Governor, senate need to show rural leadership

Published 5:08 pm Saturday, April 12, 2014

By Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren and Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm

Gov. Dayton and the state Senate cannot let the legislative session slip away without showing leadership on the issues that will improve the health of cities and foster economic growth in Greater Minnesota.

Time is quickly running out. With hot-button issues such as minimum wage, school bullying and funding for the new Senate office building out of the way, we urge the governor and Senate to turn their attention to the needs of Greater Minnesota.

The members of the House have already shown their commitment to Greater Minnesota by addressing our most pressing needs, broadband expansion and local government aid (LGA), in their omnibus budget bill. Now it is time for the Senate and Governor to step up and be leaders on these important issues.

A lack of adequate broadband coverage is the most critical economic development issue facing Minnesota’s rural communities. Currently, only one-third of Greater Minnesota has the same high-quality broadband coverage available to more than 90 percent of metro-area households (according to data provided by ConnectMN). This puts our communities at a tremendous disadvantage.

The House recognizes the broadband disparity must be addressed immediately, before business owners, students and residents in Greater Minnesota fall further behind their urban counterparts. As a result, it voted to include funding for a state broadband infrastructure fund in its budget this year.

Senate leadership has been frustratingly silent on broadband. By failing to act, the Senate is effectively agreeing that the disparity between Greater Minnesota and the metro area should continue.

While the governor recently acknowledged his willingness to support funding for broadband this session, Greater Minnesota needs him to take more than an ambiguous stance. He should assert his leadership by sending a strong message to the Legislature that it needs to pass $100 million in funding for broadband, the amount recommended by his own Broadband Task Force.

The impact of the broadband fund cannot be overstated. Few other state investments have a 10-to-1 return on investment, as the Strategic Networks Group has found. Moreover, SNG found that 23.4 percent of all new jobs are directly attributable to broadband. The positive economic impact that broadband expansion would have on Greater Minnesota — and the state as a whole — makes it an issue our state’s top leaders must make a priority.

We also urge the Senate and Governor to take an active role in strengthening the LGA program, which many communities throughout the state rely on to restrain property taxes, repair aging infrastructure and fund critical services like police and fire protection.

The House has committed to strengthening communities by voting to increase LGA by $41.2 million in the next biennium. While this still is far short of what cities need to get back to the LGA levels of more than a decade ago, it is significantly better than the Senate and governor’s proposals to add no new funding to the program.

By passing an LGA increase this year, the Senate and governor could show their commitment to keeping property taxes in check and funding core services that keep communities strong such as libraries, police, fire protection and street maintenance.

Greater Minnesota needs leaders who are willing to stick up for its unique needs and concerns. The legislative session is winding down, but there is still time for the Senate and Governor to show rural Minnesota that they are leaders in supporting the critical investments our communities need to remain competitive and strong.

 Ahlgren and Stiehm serve on the Board of Directors for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.