Freshman Republican Rep. Roz Peterson knows she’s an endangered species in Minnesota politics these days.
In the election last fall, Peterson, a former school board member from Lakeville, was the only Republican in nearly a dozen competitive House races in the metro area’s suburban swing districts to unseat an incumbent Democrat. House seats in places like Eagan, Edina and Minnetonka tend to swing back and forth depending on the political tides, but Democrats managed to hang on to most contested seats this fall, despite a strong GOP year.
The new House Republican majority made nearly all their gains in Greater Minnesota — a part of the state Republicans say has been long neglected — and the focus of the 2015 session has been decidedly rural so far. But surviving Republican members from cities like Eden Prairie, Stillwater and Champlin say there needs to be a balanced, statewide approach to legislative work, one that includes the Twin Cities suburbs. “We certainly can’t forget about the needs of the metro,” Peterson said. “I will definitely be loud and clear about that.”
Transportation is the priority
For the suburban legislators, that means a focus on transportation, particularly repairing bridges and reducing congestion on the state’s most-traveled roadways, members said. “I think it’s quite clear that we have not devoted the resources to transportation that we need to, roads and bridges and everything else,” GOP Rep. Mark Uglem, a second-term member from Champlin, said. “Just look at the extension of [state highway] 610 [in Maple Grove] and the economic development that is occurring in that corridor. There is a real correlation between jobs and transportation infrastructure.”
“There are a lot more road miles out in the rural areas, [but] in terms of number of people on the roads and traveled, that’s in the suburban areas,” Eden Prairie GOP Rep. Jenifer Loon said. “Making sure we have that balance will be critically important.”
But no suburban member said they supported passing new revenue for roads and bridges this session. Democrats are proposing a sales tax on gasoline at the wholesale level to fund billions of dollars in road and bridge projects across the state over the next decade. Republicans have proposed using some money from the state’s $1 billion budget surplus and other funds to put $750 million into roads over the next four years.
“I think we have a lot of money in this state in our budget already, so we have to look at that,” Uglem said. “Right now, I’m not inclined to look at additional taxes for that.”
Democrats are also proposing a sales tax increase in the seven-county metro area to invest in transit projects. That proposal has fallen flat with Republicans, even among suburban members who might see rail development in their districts. “We do have congestion issues in the metro. I don’t personally think transit is the only solution,” Peterson said. “I think we need to look at roads and bridges in the metro as well.”
Looking ahead at the 2016 race for the state House — a presidential year with traditionally high turnout — Republicans will likely need to make gains in suburban districts to hold on to their majority.
GOP Rep. Kathy Lohmer from Stillwater was added to the new House GOP leadership team to bring a suburban perspective, but she’s not worried suburban members will get left behind in the new rural focus of the House GOP majority. “We work as a team. I just think it’s always good to have balance,” she said. “You never just want to have all rural or all metro.”