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Persell: Bonding bill is high priority for Bemidji

BEMIDJI -- A public works bonding bill approved by the Minnesota House has what Bemidji wants, including starter funding for a state-operated nursing home, items that both the Minnesota Senate and governor's bills lack.

The fear, however, is that the divisive Legislature may not come to an agreement on a bonding bill, which would not only hurt Bemidji projects but will also affect the creation of thousands of construction jobs, Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said Thursday morning at a small gathering of press, county commissioners and the public.

Giving a briefing on progress in the Legislature, Persell said the Republican-led House has done little to promote jobs and in fact has turned down numerous amendments by Democrats to target jobs that will support small businesses, improve workforce redevelopment and invest in infrastructure.

But he did say that the House's public works bill includes $250,000 for planning and design funds for a 90-bed Northern Minnesota Veterans Home to be located in Bemidji, $3 million toward construction of a Lakeland Public Television media center and $3.3 million to Bemidji State University for a business building pre-design. The Lakeland media center item also is included in Gov. Mark Dayton's bill and a Republican-held Senate bill. The Veterans Home and BSU items are not in the governor's or the Senate's bills.

Dayton would spend $780 million while the Senate would expand $496 million in bonding.

"We know we have some issues in front of us and certainly trying to get a bonding bill finished up and all the jobs that surround that" is one of them, said Persell. "The biggest thing remaining is the bonding bill."

House Democrats are using their Easter/Passover recess to tell Minnesotans that "the clock is ticking" for a session that will end in a few weeks. It should be noted that Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, has been a supporter of Bemidji's items in the House bonding bill.

The state veterans home "is a very important initiative for our area," said Persell. "It's not the first time we have had that project in front of us down there. But we got hearings and advanced the bill."

While several communities vied for a state veterans home, Persell said that Bemidji's effort is the only one in the bonding bill. Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene, who heads the veterans home task force, said that Bemidji was the only proposal in the bonding bill, but other communities may be advancing in other bills.

"There were some efforts to advance other potential locations and they did not gain any traction; they did not advance," Persell said.

"I can safely say that the Department of Veterans Affairs looks favorably upon the northern Minnesota initiative, only to say this has to be balanced based on the protocols of the federal government and the funding stream that is in place and the money that might become available in the future," Vene said. "But we're well placed at this point in time with any other entities that may be positioning themselves for a veterans home."

"We worked pretty hard in advancing the issue and I'll stand shoulder to shoulder with the task force on that as we veterans often do," Persell added. "It moved forward on a bipartisan effort, as many things should, and arguably all veterans (issues) should move forward bipartisanly."

Also on veterans issues, Persell said he carried the governor's bill with numerous measures affecting veterans, some of which passed and some which didn't. One that did, he said, was a stipend for veterans honor guards, which he said would help local units such as his own at the Cass Lake American Legion.

"There is so much need around the state, we can do is try to work toward the middle on a bonding bill," said Persell. Asked if he would lobby Dayton to prevent his use of the red pen to line item veto local projects, Persell said, "You bet."

Persell also said he has had numerous emails and phone calls about a Minnesota Viking stadium issue. He noted that he has consistently voted against any expansion of gambling in Minnesota and will likely do so in the future. The latest stadium plans have such an expansion in mind to pay for construction costs.

"I'm not a big supporter of expanding gambling, period," he said. "If I do have to take a vote on it, I'll probably vote the way I did previously on expansion of gaming, and I voted no."

BRAD SWENSON retired as political editor after reporting for more than three decades at the Pioneer.