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Bemidji Day at the Capitol: Gov. Dayton greets delegation, hears concerns of local leaders

Jack Wallingford, general manager of Norbord, asks a question Tuesday morning at an environment and natural resources forum in the State Office Building. At left are Rita Albrecht and Denise Anderson. At right are Lori Paris, president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, and Marc Weichman, interim executive director of the Joint Economic Development Commission. The Bemidji delegation attended the forum with committee chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, and Reps. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, and John Pe...1 / 4
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook (seated) speaks to the Bemidji Day at the Capitol delegation while Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, looks on Tuesday afternoon. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson2 / 4
Gov. Mark Dayton dons a plaid vest while Bemidji School District Supt. James Hess looks on Tuesday afternoon in the Governor's Reception Room. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson3 / 4
Members of the Bemidji Day at the Capitol delegation pose with Gov. Mark Dayton Tuesday afternoon in the Governor's Reception Room. Dayton spent about 30 minutes with the group. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson4 / 4

ST. PAUL - Calling the Bemidji Day at the Capitol crowd "the most impeccably dressed delegation," Gov. Mark Dayton donned a Paul Bunyan plaid sweater here Tuesday as about 50 Bemidjians lobbied him and legislators on Bemidji issues.

Dayton, a former collegiate goalie, used Bemidji State University's route to the Frozen Four two years ago in NCAA Division I hockey. "The road to the Frozen Four the Beavers achieved ... provided challenges ahead, sort of like the legislative session -- it's what you do at the very end that matters.

"The road to the Frozen Four for both of them (men's and women's programs), I see great prospects," the Democrat said. "Similarly, I hope for the same for my legislative agenda as well. We'll find out as the time unfolds."

He greeted the Bemidji delegation in the Governor's Reception Room, meeting with the group for about 30 minutes, answering all questions and posing for photos with nearly everyone. He pledged continuing support for Local Government Aid to cities and pledged to increase K-12 education spending, although admitting it will be tough in this biennium budget with a $6.2 billion deficit to solve.

"From a great city and regional center that you are, the university and excellent public school system, the hospital and the physicians, it really is one of the gems of the entire state," Dayton said. "Tourism and everything else you draw in from other parts of Minnesota, as well as from other states as well as our neighbors to the north is really a combination of ingredients crucial to the economic vitality of the city and the region, and therefore a benefit to our entire state."

The delegation for the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event spent the day visiting lawmakers on Bemidji issues, giving each a chocolate Paul Bunyan and Babe. Something new this year, they also attended forums with environmental and tax leaders before meeting with the governor. The sixth Bemidji Day at the Capitol, this was the first one to have the governor speak to the delegation.

"This is always a good event and I know that you all are aware of that," Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said to the delegation as the day opened in the Great Hall. "Thank you all for your time and effort to make all this happen.

"We're going to make things happen this session; I'm very confident of that," said Persell, who now finds himself in the minority. "I do believe that for all the dire circumstances we find ourselves in, there's always good work that can be done and (we can) still work hard to protect our rural Minnesota areas."

Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, a freshman, told the delegation that he and Persell are working together on a number of issues.

"In these tough economic times, it's about the jobs," Carlson said. "We need to figure out what we can do to get jobs growing in Minnesota, and particularly in northern Minnesota."

Carlson was named Tuesday to the Iron Range Resource and Rehabilitation Board, which oversees a taconite tax used to fund economic development on the Iron Range. Many jobs have been lost there, he said, which could have been saved through a speeded-up permitting system.

"No one wants to rush ahead and do anything that harms the environment," Carlson said. "But what we ask for is the permitters to get us our permits in a timely fashion so we can get our minds going and get our people back to work."

A forum was held on environmental issues with House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, and panel members Persell and Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji.

Persell said he believes there is room on the Iron Range for nonferrous mining while protecting the environment. "We have to do it right, or we lose billions in tourism," he said.

McNamara agreed, saying there is common ground the committee must find. "There was a lot of good testimony on both sides of the issue."

Calling it a three-legged stool, Hancock said, "We want to protect the environmental concerns that are obvious to all of us. We also want good public usage of the lands. And the third leg is the economics of it. We need to address that issue a little more extensively in the sense that we've done a pretty good job of maintaining the environment to pass on to our kids and grandkids."

The delegation also met extensively with Carlson and then with Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who said there may be some optimism with the February budget forecast to the tune of several hundred million that would cut the deficit slightly.

The problem, he said, is $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money and a $1.4 billion school aid shift that is no longer available. The federal money is gone, and schools aren't getting their money back, Bakk said.

"If you take those away, spending growth in the next biennium is 6.6 percent," said the former Tax Committee chairman. "Revenue is growing at 5 percent for the next biennium. So our gap is really only about 1.5 percent of the state budget. We can figure that out."

He predicted that Republicans will have to give into some sort of revenue raising, as the budget deficit cannot be solved by cuts alone.

Many of the issues the delegation lobbied remain the same, such as seeking changes in the school transportation funding formula. Also lobbied were forestry issues, education, government redesign, protecting LGA, economic development and tourism and recreation.