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Bemidji Day at the Capitol: Keeping Bemidji on legislators’ minds

Bill Sanford, general manager of Lakeland Public Television, exits the bus before Bemidji Day at the Capitol Wednesday in St. Paul. John Hageman| Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Gov. Mark Dayton chats with visitors during Bemidji Day at the Capitol Wednesday. John Hageman|Bemidji Pioneer 2 / 2

BEMIDJI – State Capitol veterans know when it’s Bemidji Day – the plaid is hard to miss.

But how effective is the annual lobbying trip in making lawmakers aware of issues far away from their own districts and four hours from their St. Paul offices?

“Over the years, we keep Bemidji at the top of (legislators’ minds),” Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce President Lori Paris said. “I think it’s helped … to pave the road for when we have to request things of our state Legislature.”

Paris points to legislation extending the half-cent sales tax to Sanford Center costs and bonding money for Lakeland Public Television’s new facility as previous successes of Bemidji Day.

Tangible successes of this year’s trip are yet to be seen. Local leaders talked with lawmakers from across the state about a fire protection district in the Bemidji area, a proposed veterans home and Local Government Aid among other issues during the eighth annual trip Wednesday.

“Over the years, I think we’ve seen that it’s been beneficial that people down here at the Capitol know where Bemidji is and what they stand for and what they need,” Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, told the group of about 50 Bemidjians Wednesday. Saxhaug’s district absorbed Bemidji in the latest round of redistricting.

At the very least, it gives people here an opportunity to discuss issues with legislators from distant districts and different backgrounds.

DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein’s meeting with Beltrami County Administrator Kay Mack was a perfect example. The Minneapolis legislator, who chairs the transportation finance committee, heard from Mack on the county’s needs for highway improvements.

And as a sign that not all metro and rural public officials think differently, Mack brought up an idea for competitive grants for road improvements, something Hornstein has already been developing.

“This is great, we’re thinking alike here,” he said.

But as with many things at the Legislature, change takes time. Bemidji Area Schools superintendent Jim Hess was at the Capitol talking with lawmakers about the current transportation funding formula for school districts.

“The formula just doesn’t work for a district like Bemidji” which has a large area to cover, Hess said. “We transport such a high number of our kids.”

Hess said lawmakers were attentive Wednesday, but he noted the issue has been brought to them over the past six years. 

Still, many said it’s important to make the trip to educate legislators.

“It’s really critical that legislators get to listen to you and hear what your concerns are,” revenue commissioner Myron Frans told a group of plaid-vested Bemidjians. “Because it really makes a difference.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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