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Brainerd legislators seize victory amid end-of-session chaos

Although the 2016 legislative session may have resembled a dumpster fire, local observers may yet find sweet-smelling spots.

Partisan bickering at the state Capitol stymied substantive transportation and public infrastructure projects as the legislative session ended May 22, but several bills directly connected to the Brainerd area managed to move forward regardless.

Legislation that included upwards of $5 million in stimulus money and tax breaks for the beleaguered Mille Lacs Lake tourism industry, which passed both houses of the Legislature, could still be signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton.

The local delegation to the Legislature also scored a win in that an exemption from state income tax for military pension income passed both houses and awaits Dayton's signature. Earlier concepts had the tax on veteran's pensions phased out gradually, but the language that actually passed appears to eliminate it all in one go.

Two Republican legislators from Nisswa carried the provision in each of their respective houses: Sen. Paul Gazelka in the Senate, and Rep. Josh Heintzeman in the House of Representatives. About 18,000 veterans in Minnesota will have their military pensions exempt from Minnesota income tax if Dayton signs the bill, according to Heintzeman's office.

Gazelka and Heintzeman said the provision would help make Minnesota more attractive for military retirees to move to.

"Some of our veterans that are retiring from a long service are going to other states," Gazelka said. "Now we've opened the door to Minnesota and (said), 'We want you here.'"

Heintzeman was "over the moon" that it made it through, and used a football metaphor to further describe his feelings.

"Really exciting to be the guy to carry the ball over the line with so many other people having to settle for first downs, third downs," he said.

Heintzeman said he was keeping his fingers crossed that Dayton would sign the bill.

GOP Speaker of the Minnesota House Kurt Daudt said a special session should be confined closely to the deals that were worked out before the buzzer rang on the regular session. To involve too much more would complicate things, he said.

Dayton called Daudt on Wednesday and said he would take the week to decide whether or not to sign the bills that passed, likely by Friday, Daudt said.

Bonding bill goes bust?

Even-numbered years in the Legislature are known as "bonding years," when the state takes on planned debt to finance public infrastructure projects. This year, the bonding bill died in the final moments of the 2016 session as the GOP and DFL fought over light-rail funding.

Several Brainerd-area projects saw their hopes dashed—at least temporarily.

Aaron Hautala, president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, lamented that the bonding request for Cuyuna bike trail improvements was stalled.

"We are disappointed with the circumstances surrounding the failure of the Legislature to enact the bonding bill," Hautala said in a news release. "Our communities worked very hard, we enjoyed broad support and the Legislature responded by including $3.6 million in funding for Cuyuna in the failed bill."

Republicans and DFLers alike supported a bonding provision that would fund an oil train derailment training facility to be built at Camp Ripley, where public safety officers from across the state could come to practice.

The failure of a bonding bill also puts into doubt money for construction of a new Minnesota Department of Natural Resources management facility on Mille Lacs Lake, to address the walleye crisis.

Mille Lacs feels the legislative love

On the whole, though, the Mille Lacs area arguably went gangbusters in this year's session.

Mille Lacs County received $3.651 million in the supplemental budget bill for the county to establish and run the Mille Lacs economic relief program. The bill says the one-time appropriation is to "assist businesses adversely affected by a decline in walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs." Grants to each business can't be higher than $50,000, and loans can't be higher than $100,000.

Another provision, introduced in the House by Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, would appropriate $300,000 as a grant to the Mille Lacs Tourism Council to help promote the Mille Lacs area.

Still another provision aimed at stimulating the area in the wake of the walleye decline and subsequent season closure is a part of the omnibus tax bill and would set up a property tax abatement program in Mille Lacs, Aitkin and Crow Wing counties for local property tax and the state general levy. An appropriation of $1.4 million would cover the tax breaks.

Although the economic stimulus and tax cuts successfully passed, the same wasn't the case for a number of provisions that would alter DNR management of the lake, contained in the omnibus game and fish bill. A conference committee was about to form in order to work out Senate and House disagreements before the session deadline shut it down, Daudt said.

Daudt said Republicans could push for the bill to be included in a special session.

"I would have to talk to Chair (Tom) Hackbarth about what was in that bill, and whether or not those would be huge priorities," he said. "My guess is it would be, so I would think that we will probably try to get that passed in a special session."

The version passed by the House included a provision which would overturn the DNR's much-maligned catch-and-release policy for walleye on Mille Lacs Lake this fishing season. The DNR instituted the policy in hopes of averting another early shutdown of the walleye season such as the August closure of the season in 2015.

The rule would force the DNR to allow anglers to keep one walleye over 28 inches until the state hits the harvest limit set by the Fisheries Technical Committee, a joint negotiating body consisting of the DNR and the tribal bands whose members fish on the lake.

Another provision in the House's Game and Fish bill would mandate the DNR produce a report detailing the state's chain of command for management of the lake, as well as release "minutes and summaries" of all Fisheries Technical Committee meetings for the past 16 years.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser.

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