Are rural lawmakers getting stifled?

MARSHALL – Rural lawmakers concerned about their voice and influence in the policy-making process in St. Paul were given more reason for concern this week – on the day the 88th Minnesota Legislature convened, no less.

House Speaker and Minneapolis resident Paul Thissen on Tuesday chose to eliminate the House Agriculture and Rural Development Finance Committee and combine it with an environment finance committee. A number of House members voted to place control of Ag Finance under the jurisdiction of Jeanne Poppe, a rural Minnesota Democrat from Austin, who chairs the House Agriculture Policy Committee, but the measure failed.

“We had an amendment to say we would like to get ag to be one entity instead of being split up, so ag policy and ag finance would be in one committee with one chair rather than it being half the responsibility for one chair and half for another,” said District 16A Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent. “Ag policy meets once a week – how much work can you get done in that time in a session?”

In the newly-organized Legislature, the Agriculture Finance Committee is put in with the Environment and Energy Committee and is chaired by a Minneapolis legislator, not a rural policymaker as local politicians openly desire.

“Our amendment would have placed the finance responsibilities of our ag programs with a Democrat committee chair from Austin, who grew up on a farm and knows the importance of our ag communities,” said District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne. “We also wanted ag policy and ag finance to be together to protect those funds for direct ag purposes.”

Schomacker said he is concerned the loss of influence that rural policy is experiencing will continue during the next two years. He said the issue is not a partisan one, as rural Democrats and rural Republicans have been known to work together on issues affecting rural areas of the state. Like Swedzinski, he feels meeting just once a week doesn’t do justice to a sector of the economy that more than held its own during the recession.

“With it only meeting once a week, it’s more likely to be forgotten about,” he said. “Most committees meet two or three times in a week; this downplay is not justified.”

Swedzinski, who is in his second term, was appointed Deputy Minority Whip for the next biennium and said that will give him more of a voice at the Capitol when it comes to rural issues. He calls agriculture a “shining light of our economy” and said he and his rural colleagues will continue to work hard to represent rural Minnesota in St. Paul. He noted that District 16B Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Nelson Township, is now the Deputy Minority Leader and combined, he said the two provide a good deal of leadership representing southwest Minnesota.

In his leadership position, Swedzinski will work with House colleagues on the main issues facing lawmakers this session, including balancing the budget, repaying Minnesota’s public schools after a funding shift and growing economic opportunity across the state. But being from rural Minnesota, he, along with all the other rural policymakers, wear two hats in that they need to stay on top of ag issues.

“I’m a farmer, Torkelson’s a farmer, and a vast majority of our district is ag-based,” Swedzinski said. “The decisions made in St. Paul make a big difference in our ag industry; there are a lot of jobs dedicated to agriculture, downtown businesses are reliant on agriculture. It at least deserves its own committee.”