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Entenza pushes higher ed in green economy

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Minnesota's young people are a renewable resource that needs a strong higher education system, says Matt Entenza.

"One of the core issues is that we need to work with our colleges and universities on future technologies rather than the old economy," Entenza, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2010, said Tuesday in an interview. "Green technology is one of the most important areas."

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Entenza was in Bemidji on Tuesday as part of an 11-campus tour of Minnesota to talk to students and faculty on higher education issues. He had lunch with Bemidji State students.

"We can make Minnesota the ultimate renewable energy state by investing in our most reliable energy source: our young people," he said.

He also met with Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Archie LaRose, which hosts the Leech Lake Tribal College.

American Indian reservations, with high employment, also need opportunities for higher education and training programs, he said.

"We talked about job retraining, and they're interested in doing something with a factory that produces solar panels," said Entenza, the former Minnesota House minority leader who made a short run at attorney general in 2006.

"There is a real opportunity for us here in green technology and in wind energy to make northwestern Minnesota a producer of wind turbines and solar panels," he said, "and in using our vocational schools to train people."

A lot of jobs can be created very quickly in manufacturing and installation, he said.

Entenza said he heard from BSU students that tuition continues to be high, with many students taking on $35,000 to $40,000 in debt.

"Bemidji State continues to be a top-flight university, partly because the costs are lower than the University of Minnesota, so they continue to attract a lot of students," he said.

"But we still have a problem because tuition has gone up so much over the last eight years," Entenza said. "There's no question students are very nervous about the fact this is a bad recession."

The state faces budget problems reaching out at least four years, yet the state must have a balanced budget.

"There are some folks that say we can cut our way to greatness, and I don't believe that's true," he said. "No company ever cuts its way to greatness. There are some folks that say we can just purely tax our way out of our problems, and I also don't believe in that case.

"I think you have to have a strategy to grow jobs to grow the economy," he added. "Long term, if all you do is cut spending or just raise taxes, that by itself doesn't grow the economy."

Among a scorecard full of Democrats seeking the open seat -- Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty isn't seeking a third term -- Entenza says he stands out because he has a strategy.

"There's a lot of people running for governor, but I think that I've got the clearest strategy to make sure we get the economy going," he said.

Pawlenty's economic tool, Job Opportunity Building Zones, attracts the old manufacturing economy, Entenza said, "low-wage jobs, companies that only care about low prices and typically are low cost in wages and no benefits.

"The new economy is about wind turbines, solar cells, geothermal heating and cooling, and we should be going in with the new and out with the old," he added.

Energy is state regulated, he said, "so we don't have to raise taxes to get incentives going to work that part of the economy. What we need to do is change the mix. We shouldn't be paying dictators in the Middle East for energy; we should be doing it ourselves and manufacturing it here."

While critics say there may only be short-term gains in new energy jobs, Entenza said the long-term gain is in diverting energy dollars from the Middle East to Minnesota's economy.

"It means that we're keeping money flowing here when we pay ourselves for energy," he said. "I don't see any reason to make people in Saudi Arabia any wealthier than they are. I'd like to see people here in Bemidji get wealthier."

The highest concentration of wind turbines is in southwest Minnesota, which generate tens of millions of dollars of revenue, he said. "Unfortunately, 90 percent of those turbines are owned by out-of-state companies. So that money all leaves the state."

He'd like to make it easier for locally owned wind, solar and geothermal resources.

"When people pay less for heating, they have more money in the pocket," Entenza said. "That means they're shopping on Main Street and that helps the local economy."

Other Democratic candidates, such as Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, also talk of creating jobs to grow the economy.

"What makes me different is that I have a very clear strategy," said Entenza of Minneapolis but a Worthington native. "You can't just talk about creating jobs, you have to have a way of doing it. We can grow the new energy economy without the need to raise all kinds of taxes to do it."

Minnesota can work with utility companies to use Minnesota resources rather than Montana coal, he said. The recent announcement that utilities won't build a new Big Stone II clean-coal plant is a signal of that, he added.

"Utility companies pay for things through the checks we write every month for heating bills and we need t tell them in the future that needs to come from land," Entenza said. "Because that is state regulated, we can do that."

As governor, he would direct the Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Commerce to move way from coal generation of power to Minnesota-generated renewable energy.

":We have to have a mix of power, we can't just rely on wind, but wind and solar complement themselves very well," he said. "Geothermal works very well here in northern Minnesota to provide baseline heating and cooling."

All of Minnesota's institutions of higher education can play a role in the new economy, adds Entenza, saying he would not propose closing any campus -- a topic that arises each budget session.

"Part of the strength of our state in a recession is to make it easy for people to get job training," he said. "I think it's the wrong strategy to be closing higher education campuses. It should be relatively easy for people to get retraining. In addition, when we close campuses, we're closing towns."

bswenson@bemidjipioneer.com

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