ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
More than 80 percent of rural Minnesotans say the quality of life in their community has declined or stayed the same in recent years, and only 15 percent think it’s gotten better.
The top rural concern by far is the shortage of good jobs, while a lack of educational opportunities and health care are also significant and rising worries.
Despite it all, a plucky optimism-for which Lake Wobegon and Main Street Minnesota have long been famous-comes through: Close to 90 percent of our rural citizens say they are confident of their own ability to improve things in their community, and three-fourths say their community works effectively to address local issues.
So says the latest “Rural Pulse,” a highly regarded periodic survey sponsored by the Blandin Foundation, a philanthropic organization that puts a top priority on advancing community interests in rural Minnesota.
(The survey is a rich source of data; check it out at www.blandinfoundation.org, and click on “Public Policy Issues” and “Rural Pulse”.)
This enduring rural faith in community is encouraging. It’s also interesting that worries about taxes or government growth do not emerge as a top concern in the survey.
And I just have a hunch that citizens in the countryside have figured out that their economic interests are served by smart public investments, from the new blacktop and wider shoulders on country roads to first-rate higher education options at the nearest community or technical college.
In fact, plenty of recent headlines from Greater Minnesota news organizations tell the story of governments and tax dollars providing lifeblood for communities and businesses:
A new solar panel plant opens in Mountain Iron, with state and local government leverage.
Federal grants keep quality local radio thriving in Itasca County and help train nurses in Duluth for rural hospitals.
State and federal help provides the crucial money and regulatory change that enable new wind farms coming on line in Kandiyohi and Meeker counties.
Business leaders in St. Cloud push for public investments for airport improvements and to complete the North Star commuter rail link to their city.
Federal aid and an improved state emergency response come to the rescue after freakish late September rainstorms and flooding, earning praise from the Winona Daily News.
All of us in Minnesota face yet another monumental budget shortage, after a decade of tax cutting and government slashing. And let’s just accept up front that more budget cuts will happen and rural Minnesotans will once again be part of that sacrifice.
Further, we should try harder to redesign and consolidate rural local governments and school districts, reduce unnecessary duplication of services by counties and cities and townships, and make governments function more efficiently.
But a continuation of a cuts-only budgeting approach, which could mean slashing our state public investments by as much as 20 percent, makes even less sense for Greater Minnesota than it does for the Twin Cities.
Nor does it make sense to continue tax laws and policies that give additional special advantage to the very wealthiest Minnesotans, few of whom live in rural areas or outside the most affluent metropolitan neighborhoods.
An important fact is that person-for-person, Greater Minnesotans rely on public resources-assets provided by federal, state and local governments-significantly more than urban and suburban dwellers.
For instance, transfer payments for individuals from Social Security and other federal and state programs account for about 20 percent of total personal income for Minnesota’s rural regions, where the population in general is older and less affluent, compared to 10 percent for metro residents, according to our recent analysis at Growth & Justice.
And aid from state and federal government amounts to 40 percent of revenue for local governments in non-metro counties, compared to about 20 percent for metro counties.
These facts do not justify finger-pointing by government bashers or urban elites who would condescendingly suggest that rural folks are on welfare. It’s simply a fact of life that some regions and parts of our society rely more on public resources, and others, especially wealthier communities, benefit less immediately and directly from public expenditures.
An even larger truth is that Twin Citians owe a lot to Greater Minnesota and the people who are stewards of most of the landscape. Our brainpower and our character and our wealth have been drawn from the towns, farm fields, forests and lakeshores of one of the most beautiful and abundant states in our nation.
It therefore behooves our next governor take better care of this golden goose in the form of sustained and smarter investment. And there are plenty of knowledgeable rural leaders and experts with sound concepts about how to invest further and better.
Blandin Foundation President and CEO Jim Hoolihan says the survey results that show an “overwhelming concern for sustainable jobs suggests the need to establish a more meaningful link between education, innovation and employment opportunities.”
Many others say Minnesota can redouble efforts at “green” economic development, promote further research for more sustainable use of farm and forest products and wind energy, expand broadband access and get serious about renewable energy and cleaning up our threatened lakes and streams and groundwater.
And a top priority for the new governor has to be to dramatically improve higher education attainment, which in rural Minnesota still lags behind metro-area levels.
The land we belong to-and that belongs to all of us-is grand. And putting all sentimentality aside, taking better care of it and the people who live there makes business sense for the long run.
Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.