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DFL lawmakers meet with Cass lawmakers

WALKER – Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, met with the Cass County Board Thursday to discuss 2013 legislative issues.

Saxhaug told the board the majority DFL leadership choices for 2013 have leaned toward rural officials in the Senate and metropolitan area officials in the House, which may lead to differing views on pending legislation to come before the two bodies this session, despite the fact the DFL has a majority in both houses and hold the governor’s office.

He said he expects the first order of business will be to approve repaying school districts about half of the $2.3 million withheld from them in prior legislative sessions. He estimated that if the federal government fails to prevent the “fiscal cliff’ from taking effect, it could mean a $1.7 billion federal revenue loss to the state of Minnesota.

Commissioner Jim Dowson asked Saxhaug to keep in weekly contact with Cass County Administrator Robert Yochum during the session to keep lines of communication open during the legislative session.

Yochum noted he had regular communication with former Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, whom Rep. Persell defeated in the recent election. He said this helped the county maintain county input on issues as the Legislature addressed them.

Saxhaug said he or his staff would try to do that.

Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk asked Saxhaug and Persell to try again to get an exemption to state sales tax for Cass from the sales tax that was levied against Cass for its purchase of ARMER emergency radio equipment.

That exemption was granted to metropolitan area counties and Itasca County when they installed the upgraded system in the first wave of conversions. The exemption was not granted to counties which have installed the system subsequently.

Gaalswyk also emphasized the importance of state payments in lieu of tax (PILT) to Cass and other northern Minnesota counties, where there is a high percentage of government-owned forest land exempt from property taxes.

Gaalswyk told the legislators he believes Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) may be overzealous in its issuance of penalties against the county for local road projects. He questioned whether the system is fair that designates MPCA the agency to decide violations, set penalties and serve as the appeals panel.

He suggested there maybe should be a separate appeals process or a separation between an agency which decides violations and one that sets penalties.

Auditor-Treasurer Sharon Anderson and Assessor Mark Peterson noted a state Property Tax Working Group report issued Nov. 30 that calls for simplifying the state property tax code. Both supported the concept of simplifying the code, but issued warnings about how it will be implemented.

Peterson asked Saxhaug and Persell to be sure they read the report, so they will be aware of the implications the report recommends and are aware of the impact they will have.

Anderson said the report suggests there should be a statewide computer system to manage property taxation. She said she believes this concept would place a huge cost on local governments and would lead to a state intrusion on local government management of their tax collection process.

On state election processes, Anderson said she thinks we are spending too much to count write-in votes. If early voting is adopted in Minnesota, local elections officials should be consulted on how to develop cost-efficient ways to implement that program, she said.

Anderson predicted the idea of voter identification will come back before the Legislature, despite the fact the proposed constitutional amendment failed in the last election. How that would be implemented also should be evaluated for cost-efficiency, she said.

She asked the legislators to restore funding to the secretary of state’s office, so they can more efficiently accept election results from Cass’s mail ballot precincts.

Health, Human and Veterans Services Director Reno Wells asked the legislators to support Cass’s attempt with Crow Wing and Morrison Counties to obtain Minnesota Department of Human Services approval to accept and process benefit applications for residents in the three counties at offices in any of the three counties.

He said the effort to make the application process more efficient and customer-friendly may need special legislation.

Land Commissioner Joshua Stevenson said he appreciated the contact he has had with Persell and Saxhaug while working on issues related to his department. He, too, emphasized the importance of PILT payments to the county.

He said efficiency is a key in the county’s attempt to make land exchanges with Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, especially involving school trust lands. Stevenson noted the benefit Cass has had to obtain money from the state three-eighths cent sales tax to buy sensitive habitat land and land which gave public access to existing county acreages.

Persell thanked the county for providing the successful Wellness Court that has provided oversight to help repeat driving while intoxicated offenders to overcome their additions.

That court serves Cass in combination with courts in Itasca County and on the Leech Lake Reservation. Earlier this week that court was recognized by Minnesota Association of Counties with one of five statewide County Achievement Awards.

Persell also thanked the county for lowering speed limits and posting new signs and traffic control lights on Bingo Palace Road (County State Aid Highway 75) west of Cass Lake. This has made the road much safer, he said.