‘Level the playing field’: DFL, GOP agree on rural goals — but not means

ST. PAUL -- Democratic and Republican legislators agree on many goals for rural Minnesota, but often differ on how to reach them. House Democrats unveiled their rural legislative plan Tuesday, one that's mostly the same as what they pushed a year...

Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, with Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown and other Minnesota House Democrats, discusses policies to help rural Minnesota Tuesday, Jan. 19. (Photo by Don Davis, Forum News Service)

ST. PAUL - Democratic and Republican legislators agree on many goals for rural Minnesota, but often differ on how to reach them.

House Democrats unveiled their rural legislative plan Tuesday, one that’s mostly the same as what they pushed a year ago. It calls for better rural schools, improved roads and more jobs.
“It’s time to level the playing field for Greater Minnesota and that won’t happen unless this Legislature truly makes Greater Minnesota a priority,” Deputy House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said.
Assistant Majority Leader Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, agreed with the priorities. “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. ... We know rural Minnesota is important; we have been focusing on that.”
Democrats added two priorities to eight they worked on a year ago: increasing focus on community and technical colleges, as well as improving care for Minnesotans with dementia.
Their returning rural priorities are expanding broadband high-speed Internet service, funding a transportation package, providing housing for rural communities that have jobs but not enough homes, training Minnesotans for new jobs, increasing Local Government Aid and County Program Aid, making farm property taxes fairer, improving train safety and providing property tax relief for the elderly.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, Marquart and Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown emphasized the need for high-speed Internet in rural areas.
Thissen talked about Pine City, where people park near the library to get a wi-fi signal “because that is the only place they can get high-speed Internet.”
“There are pockets in my district in Lake County and South St. Louis County that have nothing,” Murphy said, with some not even able to get a dial-up Internet connection.
Marquart said it is not fair that 94 percent of Twin Cities homes have access to high-speed Internet while just 61 percent enjoy it in rural Minnesota.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and House Democrats want the state to pay $100 million to expand broadband. House Republicans passed $10 million last year, which Kresha said attracted $86 million of federal funds.
Train safety is another issue both parties say they want improved.
Marquart said his bill would fund many crossing safety improvements, although major changes such as adding overpasses would need to be funded by the state selling bonds. It would use $20 million a year of state property taxes.
Thissen said a $1.2 billion state surplus should be used to fund things like transportation.
The Republicans’ 2015 plan, which remains alive, takes money from other programs and the surplus to fund $7 billion in transportation needs in coming years.
Part of train safety is cutting waits at crossings. Murphy pointed to one place in her area with two busy tracks: “Those people could be cut off for as much as 40 minutes ... and ambulances cannot get through in any other direction.”
Kresha said no transportation funding bill passed last year because Dayton and Senate Democrats wanted to a new gasoline tax. Dayton has since said that will not pass and no longer supports it.
Marquart estimated the total cost of the DFL rural plan could be $400 million.
Le Sueur Mayor Robert Broeder, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, praised the DFL’s proposal to add $45.5 million to aid the state sends to cities, bringing the total back up to 2002 levels. He also said the coalition appreciates efforts for housing, training, transportation and broadband. Republicans vote to eliminate aid to Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis, leaving other cities alone.
Marquart and Kresha made similar comments about rural Minnesotans’ feelings.
“What we are hearing from rural Minnesota is, ‘Just give us a fair shake,’” Kresha said.
Thissen, whose is courting rural Minnesotans in an effort to get House control back, said the plan announced Tuesday “is not about November of this year, but this coming spring,” when lawmakers will be back in session.
He called the 2015 session a “monumental flop” for Republicans’ rural plans.
In a year when Republicans are trying to maintain control of the House, Democrats see an opportunity to regain the majority by taking a handful of rural GOP seats. However, neither side wanted to explicitly talk about how rural Minnesota could flip power in the House.

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