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Elements begin to emerge of Walz agenda for rural Minnesota

February 3, 2019
FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2019 file photo, new Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz gives his inaugural address in St. Paul, Minn. after he was sworn in, in St. Paul, Minn. Walz has provided some glimpses in recent days about his plans for the parts of Minnesota that lie outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area, an expanse of the state that often complains of getting shortchanged. (AP Photo/Jim Mone,File)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — New Gov. Tim Walz won’t release his first budget until Feb. 19 but some elements of his agenda for rural Minnesota are already starting to emerge.

Walz is the state’s first governor from greater Minnesota since Rudy Perpich, an Iron Ranger who left office in 1991. The Democratic former congressman and former high school teacher from Mankato has provided some glimpses recently about his plans for the parts of Minnesota that lie outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area, an expanse that often complains of getting shortchanged.

Walz promises his budget will be “transformational.” Here’s a look at what he’s been saying on some important issues for greater Minnesota:

EDUCATION

Walz told the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities last week that education, health care and “community prosperity” will be the three pillars of his budget.

That followed his comments to the Star Tribune that he wants the state to pick up a greater share of the costs of K-12 education. That would be a way to reverse the widening gap between schools in greater Minnesota and the metro area, and between well-off and poor districts, so that school boards don’t have to turn to property taxpayers so often to approve referendums for operating funds and capital improvements.

The state currently covers about 67 percent of the costs of public education. Rural districts typically have more trouble than metro districts passing referendums.

“I am not going to have children’s education be dependent on their race, or their socio-economic status, or their ZIP code because of the property tax base that puts them at a disadvantage and forces communities into continuous referendums just to try and hold pace with others,” Walz told the coalition.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT AID

Walz got strong applause from the local officials when he said he plans to restore local government aid to 2002 levels. He said he was looking at about a $30 million increase, which is close to the figure the coalition has been seeking.

The money would supplement the money that counties and cities collect from property taxes. Finding enough funding is a chronic struggle for many city and county governments in rural Minnesota, just as it is for school boards, especially where residents earn less or where much of the land is publicly owned.

RURAL BROADBAND

Walz promised the coalition a “moonshot type of approach” toward expanding the availability of high-speed internet and wireless communications. He said it’s crucial to business and education in rural Minnesota. He cited the craft distillery Far North Spirits in Hallock, just 25 miles from the Canadian border, a family-run company he visited last December, as a business that could better compete if it had better broadband.

“We don’t have time to wait until 2025,” Walz said. “Far North Spirits needs to be able to sell their products today. They need to be on the internet. Our kids need to get that world class education that the internet provides, whether they’re in Willmar or whether they’re in St. Paul.”

BUT THE LEGISLATURE GETS THE FINAL WORD

All of Walz’s spending proposals will need approval from the Legislature. His fellow Democrats took control of the House with a comfortable, mostly urban-suburban majority in November while Republicans maintained a slim, mostly rural majority in the Senate.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler told The Associated Press that Walz brings a new focus to rural issues as a governor from greater Minnesota.

“But a number of these things are costly and so we have to consider all of them in the context of the budget and what’s available,” Winkler said. “Certainly, affordable health care is important all over the state, world-class schools are important all over the state, and in addition to that, local needs like local government aid and broadband and so forth are important in particular parts of the state. So all of that deserves attention and will be in the mix.”

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Follow Steve Karnowski on Twitter: https://twitter.com/@skarnowski

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