By Dana Yost

MARSHALL — The last time Congress approved an increase in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was in junior high.

But in December, both the Senate and House passed a 35-mile-per-gallon requirement by 2020 as part of a sweeping energy bill, which was signed into law by President Bush on Dec. 19.

The bill was one of several accomplishments Klobuchar talked about as she summed up her first year in the Senate on Tuesday at a speech at the Landmark Bistro in Marshall. She spoke as part of the monthly Schwan Speaker Series. The senator is also visiting several other cities in southwest Minnesota this week.

Klobuchar said in her first year she discovered that things “move slow” in the Senate, but there is more bipartisanship than people think because senators do want to accomplish things — such as the energy bill.

Klobuchar said she was also happy to accomplish one of her personal goals going into the Senate — getting seats on committees of importance to Minnesota. She did so, by being named to the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee in a year in which a new farm bill was shaped, to the Environment and Public Works Committee, and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

She said she was the first Minnesota senator since 1946 to be appointed to Commerce. She said the committee finished work on a number of key issues.

They include the 9/11 Commission Report, the America Competes business act, consumer-safety legislation, easing student loan burdens, and the fuel-efficiency standards.

“That’s something we hadn’t seen movement on in the past, but a lot of senators are seeing it now as an economic issue, not just an environmental issue,” Klobuchar said.

On the Environment and Public Works Committee, she said, there has been progress on work on global climate issues.

“We’re going to see more focus on that in years to come,” Klobuchar said. “We have to be serious but also realistic (about how fast change can occur). But we’ve had lots of CEOs come in and say they are concerned about it.”

One way to achieve progress, she said, is to use market trade practices — like carbon credits — in the same way it effectively reduced acid rain.

Klobuchar also said there are several challenges Congress must address in coming years, but said she felt good about work in 2007 — calling it “a down-payment on change. But there is more to do.”

Among the challenges:

Health care access and cost. She said that when she travels around Minnesota she hears from small businesses and middle-class residents that costs are getting tougher. She said it’s important to find ways to contain insurance costs so small businesses can stay competitive.

She said care givers also must work to keep their costs down. One example she cited was in a southern-state hospital that put quality standards in place to reduce costs.

She also said more must be done to improve and ensure access to quality health care in rural America, ensuring children’s health, and finding better ways to deal with major diseases such as diabetes. She said there will likely be a push to put people in bigger pools of insured to reduce costs.

“But, in truth, there won’t be comprehensive legislation on health care until after the presidential election,” Klobuchar said. “People will want to evaluate what (the candidates) propose.”

Energy was the second challenge Klobuchar listed. She says she sees the push for more renewable energy sources as an opportunity for Minnesota. She said she’s still a “huge supporter” of ethanol, but said the state has to realize the future of ethanol is in cellulosic sources like switchgrass. She also supports wind, and says transmission capacity will be a key issue.

“Minnesota really has been on the front end on renewables,” Klobuchar said. “We really stand to gain if we do this the right way. We need to embrace it so we can benefit from it.”

Thirdly, is the war in Iraq, and decent treatment of returning Iraqi veterans.

Klobuchar said she supports a gradual troop withdrawal with deadlines, and says the U.S. has done a good job of training Iraqi police to step in when the U.S. leaves.

Her bigger worry, though, seemed to be over veterans’ health care.

“Unlike Vietnam, we finally have some general agreement that we need to treat troops with respect when they come home — that means with health care, that means with (not shirking) education promises,” she said. “We pushed that issue — to get education benefits.

“No matter what people think about the war, (soldiers) have been on the front line, have seen combat and they deserve our respect.”

And fourth, is transportation — an issue of importance to Marshall and southwest Minnesota, as well as other areas of the state. Klobuchar said when she came to Marshall in August, she got stuck behind a tractor-trailer on Highway 23 and was late for her meeting, so she understands the interest in a four-lane 23. She vowed to “help anyway I can,” on 23.

She said the Minneapolis bridge collapse woke up the whole country to the neglect of roads and bridges, and said the need for more funding is clear.

“The point is, we know we haven’t got the infrastructure in this country that we should have,” she said.

She said the investment can be funded through creative bonding and eliminating tax breaks on income earners of $250,000 or more.

“We have to be brave enough, because a robust transportation system is key to our economy, and no where is that more true than in rural America,” Klobuchar said.

Along with investing in roads and bridges, Klobuchar called for more rail use — saying it can be a cost-effective way of shipping goods in a time of high gas prices. One key, though, she said will be to get major rail lines to make their rates more competitive.

“Right now, it costs Blandin (Corp., the Minnesota paper company) the same to ship from Grand Rapids to Indiana as it does to go from Finland to Indiana,” Klobuchar said. “We need more competitive rates.”