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Persell reflects on being legislator

State Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, talks about his first six weeks in office during an interview last week in his State Office Building office. Pioneer Photo/Dennis Doeden

ST. PAUL -- A huge wall hanging blanket proclaims "Leech Lake Powwow" on Rep. John Persell's wall. There's not much else.

Persell, DFL-Bemidji, hasn't been there long, though. Give him time.

Although only in St. Paul six weeks after taking office in January, Persell already has the swing of it, and it isn't easy.

"If someone thought this was 40 hours a week, this is what it feels like," Persell listed off, "you get done with your work and you go home and you work another six-eight hours. And you get up in the morning and you do it again."

He attended a committee meeting the night before until 9 p.m. and started at 7 a.m. the next day, he said.

Persell is nestled on the fifth floor of the State Office Building, the building where most Minnesota House hearings are held. To go to the House floor, it's down to the basement and a block-long walk through a tunnel to the State Capitol.

On Wednesday, about 65 local people traveled to the State Capitol for Bemidji Day at the Capitol. A visit to Persell's office found him visiting with Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene.

It's unusual, but legislative leaders are taking advantage of Persell's long history and experience in environmental research and analysis, first for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and now for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

All his committee assignments have something to do with the environment.

Topping the list -- another rarity for a freshman -- is Persell's appointment as vice chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division. He's also on the Energy Finance and Policy Division, the Environment and Policy Oversight Committee, and the Game, Fish and Forestry Division.

When the committee assignments were first announced, "I expressed some disappointment that I was kept in a box," Persell said, "my natural resources/ environmental kind of a box."

But, he says, "I'm not so disappointed today."

And that's because he simply doesn't have to do a lot of homework to bone up on issues. "The science comes to me -- I don't have to read up on that. I'm coming to think the honorable speaker knew better than I on that. I'm comin' to appreciate that. It does make it a little easier for me."

He expects to chair the committee at some point, and "just to have the experience will be a little easier, just worrying about the gavel and not have to worry about what I'm trying to say about an issue."

The panel is chaired now by 12-term Minneapolis Democrat Rep. Jean Wagenius.

Persell says he's settling in, and enjoys what he sees so far.

"I'm happy about most everything that's going on," he said. "It's going good."

But framing the next two-year state budget won't be an easy task, with a March 3 budget forecast expected to refigure a $4.8 billion deficit to nearly $7 billion. "It won't be pretty," he said.

But he's even more amazed at the growing federal deficit, over which the state has no control, but under which the federal government can borrow money. The State Constitution requires a balanced budget for every two-year budget cycle.

Still, Persell wants Congress to limit the growing debt.

"I'm pretty intent on trying to make sure that ... our generation doesn't leave this to our kids and grandkids," he said. "Let's take care of it."

Having the busload of plaid-clad Bemidjians roaming the State Capitol last week will help his effort to be known more -- and the co0mmunity's issues -- with is colleagues.

"I've hard about you all coming for six-eight days," Persell said, adding that his colleagues had been asking. "It doesn't hurt. You never know what's going to come out of anything like this, but it absolutely doesn't hurt.

"I think the approach is right on -- telling the legislators here that we're grateful for the assistance that we've received, and that's the thing to do," he added.

The state faces what could be a $7 billion budget deficit in the next two-year budget cycle, and there is no talk of starting new programs. There isn't any money.

"Being gracious in a tough time is the northern Minnesota way," Persell said..

So far, he's chief authored three bills and signed onto 53 bills as co-author.

The first bill he authored is right in his area of expertise -- wild rice habitat management. The bill would have the state Department of Natural Resources enter into a 10-year cooperative management plan with the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa for the protection and enhancement of the natural wild rice ecosystem in Big Rice Lake on the Boise Forte Reservation.

A pilot project, the bill would call for the cooperative plan to establish a harvest season and regulations necessary to prevent damage to the wild rice stands.

Persell's second bill is a technical correction bill, changing current state language for certain water grants to counties to allow for a local match using a water implementation tax or other local source rather than just the tax levy.

Persell's third bill was the reason for Vene's visit. It calls for state bonds to be used to establish a veterans facility in Bemidji "that provides both veterans geriatric supervised living and soldiers and veterans mental health services."

The bill is a placeholder, with the amount of bonding left blank until such time a bonding bill is considered by the Legislature and the Bemidji provision approved.

"Talking to John about veterans affairs is like preaching to the choir," Vene said. "We're both veterans."

In a year of no funds, getting approval to construct a new veterans home won't be easy. But Vene says words of discouragement just stir him more. "To me, that rekindles my resolve to work all the harder so that we might make it happen, over time," he said.

It will be important to pin down a location of where the veterans home will be put, Vene said, in making a pitch to lawmakers. Ideally, it would be located on public land -- county land -- near North Country Regional Hospital or the new Veterans Administration Community Outpatient Satellite Clinic.

A pre-design plan being worked out by an architect firm and a task force subcommittee will bring uniqueness to services, Vene said.

"We want to make the veterans home be something other than a 1950 model where a veteran is relegated to his rocking chair, waiting for his medication twice a day," he said. "Indeed, we want to help veterans stay in their homes as long as possible."

The numbers of veterans are growing with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, with some 450,000 veterans now in Minnesota. He believes there are 30,000 in the area that would be served by a veterans home in Bemidji.

"It's good to have a natural advocate" in Persell, Vene said.

"I'm confident, as is Joe, that we'll make it happen," Persell said. "It may not be this year. Tough times, and everything, but we need to get the state set and be able to do something more substantial next year."