November 29, 2023

Grant County Herald

Community news from the prairie to the lakes

Support Research Key To Improving Rural Lives

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Before legislators can act to improve rural Minnesotans’ lives and livelihoods, they must first know about the challenges we face. Fortunately, there is an organization whose research and reports have become widely praised by rural leaders and help legislators make informed decisions to improve our lives.

However, today that organization is facing possible cuts to its vital work.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development is a non-partisan, not-for-profit policy research organization. It provides policymakers, at both the state and local level, with unbiased information from a rural perspective.

Its members come from around Minnesota, with 13 appointed by the governor along with one member of the House and one from the Senate. Another five at-large positions are chosen by the board members.

Recently completed research by the Center includes assessments of housing needs, daycare challenges, struggles to provide EMS services, attracting and keeping mental health providers, workforce shortages, and the loss of rural grocery stores.

Its “State of Rural” report broadly analyzes trends in population, agriculture, business, immigration, and employment. Its “Thought Leader Survey” gathers information from around Minnesota on the top challenges facing local governments, law enforcement, social services, and economic development organizations. The results shape the Center’s research priorities.

“As policy discussions concerning the various regions of the state unfold, it is important to understand the past, present, and potential futures of rural regions,” Kelly Asche, senior researcher, and Marnie Werner, vice president of research and operations, write.

Created by the state Legislature in 1997, its statutory mission is “providing accurate research-based information on rural Minnesota to those who make decisions about rural Minnesota.”

An essential funding source for the CRPD’s work comes from the state’s agriculture department budget. However, as bills from the Senate and House head to a conference committee, its funding has been cut out. 

With proposed legislative funding of over $160 million for the Department of Agriculture, a $38 million increase, it can’t find $150,000 to help fund the Center’s work. With a $17.6 billion surplus, it can’t find the revenue for research that gives essential insight into the challenges of rural Minnesota.

Considering the Legislature created the Center and how valuable its research is becoming to rural and urban leaders, it is hard to comprehend why there is such reluctance to fund its work.

In relation to the ag budget and state surplus, $150,000 is a paltry amount. But it represents 25% of the Center’s annual budget. The Center has a very lean staff – just three people to do the research and outreach to the public. This funding cut means less research to inform legislators and local leaders in rural city, county, and school district leadership. It means citizens are less informed, as are regional development organizations.

Rural Minnesota has lost considerable clout in the state Legislature. Democrats have a one vote majority in the state Senate with 34 of 67 seats. In the House, the DFL has 70 seats to the Republicans’ 64. Minnesota’s Gov. Tim Walz is also a Democrat, giving the party complete control of the legislative agenda.

Only four of the 28 House committee chairs are from outside the seven-county metropolitan area surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul. In the Senate, only three committee chairs out of 20 are from outside the metro.

In appointing the chairs, House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) had few options. The DFL Party won control of the Legislature with the vote from just 13 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. Its members are concentrated in the metropolitan area.

Committee chairs are essential to shepherding through legislation that eventually becomes law. With so few rural committee chairs, the voice of rural Minnesota has been significantly reduced in St. Paul.

Priorities and focus shift to metropolitan issues. Urban legislators address rural issues from their viewpoint rather than a rural approach. That is the lesser of two outcomes possible. The other is that they fail to address our challenges at all. Withdrawing funding for the Center shows this slide away from rural areas.

We in rural Minnesota have limited influence with a metropolitan-dominated Legislature. We don’t cast votes for its representatives or senators; we aren’t their constituents, so why listen to our needs?

“This session, maybe more than any, is going to be kind of a test of the ‘One Minnesota’ mantra,” Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, told Walker Orenstein of MinnPost before the session started. He was referencing Walz’s “One Minnesota” campaign slogan. “It is going to be a test of the things that at least metro legislators and policy makers and the governor himself has said about wanting to legislate for the whole state.”

When our needs are less visible, they are likely to be tackled with policy changes and financial resources. You hamstring local government’s efforts to address our needs if the Legislature is uninformed about rural challenges.

“Our committee chairs and our caucus reflect the diversity of Minnesota and represent the entire state — from rural communities to the suburbs to Minneapolis and St. Paul. We are ready to work hard, work together, and work quickly to meet the needs of Minnesotans,” Speaker Hortman said before the session started. How does she accomplish her assurance without the research that highlights rural needs?

Through the Center’s research, a heightened awareness of rural challenges energizes metropolitan and rural legislators to work together to address the needs of rural communities, counties, and school districts.

To reduce the growing polarization of Minnesota’s geography, metropolitan members of the state Senate and House must support a critical resource of rural information – the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

Reed Anfinson serves on the CRPD board. He was appointed to his first term by Gov. Mark Dayton and his second by Gov. Tim Walz. The opinon here is his own.

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