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Gay marriage, hospitality tax discussed at legislative town hall meeting in Bemidji

From left, DFLers Rep. John Persell, Sen. Tom Saxhaug, and Sen. Rod Skoe listen to Sarah Einerson during a town hall meeting Saturday at Bemidji City Hall. John Hageman | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – The debate over gay marriage taking place across the country was reflected in a legislative town hall meeting here Saturday afternoon.

Discussion of the issue intensified in Minnesota after the gay marriage amendment was defeated in November, and this week when a bill was introduced in the state Legislature to allow straight and same-sex couples to enter into civil unions, a proposal that was criticized by gay marriage proponents.

A bill that would legalize gay marriage has also been introduced this legislative session.

Several people spoke passionately in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry during the meeting at Bemidji City Hall, which was attended by DFL Sens. Rod Skoe of Clearbrook and Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids, as well as Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji.

Many of those who spoke in favor used personal stories to make their case, including Bemidji resident Jini Block. She told the legislators about a family member who is gay.

“It hurts her that the wedding she’s been planning since she was four is possibly not going to happen or it will be labeled as a civil union instead of a real wedding or a real marriage,” Block said.

Sarah Einerson related the discussion occurring today to the debate over interracial marriage in past decades.

“I think … what I saw growing up is that marriage is a personal matter,” Einerson said.

While audience members made their views clear, Skoe said he wasn’t sure how he was going to vote on the issue.

“I know people want us to commit one way or the other, but hopefully I’m able to make an informed and good decision for Minnesota when this happens,” Skoe said.

Persell issued a statement after the meeting, in which he argues that “defining marriage in government statute unnecessarily entangles government and religion.” He also states that he plans on supporting legislation to remove the word marriage from state law “and replace it with a non-religious term such as a civil union.”

“With this change in law, any couple may register their union with the state as a civil contract,” he wrote. “Furthermore, couples choosing religious recognition of their union remain free to do so, with the continued understanding that the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause protects the right of a religious institution to decide whether or not to marry any couple.”

While those who spoke at the meeting Saturday were overwhelmingly in support of gay marriage, the same couldn’t be said for pending legislation that would allow the city of Bemidji to tax restaurant and hotel purchases.

Persell and Saxhaug are authors of the bill in their respective legislative bodies. Testimony was heard in the Senate taxes committee, chaired by Skoe, Wednesday.

The bill would allow the city to impose up to a 1 percent tax on customers’ bills at restaurants and hotels in Bemidji. The money would be used to help fund the Sanford Center’s operations, maintenance and capital improvements costs.

Karl Jacobson, owner of Slim’s Bar and Grill, criticized the city for attempting to tax patrons for a “failed business model” at the Sanford Center.

“They’re not making the grade,” he said.

Rich Siegert, a local hotel developer who testified against the bill Wednesday, walked out of the room in frustration while Mayor Rita Albrecht spoke in favor of the tax Saturday.

Skoe said he expected more pushback on the tax from people outside of Bemidji, while Albrecht said she was surprised some local business owners have opposed the tax.

“Because this to us is a way to unburden to a certain extent the property taxpayers, which the commercial businesses in our community are,” Albrecht said. The city has budgeted $400,000 out of its general fund for the Sanford Center, a line item that could be replaced by hospitality tax revenues, city leaders argue.

A plethora of other issues were brought up during the two-hour meeting, including homelessness, transportation, higher education funding, minimum wage and Local Government Aid.

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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