Growing Rural/Metro Schism in the Minnesota House

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The downside to being in the majority in any partisan legislative body is the difficulty of managing a diverse group of members. This challenge is very evident this session in the Minnesota House of Representatives; especially with regard to the schism between the rural members and their metro counterparts. In my January blog post, I noted the friction in the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture (ENRA) Finance Committee between rural members and the urban chair of the committee, Representative Jean Wagenius (DFL-Minneapolis). By the time my blog was posted, the rural Republican members, unhappy with agriculture being lumped together with environment and natural resources when it had traditionally been a stand-alone committee (or paired with veterans affairs), and further upset with an urban Chair, had made a formal request to the Rules Committee for a change in committee structure. But, to no avail.

Since then, in an effort to show solidarity, Chair Wagenius and Representative Jean Poppe (DFL-Austin) co-authored the bill to approve the Governor's Agriculture Department budget. However, it will take much more to span the divide.

One of the more divisive issues between the rural and metro members appears to be the application of the recommendations of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC). On March 14, the ENRA Finance Committee heard testimony on House File 207 (Lillie) proposing the appropriation of outdoor heritage fund money in accordance with the LSOHC recommendations. Freshmen metro legislators Representatives Mike Freiberg (DFL-Golden Valley) and Anna Wills (R-Apple Valley) brought forth an amendment to allocate $6.4 million to metropolitan regional parks, wildlife habitat protection and restoration. Despite the fact that in a recent well-publicized poll a large majority of Minnesotans believe the LSOHC funds should be spent where there is the most need, as opposed to where there is the most population, the amendment was adopted. Representative Denny McNamara (R-Hastings) summed up the general feeling of most of the rural committee members well stating: "Do you really think the people voted in 2008 for the habitat money to be spent on [metro parks projects]?" "This is robbing the habitat money and putting it into metro parks." Representative David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake) also expressed his unhappiness with the DFL tampering with the LSOHC's recommendations, when DFLers themselves took great exception to such tampering in prior sessions. Two veteran rural DFL members, Representatives Poppe and Dill, voted with a unanimous Republican Caucus in opposing the amendment. We expect this urban-rural division will play out again on the House floor as other bills such as gun control and gay marriage get debated, so stay tuned.