Statewide view: Outside the Twin Cities, voters should pay close attention to state budget plans

Consider all that nonmetro Minnesota's regional hubs have riding on the 2010 races for governor and Legislature: They're home to higher-education campuses and state agency regional offices. Their schools, hospitals, city and county governments an...

Consider all that nonmetro Minnesota's regional hubs have riding on the 2010 races for governor and Legislature:

They're home to higher-education campuses and state agency regional offices. Their schools, hospitals, city and county governments and nursing homes receive and redistribute state aid. Their infrastructure and amenities -- or lack thereof -- are the stuff of state bonding bills (and, lately, gubernatorial line-item vetoes).

So an election that will decide which of those things will be whacked to correct an out-of-whack state budget must be riveting to readers of the state's regional newspapers, right?

"I'd say reader mail is running about average," said Randy Krebs, opinion editor of the St. Cloud Times.

Krebs was one of five editors of nonmetro newspapers, including News Tribune Editorial Page Editor Chuck Frederick, who gathered this month in Minneapolis to talk shop and politics (and just a little Twins baseball).


The editors described hotly contested school board contests, with passions stoked by criticism of how local folks opted to cope with tight-money decisions made in St. Paul. They've heard from hospitals and health-care workers about the ill effects of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's insistence on a big cut in a state health-care program for the poor.

But how those concerns connect with the names on the ballot this fall isn't clearly obvious to voters preoccupied with real struggles of their own, the editors said.

Stands to reason. For the sake of regional equity, property tax relief and more -- including the chance to dodge political accountability -- state and federal policy crafters have created Rube Goldberg-like mechanisms for funding schools, local governments and health care.

As a result, the local pols at the bottom of the political food chain get stuck explaining why a favorite teacher is being laid off or a property tax bill is going up while home values are going down. They can attest that when voters don't understand what government is doing, they're more inclined to believe that government is up to no good.

"I don't know if people really understand how much school funding comes from the state," said Greg Sellnow of the Rochester Post Bulletin. (On average, it's 77 percent.)

In outstate college towns, the proposal by Republican candidate Tom Emmer to take a

$400 million slice out of higher-education funding (from a projected $2.9 billion total appropriation) hasn't much registered, the editors said. Higher enrollments at local campuses create a false impression that hometown colleges are secure.

In St. Cloud and Mankato, people who follow campus news closely know better. Even as enrollment rises, St. Cloud State University is looking at a


$14 million proposed operating budget cut that goes so far as to suggest eliminating the school's football program. Minnesota State University, Mankato is cutting 80 positions, half of them faculty. That's one out of nine faculty positions on campus.

"For us, that's like a small factory closing down," said Joe Spear, Mankato Free Press managing editor.

But those moves aren't making the waves they might have in a less-stressful or less-polarized time, the editors reported.

"In my community you have two very distinct camps," Krebs said. "There are those who understand the importance of state government, everything from (local government aid) to schools and so on. And there are those who think none of that is needed. They don't have a child in school, they don't see government involved in their jobs, and they don't get involved in their community a lot. ... People don't understand, if the state actually has to cut, how deep it's going to go."

The complex state-local governmental web that several generations of DFL politicians helped weave may be entangling them now, as they try to convince voters that the no-new-taxes budget solution Republicans favor isn't in their best interests.

The simplicity of Emmer's message resonated with a recent crowd in Crookston, said Mike Christopherson of the Crookston Daily Times. "He spent a whole hour just tearing the Pollution Control Agency to shreds. It's just, 'Government is terrible; vote for me.' "

But in this electoral environment, the editors said, DFLer Mark Dayton has an advantage, too -- familiarity. He's much better-known than either Emmer or the Independence Party's Tom Horner.

Minnesotans buffeted by a frightening economy and fast-changing world may not know what to think about the issues. But several generations of Minnesotans knew the name Dayton stood for business integrity and civic betterment. Mark Dayton has been working Minnesota campaign trails for nearly 30 years and has spent 10 of them in elective office. He's old shoe.


In Duluth, said Frederick, people also know and respect Dayton's running mate, state Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, widow of legendary local legislator Sam Solon and a longtime civic leader in her own right.

If the governor's race comes down to a popularity contest, said Krebs of St. Cloud, "I don't know a more popular name in this state than Dayton."

Popularity isn't a small factor in successful governance. It can grease a lot of gritty skids. But especially in places where the local economy is linked so closely to the services state government provides, popularity shouldn't be the only thing on voters' minds between now and Nov. 2.

Lori Sturdevant is an editorial writer and columnist for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. She is at .

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