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Sailer passes bills in low-budget session

Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, discusses federal economic stimulus spending in the Park Rapids area a week ago in Bemidji with U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District. Pioneer Photo/ Brad Swenson

Given the state budget situation this past session, Rep. Brita Sailer says she didn't author a lot of bills. And those she did were targeted to help individuals, businesses or local governments.

"This year, knowing what we had to deal with primarily being the budget deficit, I didn't see a great deal of point in putting in all sorts of bills to spend money we didn't have," Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, said in a recent interview.

"What I was looking for were places where we could figure out ways to save individual residents, counties, businesses -- save people money and at the same time not loosening regulations to the point where things actually go seriously backward," she said.

Sailer authored two clean-up bills, one actually having to do with solid waste.

She resurrected a past bill by another lawmaker to change regulations on landfills, and finally got a version of it passed this session.

Had Sailer's language not been included, "we would not have been able to expand any rural landfills," she said. "They come up for re-permitting every five years, and it would have meant they could not do an expansion if they needed to under the new rules."

Rural counties spend a lot of money in siting a new landfill, Sailer said. "They spend money siting the landfill in the first place, and then often spend money on a recycling facility next to it."

The amended bill will allow expansion potential when re-permitting current landfills.

Also, new rules will allow a company to handle and bury construction demolition on site, rather than haul it to a demolition landfill.

"Instead of hauling the whole building off to the (construction demolition landfill) site, the owners are allowed to bury it onsite, after everything harmful has been removed and it's been inspected," Sailer said.

"For any landfills permitted before 2011, the new language does not cover them," she said of the new rules that new facilities must follow. "That's good because we want to protect the drinking water, and anytime that we're doing something new, we should be doing very careful assessment of how it's going to affect drinking water and everything else."

A second bill authored by Sailer will help homeowners putting in a new septic system.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is working through new rules for septic system installation and had asked counties to adopt the rules even before they were finalized. Counties, including Beltrami, balked at them and refused to adopt them.

Counties said they were too onerous and would cost homeowners significantly more to install new septic systems. Counties would also have to add staff to do the mandated MCPA onsite inspections.

"We basically put a two-year extension" on the new MPCA rules, Sailer said. "Some counties have already adopted the rules. In one case, Hubbard County had adopted the rules and then rescinded them."

The proposed rules don't just affect counties, but also installers because they have to have a different standard of licensure. There are also training requirements, as well as higher costs for homeowners, Sailer said.

"We also put in the law that there be a task force that actually has to listen to all of the concerns," she said. "Theoretically there already is one, but I don't know why I kept hearing complaints from everybody across the board. Obviously there was a problem with listening from the MPCA in St. Paul."

The new task force is to talk with installers, developers, counties -- everybody who is involved in septic systems, she said. "They need to find out what makes sense and what doesn't."

The major problem was that counties were being required to adopt rules that were not yet complete, Sailer said. "It's not just a matter of adopting an ordinance that the ink isn't dry, the ink wasn't even there, which was problematic."

Another Sailer bill will raise the fee for cross country skiers on state trails, a bill asked for by the state cross country skiing association. The fee hasn't been raised for number of years, and the increased funds will help with trail grooming efforts.

A daily ski pass goes from $4 to $6, an annual pass from $14 to $19 and a three-year pass from $39 to $54.

The bill includes provisions to allow parents or chaperones of organized groups to ski without a pass, Sailer said. "That's something to encourage groups, whether it's school or 4-H or Boy Scouts or whoever, to get out."

Another provision will allow the Department of Natural Resources to access some of the permit fees for use on trails in state parts, but must first seek legislative approval. "We're concerned that with cutbacks coming in the future, how would it be to have our cross country ski trails in our state parks not be maintained? This would allow them to come to the Legislature for the OK to use it in state parks."

Another "fix" Sailer worked on is the fee charged by the DNR for homeowners crossing public lands to connect their property to electricity or cable. It used to cost just a flat $500 permit fee, but due to decreased DNR budgets, it was changed to the actual cost which now may range from $2,000 to $5,000.

"I heard about this from individual constituents and certainly Beltrami Electric and Itasca Mantrap and Clearwater-Polk," Sailer said. "They pass that along to their customers. For Paul Bunyan Telephone or any telephone utility, because their line goes right to the house, rather than the edge of the property, would have to pay another $5,000 fee for the same house and they couldn't charge the customer for that."

Those fees were then spread to all ratepayers.

New provisions eliminate costs associated with DNR inspections of the property, which is already done by Gopher One State. Another provisions allows homeowner putting in both an electric line and telephone line in the same year to pay one fee.

A public water crossing fee went from $500 to $1,500 last year and will now be $1,750, but Sailer said most other permits went down, from $4,500 to $3,000 for crossing public lands.

"And now we can bundle it," she said.

Outside of environmental legislation, Sailer also got extra funding for a Bagley residential home for developmentally disable people.

"They've been woefully underfunded for years," she said of the facility with 15 residents and 22 staff. "They were losing money every day they were open."

The Bagley facility was being reimbursed from the state at $112 per day for each resident, while other facilities in the state received up to $180 a day. With costs closer to $125 a day, the Bagley facility will now receive a one-year increase to $132 a day.

"We made a lot of cuts -- $2.3 billion," Sailer said. "That's a lot of cutting. Some say to cut our way through all of it, but that's like saying we're going to close a facility that works with 15 developmentally disabled folks, or you're going to pay $5,000 for each utility crossing over public lands. That's what it means doing it by all cuts."

Cuts will be looked at again next year, she said. "But most of the lawmakers from our area were just adamant about not cutting the nursing homes for long-term care."