ST. PAUL - Rural Minnesota businesses could hire more employees and afford to stay in the state with some extra state help, some lawmakers say.

Minnesota legislators have introduced plans to create an internship program, offer special business tax credits and pay for some employee training in greater Minnesota, all aimed at strengthening the rural economy.

Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said his proposed internship program would help young professionals realize there are career opportunities in rural Minnesota.

His program would provide business tax credits, helping companies pay college interns up to $4,000 each.

"We're trying to keep more young people in our communities and help employers as well," Eken said.

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The up to $11 million requested for the program in the next two years would cover about 2,400 internships, Eken said. The students must get academic credit for their work as well as being paid.

"It'll give them reasons to stay," said President Bruce Ahlgren of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

Another proposal is aimed at helping companies struggling to find the right applicants to fill jobs, said bill author Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.

"What we're hearing from businesses is they can't find qualified people," he said. "This is about creating a training program that will be nimble enough to meet the needs of the economy and employers."

He proposes reimbursing businesses for some employee training costs. Eligible companies must pay employees at least $13 an hour by the end of their first year and be located outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, proposed a broader plan she said would not only bring in new jobs, but also help businesses stay in greater Minnesota and retain jobs. It would replace the Job Opportunity Building Zone program.

Jensen would give rural Minnesota businesses some sales and property tax exemptions when they expand or come to the state and offer income tax credits based on pay and the number of employees, encouraging new hires.

Jensen said while there are other job and economic development programs in the state, she wants some specifically focused outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Eken proposes adding

$1 million to the pot for border cities to help businesses, on top of a program first established in 1984 giving Breckenridge, Dilworth, East Grand Forks, Moorhead and Ortonville extra funding from the state to use for tax reductions.

Eken said North Dakota has unique advantages, including an influx of money from the oil industry.

"Their challenges aren't necessarily new, but they are intensified," Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger said. "This is really about staying in the game and keeping these businesses on as level a playing field as possible."

The program does not include all western border cities. Eken said the determination depends on the proximity to the border and size of the competing city.

All the proposals are being considered for an overall tax plan.

Eken also proposes a program to set property tax rates for businesses along the North Dakota border, including rental housing, at the lowest effective tax rate in the bordering city. He said that will keep Minnesota's property tax rates competitive.

Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes said he does not think the border cities have a special need for such programs.

"The excuse that North Dakota has oil doesn't hold," he said. "What's good for the border cities, why isn't that good for the rest of the state?"

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