Other’s opinion: Legislature: Outstate residents benefit from 2021 session

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Free Press, Mankato

Outstate Minnesota was not forgotten in the final decisions of the Minnesota Legislature as investments will flow into child care, broadband, meat packing and some regulations will be eased for farmers.

The biggest win at the Legislature for outstate Minnesota is the $597 million funneled into child care and day cares as well as assistance for parents qualifying for child care assistance. Some $304 million of that money will go directly to helping day cares keep their doors open, and funding for the child care subsidy program for low income families will reduce waiting times, according to a report in MinnPost.

Another $22.5 million was aimed at upgrades to child care facilities, and the state expanded eligibility for parents to get child care subsidies through the Child Care Assistance Program.

The needs for affordable child care in outstate have been well documented.

A study by the nonprofit First Children’s Finance showed that Mankato had a 732 slot shortage of child care, St. Peter was short 255 slots and Waseca was short 318 slots. Smaller communities like Janesville and Le Center were shown to have 100 plus slot shortages.

And unlike metro areas, outstate was losing in-home providers that could not be replaced by larger day care centers, who need to be in metro areas to be profitable.

The new investments should be good news for parents who can’t find child care and providers who can’t pay enough to keep workers. About 70 percent of the funding is designed to go to employee wages and benefits.

Broadband efforts also found widespread bipartisan support as the Legislature approved some $70 million in broadband funding for projects over the next two years. While that is only moderately higher than the last two years and the needs are said to be near $200 million, the initial funding will likely be followed with years of higher funding as federal COVID funds come through the pipeline.

Significant areas of outstate Minnesota have no or very poor broadband coverage making running a business difficult and leaving some school kids going to McDonald’s to connect to Wi-Fi.

Against the objections of the MPCA, Republicans and some Democrats, reduced regulation for livestock operators applying manure to fields at certain times of the year where runoff is a risk. Proponents for reducing the regulations argued there rules were inflexible and may not have been effective at stopping pollution.

It was a rare bipartisan win for less regulation and outstate farmers will gain some flexibility.

The MPCA argued the rules were based on science, and we hope that we don’t go backwards on gains made in programs like buffer strips and other efforts to protect water quality that is still a huge problem in outstate Minnesota.

Small meatpacking plants will also see a small investment of about $1.5 million to help them expand or start new plants. That was in response to creating more diversity in meat packing options for farmers after many had to euthanize their herds during the pandemic when large meat packing plants closed and there were no alternatives.

This is a smart investment. Competition in meat packing is needed.

The Legislature also provided grants or subsidies for a timber product plant in Cohasset, a solar panel plant in Mountain Iron and a property tax refund for Enbridge.

Plans to re-open all driver exam stations, many in small towns, will also benefit outstate residents by reducing wait times for people to take their driving test.

And while the State Patrol in outstate will get body cameras, many smaller police departments in outstate will have to purchase them without funding from the state. A plan for $1 million in grants for police departments to buy body cams fell apart in final negotiations over the public safety bill because Democrats said Republicans would not agree with other requirements for use of body cams, according to the MinnPost report.

Body cams have become critical to good police work and community trust. It’s unfortunate both sides didn’t see the value in that.

Overall, this Legislative session appears to be one of the best in recent history for investments in outstate Minnesota. Both Republicans and Democrats deserve credit.