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Duluth preps legislative pitch

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and her team are busily preparing their game plan for the coming legislative session, which begins Feb. 20. Earlier this week, she shared her top priorities with the Duluth City Council.

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Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and her team are busily preparing their game plan for the coming legislative session, which begins Feb. 20. Earlier this week, she shared her top priorities with the Duluth City Council.

Sales tax

Larson's top ask is for the state to authorize Duluth to increase its sales tax by 0.5 percent. If approved, that tax would generate an estimated $7 million annually, with those funds dedicated solely to repair and improve local roads.

That request got a boost in November, when 76 percent of Duluth voters registered their support for the proposed tax via a non-binding referendum.

Larson said lawmakers she has spoken to about the proposed sales tax have seemed receptive to the idea.

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"In the past, people have wanted to recognize the autonomy of cities as they choose to self-tax. And that is what I continue to hear from people in both parties," Larson said.

Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, likes Duluth's odds of success with its sales tax proposal.

"I would say our chances are on the plus-side of 50 percent. And I say that only because I think a community referendum vote carries a lot of weight with most legislators," he said.

Simonson said taxes likely will be a focus topic this session.

"It certainly looks like we're going to have a lot of discussion around taxes this year, with the federal changes. So the likelihood of having an omnibus tax bill seems good to me, and I think that increases our chances of getting into that final bill," he said.

District 7A Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, also expressed optimism, saying: "I think that's going to be an easy lift, because of the support for it in our community, and the fact that we're not getting enough state funding to maintain our community. So we are forced in this position to raise our own revenues, as are many other communities."

Steam conversion

Last year, Duluth received $15 million in state funding to assist with the conversion of a downtown steam heating system to a more efficient hot water loop system. In the coming session, the city will seek an additional $7 million to complete the project, with the aim of completing the work in conjunction with the reconstruction of Superior Street.

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Kevin Walli, a lobbyist for the city of Duluth, acknowledged that competition for state bonding dollars will be intense, but he suspects Duluth will be able to obtain the funding it needs to finish the job on Superior Street.

"I feel confident that we're in a good position, because we're asking to complete a task that the state has already undertaken with us. I've been at the Capitol for over 30 years, and I can't think of a circumstance where a project that was begun wasn't finished," he said.

Assuming the Legislature approves a bonding bill this year, as anticipated, Simonson said: "I think that the chances of getting in the bill are good."

But he noted the steam conversion project is unique in that it can't be funded with general obligation bonds. Rather, it will take cash or some other source of ready funding.

Yet Simonson said Duluth's request for additional support was expected.

"It was sold last year as kind of a phased project, so it's not like anybody would be surprised that there's a subsequent ask coming," he said.

Seawalls

Duluth also will seek $6.1 million in funding to repair failing seawalls behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

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The compromised wall has resulted in a destabilized shoreline punctuated with sinkholes, and Schultz believes the city can make a strong case for state aid, especially as it stands to interfere with the operation of tour boats in the area.

"It's dangerous. It is a public safety issue, and it hurts our tourism economy. Those boats need to dock there, and you can't walk on the sidewalk behind the DECC," she said.

While there's clearly a pressing need to address the deteriorating seawalls, Simonson said: "Introducing a project and expecting to get it funded in the same year is always a challenge. Sometimes it takes a year or two to percolate through the system."

Putting off repairs could pose its own risks, he noted.

"Who knows how long it's going to last before we actually have to close it off or do something drastic?" Simonson asked.

Zoo funding

Larson said the city will lend its support to other Northland projects, too, but won't take a lead role in lobbying for bonding dollars on their behalf.

One of the projects that falls into this category is a $1.9 million request from the Lake Superior Zoo to help fund the installation of a new "Bear Country" exhibit.

Last year, Simonson was hired to serve as the zoo's CEO, and as a result, he'll need to remain on the sidelines when it comes time to lobby the Legislature for that project.

"I absolutely am not going to fill both roles. That would be a clear conflict of interest," he said.

Instead, Simonson will turn to other zoo staff to advocate on behalf of the exhibit. The zoo also will hire a professional lobbyist.

However, Schultz said she will play an active role in support of the zoo's request.

"It takes a team effort," she said.

Schultz said she believes the zoo's request can be fulfilled without Simonson's involvement. But she notes that it would be wise to enlist another senator's support

"I think we can all carry that," she said. "We'll just have to find another champion in the Senate."

Related Topics: TRANSPORTATION
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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