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Area lawmakers discuss hopes for next legislative session during Chamber forum

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Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

With the legislative session over, now begins the fall campaign, Rep. Larry Howes said Thursday night.

And the Walker Republican hit the mark, as area legislators spent more time talking about what they want to do next year than what they did this year, during the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce's legislative session forum at Bemidji City Hall.

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All 201 legislators face re-election this fall.

Property tax reform and curbing health care costs topped everyone's list, but Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, adds energy and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, put immigration reform on her list.

"Energy may not be as immediate as health care or property taxes, but it will be if gas goes for $4 a gallon," Sailer said, hopeful that next year will see more activity in renewable and alternative fuels.

"The spirit of bipartisanship is what we need to bring into the next session," said Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, who opened his remarks by thanking all legislators at the table for their cooperation this session on a host of legislation affecting the region. That's much different than the 2005 session which ended after an eight-day partial state government shutdown because lawmakers couldn't agree on a budget.

"It's especially needed for property tax reform and health care, which is the elephant in the room," Moe said.

Health care will be the top issue next year, said Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, as several measures this year to lower insurance costs, and to pool small employers for health coverage, failed to pass.

He predicted debate next year will focus on providing universal health care to all Minnesotans, based on a single-payer plan. Part of the problem is that 28 percent of the health care bill is administrative costs.

Howes agreed, and said he got heat from the House Republican Caucus when he authored a bill for a constitutional amendment ballot question to guarantee all Minnesotans the right to affordable health care. The measure is carried in the Senate by Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis.

"HMOs is where a lot of the money is going, and we need to go back to a single-payer system," Howes said.

A lot of measures will be pushed off to next year simply because the past session's focus was on a bonding bill for public works projects, said Ruud. But still the session was more cooperative than in the past.

"Coming out of a $4.5 billion budget deficit, this time we actually had some money to spend, so it was much more cordial," she said.

Behind property taxes and health care, Ruud said unfinished business from this session is immigration reform. GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty offered several proposals, but they didn't gain legislative attention.

"Immigration will be a big issue, as we spent millions of dollars a year on illegal immigrants," Ruud said. She noted a new study showing that the state spent $35.5 million for health care to illegal immigrants.

"That's money that could build a regional events center," Ruud said, alluding to the construction cost estimated for Bemidji's proposed regional events center.

One of the biggest disappointments from the recent session was the lack of property tax reform, the lawmakers said, with the issue moving to the fore next year.

The Legislature had $202 million to work with tax reform, but Skoe said that since it was one-time money, serious long-term property reform couldn't be agreed upon. Instead, lawmakers decided to conform state taxes to federal taxes for married couples filing jointly and made changes to the alternative minimum tax to benefit middle-income families.

But the Legislature did approve a tax credit for farmers and ranchers who test for bovine tuberculosis, Skoe said, a measure which will help Beltrami and Clearwater County cattle operators affected by BT.

Rural homeowners and farmland owners will see the greatest property tax increases in the coming year, Skoe believes. "In 2007, we'll have to deal with it."

Property tax reform will have to involve state money to lower education levies for operations and building, changing Local Government Aid formulas to fully fund aid to cities, provide more state aid to counties for criminal justice expenses and fund the programs the state mandates to local governments, Skoe said.

But Howes said a distinction needs to be made between LGA and property tax reform. "LGA is not property tax relief -- it's local government aid, and it needs to be separated."

He agreed that direct property tax relief would come from the state funding local school district levies, and that local government doesn't pay for the programs mandated to them by the state and federal governments.

As an example, he cited out-of-home-placement costs for children, which is skyrocketing in Cass County. "The state should pay that, period," Howes said.

But Skoe said there is a connection between LGA and property taxes. "There is a connection between the services a city provides and the revenues it gets, and to say reducing (state) aid does not affect property taxes is just not so."

Agreeing somewhat with Howes, Moe said that while LGA is important to property-poor cities, "increasing LGA is no guarantee of reducing property taxes -- but it will help reduce property tax increases."

"With next year a budget year, we will have to seriously look at some permanent and reasonable tax relief," Ruud said. "We will do that."

In a legislative survey returned by about 1,000 constituents, property tax reform "by far" ranked as the top issue, Moe said. "Next year is a spending year, and we'd better respond."

Key will be having the state assume more K-12 spending than having local school districts try to pass operating referendums, he said. "Our schools deserve to be as well funded as any other school in Minnesota."

One of the big winners out the session was $3 million in bonding to plan and design a Bemidji regional events center.

"Bemidji must be very excited for all that happened," Ruud said, chiding that for his work in the House to keep the regional events center funding intact, the center should be the "Frank Moe Regional Events Center."

"In the last year, we heard from the voters that the tone needed to be changed," Moe said. "The end result is a great bonding bill."

But now a lot of work remains as Bemidji voters will be asked Nov. 7 in a referendum vote to extend the city's half-cent sales tax to pay for the regional events center once the tax expires for parks and trails improvements.

It was also one of the questions asked by the dozen or so people who attended the forum. "You're going to need to sell this as more than a hockey arena for Canadians on their way to the NHL," said Marilyn Heltzer.

The building's major tenant will be Bemidji State University's NCAA Division I hockey program, providing a hockey arena for 3,500 people and a second practice rink.

Ruud credited the steward group "Bemidji Leads!" for its efforts so far, and predicted it will loom large in selling the project to the public as well as it did to the Legislature.

"It is a regional events center," Ruud said, "and because of its location downtown it will give balance to the city. It will revitalize the downtown, and makes for an exciting project."

It will be vibrant for the city in allowing space for conventions, and even providing event space for nearby cities wanting to host events, such as Walker, she said. "It will sell itself, and it is something everybody can get excited about and get behind."

With the vote coming in November, "now is the opportunity for us as a community to ask hard questions," said Moe, adding that the $3 million will now help hire a consultant for "an honest assessment" of all the hard financial questions such as ongoing operating costs.

"We will need community input on the center itself," Moe said. "It is a hockey arena and a regional events center, but what else? We need input on how it fits into our trail system, science center, and access to it. We made a good first step."

Ruud called the bonding money "a giant step, but still a baby step." Added Howes: "It will be up to the people of Bemidji to make it work."

The lawmakers highlighted a host of other bonding projects and local projects, including funding for BSU and Northwest Technical College improvements, funds to complete the Paul Bunyan Trail in Bemidji, and authority to build a critical access hospital and long-term care facility at Ah-Gwah-Ching.

They also hailed environmental legislation to reduce mercury emissions and to begin cleaning up impaired waters, although Moe said the Legislature didn't go far enough.

Through the Clean Water Legacy Act, the state Pollution Control Agency was given some direction to begin to conform with federal law, and $15 million to begin cleanup.

"We need to go back next year," Moe said, "as one year is not a legacy."

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