MANKATO — House DFL leaders are spreading the word on a $325 million set of Greater Minnesota proposals they hope the Minnesota Legislature will tackle this year, including $100 million in funding to bring broadband networks to rural Minnesotans and funding for rural transportation, among other things.
At the same time, Republican lawmakers are calling for any plans to wait until after the state's budget forecast is released next month.
DFL legislators unveiled their plans to help outstate communities, titled the "Greater Minnesota for All" agenda, last week. Aside from $100 million in broadband funding, Democrats hope to secure funding for several issues they sought during the 2015 legislative session.
"We really lost an opportunity with a budget surplus the last session to do some great things for Greater Minnesota," said Rep. Paul Marquardt, DFL-Dilworth.
Among the proposals:
—$25 million for transportation costs, including money set aside for cities and towns with less than 5,000 residents.
—More tax credits for developers who wish to build workforce housing, also known as market-rate housing, in growing rural communities that are attracting more workers to food processing or manufacturing plants.
—Doubling funding toward the state's career and technical schools, as well as similar programs.
—Giving agricultural land tax breaks whenever school districts call for referendums — effectively halving the tax impact of referendums for ag landowners.
—Funding for safety improvements to railroad intersections around the state, especially for lines where oil is transported.
—Creating programs to help families who care for older residents affected by Alzheimer's or dementia.
DFL legislators also want to tackle Local Government Aid and County Program Aid once again. House DFL Leader Paul Thissen said Democrats will once again seek to increase LGA by $45.5 million to bring the program in line with 2002 funding levels.
In addition, DFL lawmakers hope to tweak CPA funding so rural counties can regain funding they may have lost over the years due to the program's funding formula.
"As your ag land goes up and your population goes down, it makes you look like a wealthy county," Marquart said.
Lawmakers hope to use money set aside from the state's estimated $1.9 billion surplus, about $1.2 billion of which isn't earmarked for other uses. Yet House GOP leaders are urging lawmakers to wait until after the state unveils its most recent budget forecast in February before making plans to use the surplus.
"There's general agreement that we have to wait," Assistant Majority Leader Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said.
While House DFLers are confident in their ability to use surplus funding, Senate DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk recently speculated inflation and increasing program costs could take up more of the projected surplus than previously estimated.
Kresha criticized the House DFL's plan for not including more funding for education and offering tax relief for middle-class families.
It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will come together on any of these issues, though both parties acknowledge a long-term plan on transportation and rural program funding are important priorities this session.
Some of these issues could go nowhere amid Capitol politics, a repeat of what happened in 2015. For example, while Democrats proposed to increase LGA, Republicans countered with a plan to reconfigure LGA funding to Minnesota's largest cities — Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester and Duluth — that would have cut an estimated $89 million in LGA funding, though Republicans say the formula change would keep the state's largest cities in line with the rest of Minnesota.
In addition, both sides support more broadband networks across the state, but Republicans may be hesitant to agree to the House DFL's one-time allotment of $100 million. Kresha, who has pursued broadband initiatives in the past, said the $100 million figure is more of a "political number" and the state would benefit from looking into growing private funding for high-speed data networks.
"The only way we're really going to get broadband is use all resources available," Kresha said.