Bemidjians share concerns with lawmakers at State Capitol

ST. PAUL -- Armed with a half-dozen issues important to the community, about 90 Bemidjians made their presence known here Tuesday as they met with scores of lawmakers, traipsing through State Capitol halls clad in red-and-black plaid sweaters.

ST. PAUL -- Armed with a half-dozen issues important to the community, about 90 Bemidjians made their presence known here Tuesday as they met with scores of lawmakers, traipsing through State Capitol halls clad in red-and-black plaid sweaters.

"I know it takes time out of your life, away from your businesses to come down here, but it's very important," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, told the group in noontime speeches. "There's nothing like a personal visit with a legislator -- face to face -- to really connect these issues."

Kelliher wore her own Bemidji Capitol plaid skirt in joining local legislators to encourage the citizen lobbyists to fan out in meetings with legislators. "Really back these guys up, so they can do their job effectively," she said, pointing to Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Reps. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, and Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids.

The Bemidji group was making its second visit to the Capitol in two years. Kelliher said to "continue to build on that tradition."

Last year, Bemidjians came with a list of issues but predominantly lobbied for $3 million in capital bonding for design and planning of a regional events center, which was part of the 2006 bonding bill. This year, hopes are high on having the Legislature extend the city of Bemidji's half-cent sales tax to pay for 60 percent of construction of the events center, something city voters narrowly approved last November, and asking the 2008 Legislature for 40 percent of construction costs in bonding.


"I know that the regional events center is very important," Kelliher said. "We will have a moderate, small bonding bill this year, but in the next two years this is absolutely something we have to get done."

The House speaker also noted the delegation's other issues, saying she originally comes from rural Minnesota knows urban and rural Minnesota share concerns over health care, especially reimbursement to hospitals and nursing homes. "I know you have a lot of uncompensated care, and that really hurts your ability to provide that care, as your property taxpayers pay more and more."

The House DFL plans to begin work this session on health care and property tax reform, but she said the most action will be in 2008. "I really believe that 2008 will be the year of health care at the Legislature."

She also spoke about forestry, another Bemidji issue. "We will talk about the need for some real investment in forestry. ... There is a lot of turmoil right now and we want to save that and recover from that."

Kelliher said that "the most important thing is you're here meeting with legislators, bringing the message of Bemidji to the Capital -- and you look so darn good, too."

The delegation split into about 30 teams of three, spending the morning and afternoon on scheduled appointments with legislators in their Capirol or State Office Building offices.

Aside from the push to approve the sales tax extension for the regional events center, the delegation also lobbied for:

E Forestry aids such as adding Department of Natural Resources staff in the field to prepare more wood for harvest and allowing larger timber trucks with more axles on roads. With counties and the state owning 40 percent of the forest land base, 32 forestry positions are unfilled in the DNR. And, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario, Canada, all have 100,000 pounds or more truck weight limits, while Minnesota is one of the most restrictive at 80,000 pounds on five axles.


E Supporting legislation pending that would fund a number of housing programs statewide, which would help Bemidji, as Beltrami County projects a need of 700 new housing units by 2010.

E Improving state reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes under Medicaid, and seeking uniform billing among health care providers. North Country Health Services, with the highest relative Medical Assistance patient load outside the Twin Cities, has had $12 million in unreimbursed costs the past five years.

E Allowing the Red Lake Band of Chippewa to participate in a state pilot program involving administration of the American Indian Child Welfare Act through the state, rather than counties. With the White Earth and Leech Lake bands already part of the project, adding Red Lake would help promote a nation-to-nation relationship in the provision of human services such as out-of-home child placement that is culturally appropriate.

E Seeking $2 million in a special bonding bill for Bemidji State University to acquire the old Bemidji High School property on 15th Street.

E A new formula for K-12 transportation funding, as the current transportation sparsity formula doesn't account for the large size of the Bemidji School District, which supplements its transportation budget with $300,000 a year in general funds.

Lobbying for the positions was a diverse group of Bemidjians, from business owners to local government officials to BSU and high school students.

For some, it was a time to renew acquaintances, as former long-time BSU hockey coach R.H. "Bob" Peters talked hockey with Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, a former Denver University WCHA hockey player. Paul Bunyan Telephone Chief Operating Officer Gary Johnson accompanied Peters on lawmaker visits.

As St. Cloud and Duluth this year have requests for arena funding that are expected to pass, Tomassoni said there should be no problem getting the events center tax extension this year or bonding next year. "That we're doing all these convention centers is a pretty good indication. We'll give it a good hearing."


Later in the day, Rep. Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, went one step further -- he wants the eventual events center hockey portion, as BSU's NCAA Division I hockey program would be the center anchor, named the "R.H. 'Bob' Peters Ice Sheet."

"This is an idea I had 2½ years ago when I strongly supported the events center," said Sviggum, the former House speaker when the GOP was in control. Sviggum and Gov. Tim Pawlenty pledged support for the $3 million in bonding for the center a year ago in a trip to Bemidji.

"I feel very, very strongly that Coach Peters is not only a wonderful man but he's committed much of his life to Bemidji and Bemidji State," Sviggum said. "I can't think of a more decent and reasonable honor, and deserved, than to name that sheet of ice the Coach Peters sheet of ice."

While the question of local option sales taxes being approved this year has surfaced, Sviggum said the minority should not have a desire to block the extension of a current tax which is voter approved.

He also said that Republicans want to support a rural agenda, and said Bemidji's issues are rural. Plus, he is the author of a bill to boost nursing home reimbursements.

"I hope, as speaker for eight years, that the Bemidji community saw me as a strong advocate for Bemidji,"

Sviggum said. "I hope people thought they were fairly treated in relative terms to the rest of the state."

While no longer the speaker and not able to set the agenda, Sviggum said that "I trust that Bemidji will still be high on people's lists as it has been in the past. When it comes to rural Minnesota, I've continued to be an advocate."


New Sen. Olson, who chaired her first committee meeting Tuesday with the Senate Judiciary Committee, also helped the Bemidji delegation find their way in the Capitol. She and Moe welcomed people to rest in their offices.

"It is really important to put faces to issues that are important for Bemidji," the DFLer said in an interview. "I announced on the Senate floor (Monday) that the Bemidji group would be coming and invited them to meet, and they all had a little chuckle, remembering the red and black sweaters."

Legislators need to hear stories from real people in rural Minnesota, Olson said, especially on health care which is her key issue, and on education. Other issues also need input, such as the proposed constitutional amendment to dedicate a portion of the state sales tax to outdoors, clean water and the arts. "Bemidji people certainly support outdoors funding, but they also believe the arts are important. Both may not be in the sales tax, but we can't fund one and not the other."

Perhaps the arts should be funding from general funds, but adequately, she said.

Olson knows the events center is a community priority, and making that known to all legislators can only help. "It is a good feeling to see these people here."

While not on the community lobby list, both Olson and Sailer added the need for a dental care clinic for low-income families, with Olson saying low-income Bemidji families now drive two hours for care covered by the state.

Bemidji's issues are also issues that can affect other communities, Olson said, allowing for legislators to take "the big picture" in framing state policy based on Bemidji's needs for school transportation funding, health care reimbursement rates and forestry provisions.

Lori Paris, Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce executive director who organized Bemidji Day at the Capitol, called it a success. A special treat this year was a "Paul and Babe" chocolate bar given to each legislator visited.


"There is no barometer yet as to how effective this trip will be," Paris said, "but everyone has been gracious and willing to visit. Everything went smoothly, and it was neat how people kicked in gear when we had to adjust schedules. The chocolate was a hit -- and the sweaters are visible for miles."

While two buses returned to Bemidji Tuesday night after an evening reception, a contingent stayed behind to host a legislative breakfast this morning at the nearby Kelly Inn where legislative leaders from both parties were to assess Bemidji's day at the Capitol.

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