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Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, answers a question about public works bonding during a listening session Thursday night with House Commerce and Labor Commissioner Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, at the Bemidji Public Library. Pioneer Photo/ Monte Draper

Bonding bill needed to put people to work

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Swift passage of a public works bonding bill will put people to work and help foster economic recovery, says the chairman of a Minnesota House labor panel.

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"There's a good sense that if we can pass an early bonding bill, it really will put a lot of folks to work," House Commerce and Labor Chairman Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said Thursday night during a listening session at the Bemidji Public Library.

"This area, for example, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the entire state," he said. "It's right here in Beltrami. The unemployment rate right now is almost 40 percent in the skilled trades."

Atkins held a listening session with Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, on business issues, but only five people attended, with issues across the gamut open for discussion.

"We're trying to push it and get a bonding bill ready so we can get some jobs out there when the frost goes out," Persell said. "We're hoping that if we get started early, we'll be able to get something done in time. It will take some back and forth."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's capital budget of $685 million in general obligation bonds is somewhat lower than the $1 billion bill the DFL-led Legislature is expected to approve.

"We're literally going through them project by project," Atkins said.

"The focus is on shovel ready, stuff we can get going," said Persell. "We've had good input from both sides of the aisle. We've got a good opportunity to engage the governor."

John Carlson, a Bemidji insurance agency owner and the Republican candidate in 2008 in the race Persell won, wondered if the state didn't issue any bonds.

"A number of people have thrown out the idea that perhaps with the budget deficits and the problems that we have, maybe we just ought to go without and put the checkbook away, go without a bonding bill this time around," said Carlson.

"There's also a lot of folks who think the bonding bill is money that we have right now that can just be used to pay for operations," Atkins said, quickly adding that bonding can't be used to fund government operations.

"This is repair-your-roof money," he said. "The hope is if we can pass something ... we can get projects underway right away in the spring and put a bunch of folks back to work.:

Carlson said it would be a lot easier to get a bill signed by Pawlenty that was much closer to his target, and just concentrate "on the needs."

"My guess is that the bill is going to be full of things like fixing roofs, roads and bridges," Atkins said. "We've got a lot of bridges that need work."

"It will be interesting because one of the 'wants' is that the governor wants Vermilion State Park, and that's a big $20 million want," Persell said. "We believe going in there's room for talk and we're hoping the governor will negotiate a little bit and not just go on and say no."

Persell, on local bonding projects, said he testified Wednesday on Beltrami County's $4 million jail efficiency renovation project and on the Headwaters Science Center's $26 million new facility proposal.

Now heard both in the Senate and House, Persell said the science center won't get bonding construction money this year - it asked for $13 million - but instead will get $475,000 in planning and design funds to update its 2000 design plans.

"We backed off from the bigger because we just felt that it wasn't ready," Persell said. "Personally, as a science professional, I see that as a great impetus in our area to get kids in there. We talk math and science, my God, you go down to that place ... it's like Bill Nye the Science Guy on steroids."

Atkins was more curious about local impressions of several issues that may reach his committee.

In an effort to make health insurance easier to provide to small business employees, Atkins said the Legislature two years ago allowed for insurance companies to offer flexible mandates plans, plans which don't have to provide the currently 68 mandated coverages and instead choose from a menu.

"Nobody seems to know about it," Atkins said, including Carlson, causing the Democrat representative to accuse Minnesota's major insurance companies of foot-dragging.

"The reason nobody is buying it is because they aren't packaging up the product when they said they would," he said. "We'd love everybody to have a Cadillac health insurance plan, but the fact is some employers are having to choose whether they have any insurance at all."

The panel has already about Pawlenty's proposal to allow Minnesotans to purchase health insurance across state lines, something Carlson said won't work unless the federal government allows it. "We have so many mandates it would be hard for insurance companies - they don't want to come here to provide coverage."

Atkins said there "is no appetite" to raise taxes this session, with hopes that the state's next fiscal forecast in February will show improved revenues.

"There won't be some big cardboard check for $500 million from general tax dollars" to build a new Minnesota Vikings football stadium, Atkins said. "If those who benefit from it pay for it, maybe that sells."

Adding $10 to a game ticket or parking ticket or $3 to a Favre jersey may help, he said. "Those are ideas that may have more palatability."

Persell agreed, saying he would support user fees to pay for the stadium.

Atkins hopes to remove a ban on discussing the possibility of new nuclear power plants in Minnesota, but both he and Persell said they would oppose the construction of nuclear power plants unless they are satisfied with the disposal of spent fuel rods.

A House DFL news release called the session a House Commerce and Labor Committee meeting for area business owners and the public to voice their concerns.

But a House Republican Caucus spokesman said Thursday morning that there was no scheduled meetings of the committee, and Republican members of the panel had no knowledge of any meetings.

"It's Joe Atkins coming up and talking with some folks from Bemidji," he said in an interview, adding he had a similar listening session earlier in the day at Ramsey, Minn., which included House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

"We're not hiding it from anybody but it's not an official meeting," said Atkins.

Asked if the House DFL Caucus was paying for his travel, Atkins said, "No one is paying for my travels."

He was accompanied, however, by two committee staff who were on the clock.

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