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How the metro vs. Greater Minnesota debate is playing out in the Legislature

Stevens, Minnesota
Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt: “I have a feeling with the election results of the last election, everyone’s going to have a focus on Greater Minnesota.”

In state politics, there’s nothing new about tensions between rural Minnesota and the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Hard feelings between the two geographic regions have been simmering for decades, especially as demographic trends reveal the contrasts between a growing and diversifying Twin Cities and declining populations in many of Minnesota’s rural counties.  

But there’s been a renewed emphasis on those divides, mixed with a fresh political dynamic: Republicans reclaimed control of the state House last fall by grabbing 10 out of 11 seats from Democrats in Greater Minnesota districts. With a $1 billion budget surplus in play, Republicans now want to shift the focus of funding and policy work to areas outside of the Twin Cities, which they say were forgotten or ignored by the DFL majorities over the last two years.  

“I have a feeling with the election results of the last election, everyone’s going to have a focus on Greater Minnesota,” Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said on one of the first days of session. “We felt like the last two years, Greater Minnesota really got left behind. I don’t want Minneapolis and Saint Paul or the suburbs to feel like they’re left behind, but we do need to understand that the dynamics of the metro area and Greater Minnesota are different.”

Not surprisingly, House Democrats take offense with that characterization. “There was huge investment in Greater Minnesota … in the bonding bill, in the tax bill, in economic development projects and local government aid,” longtime St. Paul DFL Rep. Alice Hausman said. “Clearly we didn’t do a good job talking about it [on the campaign trail], but we believe that we all do better when we all do better.”

DFL Rep. Alice Hausman
DFL Rep. Alice Hausman

That sentiment is why many of the issues pitched so far this session to support Greater Minnesota have been warmly received by all, from more money for senior care and outstate schools to railroad safety. Senate majority Democrats, led by Tom Bakk, who hails from rural Cook, have also introduced a Greater-Minnesota-heavy list of priorities.

But other topics are already causing rifts: trains vs. roads and bridges; mining vs. environmental concerns, just to name a couple. And there are other topics that haven’t surfaced yet but routinely lead to a rural-metro competition, including the bonding debate and divvying up money for projects from the Legacy Amendment. House Democrats are closely watching the movements of the new majority party, and have already been quick to criticize actions they saw as creating a regional war. 

“If you disinvest in the metro area, that is like cutting off your nose to spite your face,” Hausman added. “We are the economic engine of the state.” 

Here are the areas where a focus on Greater Minnesota is already cropping up in this year’s legislative session: 

Economic development
The biggest problem staring lawmakers in the face is the lagging economic recovery in the far-flung regions of the state. A new House Republican committee is dedicated to try and tackle a shortage of skilled workers in Greater Minnesota. Senate Democrats want to focus on workforce development by offering companies grants from the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to offer high school students apprenticeships. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has suggested spending $30 million to improve high-speed Internet in rural areas to give a boost to companies, and put the money in his proposed budget proposal for that purpose. 

2015 has quickly turned into an education session, with all sides creating bills designed to get more kids succeeding in the state’s school system, and it’s no surprise that some of those proposals want to help out Greater Minnesota school districts. Senate Democrats want to change funding programs to pump more money into fixing up dilapidated schools in rural parts of the state. Dayton puts more money into the state’s education funding formula, which would spread out across the state and mean more dollars per student.

The rural-urban split has also cropped up with post-secondary education, with differing ideas about whether to invest in two-year vocational schools or the University of Minnesota system. Dayton has put a focus on the university, pumping $30 million over two years into its medical school and giving an additional $32 million to help continue tuition freezes on its campuses. Senate Democrats want to give qualifying students free tuition for vocational or technical schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. “I probably don’t need to remind you that most of those vocational colleges are in rural Minnesota,” Bakk said. Republican House Higher Education Chairman Rep. Bud Nornes thinks agriculture programs on the university’s Greater Minnesota campuses could use extra funding to try and give a boost to that industry.

Possibly one of the deepest geographical divides — and the cause of a lot of resentment — comes in the transportation debate. Greater Minnesota interests have long argued road and bridge funding has been neglected over the years while massive light rail transit projects have moved ahead. The debate has resurfaced again as Dayton and Democrats push for a massive transportation funding package that includes both road and bridge projects and a sales tax increase in the metro area to pay for new transit. Republicans have proposed a much smaller, short-term plan that pumps some cash and reserved money in the Trunk Highway Fund into roads and bridge projects, but not transit.

When the House Republican majority announced its new committees, the Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee stood out. That’s because Republicans spent all summer and fall railing on Democrats for hesitating to support projects like the non-ferrous PolyMet mine on the Iron Range.

But the committee has little power to speed up or change the environmental review process currently underway that would allow the PolyMet mine to operate. “My take on that committee is, from its very name down to its limited purpose, it’s designed to create not only urban and rural division, but creating a urban and rural division between DFLers,” Aaron Brown, an DFL Iron Range blogger said. “It’s really theater at this point.”

Marty Seifert
Marty Seifert

However, the committee is also set up to “provide full-throated support for mining” as soon as the PolyMet Environmental Impact Statement is complete, Brown noted. And the committee could also pass some changes to how the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) operates. The state agency is in charge of reviewing and approving permits for projects like PolyMet and has earned the ire of mining supporters for how long the process has taken. GOP Rep. Dan Fabian has introduced a bill to limit the PCA’s ability to set its own rules of operation and makes it more accountable to the Legislature.

“The PCA is going to have a tough slog in both the House and the Senate. Something is going to be done at the end of the day,” said former Republican state Rep. Marty Seifert, who now lobbies for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. “A lot of rural Democrats are going to go to the governor and say this is a really big problem.” 

A handful of legislators are proposing a series of tax breaks and changes they say will help level the playing field for Greater Minnesota. House Republicans have pitched the New Market Tax Credit, which would create special incentives for investment in the manufacturing, timber and mining sectors predominantly in rural Minnesota. Senate Republicans also want to nix the tax on Social Security income, which would be a boon to the senior population who make up much of rural Minnesota. GOP Rep. Steve Drazkowski and DFL Sen. Lyle Koenen also want to keep farmers from paying taxes on their farmland that goes to local schools or capital projects. Yet tax breaks are spendy, and not everyone agrees they are the best way to give rural Minnesota a shot in the arm. Bakk is opposed to Republican tax cuts for targeted businesses, arguing there’s no data to show those incentives create new jobs.

Health care
From doctor shortages to long-term term care needs, the 2015 session is loaded up with proposals to try and tackle health care disparities between Greater Minnesota and the metro. Senate Democrats want to give doctors loan forgiveness if they set up shop in rural parts of the state; Dayton’s 2015 budget calls for more mental health beds and care in Greater Minnesota; Republicans want to boost incentives for people to set up long-term care plans and go into nursing professions. Both parties are reaching out to nursing homes, a huge employer in some Greater Minnesota communities. Nursing homes want legislators to spend $200 million to change the way they are reimbursed (currently from a mix of state and federal dollars) to put more money directly into nurses salaries. The proposals have earned bipartisan praise, but they will run into at least one stumbling block: They’re all scrambling to get a piece of a $1 billion budget surplus, competing against myriad priorities for funding. 

Housing for workers is in short supply in many Greater Minnesota communities, but Dayton’s budget would spend $5 million to construct rental properties, targeting communities with at least 1,500 people and companies that employee at least 20 people but have no feasible housing nearby.

Rail safety
Minnesota is dotted with 4,444 miles of railroad tracks, and most of them are in rural Minnesota. With an increase in crude oil traveling by rail from North Dakota and heightened concerns about railway safety, Dayton has proposed spending nearly $43 million on improving railways and crossings in a handful of communities. He would pay for the improvements by taxing railroad property and adding an assessment to railroads.

Comments (33)

  1. Submitted by Paul Mueller on 02/10/2015 - 09:48 am.

    This is an interesting article.

    I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 02/10/2015 - 09:56 am.

    Nowhere I have lived…

    have I observed the “tensions” between rural and urban areas that I have seen here.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/10/2015 - 08:52 pm.

      It’s a cultural thing

      Rural people work with their hands, serve in the military, love country music, believe in self-reliance, the 2nd Amendment … you know, everything that urban liberals despise.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/10/2015 - 09:50 pm.


        The reality is that rural Minnesota is largely subsidized by the metro. Far from being self-reliant, rural Minnesotans are dependent on handouts from the hard work of urban liberals. And yet here they are whining about not getting enough.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 02/11/2015 - 06:54 am.

        Cultural thing?

        Hardly. Once again, Tester pulls made up “facts” out of thin air to justify his disgust for modern society.
        Non-metro government transfer payments are nearly $1,500 more person than that of a metro resident

        Spare us the self reliance myth. Rural Minnesota has been riding in the cart pulled by those urban liberals for quite awhile now. Yeah… they’ve embraced guns, but your stereotype that liberals don’t own, carry or hunt is flawed and military recruitment stats don’t back up your assertion that they’re more likely to serve either. That leaves you with country music….and considering what passes for that tired genre in the last fifteen years, they can keep it.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 02/11/2015 - 09:53 am.


          I grew up in a town of 2500, and yet somehow I managed to be liberal, not join the military, detest country pop, and not become a gun obsessive. Guess I do work with my hands so hey Dennis you’re 1/5 correct, better than usual!

      • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 02/12/2015 - 02:06 am.

        No culture there Tester

        Just an acceptance of welfare benefits from the metro – socialism according to you and your ilk.

      • Submitted by Lyn Crosby on 02/12/2015 - 09:14 am.


        I love when people have, or research, the facts and can respond to these generalizations and stereotypes like Tester made above. Thank you! I was raised metro but have many friends and close relatives who live outstate (beyond the burbs). Their views and values are as valid as mine, and we don’t say our lives are better than the others – it’s all a matter of CHOICE for what works for us. We’re one state, one country, one world. I know resources are limited, but let’s try to distribute the “pie” equitably and not fight about it.

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/10/2015 - 10:17 am.

    …and the paper version was nice but another day, yes

    This is a fine legislative ‘shopping list’ all in one story and appreciate the headline issues…leaves it up to readers to explore the finer points hidden between the lines, depending on one’s point-of-view on those issues.

    Newsprint used to do that page by page.

    I look at the vintage print of an old man on the wall above…a framed picture; his bifocals hanging low in a cafe… a window on the avenue-with a strip of lace defining the cafe curtain- as the shadows of shoppers and office workers walk silently down main street, Somewhere USA as old man reads his morning paper and a yawning waitress refills his cup.

    I like the picture because it reflects a time when newspapers were a given and you could touch and turn the pages….but for now its information overloads and the best we can absorb is a good collection point; like this fine piece…this all-in-one legislative round-up.

    I good one here indeed but I envy the old man as I pour another cup of java on this cold morning

    Reminds me too of more paper news sources like libraries…Duluth may lose theirs or tear one down for a new one and all those books will be stored and if the wrong group gets the bid on ‘temporary storage’ and the roof leaks or the funding dies up and the printed word in all its intimacy; bound volumes never reach their old effectiveness as a information source. Relocation or up-scaling energy-wise is good but will the ‘book’ ever return to its bound significance? Who knows. for in the interim period, who will remember to read the Book in its paper form?

    Will libraries be another form of print to leave us this century as we read words under glass and plastic from our computer?

    We will not ban books or burn them but ignore them …and libraries will replaced for lack of perceived relevance?

    I need another cup of Java…

  4. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 02/10/2015 - 10:40 am.

    Cafeteria free marketers

    The DFL is right that they sent more to Greater Minnesota than the metro relative to population and taxes paid in. The problem isn’t the government, but the private market prefers to invest in the metro area. The money the GOP is talking about putting into rural areas is to a large degree just subsidies for private business. I don’t have a problem with encouraging investment where as a state we’ve decided it needs to go, but I find the Republican attitude interesting. They’re the ones preaching the free market and the evils of public money when it’s spent in the metro area, but when the money goes to their districts, that principle is out the window.

    Maybe they should just admit private money prefers downtowns and the suburban industrial parks, and they’re going to try to help rural areas against the wishes of the market. Free market for you but subsidy for me.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/10/2015 - 12:31 pm.

      True That

      Let’s see, what would any good conservative economist say if you wanted more of something? How about: pay more for it. So if you want more skilled labor, offer more money for it. When an employer says, “I can’t get enough skilled labor!”, they always leave off the last part: At the wage of unskilled labor.
      When there is a labor shortage, wages get bid up. That ain’t happening anywhere.

      And if housing is not affordable to people paid a typical rural wage, gosh, maybe they should move where they can get a job that pays a better wage and/or employers should bid up wages to the point their employees can afford housing in the area.

      But let’s get this straight. Rural voters elected the less government crowd so their businesses could get more government handouts? It’ll be tough for me to wrap my head around that one.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/10/2015 - 06:18 pm.

        I agree.

        Nothing more irritating than businesses lobbying the state for “affordable housing” for their workers.

        Pay the damn wage !!

        • Submitted by Dan Dorman on 02/15/2015 - 04:59 pm.


          Does that apply to low income housing in the metro area or just to workforce housing in Greater Minnesota?

  5. Submitted by Kelly Guncheon on 02/10/2015 - 11:24 am.

    You can say that again

    “Clearly we didn’t do a good job talking about it [on the campaign trail]…” Can be said about most any issue DFL candidates talked about. The division clearly was a GOP tactic to divide the electorate. Jeff Johnson, who ironically lives in white-bread suburbia, hit this theme hard. Fortunately, Dayton had the courage to stand up for what he believed and didn’t run from his record. Wish I could say the same for a lot of DFLers, who cowered or hid when the tough issues arose. There is an imbalance in this state, and it sure doesn’t favor the Metro.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/10/2015 - 12:08 pm.

      That wasn’t courage

      That was too many low-information voters who thought they were voting for the owner of their favorite department store.

      • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/10/2015 - 01:33 pm.

        Mental illness

        It strikes me as a sign of our collective schizophrenia when one politician is vilified for being born into money, while another, coming from the same circumstance, is praised. One inherits millions and goes into public service, where he is frequently criticized for the circumstance of his birth – as if there was something he should have done about it – while another is born into millions and goes into public service, where he is often praised for taking the relatively low-status position of public official.

        If wealth is to be seen as a detriment to public service, then Mr. Dayton deserves criticism on that score, but if wealth is a detriment to public service, Mr. Mills, for example, should also have received criticism of the same kind, as should every other candidate of substantial means. My recollection of last fall’s campaign was that both men got their share of criticism for that particular reason. On the other hand, if public service is seen as a kind of noblesse oblige of the wealthy, then Dayton ought to be praised for serving as Governor, and Mills should be praised for at least attempting to serve the public.

      • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 02/10/2015 - 09:29 pm.


        Dennis, Franken won by even more than Dayton, so you’re saying people think Franken owned department store? Both won a bunch of the rural counties in the districts that flipped. Maybe the lesson to other Democrats is to run forthrightly on a liberal record.

  6. Submitted by Mike Downing on 02/10/2015 - 01:19 pm.

    The DFL has learned nothing from Nov 2014

    The DFL has apparently learned nothing from the November 2014 elections. The DFL focus on light rail at the expense of roads & bridges is obvious simply from the $$$ spent over the past 5-10 years as well as the current condition of our roads and bridges.

    We moved to the Twin Cities in 1971 and our roads & bridges were amazing. Fast forward to today and our metropolitan population has nearly tripled but our road capacity is maybe 20-30% greater. Hence, we now have frequent traffic jams whereas we never had them 40 years ago.

    Light rail should be considered as costly redevelopment projects rather than as transportation projects that improve traffic flow in the Twin Cities.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/10/2015 - 03:22 pm.


      Given that Mark Dayton was easily re-elected as were nearly all metro area DFL reps (where traffic is an issue – Republican gains were outstate, where it isn’t) the lesson should be keep doing exactly what you were doing.

    • Submitted by Theo Kozel on 02/10/2015 - 03:44 pm.


      All statewide offices – Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State and State Auditor- went DFL. So who should be learning from the 2014 election?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/10/2015 - 10:18 pm.


      The DFL isn’t focusing on mass transportation vs personal transportation (trains vs cars), they’re promoting both. Dayton has pressed for a wholesale gas tax so we can pay for more bridges and roads. And he’s proposed a metro tax increase that doesn’t even affect out-state Minnesota that will pay for light rail.

      We’ve had exactly two (2) light rail lines in the last eleven years. That hardly seems like we’re going nuts on building LRT. If we had a dozen lines in that same time period I might say you have a point, but we’re not even close to creating a decent system at this time. We’ll need another half a dozen lines in place just so people can get around part of the Cities without having to resort to a car at some point.

      I drove those freeways in the ’70s and ’80s that you lauded then and complain about now. When they were built they were over capacity for the amount of traffic they handled. I recall opening up my ’66 Impala on 494 to see what she could do–in rush hour. Traffic was so light that you could do that back then without having to worry about stop & go traffic. That nostalgic vision of driving is unrealistic with today’s population. There simply isn’t enough land left to build more lanes without using eminent domain and consequently reducing your tax base.

      Not to mention that freeways are only under built if you look at them under the restriction of rush hour, from 7 – 9 in the morning and 3 – 6 in the afternoon. The other eighteen hours of the day the freeways are overbuilt for all considerations and have excess capacity to use.

      Trains, by comparison, just need an extra car added on if they’re full. If that fills up, then you just add another train or two to the schedule. There’s no need to lay more track just because you’re full at rush hour. Not to mention trains are far more economical to run than a car.

      Additional highways should be rated for what they are: costly subsidies for people who live far from work. They cost more, pollute more, and are a drain on our tax base more than a train is. In fact trains give a significant boost to properties that are within a quarter mile of a station. You can’t say the same about a freeway.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 02/12/2015 - 02:26 am.

      Tell us what was built when Pawlenty was in office for 8 years

      And what infrastructure fell down. People like you want a lot but don’t care to pay for it.

  7. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 02/10/2015 - 03:46 pm.

    Follow the money

    That outstate money is neglected is a falsehood peddled for political advantage. One shouldn’t be surprised to see falsehoods from politicians, but conversely one shouldn’t perpetuate falsehoods by letting them stand even if the point of the article isn’t to debunk them.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/12/2015 - 09:02 am.

    Ya Know….

    I’ve read this article twice and maybe I’m missing it but aside from a promise to cut transit funding and under-spend on roads and bridges I don’t see any republican initiatives to deliver anything to rural voters? Well, it looks like they’re thinking about trying to revive the try’d and failed “Job Z” fiasco maybe, but every other initiative put forth thus far is a Dayton or democrat initiative. And that’s exactly what you always get from republicans… more nothing. I’m sorry but if anyone anywhere in MN thought they would get MORE of ANYTHING from republicans they were just being stupid.

    Yeah, democrats failed to campaign, they always do, that’s why I’m not a democrat. When they’re not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory they’re talking themselves out of doing all the stuff people elected them to do. I’ve been watching this my whole adult live (30+ years). Ralph Nader likes to say that democrats are the stupidest political party in the world and he’s right. The spectacle of them distancing themselves from their record of success in the last election was even more spectacular than their claim to have been against the war before they were for it, for before they were against… I forget how that went.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 02/12/2015 - 11:12 am.

      No offense

      But perhaps if the Ralph Naders of the world, yourself included, would spend less time complaining about how they haven’t a seat at the table (and concurrently losing more and more ground as they do) and attempt to engage this “stupidest party in the world” from the inside perhaps they may have a bit more influence in bringing about the changes they seek. For all I might like Ralph’s ideology, the fact remains that he is and will remain a miserable failure in the political system to which we will be bound for the forseeable future. Great ideas are wonderful, yet useless in the abscence of power to make them reality.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/12/2015 - 04:30 pm.

      You lost me at Nader

      This is a guy who glady accepted Republican money to run vanity campaigns and lie about Democrats. There isn’t a politician on earth with less integrity than Ralph Nader.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/15/2015 - 11:21 am.

      Nader Shmader

      I only mention Ralph Nader because I’m quoting him, ad hominen attacks on a passing reference aren’t much of a defense for democrats.

      Join and work from the inside? Been there, done that, waste of my time. If it worked the party would have changed in the last 40 years. Hint: If Wellstone couldn’t change the party, YOU’RE not going to change the party. The problem is that democratic leadership doesn’t listen. If you join, they take your vote for granted, if you criticize from outside, they ignore you. Whatever.

      I tend to vote for democrats, but the only time I’ve ever really felt like I’ve wasted my vote is when I’ve voted for democrats who lost anyways because they were either poorly chosen, or didn’t run effective campaigns, or when they get into power and decide to follow republican policy agendas.

      In this last election cycle I kept waiting for democrats to come out swinging on their record, lower unemployment, surplus instead of debt, restored transportation, health care, LGA, and education funding. I waited in vain… it never happened. When republicans ran those ads wondering why democrats were putting money into choo choos instead of pot holes I waited for the democratic response, they HAD put more money into roads and bridges, you couldn’t drive anywhere in the state without running into repair and construction projects that had been delayed for years by republicans… the response never came. I kept waiting for the democrats to point out the fact that it was the republicans that in fact cut the budgets for repair and replacement, and put a cap on the amount of money that could be spent to fix the 35W bridge before it collapsed (leading to it’s collapse)… nothing. Of course they lost. Apparently the campaign strategy was act like they were guilty of doing something… what I don’t know. Yeah, stupid.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/17/2015 - 10:27 am.


        I am well aware of the shortcomings and disappointments of the Democratic party, as I expect others commenting here are as well. That being said, the difference between the Democrats – with all their shortcomings – and what today’s Republicans are offering, is huge. To say that its no use to support the Democratic party is to ignore significant accomplishments. The ACA was a very flawed piece of legislation, yet it has given millions of people access to affordable healthcare. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

        The alternative – to vote for the Greens or whatever outfit is running Nader these days – is no different than simply staying home. The Democratic party is still (small-d) democratic. Its run by those who show up. You might not get your way by showing up, but you certainly won’t accomplish anything if you don’t. Or worse, if you voted for Nader in 2000, you voted for a guy who wanted Bush to win the election. You voted for a decade of war.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/17/2015 - 04:40 pm.

          Gore won in 2000

          But he managed to not get into the White House anyways. So who wasted a vote there again? We know a state wide recount would have given the election to Gore, but Gore didn’t ask for a state wide recount, and that got the Supreme Court involved, and the rest is history. Don’t blame, Nader, Gore wasn’t taking his advice from Nader. So you vote for the guy, he wins, and STILL loses. That’s what I call throwing away a vote. And we know that Gore lost more democrat votes to Bush than he did Nader, so don’t blame Nader voters, the guy couldn’t even get his own people to vote for him, that’s not Nader’s fault either. I voted for Gore, I threw my vote away because Bush won even though he lost. Guess what, I coulda voted for Nader, and Gore still woulda lost.

          I’m not saying don’t vote for democrats, but the fact is you can’t expect people to vote for democrats just because they are democrats. Whether people vote for someone else, or don’t vote at all, you still lose if you don’t get the votes. You can’t blow the campaign and still win the election just because your democrats. Yeah, if enough people vote for someone else, you lose the election. This is why you try to get people to vote for you, this is why you have to be a smart party, because even if your better than the other party, you’ll lose if you’re stupid. You can blame the voters for not voting for you if you want but that’s not going to win elections either. Democrats aren’t entitled to votes.

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