The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 23, 2013

Our View: Keep an eye out for rural interests

The Free Press

— Rural Minnesota lawmakers, and most of them Republicans, have expressed disappointment bordering on outrage regarding changes Democrats have made to House committees. At issue is the new Democratic House majority eliminating the agriculture finance committee while combining ag interests with a committee that also is assigned to cover environment and natural resources funding.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, a Republican from Mountain Lake, has said "rural Minnesota's voice is being stifled." He openly worried that Metro interests are about to swamp rural and ag interests that he holds vital to the state economy. He was predictably challenged by Democrats, among them Rep. Melissa Hortman, chairwoman of the  House Energy Policy Committee. "Metro members can be strong advocates for Minnesotans' farming economy. A lot of us care deeply about this industry," she chided.

Only time will tell whether agricultural issues are adequately addressed under the new realities. But there is reason for concern.

We don't agree with Hamilton's charge, stated recently in a commentary printed in the Worthington Daily Globe, that "most Minneapolis lawmakers spend their careers thinking the only important activities happen within the metro area." We like to think, and we want to believe, that all of Minnesota's elected officials can and will do what's right for the entire state. Even so, on the close calls lawmakers tend to vote with their constituencies first, and 22 out of 29 House committee chairs now represent non-rural areas.

Rivalries between Metro lawmakers and rural lawmakers go back generations. Rural lawmakers have complained about as long that some of the more critical political divides haven't been between Democrats and Republicans, but between city interests and rural interests. It is why so many rural legislators continue to complain that their roads and bridges don't get the attention they deserve.

Can a committee charged with handling environmental issues also do justice to agricultural issues? Of course it can. Will it? We must wait and see. Republicans are on record saying Rep. Jean Wagenius, the Minneapolis DFLer who chairs the committee in question, is an environmentalist who is out of touch with the needs of rural Minnesota. That may or may not be true, but it is true that environmentalism and agriculture are not always seen as natural allies in today's world.

The Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee bears close watching in the months ahead.