It's 'catch up' time for rural Minnesota, Republicans say

Junior Farder's farm
A family farm located near Erskine, Minn., is pictured here in April. The new Republican majority in the Minnesota House appears eager to focus on Greater Minnesota.
Nathaniel Minor / MPR News

The new Republican majority in the Minnesota House aims to capitalize on the rural-urban divide it rode to victory in the November elections.

Republicans reclaimed the House by winning big in rural districts on claims that Democrats had shortchanged Greater Minnesota in favor of the Twin Cities. Over the next two years, they plan to continue that theme with several new committees to highlight specific rural concerns.

• Related: How the GOP took the Minnesota House

One of the new House committees is called the Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy. It's a name that suggests an exclusively non-metro agenda. State Rep. Bob Gunther, the committee chairman, insists that he wants to help the entire state. But he said rural areas need some extra attention.

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"We want to have some way to catch up. For 120 years, Greater Minnesota supported, financially and otherwise, the metro area," said Gunther, R-Fairmont. "I think it's time we try to help ourselves a little bit more."

The latest numbers from the nonpartisan Minnesota House Research Department show the seven-county metro area pays 64 percent of the state's taxes and gets back 53 percent of the major tax aids, credits and refunds. By comparison, the 80 non-metro counties pay 36 percent and get back 47 percent.

Another new House committee, Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy, aims to address PolyMet Mining Corp.'s proposed copper nickel mining project on the Iron Range that Republicans accuse Democrats of taking too long to approve.

"There's a nonferrous metal issue in northern Minnesota that's going to be a lot of jobs available," said state Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who chairs the committee. "I think that it's been ignored, and we have to step up the pace on getting those things started. Everybody says that we have to do it in a safe and environmentally friendly way, and we want to do that. But we've got to get the ball rolling."

Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, said he still won't take a position on the mining project until he sees the completed environmental review of the project.

Hackbarth declined to elaborate on specific legislation. He said the committee's other work will focus on hunting, fishing and other recreational activities, such as the expansion of trails for snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

"I think we need more need more ATV trails," Hackbarth said. "I think Wisconsin is way ahead of us in motorized recreation, and particularly ATV trails and snowmobiling."

The Republican-controlled House also will again create an Agriculture Finance Committee, to be chaired by state Rep. Rod Hamilton, a hog farmer from Mountain Lake.

For the past two years, agriculture finance was part of the House Budget Committee that dealt with the environment and natural resources. Under DFL control it was chaired by state Rep. Jean Wagenius of Minneapolis.

House Speaker-Designate Kurt Daudt of Crown said the new committee structure reflects the priorities of his caucus.

"We believe that the Democrats really failed Minnesota over the last couple of years by focusing too much on Minneapolis and St. Paul and not really focusing on the rest of the state," Daudt said.

The outgoing DFL House Speaker, state Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, flatly denies that under Democratic leadership the House neglected rural Minnesota during the past two years. Thissen, who will soon serve as the House minority leader, accused Republicans of trying to divide Minnesotans.

"We need a strong Minneapolis and St. Paul. We need a strong set of suburbs, and we need strong regional centers and we need strength in our rural economy," Thissen said. "When all of those things are working together, we're going to do well. When we start kind of knocking down one of them in order to build up another one, that's not a sustainable Minnesota for the long term, and it's a dangerous strategy."

Dayton also rejects the Republican claims about rural Minnesota. But Dayton said he'll try to keep an open mind about the legislation coming out of those new House committees.

"If they want to come back and propose what we can do to better serve Greater Minnesota, I'm all ears," Dayton said. "I welcome that. We'll see what they come up with once they get down to specifics."