Can Governor Walz Deliver For Rural Minnesota?

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

With his swearing in as Minnesota’s new governor Monday, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s Tim Walz became the state’s first rural governor since Rudy Perpich left office in 1991. Perpich was from Hibbing. Walz grew up in a small town in Nebraska and eventually settled in Mankato, teaching high school history classes.

He served 12 years in the U.S. House representing southern Minnesota, a district much like western Minnesota with its strong ties to agriculture, small towns, struggles with declining population and declining school enrollment, and fading main streets.

Walz has promised that those rural roots will drive his goals as he serves as the leader of the state’s executive branch of government. However, he will have to deal with a divided state Capitol, building compromises to achieve his goals.

Minnesota has the only state legislature in the country that is split between Republicans and Democrats. The DFL has a solid majority in the state House with 75 seats to the Republican’s 59. In the Senate, the Republicans have, for the moment, a two seat majority with 34 seats to the Democrat’s 32. A special election is set for Feb. 5 to fill a Senate vacancy created when DFL Sen. Tony Lourey was appointed the new Human Services commissioner.

It is not surprising that as a teacher Walz plans to make education a key component of his gubernatorial agenda. “Foundational to our past, present, and future is the quality of our people. And that begins with education,” Walz said in his inaugural address Monday.

“Every student in Minnesota deserves the opportunity to learn in the best schools in the country with caring, qualified teachers. But as I travel around the state, I see how the quality of a student’s education is too often dependent on their race or zip code.”

Most rural Minnesotans live in the wrong zip codes. We get far less educational funding than students in the metropolitan areas of the state. That funding disparity means our children don’t have the same educational opportunities as those attending richer big city schools.

“Just a few weeks ago, I met a grandmother who lives with a deep anxiety,” Walz said. “Her fear is that her grandchild in Le Crescent won’t receive the same opportunities or have as bright of a future as her grandchild in Woodbury.”

“Minnesotans, let’s recognize some simple truths: Education is the great equalizer of society. Education unleashes untapped potential. Education conjures the magic of promising beginnings and the grace of second chances,” he said.

Now his challenge is going to be to fix the school funding formulas and find the revenue that will ensure our rural schools don’t continue to pare down educational offerings in the face of declining enrollment.

Walz also is a strong believer in affordable health care for all Minnesotans.

“We must also reaffirm our Minnesotan value that health care is a basic human right,” he said Monday. “What Minnesotans want from their health care is simple. They don’t want to get sick in the first place. But if they do, they want care at a price they can afford and at a location close to home.  For too many, this is not the case.

“As Minnesotans, we can figure out how to deliver health care more effectively, more affordably and with better results. We can, and must, ensure that every Minnesotan has access to quality care at a price they can afford,” Walz said.

Rural Minnesotans generally are poorer than their Twin Cities fellow citizens. Reducing health care insurance costs will keep more dollars in the consumer’s pocket to spend locally as well as strengthen our hospitals and medical clinics.

As he served in the U.S. House and as he campaigned for governor, Walz traveled through many small towns meeting with local leaders struggling to keep their communities alive. It is a challenge for small towns that are losing population, businesses on main street, and manufacturers that provide jobs for local residents.

In his travels, Walz said, “What became abundantly clear is that prosperity and opportunity for all people in all parts of our state stems from the well-being of their community. We must ensure communities across Minnesota aren’t just surviving, they are thriving.”

Just how he is going to do that we will be watching with interest. So far, we have seen little coming from St. Paul that shows a real focus on trying to restore the economic vibrancy of rural Minnesota.

While rural Republican senators and representatives should be looking forward to working with Walz on rural economic development, education funding, infrastructure projects, and health care funding, they just may have to toe the party line when it comes to spending bills – frustrating efforts to revitalize rural Minnesota.

“They (Democrats) are going to be looking for a lot of money to implement the programs they want. ... There’s only so much money in the banana stand,” Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, told the Star Tribune.

 “We clearly won’t need tax increases to fund Minnesotans’ priorities in 2019, and we should do more to make sure families can keep their hard-earned money,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is quoted. He was referring to the $1.5 billion budget surplus the state will have to work with as it shapes its $48 to $50 billion budget for the next two years.

It appears Walz is going to be a champion for rural Minnesota. What remains to be seen is if he will be an effective champion in working with a divided state government.

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