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Bemidji visits Capitol; Community leaders lobby for local issues

ST. PAUL - Red and black descended upon the State Capitol Tuesday, with Bemidjians lobbying for a host of issues from Headwaters Science Center bonding to continuing state aid for dental services.

"The lobbying that you do, for most people, doesn't feel like what you would traditionally call lobbying - it feels like some friends from Up North are coming down to visit and say hi," Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, told about 60 people who came by bus for Bemidji Day at the Capitol.

"You let them (legislators) know how important some of the work we do down here is back home, and let them know about some of our special concerns," she said.

Sponsored by the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, Bemidji Day at the Capitol, now in its fifth year, has Bemidjians in teams of three or four people who try to visit every legislator or legislative aide to present Bemidji's concerns. And, this year, present a commemorative hockey puck of thanks for bonding support for the Bemidji Regional Event Center.

"The faces behind the black-and-red sweaters are always friendly, always welcoming and they always bring a smile to the faces of the legislators down here, and that really makes my job a lot easier," Olson said.

Olson and Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, were the only two lawmakers to address the group during their midday break. Both the House and Senate were in session parts of the day, and appointments were canceled or rescheduled.

"Thanks for coming, it's great to see you guys here," Howes said. "If you see the mayor of Bemidji, tell him I'm still trying to get rid of that event center. It looks like you won in the end."

Howes is a lead Republican on the public works conference committee, which the Legislature reconstituted Tuesday to hammer out final details. At stake for Bemidji is $475,000 in planning and design funds for a new Headwaters Science Center and $1.8 million for a Paul Bunyan Trail overpass bridge. Bemidji State University also has some repair funds slated.

The committee held a short meeting Tuesday night, but Howes said he believes the final bill will be "a teensy bit more" than $1 billion and predicted Gov. Tim Pawlenty will use his line-item veto pen to scalp the bill down to his liking.

"We'll get something we'll pass to the governor and I think it's something the governor will judiciously and carefully line-item specific areas where he just thinks it's too high or too much. He'll bring it down to a certain number."

Howes didn't know what the number is, but should know in a day or two. Bonding committee chairmen know that's what will happen, he said, "and they're still willing to pass a bill with that in mind."

Olson, however, cited an independent source that says Minnesota is the fourth-lowest in the nation in the bonding debt it carries, meaning a bonding bill of $1 billion should be approved. Pawlenty has indicated he will accept $725 million.

"Some of the push-back against our bonding bill is that it only creates temporary jobs," she said. "That surprises me, because all construction jobs are temporary jobs, but that doesn't mean they aren't very important jobs."

As seen with BREC construction or the months-long pipeline work, it's the indirect jobs that also see benefits, Olson said. "Restaurants and retail sales see benefit, and we will become a destination because of the BREC for the whole northern part of the state."

Bonding "not only stimulates jobs for construction projects, but really helps us, if we make wise investments in bonding, to become more of a destination as a state," Olson said. "Construction costs are low, if we take advantage of this. ... Every one of those projects matters."

Olson called the Science Center a potential destination draw for Bemidji.

"The vision of people who have been working on this Science Center and the determination that they have had is something that we could really capitalize in an even broader proposal ... than what we've been talking about up to this point."

The new Science Center, envisioned at $26 million and seeking $13 million in state bonding in 2012, will be the first government building on the Mississippi River, Olson said, with the HSC building owned by the city of Bemidji.

"That has significance nationally," she said. "There's an opportunity for this building to be not only an extracurricular resource for students, which is very important, but it could be the heart of learning for an educational approach that would allow actual research to be happening in conjunction with universities, in conjunction with the private sector, to be happening at the Science Center, and tied into the classroom online all over northern Minnesota, watching scientific work and research going on, which might help us capture some federal funds."

Connections can also be made with local tribes, which are anxious to have taught in the classroom indigenous sciences and medicine, she said.

"We need the governor behind us to be able to make these funds available to move to the next step, and that's not just a construction project, but also raise the emphasis and exposure to science in our northern Minnesota community," Olson said.

Other issues the group was presenting include:

E?Overly burdensome K-12 state mandates should be removed from school districts.

E??Reform school transportation funding to reflect actual cost of services provided.

- Support continued state funding of public television.

- Keep Local Government Aid to enable rural cities with low tax capacities to provide core services.

- Fully fund state forestry positions to meet annual objective of 1 million cords harvested annually to prevent further loss of jobs and facilities in the state.

- Protect rural hospitals by minimizing cuts under General Assistance Medical Care and improve reimbursement for Medical Assistance patients in long-term care facilities.

- Action to improve state funding to adult dental services, which have been cut.

Lori Paris, president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, says the annual forays to the Capitol are well worth it.

"No matter what the outcome, we have to be here every year to make our presence known," she said. "If you're not down here reminding the legislators that we're important, we count - it's a statewide effort, if you don't go down and remind them we're here, regardless of what we're asking for, (and give) at least a thank you for their support for what they're doing for the state of Minnesota."

Five communities now hold Capitol days, Paris said, with Bemidji leading the way for effectiveness. Mankato started one this year, and participants wore matching red blazers.

"We're at the top of the list," she said. "I think we're going a great thing, and we're putting Bemidji on the map and we're keeping it there."

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, did not address the group. Howes, in his opening remarks, noticed Persell's comments during a town hall meeting Friday in Bemidji as reported in the Bemidji Pioneer that he had looked into how to impeach Pawlenty.

"Folks should maybe talk to John Persell a tiny bit," Howes said. "You don't say you're going to impeach the governor in a very large newspaper when you have projects in the bonding bill. It's just not good political satire. ... It's not good to get the guy angry who can line-item stuff."