Advocates and lobbyists for outstate Minnesota political interests say that after promises from lawmakers to tackle the challenges facing small towns and rural communities, the recently concluded legislative session wound up being just another in a series of disappointments.
"Ultimately, the governor and Legislature did very little to move our communities forward," said Heidi Omerza, an Ely City Council member and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
The idea that 2015 would be a good year for such interests was planted by November's election results. That's when Republicans seized the House majority, winning 11 seats held by DFLers, a full 10 of those in outstate Minnesota districts. On the campaign trail, many of those GOP candidates effectively brandished claims that the DFL was dominated by Twin Cities interests — setting an expectation that once in power, Republicans would deliver for far-flung provinces.
Eyeing a projected surplus that swelled to nearly $2 billion, advocates like the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and allied groups came into session in January with an ambitious agenda — inflationary increases in state aid to local governments, big new spending boosts to expand rural broadband access, workforce-geared housing development in small towns and cities, a transportation spending package and property tax relief.
"Very little ended up being done on that agenda," said Bradley Peterson, senior lobbyist for the Coalition. Specifically:
• The state Office of Broadband Development got $11 million to expand access, from a request for more than $100 million.
• Better workforce housing options got $5 million after a $50 million request.
• Lawmakers failed to finalize a tax bill, wiping away any chance of local government aid increases or property tax relief.
• The final transportation bill was small in scope, falling short of proposals by DFLers and Republicans.
So what happened? Dan Dorman, a former GOP state representative who now lobbies for outstate groups, put his finger on perhaps the biggest challenge: While House Republicans clearly owed most of their political gains to outstate voters, actually delivering on outstate interest group wish lists meant spending money.
Advocates did see small gains. A bipartisan effort came together to support state aid boosts to nursing homes and changes to how that money is distributed that are intended to benefit facilities in rural areas.
Marty Seifert, another former GOP lawmaker who now lobbies for outstate interests, noted that changes to the controversial environment and agriculture budget bill will give small towns greater flexibility in conforming to state water-quality standards.
"I think it's an incomplete grade, with a good chance for improvement in the next session," Seifert said.