Minnesota Chamber gears up for 2007 session; pushes transportation funding

WILLMAR -- Transportation funding will be high on the priority list for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce when the 2007 legislative session begins in January.

WILLMAR -- Transportation funding will be high on the priority list for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce when the 2007 legislative session begins in January.

Voter support for an amendment dedicating state money for roads and transit was a real victory for the state chamber, which was part of a coalition that pushed for its passage, said David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber.

"We've worked that issue very hard for a long time," he said.

Advocates were especially gratified that the measure received voter support across the state, he said. "It wasn't just the metro area. We had all of southern Minnesota and much of central Minnesota."

Now comes the next hurdle: working with the Legislature to decide how transportation funding should be allocated and spent.


The November election has placed control of both houses of the Legislature in DFL hands. One-fourth of legislators are newly elected.

The changes in the political landscape mean the Minnesota Chamber will have to take a more defensive posture against the potential for tax-and-spend measures, Olson said.

"We have to work a little harder, probably," he said. "But we'll be all right."

Olson spoke Tuesday at a gathering sponsored by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

The meeting was one of a series being held around the state to finalize the Minnesota Chamber's legislative priority list for 2007.

The state chamber is one of the leading advocates for small businesses in Minnesota. It represents 2,500 businesses that collectively employ 500,000 people. It also works closely with some 130 local chambers of commerce across the state.

Fifty policies have been developed this year in five key areas.

"It's what's important to our member businesses. It's not a partisan agenda," Olson said. "I think we bring a pretty balanced agenda."


The Minnesota Chamber will push during the 2007 session for statutory designation of how motor vehicle sales tax money will be spent -- 60 percent on highway projects and 40 percent on transit.

It also will lobby for transportation bonding so that some priority projects can receive a jump-start, Olson said.

In addition, the state chamber will support a gas tax increase of up to 5 cents a gallon -- but opposes a sales tax or new general fund taxes for transportation.

"It's very clear the motor vehicle tax is not enough," Olson said.

Businesses are willing to support taxes that show a clear benefit and are spent with accountability, said Russ Bennett, a Willmar business owner, Lakes Area Chamber member and a member of the Minnesota Chamber board.

"All businesses are not against all taxes," he said. "We just want our money to go where it's supposed to go and do what it's supposed to do."

For the first time, energy issues -- energy conservation, the development of renewable energy and future demands for power -- also appear on the Minnesota Chamber's agenda.

Energy is emerging as an increasingly critical issue, Olson said. Some forecasts suggest that by 2020, Minnesota will no longer be able to keep up with energy needs.


A key component of the chamber's energy policy is energy conservation and the development of incentives that reward businesses for successfully reducing their energy use.

Also expect the chamber to start addressing the state's future energy needs, Olson said. "I think you're going to see the chamber recommend building a couple of power plants."

While acknowledging that the debate could become contentious, Olson said it's the chamber's goal to take a cooperative approach, possibly helping to form a coalition similar to the one that promoted the transportation amendment.

"I'm hoping that we'll be in the middle, trying to bring some balance," he said.

The legislative agenda also includes:

- Addressing work force development to ensure workers are better prepared for employment.

- Holding the line on state spending and taxes and preventing any backtracking of property tax or corporate income tax reforms.

- Seeking solutions to affordable quality health care.


Year after year, this remains the top issue for small-business owners, Olson said.

Meaningful change likely will require action on the federal front, he said. "We chip away just at the outer edges."

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