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Greater Minnesota bracing for reduced political clout

For outstate political insiders, the big issue of the moment is redistricting, which will result from this year’s census. With rural Minnesota losing population, there will be fewer legislators representing agriculture, timber and mining interests.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar: "The only survival of our small towns in the last 14 years has been by hooking up with Minneapolis and St. Paul."
REUTERS/John Sommers II
Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar: “The only survival of our small towns in the last 14 years has been by hooking up with Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

The gubernatorial race and the state’s deficit problems are the political issues that garner all the headlines.

But to rural political insiders, the truly crucial issue of the moment is the redistricting that will come with the data from this year’s census. Continuing a long trend, rural Minnesota will have lost population, meaning there will be ever-fewer legislators representing agriculture, timber and mining interests.

According to researchers at the Legislative Reference Library, 76 of the 134 state reps (57 percent) already represent at least a portion of the seven-county metro area, as do 39 of 67 state senators (58 percent).

At an ag-business luncheon last week, Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, warned those attending that any organization with high-priority rural issues better be prepared to make its case during the 2011-12 legislative session because after that, rural Minnesota will have even less political strength.

“Back when I was growing up [in the 1970s near Wells] you’d see four mailboxes to every mile,” said Juhnke in an interview. “Now you’re lucky to see one mailbox. We continue to export our youth to the suburbs.”

Population shift is multi-layered problem
The population shift isn’t just a political problem for farmers. It’s a problem for those who rely on transportation dollars, school funding and Local Government Aid and, of course, for the communities themselves in Greater Minnesota.

There is expected to be overall good news for Minnesota in the census. In part because of high participation during the mail-in portion of the census, Minnesota was second in the nation to Wisconsin. It’s now expected that Minnesota likely won’t lose one of its congressional seats because of population shifts, as once was feared.

But the areas of Minnesota experiencing population gains are going to be in the Twin Cities suburbs.

Rep. Al Juhnke
Rep. Al Juhnke

“One of the difficult things for [rural] Minnesota is that we really have only one metro area,” said Juhnke.

Unlike Ohio, for example. “It’s got Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo,” he said. “The rural areas are interspersed between those metro areas, so you have some overlap of interests. Here, it’s one metro and [the rest] rural. Most of our metro legislators understand the situation, but in the end, as a legislator, you represent the people, and those [metro] legislators are going to represent the interests of their people.”

Making matters even more difficult is that a number of longtime — and, therefore, powerful — legislators called it quits following the last session. Bowing out were such voices as Sen. Jim Vickerman, a DFLer and a farmer from near Tracy; Sen. Dennis Frederickson, a Republican and retired farmer from near New Ulm; and Sen. Steve Dille, a farmer and veterinarian from near Dassel.

Several other key rural legislators are believed to be only one more term away from saying they’ve had enough.

Juhnke said that if Ted Winter, a DFLer who is trying to re-gain the House seat he lost in 2002, can win, he may be the only farmer in the entire House.

Situation has created interesting partnerships
The loss of overall rural strength does create some interesting partnerships.

While most of us focus on DFL-Republican battles, rural legislators from both parties often find themselves working together on many issues.

“I know I run my [agriculture] committee completely nonpartisan,” said Juhnke. “If you have a good idea for agriculture, we don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. I can tell you that a corn plant doesn’t know the difference between parties. Frankly, a lot of issues fall around geographic lines, not political lines.”

Another unusual pairing: Rural legislators have found allies in the legislative delegations from Minneapolis and St. Paul on several crucial issues, with Local Government Aid at the top of that list.

“The only survival of our small towns in the last 14 years has been by hooking up with Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Juhnke said. “The big cities understand the importance of LGA. We’ve got small towns where 40 percent of the town budget may come from LGA. … At the same time, we’ve had a governor from the suburbs who would cut off all of LGA tomorrow if he could. He could care less. He’s from Eagan. It’s not an issue there. He doesn’t understand how important it is.”

The belief that metro-area pols “just don’t get” rural issues explains why Margaret Anderson Kelliher keeps pounding on her rural roots in this year’s governor’s race. The House speaker is the only major candidate who grew up on a farm, and she believes it’s important that rural Minnesotans understand that.

There is a big irony surrounding the diminishing power of rural legislators. Juhnke believes the state’s agricultural areas were the only regions that didn’t get hammered by the recession.

“Times are pretty good in farm country,” Juhnke said. “You have 7.4 percent unemployment in the Twin Cities. It’s about 4.2 percent by the time you get to Moorhead.”

Ag still makes up 20 percent of the state’s economy.

But the economics haven’t stopped a population decline. In part, that’s because individual farms grow ever larger, meaning fewer farmers per mile. Fewer farmers mean fewer people doing business with those stores on Main Street.

The one area of Greater Minnesota that Juhnke predicts will show growth in the census results is the lakes region between Brainerd and Bemidji. That growth, he says, will come because of retirees moving from the metro to “the place up North.”

To rural legislators, all of this means that such things as the formulas for education and transportation funding that are created in the upcoming legislative session will be more important than ever. They’ll have to work hard to make sure those formulas include factors other than population levels going forward.

Obviously, ag, timber and mining interests, too, had best be working short term on their legislative priorities, because outstate power long term is going to do nothing but shrink.

“There are states that don’t support rural issues,” said Juhnke, with resulting poverty pockets. “Think Appalachia. We don’t want to go that way.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.