WALKER -- County commissioners from 22 counties filled the Cass County Courthouse meeting room Monday afternoon to finalize their stand on legislative issues before this year's state elected officials open the 2000 session in February.
Some traveled up to 400 miles to participate.
They are members of Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus, a coalition of northern and central Minnesota Counties.
Members began organizing a few years ago because some county commissioners felt Association of Minnesota Counties failed to fully recognize rural issues.
Transportation is a universal issue among farming and forested counties the group represents. They are concerned about Gov. Jesse Ventura's proposal to cut license tab fees.
License tab fees are the state's only dedicated highway fund. While MRCC commissioners don't necessarily oppose tax cuts, they do oppose cutting dedicated funds.
They want the integrity of the highway trust fund maintained in any 2000 legislative changes to ensure adequate and ongoing highway funding. Further, that fund should have indexing to ensure future increases to meet cost rises to maintain road and bridge infrastructure.
Members were encouraged to list their state and county highway improvement needs to present to the Legislature. Administrator Don Larson of St. Paul noted the governor's bonding bill fails to provide funds to improve roads before the state gives them to counties, called a turn-back process.
A major issue the group addressed is the need to provide training and connect the metropolitan area need for information technology employees with the availability of rural workers who might fill those jobs remotely through the information network.
Approximately 1,100 people graduate annually from information technology programs, but 9,000 job openings over the next will be available, Larson reported.
Farm housewives, farmers and rural people in low income jobs could be prime trainees for computer-related jobs. When fiber-optic cables or satellite connections are available, these people could work from their home communties for metro companies via the information network, the commissioners speculated.
Funding for training, incentives to businesses needing workers to locate out-state or incentives to metro companies to hire rural workers are possible options suggested Monday.
The commissioners agreed to research this issue more.
The governor's bonding plan, Larson told commissioners, fails to address rural college and university building repair needs, with funds only directed toward metro higher education.
With increasing state mandates for services, the legislature must either increase payment in lieu of taxes, lift county property tax levy limits or both, so counties can increase revenue to provide services the state requires, the commissioner agreed.
Larson encouraged each county to report the fact at most two or three citizens attend state-mandated truth in taxation hearings each year. This hearing cost Cass County about $30,000 this year.
On utility deregulation, Lake County Commissioner Sharon Hahn said she has been unable to get answers on who will be responsible for maintain power lines if this passes.
Proposed state legislation for private property rights protection also leaves unanswered questions for the group. Members are unsure whether this could cost counties significant legal fees and settlements for enforcing land management regulations.
Hahn suggested the counties should seek some state help for the 27 percent of Minnesota households dependant upon private sewer systems. This should not be at the expense of state funding available for municipal or collector systems, she said.
While some counties have been able to get local banks to provide 3 percent interest loans for private sewer system improvements, this is not available in all counties. Hahn said this should not have to be coupled with increased regulations and costs.
Beltrami Commissioner Steve Booth raised the issue of state employees developing new rules which could put "most (Minnesota) farms out of business," namely, the proposed feed lot regulations.
Hahn objected to legislators allowing state staff to write rules when those people aren't subject to voter control over whether or not they remain on the job.
One commissioner suggested feed lot rules being proposed could ultimately lead to controls over people raising sled dogs on 10 acres. There is no limit suggested in the present rules, he said.
Booth encouraged his fellow commissioners to keep the same priorities on issues they pursue and not drop these until they get a response from the legislature.
Ray Bayerl of McLeod County said counties should not let state agencies bluff them. He mentioned one agency his county stood firm against and has had no further trouble since taking that stand.
Another unanswered question the group raised was how the state plans to address the fact court administration will transfer from a county to state agency this year, but there has been no discussion about whether the state will pay counties to use or improve the space that office occupies at each courthouse.
MRCC unanimously adopted a stand favoring removing wolves from the endangered species list.
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