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Opportunities for Rural Minnesota

As Minnesota lawmakers continue through the 89th legislative session, there are several items up for discussion that could potentially benefit our rural communities. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), our work intersects with many of these issues, such as investments in early childhood and support for minority business owners. Others, such as broadband, transportation and local government aid, are important to us insofar as they lay the groundwork for the economic development goals we work toward.

Below are some issues I would encourage you to keep your eye on. As we work together for more vibrant rural communities, engaged and educated residents have always been foundational to carrying out the mission of the Foundation.

Pre-k funding: This has been a contentious topic, with Governor Dayton previously advocating for universal pre-k, whereas others want more funds allocated to child care scholarships. As I’ve suggested before, when it comes to early childhood, there’s no silver-bullet approach. What’s more important than arguing for an either/or approach is making sure that all families in Minnesota have access to high quality early childhood programs, especially our low-income children. SMIF has been working with several partners to implement our Quality Child Care Program across the state toward this end. Scholarships are a big part of the solution. There is also a shortage of providers that lawmakers are trying to address.

Racial disparities: Dayton has proposed $100 million to address achievement gaps between white Minnesotans and those of color, noting the gaps in areas like high school graduation rates and homeownership. At SMIF, we recently launched The Prosperity Initiative. This Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development-funded program works one-on-one with minority business owners to connect them with area resources, provide business coaching, and increase the likelihood for longer-term business success. We know that small businesses are the backbone of our economy, we have the opportunity – and the imperative – to support new immigrant, women and minority businesses in southern Minnesota. While it’s unclear at this point how Dayton’s $100 million will be implemented, it is important to start addressing these disparities in a real way in our state and The Prosperity Initiative is one way SMIF is addressing this issue.

Broadband funding: There is a proposal to increase funding to Minnesota’s Office of Broadband Development to lay more fiber networks across rural Minnesota. Historically, $10 million has been allocated in recent years ($20 million in 2014). This year’s proposal is $100 million. Our partner Blandin Foundation has been instrumental in moving this issue forward on behalf of Greater Minnesota, and we support their goal of ensuring all Minnesotan’s have access to convenient, affordable world-class broadband networks. Blandin’s CEO Kathleen Annette cited that nearly a quarter of Minnesota households don’t have sufficient Internet speeds for things like homework, online business operations, and more, and that Minnesota ranks 23rd in broadband access. “This stark urban-rural divide hurts all Minnesotans,” Annette said. I agree.

Local government aid: The governor’s budget proposes $46.5 million divided between Local Government Aid, which helps funds basic services like law enforcement, fire departments, and public works in our rural communities, and the County Program Aid. Our local governments depend on these funds.

Long-term transportation package: Legislators haven’t been able to come to an agreement for the past two years. In order for our smaller communities to be viable places for people to live while commuting to jobs elsewhere in the region and for the support of our agriculture and manufacturing sectors, we cannot continue to put off passing a transportation bill to maintain our infrastructure in rural Minnesota.

All of these issues affect our 20-county southern Minnesota region. So, I encourage you to be mindful this election year about voicing your concerns and opinions as legislators take action on these matters.

I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at timp@smifoundation.org or 507-455-3215.

Articles referenced:
Tim's previous op-ed on early childhood spending: http://www.postbulletin.com/opinion/tim-penny-early-learning-scholarships-are-part-of-a-larger/article_4b52d01d-fae6-5d95-8df6-4daf16182963.html

SMIF's Quality Child Care Program: http://smifoundation.org/ec_development/ec_programs/qccp.html

SMIF's Prosperity Initiative: http://smifoundation.org/econ_development/ed_programs/the-prosperity-initiative.html

Star Tribune article on broadband: http://www.startribune.com/seize-the-momentum-to-build-broadband-statewide/371742891/