Although Minnesota’s Legislative session won’t begin until Feb. 25, Itasca County’s lobbyist and former state house member Loren Solberg is already making trips to the capital on behalf of local interests.
Solberg told the Itasca County Board of Commissioners at its regular meeting last week, that he’d just returned from a trip to St. Paul where he put forward a number of county legislative priorities.
Although it’s early, the former lawmaker said he was pleased to once again be a part of the legislative process. “It’s been a pleasure to get back into, I think,” he told commissioners.
In earlier work sessions, the county board identified a list of 10 top legislative priorities for the upcoming session. County officials are pursuing:
• The reinstatement of cuts to the children’s mental health fund, which negatively impacted Itasca and three other counties. Last week, Solberg reported to commissioners that it remains unclear what happened to the money for this program but he’s researching why the funding was eliminated. Itasca County still has contracts in place for children’s mental health services and is currently continuing to pay those expenses without the benefit of state funding.
• Reviewing a new fiscal disparities report that came out this month.
• Revisiting investor-owned utility class rate reductions, which took place in 1994. That move carried considerable tax cost to Itasca County due to the presence of Clay Boswell in Cohasset. County officials report that while the utility once contributed 34 percent of the county’s overall tax base, since the rate reduction, it has fallen to 9 percent.
• The passage of special legislation that would authorize the county to refinance nursing home bonds from revenue to general obligation bonds.
• Keeping loopholes closed to prevent “double dipping” by landowners that have been paid for conservation easements. County officials want to prevent easement owners from seeking valuation reductions.
• Authorizing counties to allow private use of the Department of Transportation’s ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response) communication towers to enhance rural access to cellular and broadband services. These towers are currently only used for emergency communications.
• The approval of special legislation authorizing land sales aimed at encroachment and protected water issues.
• The authorization for completion of a new Department of Revenue study on the value of un-mined taconite. The last study of this kind was completed in 1985.
• Continued support for state payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILT) for state and county administered public land with an inflation adjuster. Solberg told this newspaper in a telephone interview that the current PILT average is $2 per acre (private sector land averages $9 per acre). Officials are seeking higher payments, which have eroded in recent years. In Itasca County there are 600,000-plus acres of state and county administered public lands.
• The passage of legislation to extend stays of adjudication for juveniles to match sentencing guidelines for adults.
In other business last week, the board:
• Recognized county employees with numerous years of service. Following the meeting, the board hosted a cake/coffee reception in their honor.
• Listened to the findings of a pay equity report.
• Approved commissioner warrants in the amount of $1,199,682.26. Auditor/Treasurer Jeff Walker noted that included in that amount was the purchase of two graders at a cost of $425,000.
• Set the date for a public information meeting to gather input for a request by Alvood/Squaw Lake ATV Club for trail sponsorship. The public information meeting will take place Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. in the Squaw Lake Community Center.
• Listened to a Health and Human Services update from Director Eric Villeneuve, who told the board that this division is in the hiring process for its business manager position.
• Noted that Nashwauk-Keewatin’s “No Child Left Inside” event will take place on Feb. 21.