Ever since outstate voters put Republicans back in charge of the state House a month ago, Legislature-loving speculators have been guessing what state politicians might bestow upon Greater Minnesota in 2015, both as a reward and an inducement to future voter loyalty.
Much is owed outstate on the GOP ledger. Ten of the 11 Republican freshmen who unseated DFLers in the Nov. 4 election hail from outstate districts.
A big clue to the new majority's thinking appeared when the 2015 House committee roster was unveiled: The committee formerly known as Jobs and Economic Development Finance and Policy has been sliced in two. One is labeled Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy; the other, Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance.
What's revealed in those geeky names? Note that the committee that has Greater Minnesota in its name includes the word "workforce" but not the word "finance." That suggests that the preferred House GOP remedies for what ails Greater Minnesota's economy have something to do with workers, but not much to do with state spending.
Note, too, that the committee that can spend money on job growth is also keen on keeping energy prices low — perhaps as a way to shore up employment rosters without spending much taxpayer money.
Can House Republicans buy love in Greater Minnesota on the cheap? And will they try, after learning Thursday that expected state revenues now exceed expected spending by a cool $1 billion through June 2017?
These are questions on the minds of folks at the Greater Minnesota Partnership. It's an 18-month-old collection of nearly 80 business, higher ed, nonprofit and local economic development groups that proved its mettle in the DFL-dominated 2014 session, winning $20 million for the public share of public-private efforts to improve broadband Internet service where it's lacking — which is outstate.
For the 2015 Legislature, the Greater Minnesota Partnership has set its sights on 10 times that much for broadband. And that $200 million is just for starters.
A wish list the partnership circulated shortly after the Nov. 4 election entitled "Potential 2015 economic development initiatives" isn't shy about its desire to increase the flow of money from St. Paul to Greater Minnesota. It includes at least $400 million more in the next two years for outstate transportation; $60 million to $100 million for "workforce housing," and $20 million for a new job training program that would put money in employers' hands to spend how and where they see fit.
That's not to mention the long-standing priority of the partnership's sister organization, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. That collective of 85 outstate cities is practically synonymous with local government aid (LGA) at the Capitol. It's sure to come to the new session arguing that LGA still isn't back to 2002 levels and that it needs to get there again soon for Greater Minnesota cities to thrive.
The partnership and the coalition aren't the only voices legislators will hear from outside the seven-county Mosquito Control District. But they are important ones, and their tune about state spending isn't much different from others. For example, local chambers of commerce have been known to favor more spending on transportation and LGA. Outstate college towns are keen to keep up state funding for higher education. Advocates for building projects like completion of the Lewis & Clark water pipeline in southwestern Minnesota will be back, pressing for a good-sized bonding bill in 2015.
Austerity, it would appear, is not the customary way to win hearts and minds in Greater Minnesota. And Republican House members know it, says a former House Republican legislator from Albert Lea, Dan Dorman. He's now executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership.
Dorman says he's optimistic about how the partnership's agenda will be received. That's because his former caucusmates "have a pretty good understanding of where their power came from."
He argues that simply being the party of "no" to new spending and higher taxes won't cut it politically in 2016, a presidential year that will be tougher sledding for Republicans. To keep outstate voters loyal to the GOP, "they are going to have to do more than just lip service. They know they will have to produce outcomes that are good for Greater Minnesota. They'll have to deliver something tangible, so people will say, 'Yeah, they got something done.' "
Chairing the new House Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee will be Rep. Bob Gunther of Fairmont, a 20-year House veteran who also held the jobs committee gavel in 2011-12. Gunther is a grocery store owner who typifies what has in recent years been a small subset of the House GOP caucus — the outstate, small-business-minded pragmatists who aren't rigid about the role of government. Dorman, who owns a tire store in Albert Lea, is of the same breed.
Gunther says he's unafraid to take up new spending ideas for Greater Minnesota and send them along to committees with "finance" in their names. He acknowledges that the spending ideas coming from the Greater Minnesota Partnership might be too rich for Republican blood.
But, like the partnership, he's keen to do something to ease the housing shortage that's impeding manufacturing growth in districts like his. He's well aware that demand was high for the $20 million in broadband matching grants made available this year and that it will take considerably more to bring broadband to all outstate businesses that need it. And he holds that a boost in transportation spending is "the biggest urgency we have."
How well Greater Minnesota fares in a GOP House may depend on how many of the newly elected outstate Republicans think like Gunther.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.