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Amy Chaffins | Echo Press On Wednesday, State Senator Torrey Westrom, R-District 12; State Representative Jay McNamar, D-District 12A; State Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-District 8; and State Representative Mary Franson, R-District 8B (not pictured) met with the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Legislative Committee to hear the group’s top concerns for the next legislative session, including transportation funding and minimum wage legislation. (Amy Chaffins/Echo Press)

Business leaders talk to legislators about top issues

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Leading up to the 2014 Minnesota state legislative session, local reps were in town Wednesday to hear the top concerns for area business leaders.

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The Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce (ALACC) Legislative Committee spent about two hours with State Senator Torrey Westrom, R-District 12; State Representative Jay McNamar, D-District 12A; State Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-District 8; and State Representative Mary Franson, R-District 8B.

The committee outlined and discussed their top four areas of focus for this legislative session. Here are the priorities and input from committee members and legislators:

● Transportation: Local units of government are concerned about potential legislation and funding. The chamber committee noted: “Transportation is the lifeblood of a strong business community and is critical to our manufacturing, distribution, tourism and service industries.

-Rep. McNamar: “Our roads are not in very good shape. They’re underfunded and we have projects that need to be done that aren’t going to get done. I was a proponent of increasing the gas tax. Something’s got to get done.”

-Charlie Meyer, Douglas County commissioner: “One of the proposals [from the Association of Minnesota Counties] is if a local [unit of government] wanted to put in a sales tax permanently for roads and bridges… maybe even going to a referendum… I think you’re going to hear more about that.”

-Bruce McKirdy, Paradis Broadcasting, chamber board president: “We have all these roads that need to be updated and fixed, but are we just not prioritizing the money for it? To me it seems like we’re building a lot of other things – community centers, other buildings, light rail. It seems like the money doesn’t go to keep what we have; it goes to something glamorous that everybody can tout, ‘Hey, look what I built’ as opposed to, ‘Hey, look what I fixed.’ I think that’s a tough leadership thing that needs to be addressed.”

● Minimum wage: The chamber committee relayed to legislators that they believe the minimum wage issue will have a huge impact on many local business sectors, especially hospitality, retail and service industries. “Like the state chamber, we believe a two-tiered system and a tip credit will lead to increased costs for businesses,” they noted.

-Mark Anderson, Knute Nelson: “It depends on where politics go and how high the minimum wage goes, but if it goes to $9.50 or $10 per hour, it will certainly have a direct impact. I do believe our workers need to be paid more. We would propose reimbursement increases to offset [minimum wage increases]… if we don’t get any reimbursement increases, depending on where minimum wage goes, it’s going to be devastating to our organization.”

-Jeff Lindoo of Thrifty White Pharmacy said a major increase in minimum wage will force businesses to increase prices and he added: “If you go to the general public, yeah, it sounds great to be paid more. [Business owners are] also very sensitive to the public image and it just doesn’t look good to say, ‘So and so business is in favor of lower wages.’ I think what you [will] hear from the constituency won’t be balanced with the [business owners’] sentiment that’s really out there.”

-Sen. Ingebrigtsen: “Costs are going to go up if minimum wage goes up. That cost is going to be reflected back to the consumer. You can call it what you like, it’s going to be a tax.”

● Health care: “As we have witnessed, the MNsure system now in place is not as specific nor reliable as it was anticipated to be. The system will lead to increased costs for businesses, especially in increased administration costs,” said the legislative committee.

-Carl Vaagenes of Douglas County Hospital shared that the rollout of MNsure has been a disaster and added: “It’s natural that when people are losing insurance or just signing on for insurance, they’re choosing the lowest cost plan, which results in higher out-of-pocket costs so when it comes to needing health care, those people are in a real predicament, particularly when they come in for a catastrophic incident – they’re faced with $10, $20 or $30,000 in out-of-pocket costs before their insurance kicks in. Granted, that’s better than nothing, but the majority of that is falling back on the provider.”

-Rep. McNamar: “I supported it… but I’ve been disappointed in MNsure. I think what happened is we took on too big of a project that should have been brought in slowly. I’ve seen success stories. I’ve had insurance agents call me telling me they’re frustrated. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not giving up on it. Affordable health care is something we need for everybody.”

-Rep. Franson: “I was always against [MNsure] because ultimately the goal is to get single payer [system], and to get single payer you need to decimate the current health care system and that’s exactly what’s happening at the national level right on down to the state level. The problems you’re seeing in Minnesota are tied because the federal computer system is nothing but a mess as well. So there is absolutely no way we can fix MNsure.”

● Local redevelopment project: Jason Murray, director of the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission, shared that there is a proposed redevelopment project involving the Jefferson High School property.

Lakes Area Economic Development Authority is requesting state bonding funds or a general appropriation bill for acquisition and redevelopment of the site.

A feasibility study is under way to determine if the space could be used as a training center.

A conceptual plan, including proposed costs, will reportedly be available in about one month.

WHAT’S NEXT?

The chamber legislative committee will now draft resolutions regarding transportation, minimum wage, health care and the local redevelopment project and what they’re asking of legislators. The resolutions will go to the ALACC board of directors for its consideration on February 20.

The state Legislature convenes Tuesday, February 25.

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Amy Chaffins
Amy Chaffins is a journalist working for the Echo Press newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota.
(320) 763-3133
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