Amidst tax conformity, healthcare and myriad other issues, a lakes area environmental project is of utmost importance to area state politicians this legislative session - a National Loon Center in Crosslake.

Five area legislators participated in the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce legislative forum - called Eggs & Issues - Friday morning, Feb. 15, at Madden's on Gull Lake in East Gull Lake. Attending were: Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Fairview Township (Cass County); Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point; Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa; Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore; and Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin.

The Pequot Lakes and Crosslake chambers fall under the Brainerd chamber umbrella. Among the chamber's legislative priorities this session is to ensure funding for the National Loon Center proposed to be built at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Recreation Area in Crosslake.

Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Chamber president, told legislators and those who attended the forum that the loon center would have the same type of economic and tourism impact on the area as the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails near Crosby, which benefited greatly from $4.1 million in legislative funding.

The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources has recommended $4 million in state lottery revenue to help fund the loon center, specifically for site development and construction. The loon center would be dedicated to public education and preservation of the state bird while providing regional economic impact as a year-round tourism attraction, according to the chamber.

The bill with the $4 million in funding must pass both the House and Senate, and receive Gov. Tim Walz's signature.

Heintzeman admitted he was a bit skeptical at first about the proposed loon center.

"I found myself uniquely positioned to work on this. The more I learned, the more I recognized this is going to be a real opportunity," he told the group.

As former chair of the LCCMR, Heintzeman said he made sure the total amount needed was in the recommended appropriation. When it was suggested the amount be cut in half, Heintzeman said: "I said, 'No - it's the amount we need and no less.'"

Thankfully, he said, the legislation is moving forward and should be presented as a bill in the next few weeks.

"I won't be the chief author, but I think we will have a great group of people working on it and I think this will be a tremendous asset to the Crosslake area and the region," Heintzeman said.

Ruud thanked the chamber for supporting environmental issues like the mountain bike trail system and loon center. So much of the area's economy is focused on its beauty and clean water, she said.

"Hats off to the chamber for picking environmental projects we can all get behind and that bring people to our beautiful area," Ruud said.

Lueck agreed with Ruud, who said in opening remarks that legislators need to build relationships, and he said the loon center is a bipartisan effort and people in key legislative positions in that area are level-headed.

Kilian thanked legislators for their support: "Loons are a threatened species. It's our state bird. It (the loon center) would be an awesome year-round tourism asset with educational aspects."

Legislative split

Ruud emphasized the need for legislators to develop relationships to make progress in the Legislature. Many representatives are new after the November election, and department commissioners are all new with Walz as the new governor. Ruud said she's never worked in the current scenario - a DFL governor, DFL-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate.

"It's all about building relationships, and it's tricky. I have yet to meet the governor. It will be an interesting session," she said, noting the group of area legislators at the chamber forum can work with anyone.

Heintzeman agreed roles have changed in the House with the Democrats now in the majority party.

"My No. 1 prayer used to be, 'Lord, I need your guidance and wisdom as I present my bill today.' Now it has changed to, 'May the Senate hold,'" Heintzeman said with a laugh.

Tax conformity

Kilian said Minnesota is among the top five highest taxed states for both corporate and individual income. Former Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a bipartisan tax bill last year so Minnesota does not conform with the federal tax system.

Gazelka said tax conformity is important. If the state simply comforms, it would raise $600 million more in taxes - half from businesses and half from individuals, he said. And he projected more tax increases for businesses in Walz's budget proposal.

"How do you do what you want to do through the governor and control spending? That's always going to be the battle. It's not a win if you conform and increase taxes," Gazelka said.

Poston maintained that a state budget surplus is really overtaxation of Minnesotans.

"We're overtaxing people in the state by about a billion dollars in a year and that's concerning," Poston said.

Lueck reminded those in attendance that Washington, D.C., didn't raise taxes. The federal government changed rules so Minnesota has to adjust so as not to allow a huge tax increase to fall into place for business and individual income taxpayers.

Mandated paid leave

Kilian asked legislators about a mandated paid leave proposal the chamber said could allow employees to have 24 weeks of paid leave per year, which he said equates to 44 percent of work days in a year.

Gazelka said the state has a workplace shortage.

"If you want an employee today, you better have the right benefits," he said, noting he's not interested in more mandates. "Mandates do more to cripple our economy, not help it."

Poston said employees would contribute as well as employers, and it looks like social security.

"The scary thing is it would be managed by the state of Minnesota," he said, noting the bad job the state has done with MNLARS (Minnesota Licensing and Registration System) and MNsure (Minnesota's health insurance marketplace). "This would be everybody working in Minnesota, and I can't imagine we could possibly manage that."

Marijuana

Gazelka brought up the issue of legalizing marijuana. While he's willing to listen on any issue, he's a firm "no" on this issue.

"I went from, 'I'll be open to talk about,' to personally a 'no,'" Gazelka said.

Other states that legalized marijuana are seeing higher rates of homelessness, accidents, depression among adolescents and drug crimes. It doesn't make sense to have distracted driving and opioid issue legislation, and then legalize marijuana, Gazelka said.

Other legislators agreed. Lueck said the state doesn't have its act together on medical marijuana. Ruud said the state would be in crisis if it allowed recreational marijuana.