Rural Minnesota losing influence

NEW ULM – Rural Minnesota is losing its ability to influence Minnesota government, and must do a better job of collaborating, of uniting on important issues and of educating the rest of Minnesota if it is to regain it voice. That was the message Brad Finstad, CEO of the Center for Rural Policy and Development (CRPD), and Tom Horner, president of Horner Strategies, LLC, had for members of the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce at a Hot Topics luncheon Friday at the New Ulm Country Club.

Their talk was based on a report the CRPD and Horner Strategies conducted last year and released earlier this year. Influential Minnesotans were asked to participate in the study, which showed that as population continues to grow in the Metro area and larger regional cities, rural Minnesota is being heard less and less. Finstad pointed out that at one time there was a fairly even split between Minnesota’s rural and urban population, and in their representation in the Legislature. But now about 60 percent of legislators come from metropolitan districts.

“Who speaks for rural Minnesota?” Finstad asked. He pointed out that the rural Minnesota is fractured by its own interests. Southern Minnesota corn and soybean farmers don’t have many common interests with northern Minnesotans who depend on timber or mining for their livelihood. This weakens the voice of rural Minnesota even more.

Horner said it is the political influence rural Minnesotans have to worry about.

“Look at the list of candidates for governor and senator in 2014,” he said. “There are ten announced candidates, and all but one of them are from the metro area,” he said.

Horner said discussions of what will happen with the state’s billion-dollar surplus is another example. Repealing the sales tax on farm equipment repairs will have an immediate impact on rural Minnesota, he said, “but everything else is related to the metro area.”

There are plenty of things that could be fixed for rural Minnesota, he said. In 2012 the Legislature made changes in the way property is assessed for property taxes. It had a detrimental effect on smaller rural communities, some of which lost so much value on their tax rolls that it has affected their credit ratings. But there’s no talk of fixing that.

The poverty rate for children is higher in rural areas than the statewide average, he said. Average household income is lower in the rural areas than the metro area. But these challenges are not part of the state’s discussion, said Horner.

Finstad said there is no single agenda uniting rural Minnesota, and that presents a challenge to groups like the Chambers of Commerce and others in the state. These groups have to knock down the barriers that separate them.

“When was the last time the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce met with the Sleepy Eye Chamber of Commerce to discuss common issues?” Horner asked. “Sleepy Eye is 14 miles away, also in Brown County. We need to break down the barriers.”

Even the large farm interest groups tend to narrow their focus to their own specific areas, and splinter, rather than joining with others, said Finstad. There needs to be a connection between those who make their living from the land, he said.

“When was the last time the soybean growers met with loggers? There are a lot of people hollering at the same time, but no one can hear what they’re saying.”

Highway 14 is an example of rural disconnect, said Finstad. Lots of cities favor improvements, but once the work is done in their area, they tend to drop out, he said.

In addition to better collaboration, rural areas need to do a better job of educating metro people on why what happens here is important to them. Finstad said this wasn’t always necessary. In the 1980s, during the farm crisis, some of the strongest support for government support for farmers came from the metro area. People who lived there still had a strong connection to their rural roots. Many had grown up on farms, and still had parents or grandparents living there. But today metro residents are more removed from the farm. “A lot of people don’t really know where milk comes from,” he said.

People need to understand that a strong rural economy benefits everyone, that Highway 14 isn’t just important for the New Ulm area. Finstad said rural areas need to understand that the metro area has needs, too, that projects like light rail are important to the millions living around them.

Rural areas need to be current with the latest research on things like biofuels, to be ready to change with new technology rather than clinging to the old. They need to educate the metro areas that there is world class health care, good education, entertainment and cultural opportunities and business opportunities here too.

Finstad said children growing up in rural areas need to be told that there are good career opportunities here, that yes, they should move to the Twin Cities to get their education, but that they can move back to live.

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