Minnesota doctors may be in short supply

By Don Davis

Primary care doctors soon may be in short supply, a Minnesota Hospital Association report showed on Monday.

“Many of our hospitals, especially those in greater Minnesota, already have difficulty attracting physicians,” association President Lawrence J. Massa said. “I hope this new information will provide an impetus to policy makers to make the urgent decisions needed on both the state and federal levels to give our health professional students access to the clinical training and residency experience they need to become licensed to practice.”

The study written by Towers Watson, a professional services company, says the doctor shortage will appear in the next decade. It found that “the current pipeline of graduates barely appears adequate to replace retirements as they occur. That, coupled with projected increases in demand because of an aging population, will result in a significant talent gap for physicians.”

There could be a shortage of 850 primary care doctors by 2024, the study shows.

The study blames the shortage on a growing and aging population, along with fewer doctors graduating and increased retirements. Many fields are experiencing higher retirement numbers as baby boomers age.

The hospital study shows about 1,350 primary care doctors are expected to leave the profession in the next decade from the approximately 5,000 in Minnesota today. At the same time, 1,300 doctors are expected to begin practice. Combined with increased demand, that would leave an 850-doctor shortfall, the study shows.

“Minnesota health care organizations will need to take action to ensure they have access to the talent needed to successfully deliver quality care,” said the study’s chief author, Rick Sherwood of Towers Watson.

Hospital association officials say they will ask federal and state lawmakers to make changes that would encourage more people to pursue physician degrees. Some laws discourage taking medical courses, while federal cuts are being discussed in the medical education field, the association reported.

The association suggests developing a statewide health-care task force to look into the doctor situation. It also seeks more state medical education funding.

The group also says tele-medicine should expand to use more technology to serve patients remotely.

“Given the challenges of moving additional spending proposals through Congress, solutions at the federal level may continue to be elusive,” Massa said. “More action at the state level is critical.”

The study said the registered nurse supply should remain strong.

Candidate Johnson improving

Minnesota Republican governor candidate Jeff Johnson is recovering after a Monday abdominal surgery.

Megan Fasching of Maple Grove Hospital Tuesday said that Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, “had successful surgery to treat a fairly common GI condition. He tolerated the surgery well and is on the road to recovery. He should be back to normal health in a matter of days with no-long term effects.”

Johnson’s campaign sent reporters a Web link to a Mayo Clinic peptic ulcer page, which described the condition as “open sores that develop on the inside lining of your esophagus, stomach and the upper portion of your small intestine. The most common symptom of a peptic ulcer is abdominal pain.”

He went to an urgent care clinic with pain on Monday and was sent to the Maple Grove hospital.

Johnson is in a three-way race against state Rep. Kurt Zellers, former state Rep. Marty Seifert and businessman Scott Honour. Republican voters will pick their party’s nominee to face Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton during the Aug. 12 primary election.

More counties expect flood aid

By Don Davis

More Minnesota counties likely will be added to a presidential flood disaster declaration.

President Barack Obama on Monday declared eight of 51 counties that experienced flood damage this summer as eligible for federal disaster aid. However, Gov. Mark Dayton’s office reports that more counties are expected to join the list as local officials complete their damage assessment.

Dayton said that he initiated the disaster response process before all county damage totals were available to speed federal money to the state.

So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports $37.1 million in damages from floods that begin on June 11. That is nearly $30 million more than needed for Obama to declare a disaster.

The eight counties on the list so far are Chippewa, Freeborn, Jackson, Murray, Nobles, Pipestone, Renville and Rock, mostly southern and western Minnesota rural areas. State Emergency Services Director Kris Eide has said the most expensive damage is in the Twin Cities area.

Federal aid that will follow Obama’s declaration will help local governments pay for flood-related costs such as debris removal, road repairs and fixing other public facilities like parks and water treatment plants.

Washington reimburses 75 percent of disaster costs, with the state picking up the rest. Dayton said that he may call a special legislative session to fund the state portion, but has not decided about the issue, and does not know when a session might occur.

The presidential declaration allows all Minnesota local governments to apply for funds to prevent or reduce future disaster risks to life and property.

While it is possible some aid will be made available to individuals and businesses, the Obama declaration only applies to state and local governments.

“Weeks of torrential downpour this summer triggered devastating flooding that inflicted severe damage all across our state,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. “This disaster declaration will deliver critical funding and support to communities impacted by flooding and help our state rebuild and recover.”

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., called Obama’s decision “a necessary first step to helping residents in the affected counties get back on their feet.”

State officials have called the June flooding, which remains a problem in parts of the state, the most widespread disaster the state has experienced. More than half the state’s 87 counties reported damage.

Political chatter: U.S. House races bring in money, too

By Don Davis

Everyone knew that U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Mike McFadden will run rich campaigns if they face off in November, as expected, but a couple of mostly rural U.S. House races involve more money than usual.

Northern and east-central Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District race between Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan and Republican challenger Stewart Mills is a financial barnburner.

Nolan reports $1 million raised in April, May and June, with $579,000 in the bank. First-time candidate Mills says he raised $989,000 in the same time period and has $429,000 available.

Mills, of the Fleet Farm supply store family, gave his campaign $121,000.

In the 7th district, taking in a huge area of western Minnesota, incumbent Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat, raised $1 million and has most of it in the bank: $717,000. State Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, surprised many observers by picking up $430,000 during the quarter, with $328,000 cash on hand.

National Republican groups have picked Westrom and Mills as two GOP candidates with bright futures and are helping them financially. Both districts are expected to attract lots of money from groups other than the campaigns.

Other incumbents hold massive leads over rivals, such as in southern Minnesota where Democrat Rep. Tim Walz collected more than $1 million for the quarter as two Republicans combined got little more than $200,000.

In the 2nd Congressional District, just south of the Twin Cities, Republican Rep. Kline amassed more than $2 million, with Democrat Mike Obermueller reporting less than $600,000.

For the Franken-McFadden race, incumbent Franken, a Democrat, reported that he took in more than $3.3 million during the quarter and had $5 million in the bank. McFadden, the Republican challenger, says he raised $1.1 million in the same three months, leaving $2 million in the bank.

Auditor race on TV

Minnesotans expect to see television commercials for governor, U.S. Senate and maybe even the U.S. House, but state auditor not so much.

In what may be a first, the two Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party auditor candidates have TV commercials looking for votes in the Aug. 12 primary election.

In what normally is a quiet, or maybe even invisible, campaign, incumbent Rebecca Otto and long-time DFL politician Matt Entenza are competing.

Entenza’s commercial clearly is looking for DFL votes.

“Matt Entenza, progressive for auditor,” his commercial ends.

“Progressive” often is used as another word for “liberal Democrat.”

He promises to “end unnecessary tax giveaways to big corporations,” something traditionally outside the bounds of the state auditor’s office, which usually is thought of as just auditing local governments’ books.

Otto’s commercial closely matches how most in government view the auditor.

She begins her commercial saying that she ran because she discovered “hundreds of millions of dollars in errors” in local government audits. She ends it with: “I will make sure the numbers add up.”

Pre-registration ending

Today is the final day for Minnesota voters to register before the Aug. 12 primary election.

They still may register at the polls, although that could result in a delay casting ballots.

Minnesotans may register online, at mnvotes.org, for the first time this year. They also may see who is running at that Website and download pre-registration applications.

Nearly 5,700 voters have registered online.

Where’s spell checker?

Republican governor candidate Jeff Johnson pointed to an embarrassing spelling error by the campaign of the man he hopes to replace, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Johnson wrote on his Facebook page about his son Thor and a visitor:

“A young man knocked on our door. Thor answered. The young man said, ‘Do you know who your household is voting for in the governor’s race?’

“Thor: ‘Jeff Johnson is my dad, so probably him.’

“Young man: ‘Dude, that’s so cool — I actually got Jeff Johnson’s house on my list. You should give this brochure to your dad; he’ll think it’s funny that they misspelled Minnesota on the top.’”

The young made handed Thor an item headlined: “Help us continue to build a better Minnesta.”

Separately, the Dayton campaign sent a tweet about his running mate: “Red Lake Senior High School on Red Lake Indian Reservation hosted a visited by @Tinaflintsmith today.”

Both campaigns and journalists fear such misspellings and misused words (the fear is especially bad for a journalist writing about someone else’s misspelling).

Thursday a bad day

Thursday was a rough day for those around Minnesota government.

That is when word came of three deaths: President David Olson of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, former state Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba of Long Prairie and Rueben Simpson of New York Mills, the 99-year-old father of Dean Simpson, a former state representatives Kurt Zeller’s lieutenant governor candidate.

Thompson becomes manager

Former Republican governor candidate Dave Thompson has become Scott Newman’s attorney general campaign manager.

Both are GOP state senators.

Thompson, of Lakeville, lost his party’s endorsement for governor to Jeff Johnson. Newman, of Hutchinson, faces token opposition in the Aug. 12 primary. He wants to replace Democratic Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Wage poster ready

Minnesota’s minimum wage is to rise on Aug. 1, and the state Department and Labor and Industry is ready with a new poster employers must display.

The poster is available at www.dli.mn.gov/posters.

Workers in large businesses will be paid at least $8 an hour, with those at small firms getting $6.50. It is the first step in boosting big-company wages to $9.

Farmington leaders offer to host special legislative session

Pitching Farmington

By Don Davis

Leaders of the southern Twin Cities suburb of Farmington Thursday offered to host a special legislative session to fund flood recovery.

“Minnesota has a proud tradition of coming together to provide relief for those in need following natural disasters, and Farmington would be a unique and well-suited location to host any upcoming special session given the current state of the Capitol,” state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said.

The invitation came as much of the Capitol building is closed for a $273 million renovation. However, state officials say the House and Senate chambers and some meeting rooms will be available if Gov. Mark Dayton needs to call a special session.

While the governor’s office and House speaker did not reject the Farmington proposal, neither did they give it much hope.

“It is an intriguing idea,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “However, there are questions in terms of costs and feasibility.”

Dayton press secretary Matt Swenson said a special session, which is not a certainty, would need agreement among all four legislative leaders and the governor.

“While Rep. Garafolo’s idea is an interesting one, the additional costs incurred by holding a special session outside the Capitol would need to be considered…” Swenson said. “Gov. Dayton’s primary concern is ensuring Minnesotans affected by this summer’s flooding get the help they need as quickly as possible.”

Floods that affected more than half of Minnesota’s counties likely will bring a presidential disaster declaration, but even though the federal government would pay for most flood recovery costs, the state would be on the hook for 25 percent. That probably means the Legislature will need to convene to appropriate the money.

Most disaster recovery funding sessions last less than a day and are routine.

Farmington residents said they can offer lawmakers a home away from Capitol construction and it would give them a chance to toot their own horn.

“We are small town Minnesota nice, but with big city dreams,” Farmington High School student Natalie Pellin said.

School officials proposed using iPad technology they already have in their 5-year-old school to record votes.

“Farmington High School has the space and technology to host a legislative special session, and this is a chance for legislators to see firsthand the technology our students are using to help improve our education outcomes in the classroom,” Chairwoman Tera Lee of the Farmington School Board said.

Farmington Mayor Todd Larson said that holding the session in his community would showcase his entire community.

Garofalo said he is concerned with technological issues during a special session in the Capitol because some recording systems have been removed. He also expressed concerns about the public’s safety in a construction zone.

However, even though the Capitol will remain mostly closed next year, he said that he does not have the same concerns during next year’s regular session that begins in January and could last into May.

Garofalo admitted that the Farmington suggestion could set off a competition among cities around Minnesota to host the session. Soon after Farmington leaders talked to reporters, Rep. Joe Radinovich, D-Crosby, tweeted that his area would be a good location.

“This is purely to showcase the accomplishments of Farmington,” Garofalo said.

Ex-lawmaker Otremba dies


By Al Edenloff

Mary Ellen Otremba, a popular and soft-spoken state legislator who represented areas of central and west-central Minnesota for 13 years, died Thursday. She was 63.

Otremba, a Democrat, was known for working across party lines for greater Minnesota issues, as evidenced by Republicans praising her service in the hours after her death.

In 2010, Otremba announced that she wouldn’t seek an eighth term. At that time, she issued a statement saying it had been “an incredible privilege” to serve the citizens of District 11B in the Minnesota House.

“There is no greater honor in a democracy than to be selected by one’s fellow citizens to represent them in the halls of government,” Otremba said in her statement. “I will always be grateful for the years I’ve had to serve in our beautiful Capitol, working to enhance the quality of life for all Minnesotans.”

She said her father “brought me to my first precinct caucus. Since that day, I’ve never stopped working to shine a light on the wonderful things than make greater Minnesota’s quality of life so special.”

After Otremba retired, Republican Mary Franson of Alexandria defeated the DFL-endorsed candidate in Otremba’s district, Amy Hunter, in the 2010 election.

“My hearts mourns for Mary Ellen and the family she leaves behind,” Franson said. “Mary Ellen was a dedicated public servant who represented the heart and soul of our community well.”

Another Republican also praised the Democrat.

“Rep. Otremba was widely respected in the Legislature and known for her passion for Todd County residents,” said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. “Party politics didn’t play into her thinking; instead, her integrity and strong desire to represent Todd County drove her legislation.”

Otremba was first elected in a November 1997 special election after the death of her husband, Rep. Ken Otremba, two months earlier.

She chaired the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Ways and Means Committee. She also served on a variety of committees dealing with agriculture, rural development, veterans affairs and health and human services.

She was an assistant House minority leader from 2001 to 2004.

Otremba graduated from Long Prairie High School and attended the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, where she received a degree in home and community service. She later attended St. Cloud State University, receiving a master’s degree in child and family studies. She worked as a nutritionist for the Todd County Department of Public Health from 1984 to 1989, as a teacher in the Freshwater Educational District from 1986 to 1989 and as a teacher at Eagle Valley High School in Clarissa from 1989 to 1997. She also taught family and consumer science at Swanville High School and was a substitute teacher there.

Minnesota farmland taxes expected to rise

By Don Davis

Many Minnesota property owners could see some tax relief this year, but farmers can expect higher taxes for at least the next two years.

“What I am hearing is it is making it much more difficult to do business as a farmer,” Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said of agriculture property tax increases.

Still, he said, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor’s office have slowed increases that have occurred for more than a decade.

A new, nonpartisan Minnesota House report shows that property taxes as a whole should fall $49 million this year, a 0.6 percent drop, although the cost for each property owner will be different. The tax cut may not be seen on property tax bills because the House figures in tax refunds that Democrats increased.

In 2015, property taxes should go up $238 million, a 2.8 percent increase, the House report predicted.

In both years, farmland property taxes are expected to rise: 8.1 percent this year and 4.7 percent next year.

Researchers emphasize that they are working off their best guess because they cannot predict factors such as how much local governments may raise property taxes and how much property may be worth.

The two major parties waged a news release battle soon after the property tax figures were released. Democrats emphasized this year’s predicted drop in most types of property taxes, while Republicans focused on the 2015 increases.

“We knew farmers and rural landowners were going to be hit hard with property tax increases, but now it appears that homeowners in all tax brackets can expect to pay more despite promises the Democrats made over the past two years,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska. “Make no mistake, hardworking Minnesotans from all corners of the state are going to feel the impacts of this property tax increase.”

A news release from Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers showed a different side, explaining that when Republicans were in charge, property taxes soared $370 million in 2012.

“The DFL-led Legislature made property tax relief a priority in our budget and, in particular, made direct property tax relief a priority,” the DFL reported, adding that Democrats approved $178 million in property tax relief in the past two years and more than 300,000 homeowners should receive larger property tax refunds.

Marquart, long an outspoken supporter of lowering farm taxes, said that at least agriculture taxes are not rising as fast as they would have under the policies in effect when Democrats took over in early 2013.

The rising taxes still bother him: “I don’t like that, but I think we are getting ag property taxes under control.”

Marquart said the main reason farm property taxes are going up is that farmland value is rising. While home values recently have gone up 6.8 percent, ag land is up 13.3 percent, he said. That shifts property taxes from homes to farmland.

Farmers complain that while land prices are rising, they do not benefit unless they sell their farms.

Marquart said farmers in his western Minnesota district report taxes that not long ago were $14 to $15 an acre now are $30 to $40. “It really has impacted the cost of production.”

Marquart said he does not have the answer to how to fix ag taxes, but said the Legislature and governor must tackle the issue next year.

“We still have a lot of work to do, absolutely,” Marquart said. “But we are moving in the right direction.”

Capitol notebook: Renewable fuels group blasts big oil

By Don Davis

The Renewable Fuels Association says major oil companies strong-arm retailers that sell gasoline under their brand names to avoid using any more plant-based ethanol than legally necessary.

Independent gasoline stations are four to six times more likely to sell higher blends of ethanol, usually made from corn, than those that carry major oil company names, the association reported.

At stake is whether high ethanol blends will be readily available to consumers. Those blends include E85, which features 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petroleum-based gasoline. Also being hindered, the association says, is the sale of E15, with 15 percent ethanol; most gasoline today contains 10 percent ethanol.

The association claims that contracts major oil companies make retailers sign construct roadblocks to selling anything other than what big oil wants, which is to sell their petroleum products.

“This new report underscores the need for the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) to look into these allegations, and I will continue pushing to ensure that consumers have access to the cheaper, cleaner fuels they deserve,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel.

Reuters news agency reports that oil companies, which long have called for repeal of a federal biofuel mandate, say retailers have been reluctant to sell E15 due to concerns that it could harm engines in older vehicles, and that consumers do not want to buy the product.

Klobuchar and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have pressed the FTC for almost a year to investigate whether oil industry practices regarding ethanol violate antitrust laws. It is unclear whether the agency has taken action on the matter.

Where are the farmers?

The New York Times is sponsoring a conference this year called “Food for Tomorrow,” promising that it will discuss how to “farm better, eat better, feel better.”

But the Daily Yonder online rural newspaper points out that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine is the only farmer and only rural resident on the speaker list: “She has an organic operation that supplies her restaurant and lodge, and she sells a good bit of wool on line.”

While Times officials tell the Yonder they are adding speakers, they did not promise any farmers would speak from the dais.

Times columnist Mark Bittman is to be keynote speaker at the New York event, with a couple of Times reporters on the agenda.

Yonder reports: “There’s a panel discussion on who will farm (with no full-time farmers) and a group talking ‘sustainable scale,’ with no farmers and nobody who has had to deal directly with food monopolies.”

4 lane or 2 lane?

Republican governor candidate Jeff Johnson’s running mate told a southern Minnesota newspaper that it was a mistake to turn a northern Minnesota highway into four lanes.

The Owatonna People’s Press reported on Bill Kuisle’s visit: “Another issue for Kuisle is how the MnDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation) and lawmakers interact. In general, he said that the Legislature has a ‘hands-off’ approach to choosing transportation projects. But a strong legislator can lobby to get work done in his or her region, which can be a misplaced priority.

“As an example, he mentioned U.S. Highway 2 in the northern part of the state. He said it was made into a four-lane roadway under the watch of former (federal) Rep. Jim Oberstar, who died earlier this year. Kuisle said that the highway should have stayed at two lanes.”

Another Republican candidate, Marty Seifert, jumped on the comment and said he thinks the highway should be four lanes so grain can be delivered from Minnesota farmers and all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles can be shipped from Arctic Cat in Thief River Falls to the Duluth port.

Seifert spends a lot of time reminding GOP voters of his rural background.

Other candidates also can claim a rural background. Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes and Kuisle is a lifelong farmer south of Rochester. Candidate Kurt Zellers grew up on a North Dakota farm and his running mate, Dean Simpson, owns two grocery stores in Otter Tail County communities.

The fourth major Republican governor candidate, Scott Honour, and running mate Karin Housley are suburbanites who have not pushed any rural roots.

Senate race costly

Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race is becoming an expensive contest.

Republican-endorsed candidate Mike McFadden reports that he raised $1.1 million in the second quarter of the year, bringing the Twin Cities businessman to $4 million since he began his race to challenge Democratic Sen. Al Franken.

Franken, meanwhile, reports that he raised more than $3.3 million in the quarter with more than $5 million in the bank.

Health leader to pitch

Being Minnesota health commissioner is the pits.

The horseshoe pits, that is. Commissioner Ed Ehlinger is bringing back his “pitch the commissioner” event after introducing it two years ago. He starts this summer’s horseshoe-pitching stops July 22 in Worthington.

Ehlinger is a horseshoe enthusiast who invites the public to talk to him while pitching horseshoes.

“Pitching horseshoes is a fun and easy way for people to be physically active and engage in conversation at the same time,” Ehlinger said. “It’s great to get out and visit people around the state, and hear their thoughts on what their communities need to be healthy.”

Besides Worthington, he plans to be in Eveleth on Aug. 13, Cook on Aug. 14 and Marshall on Aug. 28.

Dayton seeks presidential disaster declaration

By Don Davis

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton Wednesday asked that counties damaged by floods last month be declared a presidential disaster area.

Dayton also added 16 counties to the state disaster list, meaning 51 of Minnesota’s 87 counties reported damage from flooding that began June 11.

If President Barack Obama honors Dayton’s request, state and local government will get federal money to pay 75 of flood-related costs. The state will pay the rest.

Dayton said that eight mostly rural counties — Chippewa, Freeborn, Jackson, Murray, Nobles, Pipestone, Renville and Rock — have reported $10.8 million damage to public facilities. Minnesota needed to record at least $7.3 million to qualify for federal aid.

However, the governor said, 31 counties and one American Indian tribe so far have reported more than $55 million in costs, so total damages are expected to rise substantially as more damage reports come in.

As federal, state and local officials survey damage, Dayton said, damage assessments are coming in higher than initial reports.

State Emergency Management Director Kris Eide said she expects counties in the Twin Cities area to report far higher damages than rural areas because the population is higher and there are more public facilities.

Federal money only is available for government infrastructure damage and costs of fighting floods. Any help for private homes and business owners would come from other programs, but it is not clear if that will be available.

Even before Obama decides whether he will approve the Dayton disaster request, the U.S. Department of Transportation told state officials Wednesday that Minnesota will receive up to $5 million in “quick release” emergency relief funds to help fix the state’s flood-damaged roads.

The federal money will reimburse the state for emergency repair work and is in addition to $750,000 the federal government already sent Minnesota.

The state will share the funds with local road authorities.

“The flood damage recently inflicted on Minnesota roads, highways and bridges has been severe and widespread,” Dayton said. “These funds will speed up important repairs statewide.”

During a recent Minnesota visit, Obama promised that his administration will help Minnesota recover from one of the most widespread floods in state history.

The governor’s letter to Obama laid out the background for Obama: “Minnesota is experiencing historic summer flooding. The precedent conditions for the disaster were set this past winter when much of the state experienced well above average snowfall. Wide areas of northern and eastern Minnesota had between 150 and 200 percent of normal winter precipitation. Cool spring weather and an orderly snowmelt runoff fully charged the soils with moisture. By the end of April, wetlands and lakes were full; rivers and streams were running at high levels.”

The governor told the president about heavy rainfall in May and, especially, June.

The 10-member Minnesota congressional delegation followed Dayton’s letter with its own: “As we’ve toured affected communities in recent weeks, we’ve seen firsthand the damage these storms have caused. After disaster strikes Minnesota, we hit the ground running and do not stop until we have the resources in place to ensure that communities can recover. We urge you to make the federal government a full partner in that effort.”

Dayton’s letter explained that the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Federal Emergency Management Agency and county emergency managers are continuing to assess damage in affected counties.

Most of the damage reported by local officials is to roads and bridges. Also, local governments spent money to protect their communities from rising water.

In addition to fixing roads and bridges, local governments and some non-profits could use federal funds for debris removal and flood prevention as well as fixing water public facilities such as sewage treatment plants and parks.

Minnesota home health workers expect summer union election

Showing support

By Don Davis

Christine Hale has undergone fusion procedures for her back and neck, and needs more.

But, the Crosby woman said, she gets no paid time off. So she must hurry back to work as a home health care worker after the procedures.

Because she cannot take enough time off for her back to heal, she and her mother said, she is forced into more treatment. That means her client, for whom she works 20 hours a week, will be forced to get used to a new health care worker while she is off, something Hale called an unsettling prospect.

“It’s time for us to stand up,” Hale said Tuesday as she prepared to hear her mother, Rosemary Van Vickle, talk to a couple of hundred people gathered outside the state Bureau of Mediation Services in St. Paul to celebrate taking a key step in forming a union to represent them in negotiations with the state.

Darlene Henry of Rosemount, who receives state aid to care for her mother 38.5 hours a week, said a union could negotiate to provide training, better pay and benefits for personal care attendants.

Attendants won the right to attempt to form a union in a law Minnesota’s Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor approved last year.

The union drive organized by the Service Employees International Union gave more than 9,000 signatures of people who want to unionize to the mediation bureau. If signatures are confirmed, the bureau is expected to set up an election this summer to see whether the 26,000 home health care providers want to form a union.

However, even if the election approves a union, clouds remain after a late-June U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned unions like would be formed in Minnesota from collecting dues from people who do not want to join.

It had been assumed that “fair share” payments would be required from workers who did not join. In similar circumstances, that money has been crucial to unions.

Union organizer Nikki Villavicencio of Maplewood promised Tuesday that the union would not collect dues from anyone who is not a member, but it was not clear how that would affect the union’s work. Union organizers said they were not prepared to discuss the court ruling’s impact other than that it reaffirmed the right to form a union.

Republicans indicated they will continue to oppose the unionization of health care workers. GOP governor candidate Kurt Zellers, for instance, blamed the situation on Gov. Mark Dayton, who “has sided with liberal special interest groups.”

Henry said the workers in other states have been successful at getting higher wages and benefits, more training “and, most importantly, a voice in the state decisions that affect them.”

She said she is not concerned if Republicans take control of state government because everyone should see struggles home care workers face and “realize we need to do something different.”

Van Vickle, whose husband, Keith, sat with Hale in the front row of the celebration to support his wife, said she usually works two or three jobs 50 hours a week because being a home health worker pays so poorly.

Hale and Van Vickle said workers do jobs such as taking clients to doctor appointments, organize medication and clean house.

Van Vickle said she used to work in a nursing home, where “it was always rush, rush, rush.” She said she likes home health care, but the lack of pay and benefits is an issue.

Union organizer Sumer Spika of St. Paul said the health care worker election would be the biggest union vote in Minnesota history.

Political notebook: It’s truckers vs. farmers on biodiesel mandate

By Don Davis

Adding something to a petroleum-based fuel always has been controversial, so it should be no surprise that soybean-based biodiesel brings disputes.

“It’s blatantly unfair and costly to the trucking industry,” President John Hausladen of the Minnesota Trucking Association said about a law that took effect Tuesday requiring diesel fuel to contain 10 percent biodiesel.

His association’s chairman, Daniel Svaloja, complains that truckers are being forced to use the biodiesel blend even though other industries, such as mining companies, are exempt. Giving some industries a pass on the mandate proves the fuel blend has problems, Svaloja said.

“I believe the biodiesel industry is mature and can stand on its own” without a state mandate, said Svaloja, a Wadena native, who made a stop at Lund Boats in New York Mills and now is a Blaine-based transportation attorney.

Minnesota instituted its first biodiesel mandate in 2002, when a 2 percent biodiesel blend was ordered. It was raised to 5 percent, which on Tuesday was upped to 10 percent (but only during Minnesota’s warmest months).

From the time ethanol was first debated long before biodiesel came into the spotlight, opponents have complained that blending plant-based fuel with petroleum products would hurt performance or damage engines. While corn-based ethanol is blended at 10 percent levels in gasoline with few problems, truckers and other diesel engine users say that is not the likely outcome for biodiesel.

However, Bill and Karolyn Zurn of Calloway, Minn., told Agweek magazine that biodiesel works and is good for the state’s agriculture industry.

Karolyn Zurn said the Minnesota Soybean Growers association took the opposition seriously when lawmakers debated the issue earlier this year. The association added part-time lobbyists during the legislative session in its effort to get “B10″ approved.

Some legislators didn’t understand biodiesel and needed to be educated about it, she said.

Legislation was proposed to scrap the higher mandate, but failed in committee.

A survey by a trucker’s association member late last month found that the 5 percent blend then sold in Minnesota cost 4 cents to 6 cents per gallon more, before tax, than diesel sold in North Dakota and Wisconsin. Hausladen attributed that to the presence of biodiesel in fuel sold in Minnesota, and worried that diesel fuel will cost even more.

Bill Zurn said concern about B10 is unfounded.

“B5 has been working for quite a few years, with very minor issues,” he said. “Moving now to B10 in the summer months, we don’t feel that will be a problem.”

Senate race gets attention

Several organizations recently have taken note of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race, including at least one that labeled it a “sleeper” contest.

A relatively few national reporters have written about the campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a nationally known writer and “Saturday Night Live” star before he ran six years ago. But since the Democrat beat sitting Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman by just 312 votes, and that only after nearly eight months of counting ballots, the race now is getting some attention.

NBC News wrote: “The race bears watching because either 1) it becomes more competitive in the fall, which could signal a potential GOP tsunami come November or 2) it doesn’t become competitive, which would be AMAZING considering that Sen. Al Franken won this race by about 300 votes. …”

What makes the race look interesting is Franken’s likely November Republican opponent is well-heeled businessman Mike McFadden, who surprised many by picking up his party convention’s endorsement about a month ago.

Franken is using recent press accounts to drum up donations.

“My race has just been labeled the ‘sleeper’ Senate race of 2014,” he wrote to supporters. “But unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we all get to take a relaxing nap; there are very few siestas involved in grassroots campaigning. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

“We have to be ready for anything. Because there is no telling how much my opponent or his special interest allies will throw at us. According to the same press account referenced above, my opponent ‘has the personal wealth to at least partially self-fund a campaign.’”

Propane help becomes law

It is summer and not much propane is being used for heating Minnesota homes these days, but the news for next year is good, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said.

A bill the Minnesota Democrat helped write is now federal law.

It gives governors more ability to declare a fuel shortage emergency for more than 30 days. The law also requires federal authorities to provide governors with early warnings if propane, natural gas or home heating oil supplies appear likely to be in short supply.

“Frigid temperatures and soaring propane costs hit Minnesota hard this winter and put a big strain on families who struggled to stay warm,” Klobuchar said. “This bill will cut red tape to help states quickly address propane shortages in the future, and I’m pleased that this commonsense measure has now been signed into law.”

Absentee voting open

The push is on by Republicans to cast primary election ballots.

The GOP is pushing its activists to vote now for party-endorsed governor candidate Jeff Johnson, U.S. Senate hopeful Mike McFadden and attorney general candidate Scott Newman. Johnson faces a trio of strong candidates, McFadden’s challenger did not do well in seeking the party’s endorsement and Newman’s opponent is a perennial candidate who has had little success.

A change in Minnesota law means absentee voters do not need to be busy on election day to cast an early ballot.

“Hectic schedules are often cited as the reason voters don’t get to the polling place on Election Day,” Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said. “Now that all voters can vote early by absentee, Minnesotans have greater freedom to cast their ballots on their own schedule.”

Absentee ballots are available by mail or may be cast in person at a local election office.

More absentee information is at www.mnvotes.org.