MN Chamber talks legislative priorities with local businesses

MARSHALL – There are about four months and counting until the next Minnesota Legislative session, Bill Blazar said. That makes it all the more important for area businesspeople to make their concerns heard.

Area business concerns and 2014 legislative priorities were the two main points of an Monday afternoon event in Marshall. Blazar, the senior vice president of public affairs and business development at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, presented the Minnesota Chamber’s main priorities for the upcoming legislative session. He also sought feedback from an audience of area businesspeople, and local school and government officials.

Monday’s meeting was one of 20 taking place around Minnesota, Blazar said. Feedback collected at the meetings would be brought to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s policy committee.

Both state government spending and tax rates are projected to grow in Minnesota the next four years, Blazar said. While on the one hand projected spending wasn’t expected to increase as fast as taxes, both would outpace projections for the growth of Minnesota’s economy. And, Blazar said, “The bulk of the tax increase is falling on Minnesota businesses,” through measures like business-to-business sales taxes. At the same time, those increases would come with $90 million in new programs and incentives meant to keep businesses from leaving the state for less expensive locations.

“The thing we have to think about carefully, is whether or not that’s a good idea,” Blazar said.

Blazar said the Minnesota Chamber’s main lobbying priorities for 2014 included repealing the business-to-business sales taxes, which include a warehousing tax slated to take effect next spring, and taxes on repair services and telecommunications equipment for businesses.

“The feedback we’ve had from Minnesota businesses is we ought to repeal it,” he said.

Fortunately, he added, it also appears that many state lawmakers also regret passing the warehousing tax.

Other priorities included environmental regulations and transportation. Blazar said the Minnesota Chamber wasn’t pushing for changes to state environmental protections.

“Our focus is on the time it takes to get a permit and the cost of getting a permit,” he said. Having a specific timeframe for accepting or rejecting an environmental permit application, he said, would be helpful for Minnesota industries.

On the topic of transportation, Blazar said, “We have been big supporters of increased investment in transportation.” However, he noted that Minnesota businesspeople have limited support for doing so through tax increases. The Chamber’s preliminary plan was to call for increased efficiency in the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce Director Cal Brink said the challenge in supporting transportation came as much from declining revenues as efficient spending.

The gasoline tax just isn’t bringing in enough funding to meet transportation needs, Brink said.

“Something has to be done,” Brink said, although he acknowledged that it would be difficult coming up with new revenue solutions.

Blazar said it seemed likely that the Legislature would return to the issue of increasing minimum wage in 2014.

In response, the Minnesota Chamber would be advocating conformity with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, with a tiered wage structure for workers who receive tips, and allowances for lower youth wages and training wages.

In education, Blazar said the Minnesota Chamber would be focusing on preserving standards for students and teachers, as well as supporting “experiential learning” that can prepare students for the workforce. Beth Weatherby, provost of Southwest Minnesota State University, seconded the need to support programs like internships to give college students workforce experience.

Klint Willert, superintendent of Marshall Public Schools, said hiring qualified teachers continued to be a challenge for the school district, even though Minnesota passed alternative teacher licensing standards. Willert said the Minnesota Chamber should take another look at the “missed opportunity” there.

In the feedback gathering session, Brink said he thought the Minnesota Chamber needed to start taking a more proactive approach toward trying to keep businesses in the state. Many of the legislative goals outlined at the meeting were more reactive, he said.

“We’ve got to do something more than say, ‘Let’s take away the things that were going to make it even worse,'” Brink said.