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Cook County Chamber of Commerce recaps St. Paul legislative meetings

Mar 22, 2022 06:32AM ● By Editor
A group of Cook County Chamber representatives visited St. Paul for legislative discussions in March.  Photo: KSTP-TV

By Jim Boyd, Director of Policy & Advocacy, Cook County Chamber of Commerce • March 21, 2022

A group of Chamber representatives, plus several of our friends who work on public policy, journeyed to St. Paul on March 8-10. We participated in the Duluth Chamber’s Duluth & St. Louis County Days and also worked our way through an ambitious agenda of meetings with legislators.

I’ve linked a copy of our schedule as it stood when our visit started. Because the Legislature is just coming out of Covid restrictions, has an always changing legislative schedule, and because others were holding their first lobby days in three years, adjustments were being made to the schedule right up until each meeting started. Some got moved, one or two got cancelled. But the schedule gives you a good idea of what we were about.

Our visit to St. Paul began with a dinner at Salut Bar Americain on Grand Avenue with Sen. Tom Bakk and Rep. Rob Ecklund. Both Rob and Tom gave brief remarks on where things stand in the Legislature. More about that below.

The next day was heavy on meetings with legislators. Our St. Paul representatives, Judy Erickson and Joe Birkholz of Conservation Strategies, had arranged meetings with committee chairs and ranking members of committees that will be considering the issues on our legislative agenda. Here is a linked copy of that agenda.

Much of our time in each of these meetings was devoted to our two top priorities:
Renewal of an optional 1 percent lodging tax that is set to expire in 2023.This lodging tax produces revenue that is used for such things as helping fund events like the Lutsen 99er and provide funding for musicians to perform at venues around the county. This tax must be renewed every 15 years. The proposal for renewal has been very well received in St. Paul.
Legislation that would allow North Shore Health to change the administrative status of some beds at the Care Center. This is a complicated paper change that would not affect the Care Center patients who are in those beds. But it would substantially increase the federal reimbursement for those beds, reducing the amount the Care Center costs Cook County taxpayers.

And of course we also made a pitch for the bonding being sought by the DNR and Gitchi-Gami Trail Association for additional segments of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail – including segments in Tofte and from Ski Hill Road into Lutsen.

We made a pitch for several housing programs that are not Cook County specific but would have a significant impact on efforts to address our affordable and workforce housing shortages. We found a receptive audience on this subject, including reports that legislators were still thinking about our visit later in the afternoon. And whenever we had an opportunity, we expressed hope that the Legislature would put significant money into child care programs, which we badly need in Cook County.

Everyone we talked with gave us pretty much the same impression: The North Shore Health proposal and the 1 percent lodging tax renewal both are well positioned (the former has had House and Senate hearings, the latter has had a House hearing and is awaiting a Senate hearing), and while we will need to wait until the last days of the session, in May, they should be enacted, barring some cataclysmic political event.

On housing and child care, however, prospects are murky. With a $9 billion surplus available, neither party is all that eager to compromise. The majority House DFLers want lots of spending and majority Senate Republicans want tax cuts. There are of course, middle positions on both sides but that is the large sense of the politics. There is a sense that some would prefer doing nothing on the bet that they will control all three bodies of state government after the election.

Everyone we talked to said to watch carefully what happens with bills to replenish the state Unemployment Insurance fund and to send checks to frontline pandemic workers. If the two parties can find a compromise on that, we were told, it is possible they could pass other spending bills that use substantial parts of the surplus – including the housing bills that we strongly support. But if no compromise is reached on the UI fund/frontline worker bills, it may be a difficult end to the session, slated for May 21st. As several legislators said, it can be more difficult to deal with a surplus than a deficit. I’ve linked  a good article from MinnPost explaining the current situation.

It is always true that our Cook County interests can get swamped by much larger political winds that we cannot control. But we did our level best to make a case for the programs we need and support. From what we heard later, we made a strong, positive impression on several legislators who could be important in the success of our priorities. Everyone was very glad to see us and appreciative of the effort we made to be in St. Paul. In several cases, we were the very first person-to-person meetings for legislators following the lifting of pandemic restrictions. And because the State Office Building still is closed to the public, Judy Erickson and Joe Birkholz reserved a meeting room for the day in the Capitol where we could hold court and receive legislators and others with whom we wished to meet.

Putting this St. Paul visit together was not an easy task, but Judy and Joe more than met the challenge. Even as we were meeting with one legislator, they were busy rearranging when we would meet others, or working to fill a slot suddenly available when a legislator cancelled. Overall, I thought this one of the most successful of our visits to St. Paul despite the chaos factor introduced by the lingering effects of the pandemic. I am very hopeful that when the Legislature adjourns in May, our top priorities will be among its accomplishments.
Jim Boyd
Director of Policy & Advocacy
Cook County Chamber
[email protected]
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