Bemidji's big day: Capitol visitors receive news of tentative bonding bill agreement

ST. PAUL -- More than 100 Bemidjians who came here Tuesday to lobby got what they wanted -- $20 million in state public works bonding for a regional events center.

ST. PAUL -- More than 100 Bemidjians who came here Tuesday to lobby got what they wanted -- $20 million in state public works bonding for a regional events center.

At least tentatively, and then it's up to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who may yet veto the entire bill because of its size.

"Last night the House and Senate reached an agreement on a $925 million bill that includes Bemidji's project at $20 million," Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, announced at about noon to those gathered in the State Capitol's Great Hall.

A large yell and prolonged applause arose from the group, which came to lobby for a half-dozen community issues with the regional events center bonding at the top.

The delegation made its third annual Bemidji Day at the Capitol trip, taking two buses to St. Paul in the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored lobby trip.


Olson said she had learned of the tentative agreement from Senate Capital Investment Committee Chairman Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, earlier Tuesday morning.

"Nothing at the Capitol is ever done until it's done," Olson said, "but I would say the message of this project has got to be one of thank you on behalf of Bemidji to as many legislators as you can reach, telling them about how wonderful a thing this will be to our community in terms of economic development and how much we appreciate their support."

The bonding agreement is still $100 million above what Pawlenty says he will allow, going by a traditional agreement that bonding indebtness not exceed 3 percent of the state budget.

Pawlenty Chief of Staff Matt Kramer also spoke to the Bemidji delegation, appreciating their interest but noting priorities need to be set.

Saying the governor's office received hundreds of e-mails in support of the events center funding, Kramer said that he's "read these things, the governor knows we've got them ... we are really conscious of what people are saying. We are all in a tough spot this year."

Kramer noted the 3 percent debt limit and said that would yield $885 million, but $60 million is already committed in the transportation bill the Legislature approved over Pawlenty's veto, leaving $825 million.

As a result, a lot of tough choices need to be made, he said.

"We'll see what happens -- we have a long ways to go."


In an interview, Kramer said that if the bonding bill is $925 million, Pawlenty will veto it. "The governor has already told the Legislature that we have a 3 percent debt limit. That has been in place almost 30 years -- we've never gone over that."

If the bill is filled with projects beyond what the state can afford right now, Pawlenty will consider vetoing it, Kramer said.

"We haven't decided one way or the other" if the veto would be of the entire bill or if Pawlenty would use his line-item veto authority, he said. "It's not very appropriate to work within this 3 percent limit year after year and suddenly decide this year that this is the year to do something different."

Olson, in an interview, said it was Langseth's intent to ask Pawlenty if he vetoes the measure to include a letter listing what he would cut to get to $825 million "so he can take responsibility." And, if he line-item vetoes, "then he takes responsibility."

If the Bemidji project is line-item vetoed, Olson said, "how can he look Bemidji in the eye when he said 'you do your part, we'll do ours?'"

Kramer was reminded of Pawlenty's commitment when he gave support to $3 million in bonding for events center planning and design funds by skating with kids at BSU's John Glas Fieldhouse, wearing a BSU hockey jersey. And he was told of the importance an events center is to Bemidji area economic development.

"You'll hear a lot that this isn't the year to do 'hockey rinks,' so my advice to you is to make sure you make the legislators you talk to know that this isn't just a hockey rink," Kramer said. "This is an events center, a community-focused economic development in terms of conventions and other activities."

Making the Legislature's bonding bill is a big hurdle crossed, but Pawlenty holds the key, said Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji. While tentative, the bonding bill was expected to be finalized by House and Senate bonding committees Tuesday night or early today, and reach the floors of both chambers by week's end.


"It's not done yet -- it's not guaranteed we're going to get that done until the governor signs it," Moe said in an interview. "We will be sending him a bill that has a Bemidji regional events center in it. That's a real positive development here today, and I think having 100 Bemidji citizens here on this day helped our bargaining position considerably. So, it couldn't have happened on a better day."

And to the governor, Moe asks him to "remember your commitment to Bemidji. When it's built, we'll have you come and drop the first puck."

Bemidji had asked for $22 million, and $20 million is about the minimum that can be committed by the state and still have the project proceed, Moe said. The $91 million project includes about $76 million for events center construction, using a half-cent city sales tax that was approved by the governor earlier this month, and other sources such as BSU leases and a possible convention center partner.

More than 100 Bemidji lobbyists fanned the State Capitol complex, meeting with legislators on a host of issues and wearing the trip's traditional Bemidji Woolen Mills lumberjack plaid sweaters. Nearly 40 represented Bemidji businesses and business organizations, 19 from education, 14 from community organizations, four from health fields, seven in government and 17 BSU and Bemidji High School students.

"Everyone is so pleased to see a group like this with so much cohesion," said Jay Backstrom of Up North Mississippi Landing. "People are overwhelmed at our commitment of our own community. It's really fantastic."

Bryce Oakes of Insure Forward said his team was well received by all legislators. "Those I talked to are very much on board."

A group meeting with Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, also got an update on efforts to fight bovine tuberculosis in northwest Beltrami County and Roseau County. He said a dozen DNR sharpshooters are taking deer, and that a helicopter will be used when the snow melts. He's also trying to establish a zone concentrated in that area, plus a part of Lake of the Woods County, for more strict rules on movement of cattle. That zone would include about 200 herds, he said.

"Personally, I believe that a person who has a 20- or 30-cow herd who has a job in town should accept a buyout," Skoe said, "and try again later."


He was asked about the other issues on the Bemidji delegation, and noted that because of a $938 million budget shortfall, much will have to wait until next year. One, providing all-day, everyday kindergarten, would cost $135 million a year, he said.

Skoe also doubted that there would be money this year to include the Red Lake Reservation in a pilot program in which the tribe directly contracts with the state for providing child protection services under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Also addressing the Bemidji group was Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, one of the architects of the $6.6 billion transportation package. Saying the bill will leverage $2.4 billion a year for transportation projects, he predicted legislators will be back again in five or 10 years to seek more funding, including another gas tax hike. The current bill raises the tax 8.5 cents a gallon over several years.

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