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Coleman says any stimulus plan needs to include rural America

BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. -- Economic stimulus must include rural America, says U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, who hopes to include provisions of his Rural Renaissance plan.

"In times of economic challenge, the idea of commitment to infrastructure to provoke rural vitality, I think, is more important than ever," Coleman, R-Minn., said in an interview over the weekend at the Minnesota Farm Bureau's annual convention.

Coleman wants to retool parts of his Rural Renaissance Act he introduced in 2005 with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., which called for $50 billion in investments in rural America, from water and sewer works to broadband Internet access.

But that's if he's returned to Washington, D.C., for a second term. He remains embroiled in a recount of the ballots cast Nov. 4 with Democrat challenger Al Franken, a margin that had Coleman ahead by 215 votes of 2.92 million cast as the recount started.

"I'm hopeful, with a little more seniority that I'll have, that I'll be able to put the puck in the net on that one," Coleman said of new rural investment.

"Those are the things you don't get a lot of points for," he said. "For work I did with rural water, I don't get a lot of points for. For the work I did with rural infrastructure, I don't get a lot of points for, but they're really critical."

Parts of his rural measures were included in the energy bill and the recent farm bill, he said.

"The next piece for me, because we came so close, is particularly in times of economic concern, is to move forward with what I did in Rural Renaissance, which I've gotten through various committees and got in various bills and haven't had that last push to get it done," he said.

A 2007 version of Coleman's bill called for $400 million in bonding to finance rural development projects. The original measure would use tax credit bonding to leverage federal dollars for rural development investments such as water or wastewater treatment projects, distance learning or telemedicine projects, rural electric systems, rural telephone systems, broadband technology projects and rural community facilities.

President-elect Barack Obama is talking of an economic stimulus package that would include infrastructure investments as part of his call to create 2.5 million jobs. U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has held hearings on a major plan to invest in highway and bridge construction and repair of projects that are ready to go.

"One of the early issues I championed was Rural Renaissance ... and we got it past a finance committee, got it passed in various bills, I think this time we'll get it done," Coleman said. "I hope in the next year or two that will be another piece that will provide some sort of security for rural communities who all are going to be impacted by this economic climate we're dealing with today."

By rebuilding infrastructure and providing greater opportunities for economic growth in rural areas, "I think we're going to be OK," he said.

If he returns to office, Coleman, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says Congress will need to monitor how the new Obama administration implements the five-year farm bill, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008.

"We need to start working on the next farm bill now," Coleman said, adding that increased efforts to promote renewable energy is a must.

"There was a time not too many months ago where folks were looking to pull the plug on a renewable fuel standard that I worked real hard to get," he said. The governor of Texas had asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to nix a renewable fuels standard.

"We need a long-term vision of where we're going with bio-energy," he said, even though gasoline now has dipped below $1.75 a gallon. "We need a long-term commitment to research and development to move to cellulostic ethanol, so that even folks in the wood products industry can be part of the renewable fuels revolution."

A standard is in the farm bill, "and now we have to live up to the commitment," Coleman said. The federal renewable fuel standard calls for 4 billion gallons from ethanol and biodiesel in 2006 to climb to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. Starting in 2013, a minimum of 250 million gallons a year must be from cellulosic-derived ethanol.

"We also have to look to the future in our trade agreements," Coleman said. "We need to make sure our folks, our negotiators, put on our team jersey rather than having the striped shirt of the referee.

"I believe in expanding markets," he added. "At a time when input costs have really been high, that was one of the opportunities. ... But trade has to be fair and we've got to enforce the rules."

One of the first things he did after winning election six years ago was to go after Mexico for not adhering to parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement, he said.

"I am a trade guy, I'm an expanding market guy, but I want to make sure rules are enforced," he said. "This is a race without a finish line -- we've got one farm bill done and I'm looking forward to the next one."

While Obama represents Illinois, a corn belt state, he comes from Chicago.

"One of my concerns is that so much of policy is being dictated by folks who either live along the coast or in cities with tall buildings," said Coleman, a New York native. "That's not always the best vision for policy.

"You've got to remember the Heartland, you've to remember the folks who are living in rural communities," Coleman said. "They're the ones who are producing our food. They're the ones who will be producing American fuel, and they're the ones who are producing American values that will sustain this country. And I understand that."

Coleman cited times he supported a permanent disaster fund in the farm bill against the Bush administration's wishes and also voted twice to override President George W. Bush vetoes of the farm bill.

"Those of us who represent ag communities are smaller in number, so we really need to band together," he said.

Ag issues aren't partisan issues, he said, hopeful that ag policy from the Senate Agriculture Committee will continue to be formed without party rhetoric. Coleman lauded the fact that U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., also a member of the Senate Ag Committee, also spoke to Minnesota Farm Bureau members.

Both Coleman and Klobuchar received Minnesota Farm Bureau "Friend of Farm Bureau" awards.

Recount prayers

It all depends on if Coleman has more votes than Franken when the recount and any court challenges clear.

To the Farm Bureau members, Coleman said that "my race is testament that every vote counts. My race is testament to my conservatism as I didn't raise a dime more than I needed to spend."

He said that "much of my strength was in your communities, your neighborhoods and your towns and your cities. And for that I'm grateful. ... I will continue to turn to you for friendship, advice, counsel and prayer."

In the interview, he said that "I've got a lot of people praying for me. I really believe that this is out of my hands now, and I feel comfortable with it. I have confidence in the canvassing board -- four judges and the secretary of state."

The closeness of the race doesn't signal an electorate moving to the middle, Coleman said. "I bring my conservative principles to the table but I've always been one to try to seek common ground. Assuming I am re-elected, I will continue to do that."

Coleman said he's not spending a lot of time agonizing over the recount. "I've done everything I can do. I campaigned to the last hour. ... and I needed to, to hopefully prevail. But I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it at this point in time.

"It will be what it will be. ... I believe a win. But whatever happens, I've got a great family, I represent a great state. My future's going to be OK. I'd like to keep serving the people of this state another six years, and I think that will happen."