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Rural Minnesota Getting Legislative Attention
by Laura McCallum
January 18, 2000
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Minnesota House Republicans are proposing a $75 million package designed to boost the state's rural economy. The plan includes farm property-tax relief, aid to rural schools and nursing homes, and money for new technology. Republicans say they're trying to help outstate communities that haven't benefited from the state's economic boom, but some Democrats say the plan amounts to a Band-Aid approach to the rural crisis.

THE BULK OF THE REPUBLICAN proposal - up to $40 million - would go to farm property-tax relief. It would allow farmers to exempt more of their land from the education portion of their property taxes, similar to the $53 million in farm tax cuts passed last year. Republicans also want to create a three-year set-aside program for farmland severely damaged by floods or crop failures. House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon says the plan goes beyond farm aid to provide help for schools, nursing homes and Main Street businesses.
Sviggum: We feel very, very strongly that rural Minnesota needs recognition, and that there will be within the realm of prudence and fairness programs coming through this 2000 legislative session which will recognize the needs and the hope in rural Minnesota.
The plan includes money for school districts with declining enrollment, higher reimbursement levels for rural nursing homes, and money to wire small communities to the Internet. Burnsville Representative Dan McElroy, who chairs the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee, says better technology will increase outstate job opportunities. He says as a suburban Republican, he backs the plan.
McElroy: I think the Republican Party stands for one-state thinking. And it is in the best interests of the whole state to have rural Minnesota prosper.
Some DFLers say it's about time Republicans support rural aid. Representative Doug Peterson of Madison says when he started the Right to be Rural Coalition two years ago, Republicans scoffed at the idea and refused to join.
Peterson: I have to be just a little bit cautious or jaded, let's say, that this is an election year and all of a sudden House Republicans are now spending money when they never wanted to spend money before.
Peterson says the GOP plan doesn't tackle the bigger issues driving farmers out of business, such as low crop prices and mergers of large agriculture corporations. He says property-tax relief isn't enough to keep farmers afloat. Peterson says the DFL plan will focus on long-term solutions to the farm crisis. But Republicans seem less nervous about getting Democrats on board, and more worried about getting the governor's support for their plan. Ventura has said he doesn't want the 2000 Legislature to spend money on new programs, since it's a non-budget year. Speaker Sviggum says he'll try to convince the governor that the Republican package is emergency spending.
Sviggum: Whether it's secondary voc-ed, whether it's the nursing home reimbursement which is at a much lower rate, whether it be the ethanol program which was not fully funded, that they are in fact deficiencies, or emergency situations that ought to be recognized.
The governor's spokesman, John Wodele, says Ventura believes the rural economy needs attention, and his telecommunications-reform plan and transportation package should help rural Minnesota. But Wodele says the Republicans' rural plan has a big price tag, and the governor is committed to holding the line on spending this session.