State may fund area projects

FAIRMONT — The Fairmont area stands to benefit from several multi-million dollar grants working their way toward approval at the State Capitol.

State Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, notes that the House of Representatives has passed an $825 million bonding bill with several items of interest for his district. The bill must yet be reconciled with a Senate version and receive Gov. Mark Dayton’s approval.

The city of Fairmont’s plans to build a new industrial park at the intersection of Interstate 90 and County Road 39 is in line to receive $2 million from the state. The funds would help extend utilities to the site, as well as construct curb and gutter along the road.

Elsewhere, more than $2 million has been earmarked for a Fox Lake Conservation League/Pheasants Forever public hunting land project. Gunther said the project would involve converting land not suitable for farming into a game preserve.

The city of Winnebago could get $6 million for a major infrastructure project involving sewer, drainage, storm sewer and street repairs. St. James and Jackson, likewise, could get state funds to help with sewer repairs, while Sherburn may receive additional money to help with a water tower project.

One project not moving ahead at the Legislature is a $20 million proposal for a new justice center to replace the Fairmont-based law enforcement center and jail in Martin County.

“We did not get a hearing on that, so we’ll try again next year,” Gunther said.

The state has criticized the jail in recent years as out of date and inadequate.

Gunther said he feels optimistic about the Senate syncing up its spending with what the House has done. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans. Dayton’s role looms large, though, as the governor can remove specific projects from bills with his line-item veto.

Gunther envisions typical, tough end-of-session negotiations coming between the GOP-controlled Legislature and the governor, who is a Democrat. Dayton has already proposed a spending package that is about twice the size of the House’s version. The session ends May 21.

In addition to putting state money toward projects throughout Minnesota, the Legislature is attempting to tackle two more major issues this session: federal tax conformity and school safety, given high-profile school shooting incidents.

Gunther said the Legislature wants to give schools more choices in their approaches to safety, along with some new funding to beef up security.

Tax conformity, meanwhile, involves aligning Minnesota’s tax code to match reforms enacted by President Trump and the Republican-led Congress. If Minnesota were to do nothing, it is estimated that up to 300,000 residents would end up paying more in state taxes.

Democrats and Republicans have been skirmishing over state tax reform, with both sides making arguments about who should or will benefit from their proposals. Democrats have criticized Republican plans as too generous to the wealthy and to corporations. House Republicans, meanwhile, tout their plan as lowering taxes for 2.1 million Minnesotans.

Aside from the broader issues making headlines, Gunther is working on three issues near and dear to his heart. These all involve the ability of the people in his district to find work and keep it.

The first topic is workforce development, through which the state takes a role in linking open jobs to job-seekers. This can involve working with businesses and through community colleges or technical schools to provide job training.

The second issue is the daycare shortage. The state has committed some funding to help develop more daycares.

“We’re looking next year at giving a tax credit for employers to provide daycare for their employees,” Gunther said. “So if they provide daycare, we’ll give them a 40 percent tax break on the cost of doing that.”

He also noted that daycare operators would like a break on the amount of time-consuming, duplicative paperwork they are required to complete.

Gunther noted that the successful effort to move Stepping Stones Learning Center into Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center in Fairmont required knocking down regulatory barriers, because the state Department of Human Services initially wanted to make Lakeview engage in extensive renovations to host the children.

“Those are the kinds of things we need to look at,” Gunther said. “What can we do to get more [daycare centers].”

Finally, affordable workforce housing remains an issue for oustate Minnesota. Gunther said one obstacle involves building a home or apartment complex in a small town, where the re-sale value of the home, once complete, is less than the cost of construction. He noted that the federal government has a program that will help fund this “gap” to create more housing. The state can likewise help with regulatory relief, he noted.

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