Sens. push cash boost for rural Minnesota workforce

Published 10:47 am Thursday, February 19, 2015

ST. PAUL — Senate Democrats on Wednesday requested major new funding for broadband access, housing, career counseling services and public infrastructure in rural Minnesota, arguing the investment will keep young workers from leaving.

The spending pitch from rural senators amounts to nearly a quarter of the state’s projected $1 billion surplus, but they said the cost was worth it. They said the money will attract businesses to Greater Minnesota while training young residents in the skills employers want.

“What we’re trying to do is get back to where we’re giving kids some training as they come out of high school and they get into college so they’re qualified for the jobs that are out there,” said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.

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The rural lawmakers said students are often uninterested in or unaware of high-paying technical jobs available in their hometowns. Their pitch complements a DFL priority in the Senate to cover community college tuition for qualified high school graduates.

House Republicans accused Democrats in the last campaign of ignoring rural Minnesota, and managed to pick up several outstate seats in the November election. Legislators in both parties have focused on Greater Minnesota this session.

The spending pitched Wednesday totals about $232 million over two years and includes extra spending on job training programs. The rural Democratic senators said their bills have bipartisan support, but that price tag will compete with other priorities.

Gov. Mark Dayton wants to spend a hefty part of the projected surplus on education, children and families. House Republicans would like to pay off student loans for health workers in nursing homes.

They’ve also questioned whether the state should spend that surplus at all.

The rural senators will also have to convince metro-area lawmakers to spend big on greater Minnesota. Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, said encouraging young rural workers to stay in their hometowns will keep them from clogging the Twin Cities job market.

“Our pitch is that this is something that’s great for all of Minnesota,” Jensen said.