Column: Could rural Minnesota be this session's biggest loser?
ST. PAUL - People who believed rural Minnesota wouldn't be impacted by an all-Democrat legislature might be surprised to learn what's in store for them over the next two years.
Most Minneapolis lawmakers spend their careers thinking the only important activities happen within the metro area, and telling folks in Greater Minnesota how to live. With 22 out of 29 House committee chairs hailing from the Metro Area and inner cities, talk is being replaced with action.
One of the areas of greatest concern is agriculture, where one in five Minnesotans holds a job that's directly or indirectly related to agriculture. It's a vital part of the Minnesota economy, and we can credit agriculture for carrying the state through our previously difficult economic times.
So why is the Minnesota House majority trying to minimize agriculture's importance?
Our new House Speaker, from Minneapolis, recently decided to eliminate our agriculture finance committee, even though it chose to increase the number of House committees overall. While that alone sends a poor message to rural Minnesota, the worst blow of all was to combine environment and ag spending interests and assign it to a Minneapolis chairperson who has historically voted against agriculture finance proposals. That's right, a Minneapolis environmentalist will now decide what rural Minnesota programs receive funding, and how much will be spent on our needs.
So when push comes to shove near the end of session, and the budget money begins to tighten in this committee, does anyone in rural Minnesota really believe that ag programs stand a chance?
On the first day of session, I asked for a vote allowing ag and rural economy finance interests to be transferred to the Democrat chairperson of an ag policy committee. To me, having a chairperson who lives in rural Minnesota and understands our issues was just good common sense. Instead the proposal was killed on a party line vote, where even rural Democrats voted no -- likely under direct orders from their Minneapolis bosses.
It gets worse. We've now received word that millions of dollars could soon be taken away from rural Minnesota children. The new majority now appears set to eliminate our Agri Fund. This bipartisan fund, created a few years ago by two Democrat ag chairs and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was designed to capture expiring ethanol producer payments and use them to fund agriculture interests.
Had I continued to serve as chair of the now eliminated House Agriculture and Rural Economies Finance Committee, I planned to use the majority of these funds for rural development and ag literacy and education programs -- things like 4-H, FFA, and Farm America. Now they appear to be gone in favor of economic development programs which may or may not assist rural Minnesota.
Historically, the ag and rural economy budget is among the lowest in terms of dedicated state spending -- this despite the fact that there has never been more opportunity in Minnesota agriculture than there is today. Minnesota cannot survive without our farmers and agriculture, so why is the House majority attempting to demonize the men and women who put food on everyone's table?
Clearly by these actions, rural Minnesota's voice is being stifled. It's bad enough that inner city schools and nursing homes receive more funding than their Greater Minnesota counterparts. Now it appears the Minneapolis delegation will have final funding say over agriculture and rural economy programs as well.
Dist. 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, is a pork producer and former chairman of the Minnesota House Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Finance Committee.