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Local efforts paid dividends during session

WILLMAR -- Communication and lobbying efforts from the folks back home helped shape legislation at the Capitol this year, including a gas tax increase.

WILLMAR -- Communication and lobbying efforts from the folks back home helped shape legislation at the Capitol this year, including a gas tax increase.

Support from the local and state Chamber of Commerce groups helped get the transportation bill approved and a "backlog" of road projects under construction, said Rep Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, during a legislative update given Thursday morning to members of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. There are about 1,200 lobbyists at the Capitol, including some that represent the Chamber of Commerce.

"It's important to hear that voice," said Juhnke, who urged the Chamber members to start formulating proposals now that can be brought to the Legislature in January.

"You all become part of the discussion," he said. "We don't make this stuff up. It comes from you."

Already anticipating the challenges of putting together a $34 billion to $35 billion budget next year, Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said the public's voice will be sought to help find ways to trim a budget expected to show a deficit.

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Gimse said he's working with the Republican caucus to set up a Web site for citizens to offer reduction suggestions for the Legislature could consider.

"I want to ask the people of Minnesota to submit their cost-saving ideas."

Gimse said he also wants to offer incentives for state employees to find ways to increase efficiencies and cost savings in their jobs. By giving a bonus to employees for true cost-saving measures, he said state government can be run more like a business and help "slow down the growth" of government spending.

Gimse and Juhnke spent about 1ยฝ hours giving their take on highlights of the recently completed legislative session and responding to questions and accolades for legislation that was approved.

- Bonding bill: Gimse ticked off the list of local projects that were included in the bonding bill: $7 million for the Willmar wastewater treatment facility; $800,000 in additional money for the $3 million Grass Lake restoration project; and $2.3 million for facility improvements at Ridgewater College. While the allocation fell short of what was requested, Gimse said he's "excited about what's going on at Ridgewater."

- Education: Kathy Leedom, superintendent of the Willmar School District, thanked Gimse and Juhnke for the "emergency" funding this year for K-12 education. She said the one-time funding boost of $51 per student was appreciated. "We were counting on you," she said.

- Biofuels: Minnesota is the first in the nation to adopt legislation requiring 20 percent bio-diesel by the year 2020. "Minnesota continues to be a leader in biofuels," said Juhnke, who carried the bill in the House. He said truckers supported the bill because B20 has higher fuel efficiency and can lengthen the life of an engine. The B20 requirement will be waived if the price and supply make it unfeasible.

- Taxes: The tax bill included increased property tax refunds and rebates to homeowners as well as a 3.9 percent cap on levies for local governments. There are several exemptions to the levy limit, but county officials just learned they will not be able to increase levies for some mandated health and human service programs, but will also be prevented under state law from cutting the budget for those services.

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- Veterans affairs: New money will help veterans receive more services and help train county veterans service officers. Regarding a veterans home being built in Willmar, in later interviews Gimse and Juhnke said the proposal was not approved this year but is still alive.

Gimse said there is "a lot of competition" from other towns, including Montevideo and Fergus Falls, for a veterans home. Juhnke said the Willmar facility would be unique because it would focus on veterans with mental health issues, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Juhnke, whose son is about to be deployed to Iraq, said veterans' issues have become "personal" for him.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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