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Higher education chair tours city, credits legislators

By Matthew Stolle

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

State Rep. Tom Rukavina, the colorful, outspoken chairman of the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, wants to let you in on a little secret.

All that talk about the Iron Range and its knack for bringing home the political bacon? Balderdash. It’s more myth than reality, this DFL legislator from the Iron Range says. The truth is, Rochester "has always made out well," whether it was during the Republican days of Sen. Nancy Brataas and Rep. Dave Bishop or the more recent ones of Democratic control.

"I think the fact that you have Mayo Clinic here is one of the reasons you always do well," Rukavina said, adding that legislators from the Rochester area "make us look like a bunch of pikers."

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Rukavina offered these expansive, perhaps slightly exaggerated remarks at the end of a tour that included stops at Mayo Clinic and Rochester Community and Technical College and ended with a reception for the new University of Minnesota-Rochester chancellor, Stephen Lehmkuhle.

Rukavina became chairman of the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee after the DFL took control of the House last year. As chairman, Rukavina plays an influential role in setting higher education funding priorities for the state.

During his tour of Rochester, Rukavina met with Mayo officials who sought to make the case for continued state support for its array of education programs, a state legislator said. Rukavina heard about the growing need to educate and place more physicians and nurses in the state’s rural areas. He also toured RCTC’s new, $14.2 million Health Sciences Center.

RCTC and Rochester Public Schools officials presented Rukavina with plans for a new, $8 million workforce center, which would bring under one roof the public schools’ Career and Technical Education Center, Boys and Girls Club, and Headstart programs.

RCTC hopes to secure $300,000 in design money in the upcoming legislative session. The center would be built on the northwest corner of the Heintz Center, but the request currently is ranked last on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system’s wish list.

Rukavina has an earthy sense of humor, and it was on display in Rochester. During the tour of RCTC’s health sciences center, he joked that he "wanted to do simulated surgery" on DFL Rep. Andy Welti, who was touring with him. Later, when former Rep. Dave Bishop saw a reporter interviewing Rukavina at the reception, Bishop teased, "you got the wrong tool. You should have a shovel."

Rukavina said Rochester remains in a politically enviable position. When Democrats began taking seats in the Rochester area, neither side could take it for granted.

"I think that has a lot to do with the governor wanting to seem like he’s really friendly to this community, and it certainly has a lot to do with the Democrats wanting to keep Rochester in their column, in the House and the Senate," Rukavina said.

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