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Why Greater Minnesota interests have high hopes for the 2019 legislative session

Tim Walz speaking to attendees of the gubernatorial debate at FarmFest in August.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Tim Walz speaking to attendees of the gubernatorial debate at FarmFest in August.

When groups representing rural Minnesota interests released their wish lists for the 2019 legislative session, some of the items looked familiar: a boost in funding for the Local Government Aid program, proposals to generate housing, more money for broadband expansion.

Yet while the issues might not be new, some of the players at the Capitol are, including Gov.-elect Tim Walz, the former U.S. congressman from Mankato whose campaign theme – “One Minnesota” – heartened some rural leaders who have long felt left behind by the Twin Cities metropolitan region.

“I’m a ‘One Minnesota’ kind of guy, so I’m kind of optimistic,” said Dan Dorman, the executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership (GMNP), a collection of businesses, nonprofits and other groups. Dorman, a former Republican state lawmaker, said he was committed to supporting a gubernatorial candidate from Greater Minnesota – regardless of party. So, in the fall election, he filled in the oval next to the Democrat Walz’s name.

Much of the chatter at the fall convention of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC), held in Alexandria, centered on the possibilities of a Walz administration, said Bradley Peterson, the executive director of the organization, which represents about 90 cities. “Our members are pretty excited that there is going to be a rural governor,” he said. “That opens up, hopefully, some opportunities and brings some fresh perspective to the process here for the next four years.”

Indeed, when the Legislature begins its work Jan. 8, a battery of lobbyists for the GMNP, the CGMC and other groups will be there, arguing for a variety of proposals that they believe will boost the rural economy.

Walz represented the 1st Congressional District – a largely rural and heavily agricultural swath of southern Minnesota – for 12 years before running for governor. In an interview with MinnPost, he reiterated the unifying theme of his campaign. “The idea that we have separate economies (in the Twin Cities and in rural Minnesota) simply is not the case,” he said. “The Minnesota economy – and by extension the state’s quality of life – is predicated on having a diverse economy.”

Besides a change in the governor’s office, the Legislature will have a different makeup, too, with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans controlling the Senate. (Last year, Republicans controlled both chambers). Lawmakers will also be working with a projected $1.5 billion budget surplus. While only a projection, “it does give us a little opportunity to argue for some things,” said Gary Carlson, the director of intergovernmental relations at the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC), which represents cities in all regions of the state.

One of those things will be more money for Local Government Aid (LGA), the resource-sharing program that helps many cities cover their expenses. The LMC, the CGMC and the GMNP are all asking for the same thing: an increase of $30.5 million in funding for the program – on top of the state’s current $534.5 million allocation – that would bring funding back to 2002 levels. Walz campaigned for such an increase and said this week that it would likely be part of his administration’s budget proposal.

Meanwhile, agricultural groups will be at the Capitol in search of tax relief in exchange for the creation of “buffers” – swaths of land between fields and waterways that are designed to filter phosphorus and other chemicals. The organizations will be returning with a request that failed last year: a $50-per-acre property tax credit on land that has been converted to buffers.

Walz favors such a rebate – but not the source of funding that has been proposed to pay for it: money generated by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Plato farmer Brian Thalmann, the president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said his group is open to other funding ideas.

Here’s a closer look at those issues and a few others related to the rural economy that will be worth watching as the legislative session unfolds:

Another pitch for LGA: About 90 percent of Minnesota’s cities receive some money from the Local Government Aid program, which helps them pay for services that are generally covered by property taxes. The program has its critics; while some small towns get nearly half of their budgets from LGA, many wealthier cities receive little, if any, money from the program. According to a League of Minnesota Cities tally, 22 cities held referendums to raise property taxes last fall, with 16 of the measures passing. For Carlson, the LMC lobbyist, that’s at least one indication that LGA funding is needed more than ever. Two years ago, lawmakers agreed to boost the annual appropriation by $15 million. Rural interests also want lawmakers to approve annual inflationary increases for LGA.


Tax relief for ‘buffers’: In Minnesota, farmers are now required to create “buffers” of natural vegetation between their fields and waterways – 16.5 feet along ditches and as much as 50 feet along lakes, rivers and streams. Research shows that such buffers help to filter phosphorus and other chemicals that run off of fields and into the water. Last year, farmers sought a property tax credit of $50 per-acre of buffer land, arguing that they should be compensated for land that has been taken out of production. The plan bogged down over disagreements about funding the tax credit, estimated at $27 million over two years, so agriculture interests will be back this year with the same request (and perhaps others). “We strongly feel that a rebate of some sort is a small token going back to landowners,” said Thalmann, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association head.

Research shows that buffers helps to filter phosphorus and other chemicals that run off of fields and into the water.
Research shows that buffers help to filter phosphorus and other chemicals that run off of fields and into the water.
More and better housing: In recent years, rural leaders have been looking for ways to address a shortage of adequate housing for the workers who are needed in manufacturing, agriculture and other industries. An existing state program, chronicled by MinnPost here, provides grants to small cities and counties for repairs to existing homes. The Greater Minnesota Partnership is asking for $20 million for grant programs focused on increasing the supply of housing units in growing communities. Walz, meanwhile, told MinnPost that housing is at the top of his priority list, symbolized by the first commissioner he chose to publicly introduce: Jennifer Ho, his choice to head the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. “This is an issue in every community – from workforce and teacher housing in Fairmont and Rochester to folks in Worthington working in animal agriculture to north Minneapolis,” he said. He added: “The issue is deep but solvable, and we have a commitment to getting it right.”

Money for highway and street repairs: Money to maintain highways and fix city streets will also be part of this year’s rural requests. The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and the Greater Minnesota Partnership, for instance, are asking for $200 million for Corridors of Commerce – a state Department of Transportation program that funds maintenance and repairs on highways that are heavily trafficked with freight. In 2017, the Legislature put $8 million for each of two years into the state’s Small Cities Assistance Program, which helps towns with fewer than 5,000 residents pay for street repairs. Both the CGMC and the GMNP would like to see $50 million set aside for city streets. The League of Minnesota Cities is seeking $28 million for the small cities fund.

Hector, MN
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
In 2017, the Legislature put $8 million for each of two years into the state’s Small Cities Assistance Program, which helps towns with fewer than 5,000 residents pay for street repairs.
Broadband expansion: Rural groups plan to continue their push for the expansion of high-speed internet service into underserved regions. Last year, the Legislature set aside $20 million for the Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program, which provides grants to help providers pay for the infrastructure they need to expand their reach. The Greater Minnesota Partnership is asking for $50 million for the Border to Border program, with at least half of the money targeted to areas that lack access to 2026 state speed goals — 100 megabits down, 20 megabits up. Rural leaders argue that they have little chance of luring businesses, like this high-tech one in Gibbon, without solid internet service. “We hope this is something that gets more funding, given the jobs and the industries and the schools that rely on this,” said Irene Kao, the intergovernmental relations counsel at the League of Minnesota Cities.

Child care shortage solutions: For the past few years, rural leaders have been sounding the alarm about a growing problem: the lack of child care options for working parents. Some towns have worked with businesses to create child care centers, like this project in New York Mills. Last fall, during the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities annual meeting, city officials identified the dearth of child care as one of the issues “potentially holding back growth” in rural areas, Peterson said. Between 2006 and 2015, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Human Services, the number of day care providers in Minnesota dropped by nearly 2,000 to around 6,400. The CGMC is seeking $10 million for a child-care facility capital assistance program, as well as aid for employers that provide their workers with child care benefits. The Greater Minnesota Partnership, among other ideas, is calling for more investment in the state’s child-care tax credit program.

This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.

Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Tony Carideo on 01/02/2019 - 11:17 am.

    The Greater Minnesota wish list is laudable and, frankly, familiar. I would submit, however, that the true test of Governor-Elect Walz’s “One Minnesota” campaign theme will be straightforward: Will Minnesota’s Greater Minnesota legislators accompany these policy proposals with their equally well-worn enmity toward any measures meant to help Minnesota’s urban areas, particularly the Twin Cities?

    Will they once again descend on the Capital with proposals designed to gut or politicize the Metropolitan Council, intervene in efforts by Minnesota’s cities to increase the minimum wage, cut funding to the University of Minnesota and attack just about anything meant to improve mass transit, especially light rail. The list goes on and on.

    Should this again happen–and I would love to be wrong on my bet that we’ll again see a replay of past sessions–I wonder how well our new governor’s “One Minnesota” idea will survive the “We Win, You Lose” attitude our state’s “Greater Minnesota” lawmakers so often have brought to the table.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/02/2019 - 12:20 pm.

      In other words, will rural voters tell their representatives to abandon the politics of resentment in favor of results? Given how they voted in November, I’m not counting on it.

      I can see how poison pills could be attached to bills. You want rural broad band? That comes with a ban on local minimum wages. You want to raise the gas tax? That comes with an exemption on prevailing wages on those road projects that will get funded.

      Paul Gazelka is the wild card here. Without Daudt gumming up the works, we’ll see how he runs his caucus.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/02/2019 - 12:02 pm.

    Long list of issues in rural Minnesota, no easy answers, what’s ironic is many of these issues are similar to the metro areas, only smaller in scale (relatively speaking) What appears to be the biggest issue is probably not enough folks want to keep living and working in rural areas because of limited opportunity, and perhaps limited diversity of folks, ideas and culture. One of the topics that always gets me is (really got nothing against farmers/got a bunch in the extended family) they are so against buffers, call themselves stewards of the land, but seem to ignore that the runoff is polluting the water ways, Sorry guys those are the public’s water ways not yours, dosen’t the public get a say into what your farm dumps into our water? You know we have all kinds of property set backs etc. here in the city, no tax deduction for that space.

    • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 01/06/2019 - 08:28 am.

      Except now we have tri-plexes to look forward to. Whether they are set back or not, still appalling. I think we should absolutely fund broadband to rural Minnesota. Peeps are getting tired of gridlock and density in the Twin Cities. Rural cities are a great place to raise kids. But they need jobs, and broadband would allow companies to move there. Advantage for companies? 1 lower cost of land acquisition and property taxes 2 reliable work force 3 lower crime and all “big city” issues and 4 better quality of life. People want to stay in their towns, and the state needs to do a better job of finding ways to make that happen.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/08/2019 - 07:46 pm.

        If people are getting tired of density, they have a funny way of showing it. Saint Paul and it’s oldest suburb, immediately to it’s west, are gaining residents.

  3. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 01/02/2019 - 12:26 pm.

    A question about the proposed $50 an acre credit for buffer zones; is that per acre that actually borders a stream or ditch or other water or, is that for every acre of a farm? For example a 1,000 acre farm that includes buffer on parts of 30 acres would qualify for (at the proposed rate of $50/acre) a credit of $1,500 which is what I assumed. I was told earlier this week that no, a 1,000 acre farm that had buffers would receive the $50/acre credit on the whole farm not just acreage that abutted the buffer. Any clarification would be appreciated!

    • Submitted by Gregg Aamot on 01/02/2019 - 02:13 pm.

      Thanks for the question, Jim. The credit would be only for tillable land that must be maintained as a buffer. That’s based on my interview with the head of the Corn Growers group and a close look at the House and Senate bills as they currently stand.

  4. Submitted by Nathan Johnson on 01/02/2019 - 10:35 pm.

    *** 5 Things That Would Help Build A GREATER, Greater Minnesota! ***

    1. FUND MINNESOTA’S NATIONAL PARKS & MONUMENTS DURING FEDERAL SHUTDOWNS. Using the example of Pipestone National Monument, the visitor’s center is now closed, snowplows aren’t making their way to the Center, and a fraction of the people who visit Pipestone, its gift shops, hotels (including the amazing Calumet), restaurants, etc., are not coming. The closure is adversely affecting tourism in this small town in southwestern Minnesota that usually gets about 70,000 visitors annually to see its monument. A reserve fund could be setup to keep these amenities operational in Greater Minnesota for when the Federal Government doesn’t have its act together. Pipestonians shouldn’t suffer the consequences of incompetencies in D.C.

    2. FINISH THE TRAIL LINK, ALREADY. Connect the Sunrise Prairie Trail (North Branch to Twin Cities) with the Willard Munger State Trail (Hinckley to Duluth, and beyond), a missing link of 32-miles that will help connect MSP to D-S and promote statewide tourism, making for one of the longest continual paved trails in the world. There’s a plan in place, called the James L. Oberstar State Trail, but it isn’t fully funded. It’s less than 30 miles that are missing and the trail route will never be cheaper to finish than right now.

    3. PLACE REGIONAL HOCKEY COMPLEX IN PINE CITY. We are in the State of Hockey, right? This is where the metro teams (think Edina, St. Cloud Cathedral, St. Thomas Academy, etc.) would meet to play the ‘Up North’ teams (Duluth East, Warroad, Bemidji, Hermantown, etc.) on neutral ice, equidistant from the State’s two largest metro areas, yet built in a small town in Greater Minnesota. Funded mostly by the State, but in partnership, perhaps, with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and local/regional economic development agencies.

    4. PROVIDE CITY LIMIT / POPULATION SIGNS FOR ALL 853 INCORPORATED CITIES WITH THE 2020 CENSUS NUMBERS. Too many of the cities in Minnesota (especially those on former State highways now turn-back roads, and operated by their respective counties) no longer have such signage; or the signage they have represents their populations from decades ago! Don’t count on the counties to fund their installation, updates or replacements. If we truly want Greater Minnesota cities to have some clout, let’s at least show people arriving at them that they exist.

    5. WHY STOP AT DULUTH? BUILD NLX ALL THE WAY TO CANADIAN BORDER. Sure, we are funding a beautiful (and necessary) reconstruction and resurfacing of Hwy. 61 through Grand Marais to improve accessibility… But what about overall accessibility to the “tip” of Minnesota? Each year, the scenic drive up the North Shore is getting crammed with more cars on the two-lane highway. Let’s plan for the future, so generations beyond us can discover the Gunflint Trail, Naniboujou Lodge and the rest of what the Arrowhead has to offer. Having passenger rail service to Thunder Bay gets Ontarians and Manitobans headed our way!

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/03/2019 - 09:01 am.

      Building passenger rail ro the Canadian border would not be planning for the future. It would just be taking a pile of money and lighting it on fire. Passenger rail works well in dense areas, which is why even the line to Duluth makes no sense. That was a pipe dream that went away when transportarion committee chair/ranking member Jim Oberatar was turned out of office.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/03/2019 - 11:44 am.

        Passenger rail doesn’t even work in dense areas. NUC loses money on its subway every year and if memory serves, something like 45% of the people there use it.

  5. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/03/2019 - 08:44 am.

    The entire list of issues is a result of big govt making the mess in the first place.

    LGA: eliminate it. Make locals balance their own budgets.
    Use some of that money to fix roads then pay down debt with the rest.
    Broadband should be a private industry matter. If local towns want they can pay for it. Ending the monopolistic practices with cable companies et al would help.

    Child care: again a result of big govt and deficit spending. Purchasing power is sapped whenever unbacked debt is created. Thus more than 1 income is now required for most just to survive. End that practice and pay down the debt then we can move back to having 1 income households being the norm again.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/03/2019 - 09:25 am.

      It is inconsistent for rural voters to elect small government conservatives and then ask for an active government.

      I favor an active government and vote that way, so I’m not guilty of the hypocrisy of many rural MN voters. And this also applies to rural employers as well. They locate out state in order to take advantage of lower labor costs, then lament the lack of labor, and how they need the state to subsidize child care and housing costs. Yet they, too, continue to support small government conservatives.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/03/2019 - 11:52 am.

        Many of these groups have nothing to do with conservatism. The fact farming areas elected Walz repeatedly proves they aren’t voting for small govt conservatives. The Farmer groups all want their handouts. They need to be cut off. Subsidies beget more subsidies. An alcoholic can’t get sober if you keep handing him a bottle.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/03/2019 - 11:20 am.

      The problem with calling broadband a private industry matter is that the free market doesn’t work in this case. It makes sense for the industry to build the infrastructure in densely populated areas. They will pour money into the cities and suburbs. But its not profitable to build the infrastructure in sparsely populated areas. So without government involvement it won’t get built.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/03/2019 - 11:49 am.

        Not exactly accurate. Cell companies have blanketed much of the nation in towers. There are very few places you can’t get a signal from at least 1 carrier. Where there is demand, you’ll get someone to supply it. It may cost more or not be as fast as bigger cities but you’ll get access.

        That being said, towns can build their own and add it as a utility if they want. There shouldn’t be any other govt funding for it. (I believe Monticello did this and has fiber going to every home in town.)

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/03/2019 - 12:19 pm.

          We aren’t talking about cell phone reception. We are taking about having the kind of high-speed, reliable internet access you need to run a business. The “not as fast” access you think exists isn’t good enough. Relying simply on the free market to provide it means rural areas will fall further and further behind.

          • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/03/2019 - 02:15 pm.

            Cell phone companies offer high speed internet. They are in fact available in almost all rural areas. So the claim there is no high speed Internet out there is absurd. None of what you have said negates any of my statements. The private sector is already providing high speed even out in the country away from local towns. The State should not be subsidizing any of it.

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/03/2019 - 03:28 pm.

              Sorry, but that is completely untrue. Companies can’t offer high-speed internet in rural areas because the infrastructure is not there. And the infrastructure is not there because it is not profitable to build it. The only reason that we are talking about government paying for it is because it won’t happen otherwise. This debate exists because – contrary to your claims – it is a real problem.

              Rural Minnesota is heavily subsidized by the metro area. Maybe if rural legislators would wake up and do what they need to do to become more economically competitive. But if you want to pretend that high-speed internet can be found in rural areas, I can’t help you.

              • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/04/2019 - 10:56 am.

                This whole exchange illustrates the self destructive mentality of rural Minnesotan’s who vote for Republicans. Yeah, they need broadband… Republicans claim they ALREADY have it. Likewise with road and bridge spending, schools, etc. Rural MN needs at least $500 million in transportation spending and Republicans send them $300. They’re in the middle of a devastating drug epidemic and crushing rural poverty while Republicans try to wipe out pre-existing health care coverage and make food stamps more difficult to obtain. Tariffs have ground their crop sales to a halt, and they’re not getting the big farm subsidies they were promised (but claim they don’t want). But hey, Republicans complain about urban choo choo’s, gay marriage, and abortion, so it’s all good. Whatever.

    • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 01/06/2019 - 08:32 am.

      These comments are silly.. Rural areas in Minnesota are hurting because there are very few businesses that pay a living wage as well as property tax. If you want to sit in the Twin Cities and watch the rest of the state dwindle on the proverbial vine that’s fine. I want State government to fund broadband so those cities can attract quality companies. You get the jobs, you get the employees to move there. Then, and only then, will these small towns prosper.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/04/2019 - 10:09 am.

    Yes, a long wish list of things their own Republican representatives have been blocking for over a decade.

    I personally have just about had it with these “out-state” Minnesotan’s who keep voting for politicians who block efforts to deliver more service and funding to rural areas while complaining that the “cities” are getting all the good stuff.

    Metro residents have never complained about sending more money out to rural Minnesota than we get back, and this business of trying to send out more services and funding despite rural politicians in St. Paul is way past it’s expiration date. Democratic budgets for rural Minnesota have always demanded more funding and service than Republican budgets. Republican budgets always scale back spending in order to pay for tax cuts, and the loss of revenue makes spending increases impossible.

    The fact that “rural” Minnesotan’s finally see some hope… now that Democrats have gotten into power despite their votes… tells us that these Minnesotan’s need get their own heads on straight and quit complaining about the “divide” they’ve created.

    It’s very simple rural Minnesotan’s: You don’t have the money, you need MY money, and if you want it you need stop complaining about my “values” and the transit systems I need. When I spend decades trying to push more money and services out to you despite your “small guvment” mentality and you respond by complaining about a “divide” of your own creation… it makes me wonder why I bother, and it makes it much more difficult care about YOUR problems. If you make me choose between fighting for MY transit or fighting for YOUR broadband… guess what? I’ve been fighting for both, but I HAVE to choose one or the other…

    Yes, in many ways for many years rural America and rural Minnesota has been in trouble. And as long as I can remember liberal’s have been trying to push out whatever funding and services we can to help. WE don’t see a divide, we see people who need help. We see poverty, and drug epidemics, and unemployment, and underfunded schools, and farming crises, and we want to help… those are OUR values. But then these rural people tell us they want to throw hand grenades into our living rooms and our government, well… we’re not going to dodge your hand grenades in order to save your burning house and frankly it’s completely bizarre that you would expect us to do so.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/05/2019 - 03:01 pm.

      And what’s even more bizarre and frustrating is that the MN DFL can’t figure out way to campaign on this and peel off at least a few legislative seats.

      These are not complex ideas, they fit on a bumbler sticker for Pete’s sake.

      Want broadband? Vote for me.

      Want our 70 year old water treatment plant replaced? Vote for me.

      Want County Road “X” resurfaced? Vote for me.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/06/2019 - 11:03 am.

        I know right? I mean, who cut all these programs in the first place and why? It wasn’t Democrats. Remember when Republicans cut LGA in order to pay for their tax cuts… and then tried to pass laws (that Dayton vetoed) that would have made it impossible for cities and towns to raise taxes in order to replace the lost revenue? So they vote for Republicans who created the problem and then hope Democrats will restore LGA? And Democrats can’t figure out how to win these elections?

        You try to talk to Democrats about this and it’s just ridiculous. IF you can get them to adopt a liberal policy in the first place (and that’s a big “IF”) you can’t get them to campaign for it because they talk themselves out of it in some bizarre way. You say: “campaign on restoring LGA” and they say: “Oh, but Republicans will call us ‘Tax and Spend’ Democrats” so they don’t campaign on it, and they lose anyways. They just don’t get it. They refuse to imagine a “message” and then they complain about being so crappy at “messaging”. Whatever.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/06/2019 - 11:05 am.

        Of course, you know what I’m always going to say about Democrats who can’t figure out how to win elections at the end of the day… the problem is “centrism” and it’s celebration of mediocrity and stagnation.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/06/2019 - 04:56 pm.

    I’ll just make one more observation: You can see in some of the Republican/Libertarian inspired comments here one of the more toxic, immoral, and irrational strains of Conservative/Libertarian mentalities.While they blather on and on about “big govment”, they have a strong desire to use the coercive power of government to punish people who don’t meet their “standards” of self sufficiency or independence.

    It’s a weird and hostile mentality that turns government programs into disciplinary regimes. When you step back and look at it, you see how Republicans and Libertarians have an agenda of using welfare programs to punish people…. who need welfare programs… just for needing welfare programs. So Farmers are to be punished for needing farm subsidies, food stamp recipients for needing food stamps, health care recipients for needing health, etc. etc. If all of these people simply prospered appropriately economically they wouldn’t NEED government assistance, so let’s teach them a lesson! If’s a dysfunctional morally bereft bizarre mentality but there you have it.

    So why do people who are soooooo dependent on these services vote for people who want to use those services (once you can even get them to provide services in the first place) to punish them for needing them?

    Every so often the failure to vote in ones own best interest pops up in these conversations and this is a really good example of it.

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