Column: What we heard from farmers

It is true that sometimes the goings on at the State Capitol seem pretty far removed from what's happening in our lives, at work and at home.This can be especially true when you live and work in rural Minnesota.The current political divisions, ev...

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It is true that sometimes the goings on at the State Capitol seem pretty far removed from what’s happening in our lives, at work and at home.This can be especially true when you live and work in rural Minnesota.The current political divisions, evident in the last election, suggest there’s a real gap between lawmakers and rural communities.The question is, what should we do about this?

The answer is listen.With this in mind, the Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU) organized listening sessions in 14 Greater Minnesota communities.Farmers, rural leaders and MFU President Gary Wertish and MFU staff met with me and leaders in our administration. And we talked. In my experience, Minnesotans don’t expect you to solve all their problems or agree with them on every issue, but they do expect the respect of being listened to. And most people are more interested in talking about practical solutions than partisan differences.

Our administration did listen, and here’s what we heard. Whether the issue is health care, the economy, roads and bridges, or broadband, farmers and others living in rural Minnesota want the same opportunities and freedom that people living in other parts of the state want: access to affordable health care and their choice of doctor; the opportunity to make a living; roads and bridges that more people, their products, and their children around safely and efficiently; and high-speed internet connections for their work, educations and health.

In Little Falls, I heard from a young farmer who hopes to take over his uncle’s farm someday. He isn’t sure, however, that he’ll be able to support his family, given the perfect storm of low commodity prices, high land values and skyrocketing health care costs. Another farmer told me he was a lifelong Republican, but that he plans to introduce a resolution at his local GOP caucus supporting a gas tax increase to pay for those roads and bridges his community needs. Another man told me he doesn’t dare go without health insurance, but he can’t see a way to afford the $43,000 a year to pay for it.

Thanks to the MFU, we heard from hundreds of straightforward, practical people like these Minnesotans, and they all told us that they expect lawmakers in St. Paul to “get it done.”


Getting it done on health care means the Legislature needs to work together to lower costs and expand options for people buying health insurance on the individual market. During these rural issue discussions, the MFU heard repeatedly that farmers want the option to buy into MinnesotaCare. Gov. Dayton’s MinnesotaCare buy-in option doesn’t cost taxpayers a cent after some modest start-up costs, because people would pay their own way. We estimate that Minnesotans would pay 13 percent less than the average current monthly premium. 

This practical solution simply gives everyone on the individual market the option to buy the same, lower cost, excellent health insurance that's already available to some working families. In contrast, the GOP-led Senate and House said no to the MinnesotaCare option and decided instead to send a $542 million check to insurance companies with no guarantee of lower insurance rates. We join Minnesota farmers in urging the Legislature to reconsider giving Minnesotans the option of the MinnesotaCare Buy-In.

Getting it done on transportation means finding the money necessary to make much needed improvements to the state’s road, bridges and transit systems. Farmers told us they are tired of politicians that pit rural and urban transportation needs against each other, and they also want to be sure Greater Minnesota gets its fair share. As one man said to me, “stuff costs money, and the only thing we know for sure is that if we delay, the need will get bigger and more expensive.”

Transportation is definitely a place where compromise and common sense are in order. I agree with the farmer in Little Falls who supports the gas tax. For the cost of a cup of coffee a week, if all of us who buy gas chip in we can make a big dent in the cost of improved roads and bridges. In contrast, the GOP-led House and Senate say no to raising new revenues for transportation, including the gas tax, and as a result their transportation bills are heavy on promises and short of funds. We join Minnesota farmers in urging the legislature to fund transportations needs.

Getting it done on broadband means providing farmers the high-speed internet they need to run modern tractors and combines; pay their bills; and order seed, fertilizer, and other inputs. And it means giving their kids access to the same educational opportunities available to city kids. Gov. Dayton and I have proposed $60 million to expand rural high-speed internet access. We firmly believe that all Minnesotans, everywhere in the state, deserve access to the opportunity infrastructure of the 21stt century. So far, House Republicans have proposed just $7 million for rural broadband. We hope they’ll hear Minnesota farmers’ call to level the playing field on internet access.  

Getting it done when it comes to the rural economy means many things, from helping young farmers get started and growing Minnesota’s agricultural workforce, to common-sense environmental policies and renewable energy incentives that grow farm incomes. We can all agree to take action to address Ag land property taxes. There is strong bipartisan support for the Ag property tax credit, which would cover 40 percent of the property taxes currently paid by Minnesota farmers to school district debt levies. We expect that it would save farmers about $34 million on their property tax bills. This is good for farmers and good for local schools, which are the heart of rural communities. We pledge to work with the Legislature to get this done.

All of us, no matter where we live, depend on a strong agricultural economy. We all ought to listen harder, and then find common ground on the basic, bread and butter issues that matter to rural families, and all families. Now is time for compromise in St. Paul that meets the needs of farmers and families across the state.

Smith is Minnesota's lieutenant governor.

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