A group of DFL senators hopes to revive rural and small-town economies in Minnesota with a handful of initiatives that would boost worker training, build more affordable housing, incubate new businesses and greatly expand broadband Internet access.
The proposals would total about $230 million in additional state spending over two years — about a fourth of the state's total projected budget surplus. That puts the outstate bills in competition with a whole raft of possible uses of the $1 billion projected surplus, from schools to rural nursing homes to tax relief to road and bridge renovations. But the senators — all of whom represent outstate communities — said there should be enough to go around, arguing the state's struggling rural economy needs attention.
"We're not just throwing money at the problem," said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. "We're trying to fix a problem with money."
Challenges facing rural Minnesota have been at the top of the legislative agenda this year, after a November election in which 10 Republicans unseated DFL House members from rural districts. Of the five senators at Thursday's Capitol news conference, two represent districts where both House members are Republicans. That dynamic looms large for senators as they face re-election in 2016.
But the senators said their initiatives aim to address real economic dilemmas facing Minnesota's small towns and rural areas. They include:
• $27 million for new career counselors at workforce development centers in rural Minnesota.
• $50 million in tax credits to generate private investment for workforce housing. The money would help establish an Office of Workforce Housing charged with distributing the tax credits.
• $40 million to help small communities build infrastructure, attract new businesses or help existing businesses expand.
• $15 million for a new job training program for rural Minnesota. "The people in rural parts of the state simply haven't experienced the explosive job and economic growth that the metro has seen in the last few years," Tomassoni said, pointing to what he called a "skills gap" between what outstate Minnesota businesses need and the skills of potential applicants.
• $100 million to continue an ongoing push to expand high-speed broadband access in rural areas. "Broadband access is a great equalizer," said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing.
A number of the DFL initiatives have backing from some Republican lawmakers, too. The senators bristled at the idea that the legislative package is an attempt to shore up political support from rural Minnesota.
But Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said that if successful, the initiatives would likely be noticed by rural voters.
"I'm convinced that if we have a real trained and educated workforce put to work in rural Minnesota, we'll do just fine," Saxhaug said.