So much for opening day pleasantries in a spanking-new space. Republican state senators from Greater Minnesota arrived on Day One of the new legislative session last Tuesday spoiling for a fight over a recent shuffle in Senate committee responsibilities.

Think not that this was a tiff over institutional minutiae. The committee in question is a newly created Environment and Energy Budget Division, handed the Senate purse strings for environmental regulatory work that was much in contention last session.

Wielding both the new panel’s gavel and that of the Senate’s Environment and Energy policy committee will be Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville or, as described in a GOP release, “the Legislature’s most radical environmentalist.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said the change was made to better match the committee configuration of the House. But the surmise at the old Capitol press corps table (kindly hauled into the new Minnesota Senate Building to help old press folk feel at home) was that Marty got the additional responsibilities as a consolation prize for losing most of last year’s environmental arguments, which spilled into a June special session. That peacemaking gesture was presumably warranted in Senate DFL leaders’ eyes to soothe not just Marty but also the majority of the majority caucus, which stood with Marty on the losing side.

But what was good for DFL harmony was not good for Greater Minnesota — or so argued a batch of animated Republican senators from farm country.

“This change stacks the deck against Greater Minnesota!” fumed Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, who led a move to undo the committee change. “This means that rural Minnesota means nothing here! It’s time to stand up for rural Minnesota!”

The new panel has a 7-2 metro tilt, compared with five rural and four metro members on the old Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Budget Division, which was being split in two. The old committee was “a stopgap, so we don’t get run over by metro interests,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.

DFLers might as well change their party name to the Democratic-Environmental-Labor Party, added Sen. David Brown, R-Becker. “The F for farmers is being plowed under!”

There’s a line fitted for the fall campaign, we scribblers noted as DFLers dispatched the Republican attempt to roll back the committee change. The vote was a rare 33-33 tie. Five Greater Minnesota DFLers, including the chair of the committee that was being divided, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, voted with the Republicans.

Time was when a complaint about legislative committee structure would be considered weak campaign tea. But Republican House candidates in 2014 showed how to put such arcanery to political use. They railed about the DFL’s 2013 decision to make Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis — another notable environmentalist — chair of the House’s Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Division.

When reporting in Greater Minnesota since then, I’ve heard enough voters parrot back that fact to know that it stuck. Nobody I met voiced objection to that committee’s actual output on Wagenius’ watch, mind you. It was the symbolism of her position and not the substance that mattered.

Rural resentments are easily stoked for political purposes these days, it seems. Environmental protection policies have become a rural-urban wedge issue as sharp as social issues have been in previous years. I asked Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, to explain why.

“There’s been a lack of understanding about agriculture here. There [have] been some radical decisions made — buffer strips are a prime example,” Rosen said.

She referred to one of last year’s flash points — the move by Gov. Mark Dayton to require that row crops not be planted nearer than 50 feet from public ditches and waterways, to protect water quality. A pared-down version of that requirement became law. Farmers in Rosen’s district are unhappy about government telling them where they can plow.

“The gap keeps getting wider between metro and rural,” Rosen said. She vowed to be a fighter for her district’s dominant industry, agriculture. The times require as much, she said.

But the four-termer added a wistful note about the rising regionalism at the Legislature. “We never talk about what’s best for the whole state anymore,” she sighed.

Here’s a stab at some whole-state talk: Minnesota needs both clean air and water and a robust Greater Minnesota economy. It ought not settle for “either/or.” And a political climate that rewards candidates for favoring one over the other is not serving this state well.

When politics augur conflict perpetuation rather than resolution, sometimes the fight can be moved a step or two away from politicians. That’s what has happened with workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. Both were subjects provoking chronic conflict at the Legislature a few decades ago. In both cases today, appointed business-labor advisory councils hash out their differences and (usually) come to the Legislature with consensus policy proposals.

Might a similar consensus-seeking advisory panel be created to work on, say, Greater Minnesota water quality? The idea would be to assure outstate folk a seat at the table when policies affecting their livelihoods are proposed and decided. Those folks are not being paranoid when they say their influence at the Legislature is waning. Minnesota’s population growth in this decade has happened almost exclusively in the metro area. The next redistricting is bound to leave Greater Minnesota with fewer legislative seats. During Tuesday’s Senate fuss over the new enviro finance committee, Sen. Marty sat quietly as Republican senators accused him of being an environmentalist, in tones that suggested that’s a bad trait for a fellow in charge of an environment committee. But he bristled afterward at the suggestion that he is anti-rural, or that the interests of the whole state will suffer at the hands of the committee he chairs.

“Caring for the environment is not anti-rural,” he said. “Most farmers and their small-town neighbors don’t think it’s a great idea to have a lot of nitrates in their water. We call this state the land of 10,000 lakes. We don’t want to be the land of 10,000 cesspools.”

That wouldn’t fit on a license plate.

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.