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Paint the town plaid: Dozens trek down to St. Paul for 9th annual Bemidji Day at the Capitol

Zach Kayser | Bemidji Pioneer More than 80 people donned Paul Bunyan-esque red vests Wednesday for the ninth annual Bemidji Day at the Capitol, where Bemidji residents lobby legislators and government officials on local issues.

ST. PAUL -- About 80 Bemidjians arose before dawn Wednesday to trek down to the Capitol Building in St. Paul for the ninth annual Bemidji Day at the Capitol.

After the hours-long bus drive down to the Twin Cities, the group split into teams of four to meet with legislators to sway their votes toward Bemidji. There were also larger-scale meetings where the plaid-clad amateur lobbyists got to meet with their local delegation to the Legislature, as well as Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and high-level members of Gov. Mark Dayton's administration.

The potential increase to the state minimum wage arose as a topic several times during the various question-and-answer sessions with leaders. A Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce pamphlet distributed to legislators said the wage increase should not extend all the way to $9.50 an hour, and should not be indexed to inflation.

"Increasing the wage to $9.50 an hour is a radical increase, making Minnesota's minimum wage among the highest in the country, and higher than our neighboring states," the pamphlet said.

Bakk said a wage increase to $9.50 an hour for large businesses would pass this year, but indexing it to rise with inflation is a sticking point in the Senate.

"The Senate does not want to do that," he said of indexing. "Labor is working very hard to get us to put inflation in the bill (but) the votes are just not there in the Senate."

In response to a question on why legislators chose $9.50 an hour, Katie Clark Sieben, commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the number was based on analyses attempting to define what a living wage was for Minnesotans.

"We do know that wages have not kept with inflation," she said.

South shore grant money

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL- Grand Rapids, also spoke to the group. He sits on the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, and appeared optimistic Bemidji could get a grant from the council to help clean up wood fragment pollution on the south shore of Lake Bemidji. The city hopes to clear the pollution in order to build a new city park and possibly a swimming beach.

Saxhaug said Lessard-Sams staff has already visited Bemidji and thinks the south shore application has "great potential." He compared the south shore cleanup project to a similar project at St. Louis Bay near Duluth, which received millions of dollars in state funding.

"I see that both sides of the area that you're going to develop as a beach have a lot of the same potential," he said.