Progress made on Chamber legislative priorities

06-01-2017
Despite a chaotic 2017 session of the Minnesota Legislature, when the dust settled it became clear that progress had been made on most priorities of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, said Jim Boyd, chamber executive director, at the conclusion of the session.

“Because of excellent work by our representative in St. Paul, Judy Erickson, and dedicated, tenacious effort by Sen. Tom Bakk and Rep. Rob Ecklund, we came away with at least a partial victory on every priority,” Boyd said.

The central focus of the chamber’s legislative efforts this year was to secure increased funding for Cook County Higher Ed, which works to connect Cook County residents to post-secondary education and training.  Higher Ed Executive Director Paula Sundet Wolf led the charge for a proposal to increase state funding for Higher Ed from $140,000 annually to $500,000.

Ultimately, the Legislature provided $60,000 annually in higher education funding and $40,000 in one-time workforce development funding.

Sundet Wolf made repeated appearances before committees to press the case for the higher funding. Higher Ed, she told legislators, is at capacity and critically needs additional funding to meet the identified educational needs of Cook County residents and the personnel needs of Cook County employers.

“We received an excellent response from legislators in both parties,” Sundet Wolf said.  “Legislators value that we are community based and that we work closely with employers to meet their training needs. Ultimately, however, our funding request fell victim to larger political forces at work in St. Paul. But we are grateful for the increases we did receive, and we are positioned well to make requests for additional increases in future years.”

Erickson agreed. “We laid a good foundation to come back to ask again for full funding. We introduced the excellent work being done at CCHE to numerous freshman legislators and strengthen relationships with key committee chairs. Sen. Bakk and Rep. Ecklund remain strong advocates of the program and we can count on their support going forward.”

 A second Chamber priority was to secure bonding funds to construct additional segments of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail. Erickson worked closely with the Gitchi-Gami Trail Association (GGTA) to make a strong case for the funding needed to construct the Cutface Creek to Grand Marais segment and for funding to significantly advance work on the segment through Tofte.

“There were some bumps along the way,” Erickson said, “but thanks to the tenacious support of Sen. Bakk and Rep. Ecklund, the bonding bill that emerged from the last night of legislative work Thursday included $3.1 million for Gitchi Gami Trail. We don’t expect to see construction begin until 2018, however.”

“This is terrific news,” Boyd said. “We were hoping the Cutface segment might get funded; to get the additional funds for Tofte, too, is excellent. Together, the two projects will move us significantly closer to the day when the Gitchi will run uninterrupted from Two Harbors to Grand Marais. The Gitchi is destined to become one of the premier touring bike routes in the United States and also part of the larger, longer U.S. Bicycle Route 41 running from St. Paul to Grand Portage.”

The Chamber’s third priority, Boyd said, was general support for programs to aid development of workforce housing, particularly programs targeting Greater Minnesota. The only initiative to survive the legislative meat grinder was $2 million per year in the omnibus jobs bill for workforce housing grants. The legislation also moved the workforce housing program from DEED to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. Critical enabling language for this move continues to ensure eligibility for Cook County projects.

“Overall,” Boyd said, “we did pretty well this session, given divided government in St. Paul and the political turmoil in Washington.  That is, again, entirely due to the superior service we receive from Erickson, Bakk and Ecklund. We are very grateful for the work they do on our behalf.”

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