Cheaper health care, better access to high-speed internet and more funding for rural highways top the wish lists of farmers around the state, according to a new report from the Minnesota Farmers Union.
The group’s president, Gary Wertish, released the report Wednesday at a State Capitol event with Lt. Gov. Tina Smith. Wertish said the report, compiled from comments gathered in a 14-city listening tour, should serve as a guide for state lawmakers as they look to address perceptions they ignore rural issues.
“After the November election, there was a feeling that rural voices and rural issues weren’t being listened to or addressed,” Wertish said. “Minnesota Farmers Union went outstate to let their voices be heard at these rural issues discussions.”
The sessions, held in late March in early April, attracted about 450 people in communities stretching from Windom to Roseau. Wertish said it was clear that many rural residents felt left behind in big decisions at the Capitol in St. Paul. But some of their top concerns, like health care costs and transportation spending, echo those of Minnesotans in urban and suburban communities.
Farmers said they were concerned about health care costs that threatened to outpace their annual earnings. Some were interested in health care co-ops — a provision included in a premium-relief bill the Legislature passed this year — or the reinstatement of a “high risk pool” for people on the individual market.
The report notes that there was “almost universal support for some kind of public health care option to be implemented.”
Wertish said many farmers support Gov. Mark Dayton’s MinnesotaCare buy-in proposal, through which residents of all income levels could purchase insurance through the state. Dayton and DFLers at the Legislature have advocated for that plan throughout the legislative session, arguing it would guarantee a health care option for communities that could be abandoned by private insurers.
Republicans have repeatedly voted down the proposal, saying Minnesotans don’t want government involvement in health care and that less regulation will help increase private competition and drive down premium costs.
“Whether that’s the right answer or not, we don’t know, but it needs to be out front and seriously discussed,” Wertish said. “Not just dismiss it because it’s government-run health care.”
Other top concerns included funding for rural road and bridge projects, which participants said shouldn’t be pitted against urban transit projects when the state divvies up transportation dollars. Farmers were concerned about rural hunger, particularly the potential loss of the Meals on Wheels program, which has been singled out for elimination in President Donald Trump’s budget plan. They wanted more state support for local food growing programs, rural food banks and grocery stores.
Discussion participants wanted a bigger stake in decisions related to Dayton’s proposal on buffers around waterways, and suggested that local authorities should control identification and enforcement of those areas.