With Republicans taking control of the Minnesota Senate and increasing their majority in the House, what can rural Minnesota expect in the upcoming session?
The chances of passing a comprehensive transportation bill or a gas tax to support it are bleak; a bonding bill will likely be much smaller; a tax bill probably won't be negotiated until the end of the session; and another government shutdown is likely because of simmering conflicts between GOP leaders and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
Those are the predictions of Bradley Peterson, a lobbyist with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, which held its fall conference in Alexandria on Nov. 17.
Peterson said he is "cautiously optimistic" about another big issue for Greater Minnesota - increasing Local Government Aid. He offered advice to the conference attendees, which included a bipartisan mix of nearly 100 city officials from throughout Greater Minnesota.
"What we need to do before the session starts," Peterson said, "is to meet with the legislators, especially the new ones coming into office, before they are infected with the swamp virus, and talk to them about the importance of LGA."
Peterson said another hopeful sign for rural Minnesota is that Republican Sen. Paul Gazelka was named Senate majority leader. Gazelka represents District 9, which includes the cities of Osakis, Browerville, Little Falls, Royalton and Staples. Peterson called him a thoughtful person who is good to work with and understands rural needs.
Races weren't even close
Thanks in part to a sweeping wave of support for Republican Donald Trump and Democratic contender Hillary Clinton's unpopularity in rural areas, the GOP picked up seven seats in the Minnesota Senate to gain a 34 to 33 edge, Peterson said. In the House, the GOP's majority over DFLers increased from 72-62 to 76-57.
"Most of the races weren't even close - at all," Peterson said. "It was essentially a 60/40 split (between GOP and DFL candidates)."
He cited Douglas County area races as examples: Incumbent Republican Jeff Backer defeated DFLer Jay McNamar with 61 percent of the vote in District 12A, and Republican Mary Franson of Alexandria handily won re-election with 65 percent of the vote in her race against DFLer Gail Kulp.
Bonding bill battle
Greater Minnesota cities can expect a tougher battle to get their projects approved in a bonding bill next session, Peterson said. The state's surplus has dropped from $1 billion to $800 million and many Republican leaders have made it clear that they won't support new spending.
"If you thought you had to elbow to get funding last session, this time you'll have to elbow, kick, fight and scratch," Peterson said.
Looking at voter trends, Peterson said it appears the DFL is becoming the metro party while the Republicans are the rural party.
"Is our future a GOP party solely focused on rural Minnesota and a Democrat party focused on metro issues?" he asked. "That's not a good future for Minnesota."
He said that the history has shown that the Legislature accomplishes more for Greater Minnesota with a mix of more DFLers in rural areas and more GOP lawmakers in the suburbs.
City leaders want results
With rural legislators now making up more than 60 percent of the Minnesota House and Senate Republican majorities, city leaders from across Greater Minnesota who attended the conference called for a renewed focus on the needs of rural communities.
A lot of discussion centered on the notion that after two years of bipartisan gridlock, rural communities cannot afford to go another year without an increase in LGA and key investments in infrastructure.
"The election results made it clear that voters in Greater Minnesota wanted to shake things up," said Sara Carlson, mayor of Alexandria and president of the coalition. "With such a strong rural majority in the House and Senate, it's time for our state leaders to make rural issues a top priority."
The coalition determined that its top goals for the session will be passing two holdovers from the last session - failed tax and bonding bills.