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Minnesota Chamber lists agenda: Government red tape, fiscal policy top business issues

Making it easier to obtain permits from the state and settling on a fiscal policy that makes government more efficient and cost less frame the Minnesota Chamber's agenda as the 2010 legislative session opens next week.

But making government smaller and more efficient usually means fewer services and public employees, which won't fly in regional centers such as Bemidji where government jobs dominate the economy, say some members of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce.

Minnesota Chamber officials spent the summer and fall surveying members on legislative issues, and the usual hold-the-line on taxes and workers compensation emerge as perennial concerns, says Jennifer Byers, Minnesota Chamber vice president.

Byers briefed members of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors on Wednesday morning at the Tourist Information Center.

But now looming at the top of concerns is a desire for streamlining Minnesota's environmental review and permitting process, she said. Legislation is sought that would require the state to issue permits within 150 days and to come up with a customized environmental assessment worksheet form.

"We continue to hear from companies and municipalities and other local governments -- anybody seeking an expansion or addition - that they can't get permits, they don't know where it is in the process, it takes too long," Byers said.

An example is Marvin Windows which tried for a plant expansion but was told by the state that it would take two years to get the proper permits, she said. In that time, the company opened a new plant in North Dakota.

The Minnesota Chamber is also calling for spending reform that focuses on:

- Changing the way the state sets budgets to avoid over committing resources and to prioritize spending.

- Delivering government services at a lower cost per unit while maintaining or improving service effectiveness.

- Reducing the overhead expenses of government, including recommendations on public employee benefits and compensation.

Also needed is a more stable source of tax revenues, Byers said, with legislators more and more looking at expanding the state's sales tax to clothing rather than raising income taxes.

At least one state prioritizes the services it can provide for the revenue it receives and spends no more, Byers said. "When they're out of money, they're out of money. It sounds pretty simplistic, and it's often what we do in the private sector and in our homes. We spend our money on the highest priorities."

But the Minnesota Chamber's policy may run at cross purposes of that of chambers of commerce in rural Minnesota communities and regional centers which rely on government, said Bill Sanford, Bemidji Chamber board member and general manager of Lakeland Public Television.

"In Bemidji and a lot of small communities in Minnesota, the economic engine is really different than it is in metro Minnesota," Sanford said. "It's not all big business. By your agenda, big business is what drives the Minnesota Chamber."

The Minnesota Chamber needs to be sensitive to the fact that in rural Minnesota "government drives a lot of our communities and is the economic engine," he said. In Bemidji, he cited Bemidji State University and North Country Health Services as major public sector and not-for-profit entities affected directly by the loss of state monies.

"That's a big chunk of what drives the retail market as well," Sanford said. "That's where the good jobs are."

Sanford passed on information that North Country Regional Hospital received $2 million less in state reimbursements for public assistance care last year, meaning the loss of 30 jobs.

When Byers said that wasn't because of the Chamber's effort, Sanford said the Chamber "pushed really hard on no-new-taxes, hold the line and make cuts. And they (the state) made cuts - and one of the things that was cut was that."

Sanford said it's hard when the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce uses Bemidji Day at the Capitol to lobby for event center funding, hospital reimbursements, school transportation funding changes and no cuts to Local Government Aid when the local chamber is asked by Minnesota Chamber to also lobby for no tax increases and for a smaller government.

"I don't think it's fair to hold the Chamber responsible for the governor's actions," Byers said, referring to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unallotment of $2.7 billion in spending.

She disagreed that the Minnesota Chamber only represents big business. "It's small businesses that come to meetings like this to set our agenda," she said, adding that 80 percent of Minnesota Chamber members have fewer than 100 employees, 70 percent have up to 50, and 45 percent are in greater Minnesota.

"I won't apologize for representing the private sector," Byers said. "We represent the private sector and we know the issues that the public sector faces; we know most governments are seeing a reduction in aids; that's happening in the Twin Cities too.

"But at the end of the day, we represent our members in the private sector," she added. "We don't represent the public sector. ... We're a private sector organization."

Bemidji Day at the Capitol this year is March 9.

Some other Minnesota Chamber legislative issues include:

- Repeal of the ban on additional nuclear power plants in Minnesota. Byers said the state faces a shortage of 400 megawatts of power in the near future.

- Provide alternative licensure for K-12 education that would provide opportunities for college graduates and experienced professionals to gain teacher accreditation.

- Advance a policy for long-term health care reform and ensure that 2008 state health care reform is adopted.

- Civil justice improvements that include immediate appeal of class certification and a stay of proceedings while the appeal is pending in class-action litigation.

- Move Minnesota's primary election to June.

- An economic development policy that favors all businesses, and not specific sectors or individual businesses.