Leila Navidi/Star Tribune

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, center, with outstate DFL leaders, outlined an agenda for rural communities Tuesday.

Minnesota House DFLers announced a $400 million plan aimed at outstate residents on Tuesday, a direct appeal to rural voters who live in areas that are already shaping up to be the defining battleground in the fight for control of the House.

The DFL plan, which shares a few similarities with Republican ideas, would spend money on rural broadband and roads, stepped-up oil-train safety, local government aid, and tax cuts for farmers and seniors.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said the DFL proposals were meant to empower small communities in rural Minnesota. Flanked by outstate DFL legislators at a news conference, Thissen quickly pivoted to an attack on the Republican majority, telegraphing an argument voters can expect to hear for the next 10 months.

“In their rush to provide special perks to big Twin Cities and multinational corporations, the Republicans turned their back on Greater Minnesota,” he said, referring to a tax bill that passed the House last year — though not the Senate — that would have given big tax cuts to both big and small businesses.

Republicans — who painted the DFL in 2014 as overly consumed with Twin Cities issues at the expense of rural Minnesota — had their own announcement on Tuesday with an election-year flavor. They formed a special committee to tackle affordable child care and will conduct a February outstate roadshow to talk to parents and child care providers.

The House has been a political pendulum since 2008, with the DFL winning in presidential years and Republicans winning in off-years, most recently in 2014 when the GOP flipped 10 outstate seats to retake the majority.

There also will be fierce contests in the metro suburbs, where each party sees opportunities to pick up seats. Yet the two parties are paying particular attention to voters in Greater Minnesota — largely rural areas that have shrinking, aging populations and that are struggling to adapt to an increasingly technological economy.

Republicans and their allies are determined to keep the House, as victory for the DFL likely would mean complete control of state government. That’s because the Senate map currently favors DFLers, and DFLer Mark Dayton will remain governor through 2018.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, offered a facetious welcome mat to the DFL: “I’m overjoyed that Minneapolis leader Thissen is going to continue listening to our ideas about Greater Minnesota,” he said.

GOP takes credit for ...

Kresha and fellow Republicans cite accomplishments during the 2015 session that they say will help them consolidate support outstate. The Legislature added $138 million for nursing homes, which are a top priority in rural Minnesota; came to the aid of poultry farmers whose flocks were stricken with flu, and prioritized road funding for cities and towns of fewer than 5,000 people. Republicans also take credit for stopping DFL initiatives they believe would have hurt rural communities, such as a significant gas tax for transportation projects. Republicans, with support from Senate DFLers, also eliminated a powerful citizens’ board that once had final say on environmental permitting issues.

Republicans didn’t come away from the 2015 session unscathed, however. Last year, the then-president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, Ely DFLer Heidi Omerza, called the session a “monumental flop,” saying not enough state money flowed to broadband Internet development, local government aid, job training and workforce housing.

Rural mayors and city leaders already have been intensifying pressure on House Republicans to send more money to their communities, spending that threatens to put GOP leaders at odds with the more fiscally conservative wing of the party.

House DFLers’ plan would fill those gaps, with $100 million for broadband, $95 million for city and county aid, and $150 million as part of a larger transportation package, according to Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.

And there are wild cards

In a few areas, there is at least some agreement, including tax breaks for farmers and seniors and resources to confront what demographers call the “silver tsunami” of aging Minnesotans outside the metro area.

A potential wild card in this battle is Senate Majority Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. Despite reports of a $1.2 billion budget surplus that has lawmakers fantasizing about tax cuts and new spending, Bakk said recently that inflation and rising costs could eat a large part of the surplus.

Thissen sidestepped a question about Bakk’s prediction, but the inquiry served to highlight a potential difficulty for the DFL: Bakk’s motives as he tries to protect his majority — the status quo — may be different from Thissen’s, as he tries to topple the House GOP majority.

There is another key unknown: The race for the White House, where the energy and organization of presidential candidates can reverberate in local elections. The two parties are nervously eyeing their presidential nominating contests, which so far have skewed toward chaos and the potential for unconventional standard-bearers.

“So much of our legislative races are impacted by things way beyond our control, [like] national elections,” Thissen said.

 

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042

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