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The DFL’s legislative majority is concentrated in the Twin Cities metro. In a consequential session, what did that mean for Greater Minnesota?

Greater Minnesota lawmakers had substantially less influence at the Legislature than perhaps ever before — during a year when the state had a record $17.5 billion surplus. It’s a result of political realignment along geographic lines that accelerated in the Trump era.

Floor of the Minnesota Senate
In the Senate, the DFL flipped the chamber away from a Republican majority in part by winning a few critical Greater Minnesota seats.

When the DFL won a majority in the Minnesota Senate last year and kept control of the state House, lawmakers representing Greater Minnesota lost significant influence in a year with a record $17.5 billion surplus.

That’s because of sharp geographic polarization across the state, a trend that accelerated during the Trump and Biden presidencies and has resulted in Republicans representing most parts of Greater Minnesota and the vast majority of elected Democrats hailing from the seven-county Twin Cities metro.

The situation led to some angst outside the metro, and not just among Republicans lawmakers. Power at the state Capitol has maybe never been less geographically balanced. When Democrats held a trifecta nearly a decade ago, the party had far more legislators from rural areas. “There were a lot of unknowns,” said Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. “Clearly it was a different landscape than previous sessions and the last time the DFL had a trifecta.”

So, with the legislative session now in the rearview mirror, how did it go for Greater Minnesota? It depends on who you ask.

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What local officials representing Greater Minnesota saw

In the 2022 election, Democrats kept control of the state House, but they did so by winning some suburban districts while losing a few in Greater Minnesota. That made the House DFL even more metro-centric than it already was.

In the Senate, the DFL flipped the chamber away from a Republican majority in part by winning a few critical Greater Minnesota seats. However, the new Democratic majority has way fewer rural legislators than last time the DFL held the state Senate. In total, 12 of 70 House Democrats are from Greater Minnesota, as are six of 34 Senate DFLers. Greater Minnesota makes up about 45% of the state’s population.

Still, headed into the legislative session, DFL leaders said their policies would be good for the entire state, and the few Democratic lawmakers from Greater Minnesota were likely to hold some clout given the party’s narrow majorities.

Reflecting on the six month session this week, Peterson said there were good and bad aspects to the full DFL trifecta. 

He said the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities spent lots of time and effort “playing defense” by trying to shape or block certain ideas.

One of those ideas was a bill requiring analysis on the cumulative impact of pollution over time for business permits in certain environmental justice areas. The coalition said it was too broad, and it was eventually narrowed to apply primarily to the metro area. (The idea had support from at least some in Greater Minnesota.) Another proposal would have reinstated a citizens’ board to oversee permits at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It never passed the House or Senate after some lawmakers from Greater Minnesota opposed it.

“We spent a lot of time working on initiatives related to the environment, especially, that would have had impacts on economic development in Greater Minnesota,” Peterson said. “And a lot of those were driven by metro-area legislators with metro-area perspectives.”

Peterson said from a practical standpoint, there were fewer lawmakers who could elevate the Coalition’s concerns. But he said he was in touch regularly with a small circle of legislators, and Peterson said Gov. Tim Walz’s administration also helped shape proposals to make them, in his view, more practical. If Republicans still held at least one chamber of the Legislature, those proposals could have been blocked more easily, Peterson said.

On the other hand, Peterson praised many aspects of what actually did pass. He said the coalition got a large $80 million-a-year influx of new money for the Local Government Aid (LGA) program, which funds city services, helping to limit property taxes throughout the state. The subsidy mostly helps Greater Minnesota, and expansion for the program was a priority of rural DFLers.

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The $2.58 billion infrastructure package also included more than $500 million for water infrastructure projects, another big priority of the Coalition, along with other construction work throughout the state. Those wins, he said, were made easier by a government under one-party control.

“We were able to advance a number of our policy initiatives because there was a smooth budgetary process,” Peterson said. “Whereas with divided government, because of the political dynamic, oftentimes things ground down to stalemate. But the other side of that is a lot more uncertainty, and needing on our part to be reactive to the firehose of ideas coming from the metro-area DFLers.”

Jacob Kolander is the city administrator and economic development authority director in Spicer. He’s also the president of the Minnesota Association of Small Cities.

Kolander told MinnPost that even though the DFL majority is primarily from bigger metropolitan cities, small cities also got a big boost in state aid. For Spicer, that includes nearly $100,000 over the next two years made up of Local Government Aid and money earmarked for public safety.

He said lawmakers in general should focus on avoiding gridlock. DFL control certainly avoided that. “Small cities have historically suffered more when nothing happens, as opposed to when either party has control,” Kolander said.

Still, Kolander said a growing number of mandates and government requirements could be a challenge for small cities. The new paid family leave law, for one example, will add costs to cities already facing trouble with staffing, he said.

New Ulm Council President Andrea Boettger said the new law requiring a carbon-free energy grid by 2040 was positive, and gives rural communities a “real shot at taking some action” on climate change along with money through federal infrastructure and climate legislation.

Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. — who has endorsed DFL and Republican lawmakers and candidates — said his city fared well in the infrastructure bill.

But he also had many critiques. The area would lose money for local charitable causes because of new restrictions on electronic pull-tabs, Cuffe argued. And he said constituents are disappointed the Social Security tax wasn’t fully repealed, among other frustrations. “We have a big senior population here,” he said. “Whatever tax cuts are going in which are very little, it doesn’t help everybody, it only helps some families with children.”

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How Republican legislators rate the session

At the Legislature, the Republican view on the session’s outcome for Greater Minnesota was grim.

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said the final package of spending and policy for the agriculture sector “could have went much worse than it did,” even if it would have been different under GOP control. He said Republicans were bracing for tougher regulations on things like pesticide-treated seeds that eventually failed. The city of Windom in Weber’s district also got some state aid after the closure of a pork processing plant.

Still, Weber said the K-12 system would face new mandates that would increase costs, like paid family leave. He said the increased gas tax will particularly hurt in Greater Minnesota, where people have to drive more. Democrats contend the new money will help budget deficits for road and bridge maintenance and construction. And Weber also said the GOP had to fight for another $300 million for struggling nursing homes, many of them in smaller cities and rural areas, by holding up that infrastructure package for months. 

Weber told MinnPost that the few Greater Minnesota Democrats did little to stand up for rural areas. For instance, while those DFLers somewhat limited their party’s agenda on gun regulations, Weber said the Legislature still passed a “red flag” law and extended background check requirements to private transfers. Supporters of those measures argue they’re popular statewide. A few other things blocked by Democrats from outside the metro, like the citizens’ board plan, didn’t win much good favor from the GOP.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find any type of a rural Democrat that actually moderated any of the bad ideas that the Democrats had,” Weber said.

How DFLers rate their job

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, acknowledged there was less geographic balance in leadership positions than in the past — even when the DFL was in control.

Conscious of that, Hortman said she tried to pair “political odd couples” to lead crucial committees, like progressive Rep. Aisha Gomez of Minneapolis and moderate Rep. Dave Lislegard of Aurora as tax committee chairs.

Lislegard’s vice chair was from St. Paul, too, and Hortman said both areas had more in common than some might think, like “real pockets of poverty” and a need for economic opportunity. “I have a great picture of Aisha Gomez and Dave Lislegard doing a fist bump when we signed the tax bill because it’s really a great blend of the two,” Hortman said.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman: “I have a great picture of Aisha Gomez and Dave Lislegard doing a fist bump when we signed the tax bill because it’s really a great blend of the two.”
Courtesy House Public Information Services/House Speaker Melissa Hortman
House Speaker Melissa Hortman: “I have a great picture of Aisha Gomez and Dave Lislegard doing a fist bump when we signed the tax bill because it’s really a great blend of the two.”
Hortman rattled off a list of DFL accomplishments that she felt helped the whole state. 

That includes the infrastructure package, more money for LGA and a similar program for counties, transportation funding for small cities, tax breaks for renters, affordable housing money, property tax rebates, an expanded beginning farmer tax credit, money for local public safety initiatives and $100 million for subsidizing the construction of broadband infrastructure. She credited the nursing home money and infrastructure package to “skillful” DFL negotiations with Republicans.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, is serving his 19th term in the Minnesota House and has seen the changing face of the party over those years. He was one of few DFL votes against some proposals to increase access to abortion this year, a result of a more metro-heavy party at the Capitol.

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Pelowski also voted against the paid family leave program, and said rural DFLers did stop or shape policy beyond the cumulative impacts bill, like changing the legislation that legalized marijuana or significantly limiting the scope of a nurse staffing bill that Mayo Clinic had objected to. “There may be some things we went too far on,” Pelowski said.

Still, Pelowski said that doesn’t “offset all of the good that was done” after years of “basically stagnation” under divided government. 

Pelowski cited the infrastructure package and K-12 spending as some of the reasons why it was a “transformative” session in Greater Minnesota. At one point, he said the state money helped Winona schools scrap a plan for budget cuts, though the Winona Post reported the district has since proposed cuts after realizing they had more costs.

Pelowski also chairs the Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, and lawmakers passed a free tuition program for certain families, among other changes to the system. The Legislature also froze tuition in the Minnesota State system for two years as part of a push to reverse declining enrollment.

“That impacts 30 plus campuses across Minnesota, the majority of which are in Greater Minnesota and they’re regional centers, hubs of activity,” Pelowski said. “Winona would be one … St. Cloud, Mankato, Bemidji, you can just go around the state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that at least one other DFLer in the House voted against a bill containing legislation to remove limits on abortion.