Finding the Voice of Rural Minnesota

Contact: Amanda Horner

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Amanda@hornerstrategies.com

Rural Minnesota Losing its Policy Voice, Says New Study

Agenda of New Legislature Underscores the Challenges to Rural Minnesota

ST. PETER, MINN (Jan. 3, 2013)—There is consensus that rural Minnesota has lost influence in policy decisions made in the public and private sectors. What is less clear is how the region regains its voice in the face of a declining and aging population, a smaller legislative delegation, and an economy in transition.

These findings are included in a study released today by the Center for Rural Policy and Development (CRPD). The research included in-depth interviews with policy and business leaders, an online survey of Minnesotans involved in rural issues, and a review of news media coverage. The research was conducted by Horner Strategies, LLC.

The Minnesota legislature, which will convene Tuesday (Jan. 8), will be dealing with issues that are critical to rural Minnesota’s future, according to Brad Finstad, executive director of CRPD.  “This year’s agenda could include major reforms in tax, health, and education policies, transportation funding, and a possible bonding bill,” said Finstad. “The decisions made in each of these areas are critical to making the most of rural Minnesota’s opportunities and addressing our challenges. Rural Minnesota can’t be on the sidelines when these decisions are made. If rural falls behind the rest of the state on measures of economic and cultural success, the whole state will suffer,” said Finstad.

Rural Minnesota already has higher rates of poverty – especially childhood poverty – than the state as a whole. In addition, rural Minnesota counties have an older population and a more fragile economic base than counties with metro areas or regional centers.

However, these differences are often ignored in policy discussions. The CRPD study found that statewide organizations with the greatest influence focus more and more of their attention on the Twin Cities and regional communities. Meanwhile, many of those participating in the research noted that fewer Minnesotans have a direct tie to rural communities and lifestyles. Urban residents don’t understand the rural economy “and the fact that many aspects of the rural economy are essential to making their urban lifestyles work,” said one research participant.

A key finding is that there are fewer leaders or organizations who are dominant and effective voices on behalf of broad rural Minnesota issues. Some traditional voices – including agriculture groups – have lost influence as natural resources and other Greater Minnesota industries are a smaller part of Minnesota’s economy.

Influence is also diminished as advocacy of rural Minnesota becomes more fragmented. “Rural communities often end up competing more aggressively with each other rather than joining forces to compete as a region,” said the report. “Local chambers of commerce are recognized as important voices in rural Minnesota. However, they are under increasing pressure to deliver for their own communities. The incentives important to a chamber of commerce—retaining members and a local financial base—place greater emphasis on bringing a handful of jobs to a small community than on joining forces to compete for a regional win.”

The research—which was conducted during fall 2012—echoes comments made last month by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Speaking to a farm forum, Vilsack said that rural issues and concerns are “becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that, and we better begin to reverse it.”

“Vilsack’s message is this study’s message,” said Finstad. “The eroding influence of rural Minnesota is making it more difficult to solve our area’s challenges and to take advantage of the region’s economic opportunities. “Rural Minnesota needs to come together to figure out how to have a relevant voice in all these conversations.”

CRPD is based in St. Peter. It promotes rural opportunity by creating research-based information and insights that guide public and private decision-makers on policies essential to the region’s long-term economic and cultural success.

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