With session over, did rural Minnesota's GOP bet pay off?

Last official day of session
Debate of the Omnibus Environment bill on the House floor on the last official day of session.
Glen Stubbe | StarTribune via AP

Minnesota Republicans spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last fall to beat rural Democrats, promising voters the GOP would focus on issues dear to outstate Minnesota.

Voters liked what they heard and helped Republicans take control of the House. Delivering on promises, however, proved harder than making them.

With the 2015 session finally over, groups representing Minnesota's rural interests say that on issues from transportation to housing lawmakers on both sides barely earned a passing grade.

"If this was the session for greater Minnesota and economic development, greater Minnesota better not hope for another session like this," Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, said near the session's end.

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Some rural groups, including those with Republican ties, agree.

"There was a lot of talk about greater Minnesota" during the elections, said Dan Dorman, a former House GOP lawmaker who runs the Greater Minnesota Partnership. "Everybody had these high hopes it would be the greater Minnesota session. And clearly, it can't be called that."

Dorman cited promises of up to $30 million in broadband funding that fell to $10 million after House Republicans initially proposed no increase. His group pushed for a big workforce housing program that included new funding and tax credits. But the effort only got $4 million.

"The grade would be an 'I' for 'incomplete,'" Dorman said of the session and its impact outside the Twin Cities.

During the elections, Republicans heard a chorus from rural Minnesota about the poor condition of roads and bridges and the need for more spending to fix them.

But the stalemate over a major transportation funding package — something Democrats also pledged to rural Minnesota — turned into one of the session's greatest failures, said Brad Finstad, another former Republican legislator who now directs the Center for Rural Policy and Development, an organization that studies rural issues.

"It was going to be the transportation session," he said. "If you look at rural Minnesota and the needs, they are deep when it comes to transportation funding. That piece being left on the table is a disappointment."

The impasse came down to differences between the parties over whether to increase the gas tax to pay for new road and bridge construction. In the end, only a bare-bones transportation bill was signed into law.

Legislators may revisit the issue next year.

But transportation groups say they have a hard time seeing how those political positions change before the 2016 election.

Lawmakers also abandoned a Republican effort to pass a tax bill, which farming groups say included property tax cuts for farmers. And rural towns say they were hoping for a bump in local government aid, which is typically a DFL priority.

A nursing assistant wheeled a resident to lunch.
Shelby Young, a nursing assistant at St. Isidore Health Center of Greenwood Prairie in Plainview, wheeled resident Ken Anderson to the lunch room Thursday, Apr. 9, 2015. Lawmakers added $138 million to the budget for nursing home care.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

There were some bright spots. Farmers who lost bird flocks due to avian flu got some relief.

And rural health care saw some improvements, said Steve Gottwalt, another former Republican legislator who directs the Minnesota Rural Health Association.

"We consider this a remarkably successful session," he said. "There was a lot of focus on rural matters, and health care being prime among those."

Gottwalt's "wins" list includes more loan forgiveness for practitioners who work in rural parts of the state, and help for hospitals.

But probably the biggest win was a big spending boost for nursing homes — a key issue since outstate Minnesota has higher concentrations of elderly people and nursing home care is in high demand.

Lawmakers added $138 million to the budget for nursing home care. That's less than the $200 million the state's industry asked for at the start of the session, but Gottwalt said it's a major improvement.

Senior citizens also tend to vote regularly.

Dorman, though, said he doesn't think nursing home funding will be enough for Republicans to run on in outstate Minnesota, and he's skeptical legislators will attempt to make big changes in the short 2016 session.

"What's going to change between now and a year?" he asked. "I think the positions of the caucuses are likely to be the same."