At Capitol, rural areas a main focus

by Logan Wroge

State lawmakers are placing a heavy emphasis on helping residents outside of the Twin Cities this year, and higher education policies are no exception.
Since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in November, the state Legislature has shown an increased focus on creating more opportunities for residents in rural Minnesota areas.
And due to the support, two University of Minnesota campuses located in outstate Minnesota could benefit with additional state funding.
The House passed an all-encompassing higher education measure Monday that would funnel more state dollars to the Morris and Crookston campuses. The proposal also offers tuition relief to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which has about 40 campuses outside of the metro area.
“This basically is shifting money away from the Twin Cities main campus, and Twin Cities-based students, toward the MnSCU system, and toward students in greater Minnesota,” Schultz said.
The House originally offered no additional funds for the University, but lawmakers amended the plan earlier this month to set aside about $3 million over the next two years to help educational programs at the Crookston campus and upgrade facilities at Morris.
“We have to do what we can to strengthen and help … all of rural Minnesota,” said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls.
The additional state dollars would help support Crookston’s agricultural education and health science programs. Some legislators say these funds are vital as many rural areas are facing shortages of health professionals and agricultural teachers. 
“Many of our schools are looking for instructors in agricultural education, and so it will fill a real need in rural Minnesota,” Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, said during a House meeting Monday.
Crookston’s chancellor, Fred Wood, said the additional funds would help the campus buy science equipment, raise pay for faculty members and enhance the quality of some educational programs.
“We’re really excited that the legislators are interested in these two programs,” Wood said.
For Morris, the House’s proposal also sets aside funding to renovate classrooms, upgrade technology and improve athletics and recreational facilities.
Besides higher education initiatives, other proposals that favor rural Minnesota have emerged this session. For example, lawmakers proposed expanding statewide broadband internet access to outstate communities, filling certain workforce shortages and placing more career counselors in areas across Minnesota.
David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, said House Republicans have made it clear since the session’s start that the state’s rural areas are a top priority.
And though it’s not a new strategy for the GOP, Schultz said legislators are more “explicit” about their motives this year.
Republican lawmakers have criticized legislators who are a part of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party in the past for not placing enough attention on rural communities, Schultz said. So as a response, they’ve made greater Minnesota a higher priority this session.
Legislators have until May 18 to finalize the proposals and funding amounts.