Following the recent election, Republicans at the Capitol in St. Paul now have one of their biggest legislative majorities in years, and a huge crop of members new and old who represent districts outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
Interest groups that represent greater Minnesota political interests are already demanding results. Many felt stymied by recent legislative sessions, seeing Republicans grow their power on a message that St. Paul is neglecting rural Minnesota without actually delivering many of the programs sought by rural-focused interest groups. “The election results made it clear that voters in Greater Minnesota wanted to shake things up,” said Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
On their way to taking over the Senate majority, Republican challengers beat DFL incumbents in six outstate Minnesota districts. They also won a seventh seat in far northwestern Minnesota that had long been held by a DFLer who retired. The DFL won no non-metro Senate seats that it didn’t already hold.
It’s the same equation in the House, where Republicans had already made big gains in greater Minnesota in the ’14 election. This year they built on that, unseating two senior northern Minnesota DFL representatives, including one whose district includes part of the traditionally DFL-leaning Iron Range.
Like their colleagues in the Senate, House DFLers did not gain a single greater Minnesota seat they didn’t already hold. The result is that outside its stronghold in Minneapolis, St. Paul and inner-ring suburbs, the DFL’s greater Minnesota footprint is limited mostly to a handful of seats.
“This has been trending since at least 2010,” Senate DFL Leader Tom Bakk of Cook told the Star Tribune.
Bakk said he believes the two biggest factors are a lack of enough family-wage jobs in many rural parts of the state, and ever-greater school district consolidation that has robbed hundreds of small towns of a last vestige of local identity, their own school.
According to the coalition, rural legislators now make up more than 60 percent of the House and Senate GOP majorities. What that should mean is a “renewed focus on the needs of rural communities,” the group said in a news release. The group wants the Legislature to repass two major bills that have been in limbo since the last legislative session. Those are a tax bill, which DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed over a drafting error, and a bonding bill, which fell apart at the end of session. Both measures include major priorities for rural Minnesota interests: money for infrastructure improvements around the state and an increase in state aid to local governments. The group also wants an even bigger local government aid increase in 2017.
That could be a tougher sell for Republican majorities, since the three biggest beneficiaries of the program by dollar amount are Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. Still, Carlson said, “It should be a no-brainer that the Legislature will prioritize important programs for rural Minnesota this session.”