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Persell blasts lost health care monies

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, shown here talking politics earlier this summer at a fundraiser for Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, is preparing for his own re-election bid with a fundraiser Monday night in Bemidji. He is seeking a second term, but faces Mark Thorson in a DFL primary Aug. 10. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Since July 1, Minnesota taxpayers have lost $1 million a day as a result of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision not to enroll thousands of low-income residents into Medicaid, says state Rep. John Persell.

"North Country Health Services in Bemidji will lose more than $6 million over the next three years without this early MA option," says Persell, DFL-Bemidji. "We need this additional money to help keep health care costs down for every one of us, and to help our regional health care providers hire and keep the staff they need."

Losing $1 million a day "just doesn't make any sense," he said in a recent interview.

A provision in the recently passed federal health care bill gives Minnesota the opportunity to move individuals currently covered by state-funded General Assistance Medical Care and MinnesotaCare to Medicaid. Not only will their coverage improve, reimbursement rates to health care providers will increase, thousands of jobs will be protected, and Minnesota taxpayers will receive $1.4 billion from the federal government, Persell said.

The state is currently spending $1.2 billion over three years to provide health care for about 80,000 Minnesotans who earn less than $8,000 a year using state-only dollars. By enrolling them in Medicaid instead, an additional $188 million state investment will leverage a $1.4 billion federal match, he said.

"Family budgets are already stretched thin and too many people are unemployed; this is the right thing to do," Persell said.

Persell is ending his first term as a lawmaker, and faces Mark Thorson in the Aug. 10 DFL primary in his attempt at a second term.

The bigger sight is on Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann, who is the Republican-endorsed candidate for House 4A. As Lehmann has no legislative record, Persell hopes to tie him to Rep. Tom Emmer, the GOP-endorsed gubernatorial candidate who supported Pawlenty's refusal to early enroll Minnesota into expanded Medicaid.

"I'm not running against him (Emmer), but I have a Republican opponent who doesn't have too much of a history, so I'm tying him to the top of the ticket," Persell said. "There's no two ways about that. I hear Tom Emmer say we can get $1.5 billion out of the general fund budget just by cutting the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. You look at the numbers ... only 10 percent of that $1.5 billion comes from the general fund. It's just so misrepresented as people think there's all this money in the general fund that we can cut."

Minnesota faces a huge budget deficit approaching $6 billion for the next biennium.

"We need to keep doing the things where our tax dollars pay us back," Persell said. "It's hard to talk about things in our state without talking about things going on at the federal level -- the health care bill is certainly one, the financial regulation bill is another. Those things get derided by the Republicans, but if we don't make them happen, we are not going to get out of this situation we're in."

It will take a while to get out of the Great Recession, he said, which affects state taxes. "We don't want to go back to where we were, in a bubble that's built on little or no assets, people borrowing on second and third mortgages when there isn't anything there.

"People have to start living within their means," he adds. "We're going to try to make government live within our means. But we're still going to take care of our children and our elders. That's my theme - common sense for the common good."

Seventy-percent of the state general fund is for health and human services and education, he says.

Minnesota ranks 20th in the nation in teacher pay, averaging about $51,000, Persell adds. "It's ridiculous, some of the things that are being said" about continually cutting state spending.

"We did reduce the budget from the 2008-09 (budget) to the '10-11 almost 8 percent," Persell said. "I don't think that's being talked about enough. And it was tough. Many of us in the rural area did not like the LGA (Local Government Aid) cuts."

Persell said he worked on a number of issues during his term, especially in the environmental area. He is vice chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division.

He signed onto and helped push a bill to steer renewable development funds to individuals who install solar panels. The fund is fueled by utility storage fees for putting spent nuclear fuels in casks.

"It sets out rebates for people who purchase solar panels that are made in Minnesota," Persell said, adding that several ventures in House 4A are working to make the panels. "I'm looking to get renewable manufacturing wherever we can get it."

The idea is to give some incentive to manufacture the solar panels, he said. "You've got to have a market, and this sets up several million dollars for rebates."

Another bill he signed onto would lower the corporate tax rate by a half percent by doing away with the Jobs Opportunity Building Zones program.

"It didn't get anywhere, but we thought it would be a good idea," he said. "Why not give everybody that opportunity, as opposed to picking and choosing who goes in these JOBZ sites."

Persell says he, and others, are looking into a situation where the Department of Natural Resources seems to have a large overhead in administrating school trust fund lands, an obligation under the State Constitution where acreage in each township is reserved for a school trust fund. Revenues from resources taken from those lands are to go to area schools.

Persell had a bill to transfer school trust fund lands into an aquatic management area at Ada Lake in central Cass County. It neared the House floor, but then was pulled back to a finance committee where it died for the session.

"It was seemingly a simple bill," Persell said. Later, he found that there are some "serious issues" about the school trust fund.

Persell's bill still had timber revenues flowing to the school trust land, and that it would still be huntable. "It got held up because of the forestry issue."

Beltrami County has about 60,000 acres of school trust land, Cass County some 150,000 acres. The $600 million fund provides a $25 per pupil fund statewide.

"The fund lost about $100 million in the downturn," he said. "In the last biennium cycle, about $9 million was produced from school trust property; $200,000 went into the trust fund from forestry management. The rest of it was DNR overhead for managing those properties."

Persell said the Legislature "is making sure we get to the bottom of it, and square it away, but in 2009 the DNR's overhead for managing school trust fund property doubled in four years."

Persell said he is an advocate of the school trust fund, and would like it to pay $100 per pupil.

The situation developed late in the session, and Persell said he is anxious to pursue it. "We need to shed some more light on this."

'Persell is also a member of an early childhood caucus, and advocates for planning E-12 education rather than the traditional K-12.

"Let's let building early childhood, improving early childhood, education helps us to improve the lives of children in special needs situations," he said. "Ninety percent of brain development is before age 5. ... If we're expending taxpayer dollars, we need to make sure they're being spent wisely, and we can do better with E-12."

Persell starts the campaign season in earnest Monday, when a fundraiser will be held 5-7:30 p.m. at the Bemidji Eagles Club.