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2010 campaign for governor: Entenza discusses rural issues in Bemidji

Former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, right, held a roundtable discussion with local Democrats Tuesday morning at the Cabin Coffeehouse and Café. Participating in the meeting is Mike Simpkins of Bemidji and Leah Solo, Entenza's staff member. Entenza is seeking the DFL nomination for governor in 2010. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Seeking to firm up rural roots for his 2010 campaign for governor, Matt Entenza talked rural issues with a half dozen local Democrats Tuesday in Bemidji.

"Minnesota should be the next Silicone Valley for clean energy," said Entenza, the former Minnesota House minority leader from St. Paul. "There will be one or two states which will be leaders, and Minnesota should be one."

Entenza launched his campaign for governor last week, and has been on the road since. In Bemidji on Tuesday, he met privately with Beltrami County economic development officials and then visited with Beltrami County DFLers at the Cabin Coffeehouse.

One of his campaign themes is creating new jobs through clean energy, which he underscored Tuesday. He also talked about expanding broadband Internet to all of Minnesota and invest ing in higher education and K-12 education to prepare a workforce for new jobs.

He spent his legislative career as a House member from St. Paul, but Entenza is a native of Worthington and seeks to bring that rural Minnesota voice to the governor's office -- a voice, he said, that has been missing with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

He was critical of Pawlenty's Job Opportunity Building Zones program, which he said has only shifted jobs around rural Minnesota. The program offers tax breaks to companies which locate or expand in JOBZ sites.

A legislative auditor's study of JOBZ showed that 80 percent of the companies locating in JOBZ sites had planned to expand anyway, Entenza said.

"It creates a competition between new jobs and new jobs with no tax base," he said. "JOBZ jobs are jobs with no tax base."

Sally Fineday told Entenza that one of her issues is bringing high technology communications to rural Minnesota. Paul Bunyan Telephone is a rural leader with fiber optics high-speed Internet, but Fineday says she lives outside PBT's service area.

"People don't have an option in communications," she said.

Entenza said that 30 percent of Minnesota is still unserved by high-speed Internet, which is becoming an increasingly important tool for small-town businesses. "That means areas that can't grow economically."

Expanding broadband technology throughout Minnesota hasn't been a high priority for the Pawlenty administration, the Democrat said.

"The Internet is the new Main Street," Entenza said. "Unless you have Internet, your businesses aren't going to survive. People want to live in rural areas but also want to get their goods and services to the market. Then you need the Internet."

A small grant and loan program to bring Internet technology to small businesses isn't an easy investment from the state, he said. "Corporations seeking a $25 million loan have an easier time than a small business seeking a $25,000 loan."

The Pawlenty administration's policies for rural Minnesota "have been rhetoric over reality," Entenza said. "I don't think the governor has a plan for rural Minnesota."

Mike Simpkins asked Entenza about Pawlenty's "no new taxes" philosophy and his threats to veto any legislation that contains state tax increases.

"Taxes are important but so is a well-trained workforce," Entenza said. "You don't get talent by defunding schools and defunding universities."

Pawlenty, however, is proposing to use federal stimulus funds to hold University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities funding at current levels and seeks a slight increase in K-12 funding.

But Entenza did underscore that Pawlenty's budget would reduce state reimbursements to hospitals and nursing homes, which could put rural hospitals and nursing homes over the edge. "They are often the economic drivers of rural Minnesota."

Entenza said that "people expect budget cuts in bad times, but they also expect their nursing home to stay open."

Proposed cuts in Local Government Aid to cities could see cuts in public safety such as police and fire, he said. Seven cities in the Worthington area have recently voted to disband their police forces because of the aid cuts, he said.

"It is a business climate issue as businesses want to locate because of the attractiveness of a community and a talented workforce. We lose too many services, then we don't have a high quality of life."

Having such things as the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra celebrating its 70th year is a plus for a regional center, he said. "And BSU provides infrastructure to support that.

"But if you lose extras like music in elementary, middle or high schools, parents will want to move to somewhere else," Entenza added.

Entenza asked John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, about how the recession is affecting American Indian gaming.

"Casino profits are down anywhere from 8 to 10 to 12 percent," he said. "There have been some layoffs but most have made adjustments and budget cuts."

He added that casino gambling nationwide -- Indian and non-Indian -- is declining because of the recession.

"It's not a good time for expanding gaming," McCarthy said, adding that MIGA's biggest issue is legislation to expand gambling in Minnesota by allowing slot machines in bars.

With some 14,000 people employed in basically rural American Indian-run casinos, opening gaming to slots in bars could cut that employment by 40 percent, McCarthy said. It could mean the loss of up to 900 jobs in the Bemidji area alone.

"There are about 6,000 bars in Minnesota that would be eligible for slots, meaning some 30,000 slot machines," McCarthy said. "It would just shift things around."

Entenza an industry that could make the biggest impact on rural Minnesota is in alternative energy development -- wind, solar and biomass.

"Locally produced and locally owned energy could mean thousands of jobs and leave money in the communities," he said. Minnesota should be making the parts for wind turbines, not ship them in from Europe.

Wind farms in southwestern Minnesota are a $100 million a year economic impact, he said.

Entenza is part of a growing field of potential DFL challengers to Pawlenty, who has yet to indicate if he will seek a third term.