according to Geller’s analysis.
“It was rural Minnesotans that created that wave,” Geller said.
Still, some are concerned that with less representation at the Capitol, rural Minnesota’s influence on policy will be diminished. Finstad said issues like Local Government Aid, education and transportation funding are issues that have a rural vs. urban component to them.
Legislators have already raised concerns this session that agriculture issues were being brushed aside. What has typically been a standalone committee, agriculture was slated to be rolled into the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee.
What’s more, survey respondents in a Center for Rural Policy Development study released this month felt there wasn’t one unified group advocating for rural interests.
“The reality we’re dealt with is that we have fewer people than they have,” Finstad said. “We need to work smarter together, we need to acknowledge areas where regionally we can get along on issues and have a stronger unified voice.”
Editor’s note: This is the first story in an occasional series examining demographic changes in rural Minnesota