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New faces, familiar issues for legislators, including rural-urban divide challenge

GRANITE FALLS -- There will be a new governor and lots of new faces in the House of Representatives when the Legislature convenes in January, but two veteran legislators expect the big issues will not necessarily be new ones.

Tom Cherveny / TribuneDistrict 16A Representative Chris Swedzinski, left, and District 16 State Senator Gary Dahms, held a series of town hall meetings on Thursday prior to the upcoming legislative session. They are shown Thursday in Granite Falls.
Tom Cherveny / Tribune District 16A Representative Chris Swedzinski, left, and District 16 State Senator Gary Dahms, held a series of town hall meetings on Thursday prior to the upcoming legislative session. They are shown Thursday in Granite Falls.

GRANITE FALLS - There will be a new governor and lots of new faces in the House of Representatives when the Legislature convenes in January, but two veteran legislators expect the big issues will not necessarily be new ones.

The rural-urban divide and how it is impacted by state funding formulas, lack of broadband service in rural areas, health care costs, child care needs, opioids, transportation and a new try at bringing Minnesota's taxes into conformity with federal changes are top on the agenda, according to State Senator Gary Dahms, R- Redwood Falls, and Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent. They talked about the upcoming session in Granite Falls on Thursday, part of a day-long series of town hall meetings they hosted in District 16A.

Dahms said he applauds Governor-elect Tim Walz for campaigning on a One Minnesota theme, but now hopes he can pull it all together. "Because there is certainly a big difference between rural Minnesota and the metro and a lot of that difference is in funding various things - education, health and human services, transportation and down the line,'' he said.

Current funding formulas tend to favor the metro area with its larger population base, he noted. The rural population is smaller, but the needs are just as real, he added.

Local Government Aid is one of his concerns. He'd support an increase, if it was indexed to allocate a larger share of any new monies to rural communities. He noted that the overall funding for the program has changed from a 67 percent to 33 percent rural to metro split to 54 percent rural and 46 percent metro split today since funds are allocated to more suburban communities than originally was the case.

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Dahms said he will judge how serious the governor is about One Minnesota by who he appoints to head state agencies, as well as how his budget addresses funding formulas.

Swedzinski said he will also be watching how the new governor addresses the buffer mandate, ditch mowing regulations and regulatory requirements for wastewater systems in rural communities. He'd like to see a buffer program based on incentives instead of the mandate.

Dahms and Swedzinski aren't sure how legislators will address health care through changes to the state's Minnesota Care program, but Dahms is cautious about how it might be expanded. If the state "overloads" the buy-in to the program, hospitals and clinics in rural areas will be treating more people based on either Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement rates. Those rates are well below those provided through private insurance. "We're going to really put the bite on rural clinics, hospitals," if that occurs, he said.

Rural areas remain far behind urban areas in access to broadband, the legislators heard. "We're still sitting out there with nothing,'' said Peg Heglund, administrator, Yellow Medicine County. She told the legislators that the state's broadband grant program does not fund projects that would expand service into communities with existing providers. Absent that pool of customers, it's difficult if not impossible to put together projects serving the sparsely populated areas of the county, she explained.

The two legislators cautioned against expecting too much from the projected budget surplus, recently estimated at $2 billion. Nearly $500 million will automatically be allocated to the rainy day fund, and Dahms said he believes inflation will eat up much of the rest. If there is any "spare change," he said he prefers that it go to transportation.

Tom Cherveny / TribuneDistrict 16A Representative Chris Swedzinski, left, and District 16 State Senator Gary Dahms, held a series of town hall meetings on Thursday prior to the upcoming legislative session. They are shown in Granite Falls.
Tom Cherveny / Tribune District 16A Representative Chris Swedzinski, left, and District 16 State Senator Gary Dahms, held a series of town hall meetings on Thursday prior to the upcoming legislative session. They are shown in Granite Falls.

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