At the Capitol, Minneapolis-St. Paul plays the villain (and pays the bills)

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David Joles, Star Tribune

Ray Dehn’s been hearing it his whole life.

As a kid, he would visit relatives in southern Minnesota, where farm-raised cousins would “give me shit about being a city kid.” About how lucky and spoiled he was. And about how the Twin Cities took money from the pockets of hard-working rural Minnesotans.

Today, state Rep. Dehn (DFL-Minneapolis) knows a lot more about state budgeting than he did back then. His cousins had been lied to.

Of the state’s 87 counties, more than half of Minnesota’s income tax revenue comes from just four: Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, and Washington. But it doesn’t seem to matter. “These people have been, quite frankly, ingrained to think that way from a young age,” Dehn says.

Take Fairmont (population 11,000), which next year will get about half its budget from the state. To a small-town mayor, that aid means a new police officer racing to a domestic abuse call at 1 a.m. It can be the difference between being a city and a very long cul de sac with a welcome sign.

Cities with robust tax bases do their own lifting. Minneapolis passed a $75 million increase in school spending last year, and Hennepin County’s about to sign off on a $125 million sales tax hike for transportation. If there’s opposition, it’s quiet and outnumbered.

But small towns also need sewers, nursing homes, and schools, though fewer residents are able (or willing) to pay their own way. So far this year, 16 school districts have voted on referendums; 12 voted them down.

When there’s a shortfall, the Twin Cities picks up the tab.

The same goes for state highway funds. As a “donor county,” Hennepin contributed $64 million more in 2014 than was spent on its own highways.

Yet you never hear a Minneapolis or St. Paul lawmaker campaigning on shutting off the tap, protecting their urban constituents from these greedy villagers. They don’t ask to be thanked. Lately, they’d settle for just not having their city slapped in the face so hard, and so often.

On almost every issue of local importance, outstate Republicans have moved to thwart city folks: light rail, bus transit, funding for the University of Minnesota, higher minimum wages, banning plastic bags. They’re protecting urban voters from themselves.

Sen. John Jasinski (R-Faribault) blames the rural versus metro divide on “different values” and — wait for it — rural concerns about funding big-city projects.

“I’ve got these retired people in my district, thinking they’re never going to use — and half of ’em have never seen — the light rail in the metro,” Jasinski says. “And yet outstate Minnesota funds 50 percent of the operating expenses.”

If only it was true. When a transit project doesn’t sell enough tickets to pay for itself, who do they suppose covers the bill? Jasinski’s Rice County, with its $83 million in 2015 income tax liabilities? Or Hennepin, with $3.1 billion?

Dehn offers begrudging admiration for Republicans who perpetuate this “myth, blaming urban Democrats for hardships in rural Minnesota.”

They’ve created dozens of little Alabamas throughout Minnesota, railing against those big-government liberals off in that faraway city, never mentioning how much they’re taking. One hand forms a fist they shake self-righteously at the sky; the other gladly reaches for the incoming checks.

At town hall meetings in 2015, rural Republicans proposed slashing state aid to Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, implying that they were hogging state funds.

Small-town mayors came to their defense. The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities called the cuts “completely arbitrary,” noting the cities give far more than they get. St. Paul’s per capita state aid ranked 429th. Minneapolis came in 461st, meaning more than 400 Minnesota towns were getting a better deal than we were.

And we still have to play the villain.

State aid represents a “wonderful partnership” between the state and its small towns, says Winona City Councilman Allyn Thurley. His city needs the support — $9.5 million of it, to be exact — to make ends meet. None of his constituents mentioned concern about plastic bags in Minneapolis.

“These issues that affect the metro area are of a concern to the metro area,” Thurley says. “They haven’t reached — I hate to use the term, but — the hinterland.”

In Luverne, Mayor Pat Baustian sees “partisan politics bullshit, pardon my language” in the us-versus-them posturing. The state has to work together, says Baustian, a chief master sergeant with the Air National Guard. He doesn’t go to Vikings games, but backed the new stadium because he could see how important it was to Twin Citians.

In 2015, Hennepin and Ramsey counties generated $2 billion in sales tax revenue. Rock County, where Baustian lives, paid $3.6 million.

“We understand in greater Minnesota that most of the economic opportunity happens in the metro,” says Baustian, whose city will get one-third of its budget from the state next year.

Still, misunderstanding goes both ways, he adds. Urbanites often ignore the tremendous contributions of outstate agriculture. He and Thurley encourage everyone in the metro to venture out to their corners of the state, and learn more about the beautiful country filled with good people.

We can only heal the rural-urban divide by coming to know them, and they us. And when they come to trust you, try doing something their legislators won’t. Tell them the truth.

(Correction: This story originally stated the city of Faribault is in Faribault County. It is in Rice County.)

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