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'Sea of plaid' ready to talk politics; Bemidji leaders prepared to discuss local issues with state

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The Bemidji contingent that will travel to St. Paul Wednesday for Bemidji Day the Capitol will, again, hear from Gov. Mark Dayton, who addressed participants for the first time last year.

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The 50-some Bemidjians who will take part in the seventh annual event will hear from Dayton and three state commissioners, in addition to the lobbying teams' scheduled meetings with legislators.

Brenda Cassellius, Department of Education commissioner; Mark Philips, Department of Employment and Economic Development commissioner; and Myron Frans, the Department of Revenue commissioner, all are scheduled for half-hour meetings with the Bemidji group.

A Bemidji Day at the Capitol was one of the 17 destiny drivers, or community goals, identified by "Bemidji Leads!" in 2005.

In 2006, after about a year of planning, about 80 area business and community members converged on St. Paul for the first Bemidji Day at the Capitol as participants advocated for local projects and discussed issues with state legislators.

Dressed in Bemidji's now- signature red-and-black plaid sweaters, the Bemidji contingent turned heads and got legislators talking.

"It's just a sea of plaid," said Lori Paris, the president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, who has planned the event each of its seven years. "They all know who we are now."

And that familiarity helps in planning the scheduled visit.

Trying to set up meetings with legislators that first year "was like pulling teeth," Paris said, as legislators typically want to meet only with their own constituents.

But now, assuming a legislator has the same aide as the years prior, "it gets easier and easier," Paris said.

"It seems like doors are opened for us," she said. "I think they like the plaid. They just get a charge out of it."

Bemidji has had a lot of success with legislators - events center planning money, events center construction money, higher education buildings, a sales-tax extension and more - but they, too, take some time and enthusiasm.

"I think it's really worthwhile to go," said Ron Johnson, a Bemidji city council and six-time participant.

Johnson also serves as the secretary for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. While it is not unusual for larger cities, such as Duluth and Rochester, to have their Capitol days, he said, Coalition member cities that are Bemidji's size and smaller are considering it because of their success.

"A phone call is one thing," he said about talking to legislators, "but when you're in their office with them, you have their attention more. I think it's a good thing for the city."

Additionally, the four-hour-each-way bus time provides opportunities for business and community members to get to know each other better and talk out some issues.

"The bus down and back is a good way to connect with people," he said. "The whole day is great."

Top issues

The Bemidji lobbyists will be campaigning for a variety of requests and issues.

On bonding, they will be advocating for money that would help fund a new Lakeland Public Television building. The request is for $3 million in state bonding with a $1 million local match.

There also are three bonding requests for Bemidji State University that would be used to fund campus improvements, such as renovations for Hagg-Sauer Hall and Sattgast Hall. Another request would fund the demolition of Maple Hall and a renovation of Memorial Hall for business and accounting.

For tax reform, requests include the revision of the local government aid formula that would meet the need of low tax-capacity communities, and to allow greater local control of revenue options.

For education, Bemidji will keep asking that the transportation funding formula to be revised so that reimbursement is based on actual transportation cost/miles instead of student enrollment. Lobbyists also will be asking that the state pay back the 40 to 60 percent revenue shift in state support to local school districts and stop balancing the state budget on the back of public school students.

On economic development, requests include a 25 to 50 percent increase in greater Minnesota angel investment credits, which provides incentives to investors or investment funds that put money into startup and emerging companies in greater Minnesota focused on high technology or new proprietary technology.

There are four forestry requests, including the full funding of Payment in Lieu of Taxes and increased funding for natural resource funding to the Department of Natural Resources county land management programs.

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