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Bemidji gears up for trip to Capitol

Two buses full of Bemidji lobbyists plan to head to St. Paul later this month, armed with a half dozen issues. The lobbyists, however, aren't paid suits who spend the session button-holing lawmakers, but Bemidji citizens clad in Paul Bunyan black...

Two buses full of Bemidji lobbyists plan to head to St. Paul later this month, armed with a half dozen issues.

The lobbyists, however, aren't paid suits who spend the session button-holing lawmakers, but Bemidji citizens clad in Paul Bunyan black-and-red sweaters on a two-day blitz.

"People who are going are definitely committed to the event and the mission," says Lori Paris, executive director of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, which is sponsoring the trip.

"Bemidji Day at the Capitol" successfully launched last year, as about 50 Bemidjians hit the Capitol halls to meet with legislators on Bemidji issues. The key push was for $3 million in capital bonding to allow planning and design of a regional events center.

This year, the event is Feb. 20 and so far about 70 people have signed up, and although the sign-up deadline has passed, Paris said late applications would be welcome. But the sooner the better as the day includes the signature red-and-black sweater, made by Bemidji Woolen Mills, which must be made.

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This time, a second day has been added but isn't part of the bus trip. Those on the bus leave Bemidji at 6 a.m. and return at 11 p.m. Those staying for Day 2 are asked to make their own way down Feb. 20. An 8 a.m. Feb. 21 legislative breakfast is slated at the Kelly Inn, a block from the Capitol, with special speakers, followed by more lobbying visits.

This time, teams of three will make visits to key legislative committee members on about seven issues affecting Bemidji, arranged in three categories. A large group of community leaders laid out about 20 possible issues late last year, and a Chamber panel culled them down.

Paris said the lobby teams will push:

Economic Development

E Legislative authority to extend Bemidji's half-cent city sales tax to pay for regional events center construction when the original tax blinks off after raising $9.8 million for parks and trails improvements in the city.

E An increase in funding for forest management on state Department of Natural Resources and county trust lands, seen as aiding the local timber industry.

E Increasing weight limits for trucks to 98,000 pounds on roads to be more competitive with Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario, also needed to help the timber industry.

Human Services

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E Funding to create more affordable housing.

E Adequately funding health care public assistance reimbursements, a major part of local nursing home and North Country Regional Hospital budgets.

Education

E In a short bonding bill, $2 million for Bemidji State University to acquire the former Bemidji High School property at 15th Street.

E Changes to the formula which funds K-12 transportation sparsity aid, a major funding issue with Bemidji School District whose daily bus miles are among the most in the state in a formula that doesn't recognize miles traveled.

A session is planned at 1 p.m. Feb. 16 in Bemidji City Hall for trip participants to go over the schedule and, more importantly, brief them on the issues to be lobbied, Paris said.

"An overview on all the issues will be given, but we don't expect everyone to become experts on them all," she said. "Bullet points will be prepared so all can speak to them (issues)."

Already 124 visits have been scheduled for lobby teams with lawmakers, Paris said, with 47 scheduled last year with four or five people making up a team.

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Targeted are all the members of panels in both the House and Senate that would consider the issues Bemidjians will bring to St. Paul -- capital investment, taxes, transportation finance, higher education budget, health and human services, early education-grade 12 budget, and environment and energy.

The group will again be headquartered in the State Capitol's Great Hall, where displays will be set up and where speakers can address the Bemidji group. Visitations are planned from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with speakers addressing the group from noon-1 p.m. in the Great Hall.

That group includes Sens. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, and Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Reps. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, and Larry Howes, R-Walker.

Also addressing the group is House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis.

The day ends with a group picture and then a 4:30 p.m. reception for lawmakers and Bemidjians at the Kelly Inn. The bus leaves at 6 or 6:30 p.m.

For those staying the night, the next day's legislative breakfast features as speakers Kelliher and House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, and Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, Paris said.

"We'll hear an update of issues before the Legislature, and we hope to hear about the progress on our issues," she said.

Paris also expects a dozen high school students to participate, as well as several BSU students. While lobbying the issues is important, she added that participants "also are excited to be a part of the process and see the Capitol."

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Earlier this week, postcards were mailed to the legislators on the key committees to invite them to the Bemidji reception, Paris said. The card depicts last year's group photo, all clad in the black-and-red sweaters.

Duluth and St. Louis County held a Capitol day earlier this week, and delegations from Rochester and St. Cloud have also hit the hallways, Paris said. "It may have been hard for legislators to see those people coming, but that's not true with Bemidji."

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