Renville, Minn. – Jeremy Hinderks used to ride his bicycle down Main Street in this sleepy western Minnesota town, past the abandoned movie theater and think boyishly idealistic thoughts: “I’m going to do something with that building someday.”
Two decades later, after six years of the suburban life in Eagan and a short stint in Willmar, Hinderks moved his young family back to the town where he grew up. There he hung out his chiropractic shingle in that long-vacant space (rent: $300 a month).
In early January, Hinderks joined the Renville City Council, elected on a set of concerns similar to those echoing anew through state politics since November: how to revive the flagging fortunes of Minnesota’s least populated corners, its small towns and rural expanses.
“We see businesses close all the time. We see most of our educated people pick up and leave town, because they feel things are going a certain way,” said Hinderks, 32, who has the towering build and confident smile of a former college athlete. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to sit back and watch this happen, I’m going to see what I can do to help.’ ”
But what are the political solutions to a problem bigger than any individual’s ability to solve it, one born of such larger forces as national demographic trends and the decline of farming as a way of life? That question confronts Minnesota lawmakers this year, especially a newly energized Republican House majority that won power by capitalizing on concerns that rural Minnesota’s struggles have gone ignored in St. Paul even as the Twin Cities economy thrives and its culture diversifies.
“Folks come into the cities and they see the cranes everywhere, they see a new stadium under construction, they see a lot more signs of obvious wealth,” said Marty Seifert, a former Republican lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate who now lobbies for outstate interests in St. Paul. “The Republicans exploited that very effectively, weaved it into a ‘we got left behind’ narrative.”
At the Capitol, both sides are lunging to lock down support in rural Minnesota. Republicans want to scrap the state tax on Social Security income — a boon to seniors who make up a greater share of the rural population. They’ve formed special committees tailored to aging concerns and promoted outstate road and bridge repair over urban transit needs. DFLers are proposing two years of tuition-free community college, a favored option for many outstate residents, and loan forgiveness for doctors who agree to practice in rural areas. Both parties are reaching out to nursing homes, which are major employers in a number of outstate towns and cities.
The debate has far-reaching implications for Minnesota politics, but more important, it will show whether the state’s elected leaders can transcend purely political concerns with solutions that bridge this great divide.
Fewer people, fewer resources
Minnesota grew by about a million people between 1990 and 2013 — mostly in the metro area and other population centers. But the 30 rural counties that form a rough “L” along the Iowa and Dakota borders shrank in that time, more than half of them by more than 10 percent. Those are long-term population trends, seemingly impervious to both boom and bust cycles, and projected to continue in coming decades.
People in the “L” tend to be older per capita than in more populated areas and make less money. More still make their living farming the land or in agriculture-linked activities. Homes and businesses are scattered widely across the landscape and property values are lower, yielding a weaker tax base.
The ensuing challenges include: how to care for growing numbers of seniors; how to make sure new generations of workers are trained to fill those jobs that do exist, and that they have affordable housing options; how to update a crumbling system of county, city and township roads, and how to deliver up-to-date technology in geographically sparse areas.
Changing political dynamic
Of the 11 new House Republicans who defeated DFL incumbents last fall to take the majority, 10 hail from outstate Minnesota. Half are from districts that include some of those 30 least-populated counties. Of the other counties, most were already represented by Republicans.
“The last two years had been a Democrat majority that really was Minneapolis- and St. Paul-centric and was forgetting the rest of the state,” the Capitol’s new top Republican, Speaker Kurt Daudt, said the day after the election. Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, won his race in part by dubbing his DFL opponent, Jay McNamar of Elbow Lake, “Metro Jay” for McNamar’s vote for same-sex marriage.
From the plans for a taxpayer-funded new office building for state senators in St. Paul, to cultural hot buttons like the 2013 vote to legalize gay marriage or the ongoing effort to bring the Affordable Care Act to the state, Republican candidates in many of the state’s furthest reaches capitalized on unease that big-city Democrats were inflicting their values on small towns while hoarding the spoils of the state treasury.
“I can tell you it was a tangible feeling when I campaigned,” said Rep. Tim Miller, a new House Republican whose district includes Renville along with other small towns and sparsely populated counties. “You’d hear this: ‘I can’t believe they built themselves a new [state office] building, and meanwhile Highway 12 out here is in about as good a shape as a goat trail.’ ”
Who gives, who gets?
Perception aside, the numbers show the Twin Cities metro counties are the state’s economic engine, generating tax dollars that flow outward to every corner of the state. A June 2014 report by nonpartisan House Research shows the seven metro counties of Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott and Washington generate considerably more tax revenue than the other 80 counties combined.
In 2010, the latest year comprehensive numbers were available, those metro counties contained 53.7 percent of the state’s population but accounted for 63.8 percent of all state tax receipts. For spending, the split reversed, with 52.8 percent of state spending goes to the metro, while the remainder went to outstate Minnesota.
In broad terms, a greater share of education and human services dollars goes to the metro, while outstate does considerably better in distribution of highway dollars and local government assistance.
“The metro provides funding for greater Minnesota, not the reverse,” Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said at a recent legislative forum. “But Minnesotans don’t believe it.”
The rural life
The feeling that outstate Minnesota is overlooked is not hard to come by.
“We pay taxes too,” Hinderks said. “But we see a lot of our tax dollars going to urban development in the metro area. We’d like to see some of that share. We’d like to have nice roads too.”
Hinderks said he was raised Republican but has drifted toward Democratic ideas. He grasps the paradox at the heart of rural Minnesota’s dilemma: “How do we expect a larger percentage of the attention when we’re such a small percentage of the population?”
About 1,200 people live in Renville, which sits 100 miles west of Minneapolis. Population here peaked in 1980 at 1,500 and has crept downward ever since. Main Street consists of a grocery store, two small restaurants and a few specialty businesses. Several agricultural processing plants provide decent jobs.
There used to be a hardware store too, but it closed four years ago. Now, Hinderks said, “You have to drive 15 miles one way to buy a light bulb.”
In the past two years, two agricultural implement dealers and two convenience stores closed up shop. Hinderks and others are frustrated daily by a painfully slow local Internet connection that travels roughly at the speed of dial-up. City Administrator Kari Gislason acknowledges Renville has few incentives to attract new businesses and few housing options for potential residents. Land is cheap, but houses cost as much to build as anywhere.
Yet for Hinderks, Eagan never felt like home, with its long commutes, anonymous neighbors and costly child care. He likes how Renville’s residents band together when a neighbor battles disease or adversity, how he knows the parents of his kids’ friends.
Jim Mulder, a Renville native who previously led the Association of Minnesota Counties, understands the conundrum all too well. “You can’t compete with the metro area if you want to compete on an even playing field,” Mulder said. “It’s going to require setting some priorities and thinking about ways to make life more attractive to more people. I’ve heard a lot of talk about this the last few months, but I wouldn’t say I’ve heard a vision for rural Minnesota yet.”
Dayton is expected to incorporate some proposals aimed at outstate Minnesota when he proposes his budget this week. In recent high-profile remarks, he has sought to downplay the idea of an urban-rural divide in Minnesota’s politics.
“Someone always believes that someone else is getting a better deal,” Dayton said in his inaugural address earlier this month. “Those rivalries are not going to disappear. However, they cannot be permitted to blind us to the larger truth that we are all one Minnesota.”
Star Tribune staff writer J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.