Thissen talks session; city MERIT Center

MARSHALL – Local businesspeople had another chance to make their concerns known to state lawmakers on Friday. Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL, Minneapolis, was in Marshall as part of the second legislative roundtable event this week. Thissen spoke about the spring legislative session before taking questions from an audience of Marshall area businesspeople and city officials.

Thissen said there were several priority areas where good things were accomplished this session.

“The thing I’m most pleased with is the investments made in education,” Thissen said. Some of those investments included increased funding for schools, support for statewide all-day kindergarten and support for higher education, to freeze rising tuition costs.

He said this session also saw accomplishments like property tax relief in the form of Local Government Aid funding for cities and counties, and the closing of the state budget deficit. The Minnesota Health Exchange program was also passed.

“I admit that’s something I’m going to be watching very closely,” Thissen said. It remains to be seen exactly how programs like the health exchange and the Affordable Care Act will affect people’s access to health insurance, and whether it will affect their insurance costs.

Audience members shared their thoughts on the new warehouse sales tax with Thissen. The main question was, “What were you thinking there?”

Thissen said the warehousing tax was a Senate proposal, so he couldn’t speak to the reasoning behind its creation.

“It’s not the best policy, and it’s something we need to revisit,” he said. But at the same time, he said, the new tax made it possible to reduce two existing sales taxes, one on purchases by local governments and one on capital equipment purchases.

Audience members also had questions about transportation funding. John DeCramer said highways are crucial for trucking and shipping in Marshall businesses.

“We’ve got a lot of things going on here, and just about everything that leaves town is going to go by road,” DeCramer said.

Thissen said transportation is a “cliff” the state will be facing in the future, especially as Minnesota comes up against the limits of its current funding sources.

“In greater Minnesota, we’ve used the gas tax for a long time, and now we’re kind of to the end of that,” Thissen said. However, lawmakers are trying to address transportation needs. He said the new transportation bill includes $300 million in trunk highway bonding, and a “Corridors of Commerce” program geared toward expanding underdeveloped highway corridors.

The Minnesota Emergency Response and Industrial Training (MERIT) Center got some attention during Thissen’s visit, with supporters of the center discussing the importance of planned expansions there.

“This is an exciting time for everyone involved here,” said Marshall Public Safety Director Rob Yant. Construction of a driving track and expanded classrooms will make it possible for the MERIT Center to offer training opportunities that aren’t currently available in the region. It may even help draw in groups from other states for training exercises, he said. Dawn Regnier of Minnesota West Community and Technical College said the MERIT Center is also important for the regional economy, because it helps provide the education and training needed to create skilled workers.

“We do a lot of training on automation and machine maintenance,” Regnier said.

Marshall City Administrator Ben Martig said the MERIT Center and Marshall’s planned amateur sports center would still be seeking more state bonding dollars for construction. However, he said, the MERIT Center will be proceeding on construction in phases, making use of state funding the project’s already received.

“Certainly, there is a need, and there’s a regional need,” said Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes.

Thissen acknowledged that MERIT’s funding request was left out of this year’s bonding bill. However, he said, this year wasn’t a bonding year. He felt there was good support for the request for next year’s bonding bill.