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Chamber leaders discuss session impact on business

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ST. PAUL -- Business is not yet booming at Bennett Office Technologies, but it has improved enough in recent months that Russ Bennett plans to hire one or more employees this year.

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The Willmar-based provider of information technology services for small- and medium-sized businesses said he is glad the Legislature did not endanger that growth by raising taxes during the recently ended session.

"Businesses won on a number of fronts," said Bennett, president of the company and a director on the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce board. "No new taxes; (Gov. Tim) Pawlenty dug in his heels on that."

Holding the line on taxes was one of several issues on which the chamber declared victory during the legislative session.

Given that the Legislature was tasked with balancing a $3 billion budget deficit, businesses fared well, said Tom Hesse, the chamber's vice president of governmental affairs.

"You set your expectations according to the legislative environment that you are in," he said. "I think we came through relatively unscathed."

In some ways, businesses came out ahead. Businesses will benefit through the extension of an existing tax credit for research and development and the addition of a credit for people who invest in small businesses, chamber officials said.

Lawmakers started streamlining environmental permitting, creating a goal for the Agriculture Department to approve permits within 150 days of receiving an application, Environmental Policy Director Tony Kwilas said.

Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency were not included in the 150-day goal, but the chamber hopes they will adopt it, he said.

The chamber did not get everything it wanted. The bill that balanced the deficit delays tax refunds to corporations for capital equipment purchases.

The six-month delay is expected to provide the state with $152 million. The move was met with derision by some business owners.

"What if you and I did that?" Bennett asked.

The lack of progress on education reform, particularly in finding ways for mid-career professionals to earn teaching licenses, also disappointed Bennett and other chamber leaders.

"It's challenging, day by day, to get well-educated" employees who understand math and grammar, Bennett said.

A longtime ban on building nuclear power plants remains in place, although a chamber official thinks that will change soon.

"I think the folks trying to hold the moratorium in place know they are on borrowed time," said Mike Franklin, the chamber's director of energy and elections policy.

David McMillan, executive vice president of Minnesota Power, supports ending the moratorium. His company would not build one alone, nor does he expect one will be built in the near future.

But the Duluth-based electricity provider would consider partnering with another company to build a plant, if the right opportunity presented itself, he said.

"It makes good policy sense to start adding some of those pieces back on the table," said McMillan.

, also chairman of the chamber's board. "It shouldn't be illegal to at least put a plan in front of regulators and say, 'What do you think?'"

Now, chamber officials turn their attention toward the 2011 session, when the state faces a projected deficit of more than $5 billion.

"The budget was balanced in large part with a lot of one-time resources," Hesse said. "We set ourselves up for a really tough debate in 2011."

Tellijohn reports for Forum Communications Co.

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