Duluth-area leaders bring a message of thanks to Capitol

Members of the Duluth East High School Jazz Band perform during a rally at the rotunda inside the Capitol building in St. Paul on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Andrew Zimmerman is seen in the foreground. (Chuck Frederick / cfrederick@duluthnews.com)

ST. PAUL — Previous years’ visits to the state Capitol by Northeastern Minnesota community leaders included requests to fund projects such as an airport terminal, a hockey arena, an intermodal transportation hub and wastewater treatment.

This year, the message was one of thanks.

An estimated 500 business leaders, local elected officials and students participated in the 16th annual Duluth & St. Louis County Days at the Capitol event that included meeting with state lawmakers, a rally at the rotunda and a reception of Duluth and county exhibitors at the Crowne Plaza St. Paul Riverfront hotel. A legislative breakfast with an address from Gov. Mark Dayton is scheduled for this morning at the hotel.

Participation numbers took a hit at the 2012 event because of a statewide snowstorm. The Duluth Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event often referred to as “Duluth Days,” was pleased with the rebound this year.

“I would say we have surpassed the energy of past years,” said David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Chamber.

“The final indicator will be how many people we have at our legislative Grand Reception,” which was set for later Wednesday evening. “Every indication is that it’s going to be a banner year.”

The thank-yous were extended for Dayton and the Legislature’s quick action in the days that followed flooding in Northeastern Minnesota last June.

“They came in and supported our community when we needed it most,” said Dan Hartman, a Duluth city councilor. “Everyone who lives in Duluth knows how much that impacted our community.”

There also was a chance to meet the newest members of the Legislature, which Hartman hopes will help come budget time.

“We’ve been asking for years for a proper balance of the budget, and they’re trying to figure that out,” he said. “Part of that process is they’re going to extend the sales tax and possibly some services, maybe some clothing; we’ll see. For what’s been projected already in the governor’s budget, if that were to pass, would give $6 (million) to $8 million of new revenue to the city.”

The city’s lawsuit with Fond-du-Luth Casino over annual payments that once went to street repairs has left a pothole-sized gap in funding.

“We’ve lost $6 million a year,” Hartman said. “If this (budget) were to pass, we’d have money for streets again.”

And Hartman doesn’t want lawmakers to forget about Local Government Aid, which has decreased in recent years.

“It’s 40 percent, almost, of our entire revenue,” he said. “Any hit to that is a major hit to our community.”

Other topics mentioned at the Capitol on Wednesday were the ever-rising cost of tuition in higher education — students from the University of Minnesota Duluth and the College of St. Scholastica attended — and mass transit, specifically the Northern Lights Express passenger train between the Twin Cities and Duluth.

Progress in the NLX project hinges on rail authorization and money made available by the federal government.

“That’s going to be, no doubt, a debate in Congress this year,” said Jeff Anderson, a former Duluth city councilor now working as district director for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn. Anderson said he was at the Capitol on Wednesday as a citizen. “Where it goes, I don’t know. But Congressman Nolan is very supportive of the Northern Lights Express.”

Before the annual visits to the Capitol, lawmakers stormed Duluth by the busloads for first-class treatment and pampering by city leaders hoping for generous state funding. Ethics regulations put a stop to such practices.