Political chatter: Franken talks rural health care woes

U.S. Sen. Al Franken is taking on rural health care in his second term.

The Minnesota Democrat is co-chairman of the Senate Rural Health Caucus and has traveled the state discussing the topic.

“The conversations were vivid and personal, but also immensely practical,” Franken told the National Rural Health Association on Wednesday. “What became clear is that access to care, or lack thereof, was the top issue for folks in my state.”

Franken told the association about what he and his staff members discovered in their tour of the state.

“The types of problems affecting people’s ability to access care are varied,” he said. “Whether services are available, whether they are affordable, whether they have reliable Internet access and how far away they are all make a difference in determining whether someone in a rural area can access the care they need.”

One Melrose resident said that “the patchwork of transportation systems” makes it difficult for rural residents to get to health-care providers and leads some people to skipping care all together.

A recent Minnesota high-speed Internet report fits right in with Franken’s discoveries. It says that remote medical care is one of the needs the Internet can fulfil.

For instance, a rural Minnesotan may not be able to travel to a big city to see a doctor, but can consult with one via a video connection. And a doctor far away can supervise a local health-care provider conducting a procedure.

However, the Internet report said, too few communities have broadband fast enough to handle many of those medical needs.

Another rural issue Franken discussed was the difficulty getting health-care providers into smaller communities.

“For example, in Fergus Falls, one participant told me they had a posting for a licensed practical nurse that was out for a month,” Franken said. “Not only were there no applicants, not a single person reached out for more information.”

Mental health and substance abuse professional are in especially short supply, the senator added. Emergency rooms often are the main way rural Minnesotans get help in those areas.

“This, of course, is both inefficient and unacceptable,” Franken said.

Tax, transportation the biggies

Legislative sessions are tough to predict, but there is little doubt that the 2016 version that begins March 8 will feature debates about transportation and tax cuts.

In fact, Assistant House Majority Leader Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, predicts that if those two issues bog down, “then everything else drags to a halt.”

There is widespread agreement that transportation needs more money, but disagreement about how to get there.

As for tax cuts, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will go along with some targeted tax cuts, but it does not appear he will go as far as Republicans want in chopping taxes.

This year’s session will be a short one, starting March 8 and ending no later than May 23. There will be debate about a public works bill and lots of other issues, including tweaks to a budget passed last year, but Kresha advises to keep eyes on taxes and transportation to see what may happen in other areas.

Vekich fills in again

The go-to man for governors of both major political parties is back in the Minnesota Lottery helm.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has named Michael Vekich interim Minnesota Lottery executive director, filling the spot Ed Van Petten vacated in December. He left when allegations surfaced that his administration violated state travel policy, including Van Petten renting his own timeshare property to the state.

Vekich stepped in to run the lottery a dozen years ago after the suicide of then-director George Andersen. He was appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

He is chairman of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system Board of Trustees and over the years had led a variety of task forces.

‘Fly me to Japan’

Minnesota business leaders say they are concerned that Delta Airlines will end the state’s only direct flight to Japan.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation say Minnesota’s top 25 businesses booked 10,000 flights to Tokyo in 2015.

Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken received no promises that Delta would be allowed to keep its flight when they met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

“We stressed Delta’s great importance to Minnesota and the urgent necessity that Delta be treated fairly in any new agreement with the Japanese government,” Dayton said. “The secretary gave us no assurances, but I believe our conversation today emphasized Delta’s great importance to the state of Minnesota.”

Unemployed number grows

The number of unemployed Iron Rangers is growing when state officials add in those who are not miners.

Gov. Mark Dayton in November said about 600 miners would run out of unemployment benefits by the time lawmakers start their 2016 session on March 8. He wanted to call a special legislative session to extend the benefits another 26 weeks, but failed negotiations with House Republicans ended his hope on Tuesday.

The new number of miners who will exhaust unemployment checks fell to 450 in the Department of Employment and Economic Development’s newest estimates. However, the state agency now thinks benefits to about 2,200 others on the Iron Range will end by the start of session.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, promises to take up the unemployment extension issue in the first week of session.

Faster broadband suggested as some rural areas remain behind

A Minnesota broadband task force recommends increasing state Internet speed guidelines even as many rural Minnesotans lack service at current, slower standards.

A governor-appointed broadband task force suggests the state Legislature increase high-speed Internet goals by 2022, which could double some speed standards, while increasing them more than four-fold by 2026. The new speeds would jive with what the Federal Communications Commission considers high-speed service.

The panel also recommended that the state up its spending to expand broadband into more rural areas to $200 million, twice what Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton recommended last month.

Most urban and suburban Minnesotans have access to high-speed Internet, but many in rural areas do not.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said that having the Internet “isn’t just nice, it’s necessary if we want Minnesota’s economy to work for everyone.”

“If we don’t do this, 244,000 Minnesotans and hundreds of communities will lack the basic infrastructure to connect to the 21st century economy, and that’s not fair,” Smith said.

About 20 percent of rural Minnesotans do not have Internet access that meets state standards of 10 to 20 megabits per second download speeds and five to 10 megabits per second for uploads.

The Legislature in 2014 appropriated $20 million to expand rural broadband and $10 million last year. Some estimates indicate that upwards of $3 billion is needed to bring high-speed service statewide, with that cost split among federal, state and local governments; telecommunications companies; and other entities..

The task force this week also recommended that Minnesota provide more telecommunications aid to schools and libraries.

Much of the report emphasized the need for high-speed Internet in today’s world.

Deputy House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said that action is needed in this year’s legislative session, set to begin March 8, after broadband funding nearly was zeroed out last year.

“Our rural hospitals, schools, businesses and residents deserve nothing less than the ability to compete in today’s global marketplace,” Marquart said.

An assistant House majority leader said he wants funds for broadband, but the amount depends on how top-tier issues such as transportation and tax cuts pan out.

“I will support the best number we can get out,” Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said, thinking about “the many, many asks we have on the table in front of us.”

He already has introduced a bill to spend $35 million.

Included in the report is a story from 2013, which state officials say happens throughout Minnesota. When the task force visited the Alexandria library, a librarian told of a student sitting outside the library one day when it opened, using the facility’s wireless Internet connection to take an online test because the student had no other broadband access.

Businesses, even in small towns, need to be connected online, the report said.

“Three years ago we started our online store; it is now half of our production,” the report quoted Marie Rivers of Sven Comfort Shoes in Chisago City as saying. “With our online presence we have been able to expand our business to $3.5 million, which is incredible for such a small town.”

School students throughout rural Minnesota can use the Internet for virtual trips, the report says, to locations such as the Minnesota Zoo, Minnesota Historical Society, Great Lakes Aquarium and the International Wolf Center, “all of which provide educational opportunities students would not normally have access to due to time constraints and transportation costs.”

While the task force suggests that the state spend $200 million for broadband expansion, private money also is helping.

The RS Fiber Cooperative in Renville and Sibley counties, for example, is a coalition of electric and farmer cooperatives with local government assistance that is expanding broadband in that area.

Telephone, cable television and similar companies also are investing in broadband, the report added, with more than $713 million expected to be spent this year.

Many of those companies offer help for the poorest Minnesotans to afford the Internet, but the report says that cost is the major reason that people do not sign up for high-speed Internet when it is available.

 

Minnesota looks at more child protection ideas

Minnesota legislators are poised to consider a second round of initiatives designed to prevent child abuse.

Lawmakers last year passed legislation reacting to the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean in 2013. He died after Pope County authorities received 15 reports that he may have been abused, prompting officials to find ways to prevent that from happening to others.

While the 2015 legislation clarifies that children’s safety is the most important action officials can take after receiving abuse reports, the 2016 package includes further actions, such as ensuring that every county has around-the-clock child protection coverage and reviewing whether law enforcement officers should remove children from homes.

The proposals also include an emphasis on recruiting child care workers to rural Minnesota, where many counties do not have enough workers to always have someone on duty to deal with abuse allegations.

A task force looking into the child abuse situation produced the report and lawmakers on the panel discussed the issue Thursday.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said that the proposed legislation will not end the need for changes. He and other lawmakers said they will be back with more requests for change.

“As with any report, this is a milestone that records our progress at this time and place; this report does not denote finality on the issue,” said Kresha, task force co-chairman. “It simply highlights our progress and prompts us that more work is needed toward the prevention of child maltreatment, reduction of racial disparities in the child protection system, better accountability and system improvements in foster care and out-of-home placements, and more evaluation and progress with native American tribes to protect cultural heritage.”

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said that protecting children needs to be one of the state’s top priorities.

Investigations after Dean’s death showed that reports of his possible abuse were not reaching the right people, in part because state laws and rules blocked sharing of the information. Last year’s work was designed to improve communication among agencies to protect children’s safety.

While the state sets rules, county agencies are responsible for most of the work with children.

Late last year, Kresha and others on the task force said they did not feel counties were putting child safety first.

Some on the task force questioned whether law enforcement officers had proper training to remove children from unsafe situations, although many Minnesota counties have no one else available. The ideas lawmakers discussed Thursday include some to further examine that question and to make sure people trained in child protection are available everywhere.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Hayden, whose Minneapolis district contains many black and American Indian communities, said that the task force should result in early intervention that can prevent child abuse. He and Rep. Joe Mullery, D-Minneapolis, also said that discussions about protecting a family’s cultural background should help change attitudes of responders to abuse reports.

Kresha and others involved in the task force refused to discuss how much the changes they support might cost. Kresha said many of the changes may not cost the state.

 

‘If not now, when? If not Jesse Ventura, who?’

Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura is doing what he appears to enjoy: teasing that he may run for president.

It has been something that Ventura frequently has done since he left office early in 2003.

“I’m still weighing the options,” Ventura wrote Monday on a website related to his “Off the Grid” Internet show. “Why would I want to run now when you still have 12 Republican and three Democratic candidates in the field?”

Then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura talks in 2002 about American relations with Cuba. In 2016, he says he could consider a presidential run. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura talks in 2002 about American relations with Cuba. In 2016, he says he could consider a presidential run. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

In an earlier Internet interview, Ventura said that he could win the presidency the same way he took the 1998 Minnesota governor’s race: by attracting people who otherwise would not have voted.

Ventura said he will make his decision about running in April. That comes after major primary elections and caucuses are held, and major-party frontrunners likely will be known.

If he runs, Ventura said, he might opt for the Libertarian Party, which would give him ballot access in many states.

“For example, if Donald Trump were to lose the nomination in July under the Republican Party,” Ventura wrote, “it would be extremely difficult for him to receive ballot access (as an independent candidate) in time for the general election.”

Ventura said he does not want to be “lost in the shuffle” that the presidential field is experiencing. “You have to time it just right.  You must wait until the parties are down to their final two, a more manageable number.”

Until he decides, the ex-governor and professional wrestler said, “I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the circus.”

Every four years since he left office, fans have urged Ventura to run.

This year, for instance, one supporter has a Ventura campaign website and another is seeking 50,000 signatures on a petition to get him to run (with 8,718 total on Monday afternoon).

 the petition website asks. “Jesse Ventura must run for president in 2016!”

Court would release convicted rapist from treatment program

Minnesota’s second-highest court says a convicted sex offender should be released from a state hospital, but only under heavy supervision.

The Appeals Court ruled Monday that the Minnesota Department of Human Services did not make a strong enough case to keep Christopher Coker locked up in the state sex offender treatment program. However, the case could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Chief Judge Edward J. Cleary wrote for a three-judge appeals panel that Coker, convicted in Hennepin County, should be released under supervision. The ruling agreed with a Supreme Court-appointed panel that considers sex offender releases.

“I am very disappointed by the court’s decision,” Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper said. “Based on the review and recommendations of multiple experts, this client is not ready for provisional discharge into the community. I am looking at my options to appeal to the Supreme Court.”

The courts have released three patients to live in the community under close supervision. Courts have approved four other patients for provisional discharges, but they remain in a state hospital.

Another was provisionally discharged in 2000, but he was returned to the program because he did not comply with release requirements, a Human Services spokeswoman said.

Courts never have approved any patient’s full discharge in the sex offender program’s 20-year history.

More than 700 offenders are in the state hospital program under prison-like conditions.

Coker, convicted of raping three girls in different incidents in 1991 and 1992, has served in the treatment program since 2000.

His request to get out of the program has bounced around various court and Human Services panels as witnesses have disagreed about whether he should be released. No panel has decided he could be unconditionally released, but the Appeals Court ruling would allow him to move into a community-based facility under intense supervision.

A sex offender may be released from the program if a discharge plan provides a reasonable degree of public protection and he can adjust to open society. Cleary and his colleagues noted that experts say Coker could have continued emotional issues if released, but he would have stronger family support than many others in the program and his family says he would have a job awaiting him.

The Supreme Court panel had said that it was uncertain Coker could live well in society, but the only way to know is to “put him to the test” by provisionally discharging him.

Treatment program staff members said Coker has not been a problem and has done well on at least 30 trips into the community. However, expert witnesses opposed his release, predicting problems if he were let out.

Monday’s decision comes as a federal appeals court considers whether Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program provides a realistic chance for release.

A federal judge last year ruled that offenders were unconstitutionally held indefinitely and the state was doing little to release those who no longer need to be locked up. The state appealed that order.

State law allows county prosecutors to request that sex offenders be committed to a state hospital after they finish their prison terms. Offenders took Minnesota to court because the treatment program basically was no different than being in prison, and they already had served their time.

It is not known when the federal court will hand down its ruling, which still could face U.S. Supreme Court scrutiny.

While Dayton says he thinks the current law is constitutional, his administration is working toward a system that would allow release of offenders deemed safe enough to live in the community. He included money to provide appropriate living facilities in his public works proposal.

More money changes nursing home attitudes in a year

Certified nursing assistants Anni Torma, left, and Sam Clemens serve cookies and coffee to West Wind Village residents Marlos Bacon (sitting, left) and Lila Estenson on Friday, Jan. 22 in Morris, Minn. (Forum News Service photo by Brooke Kern)

Certified nursing assistants Anni Torma, left, and Sam Clemens serve cookies and coffee to West Wind Village residents Marlos Bacon (sitting, left) and Lila Estenson on Friday, Jan. 22 in Morris, Minn. (Forum News Service photo by Brooke Kern)

Cami Peterson-DeVries was intense when she pleaded with Minnesota lawmakers to find money so nursing homes could boost worker wages.

“They can go to the sugar beet plant down the road and get more money,” she told a state House committee.

Peterson-DeVries, who was RenVilla Health Center administrator in Renville, was joined on the witness stand by many others from rural nursing homes across the state, including Michael Syltie of Wind West Village in Morris. He said that his 50-person staff had 15 openings.

The testimony was Jan. 21, 2015.

It was not a good time for nursing homes, with nurses, nursing assistants and others who directly deal with residents peeling off to take better-paying and easier jobs at fast-food joints, retail businesses and elsewhere.

On Jan. 21, 2016, Peterson-DeVries was a much happier woman, as were nursing home workers throughout Minnesota.

“What a difference,” she exclaimed about life after state officials appropriated $138 million more for nursing homes. “Really. I don’t believe that we thought it could be done. When we sat there, it seemed like such a monstrous problem. The changes are so significant. There is a lot of benefit all the way across.”

Peterson-DeVries, who now oversees six nursing homes for Morris-based St. Francis Health Services including those in Morris and Renville, and workers said the added money means employees are more likely to stay and the facilities now can recruit new workers.

Reports from around Minnesota indicate that nursing home job openings have fallen dramatically while worker happiness has soared as many long-time employees say the raises are the largest they ever have seen.

“I am just glad that our Legislature finally saw the light,’ said Melody Nordby, a certified nursing assistant who dispenses medications at Luther Haven in Montevideo. “The elderly in Minnesota need to be taken care of.”

“I think it is moving in the right direction,” added Sonja Lemire, a licensed practical nurse at Parkview Care Center in Buffalo. “It is such a needed occupation.”

Raises began showing up on paychecks at some nursing homes months before the state money arrived. In other cases, raises are being negotiated or planned in coming months.

The new money helps rural nursing homes bring pay into competition not only with many businesses, but also with hospitals that lured away nursing home workers for years. It also helps rural Minnesota facilities compete with the Twin Cities and other metropolitan areas, Peterson-DeVries said.

“We are seeing wage increases and better compensation packages all across the state,” said Jodi Boyne of LeadingAge Minnesota, which represents nursing homes.

New pay levels vary, but in many cases, nursing assistants now get $15 an hour.

Peterson-DeVries said that some in her organization received 15 percent raises, and many got 13.5 percent. “Nursing assistants were given the highest percentage.”

Benefits changed for some workers, including those in the St. Francis organization. They had been offered a high-deductible health insurance plan before, but now full-time employees receive free and better health care insurance, Peterson-DeVries said.

Lemire said that even though the raise the Services Employees International Union negotiated in Buffalo does not kick in for a few more days, she notices a difference.

“It is helping us recruit right now,” she said, with some new hires already on staff.

LPNs and CNAs are happier, she said. “They are not as gripe-y about everything. … I think it will make a significant difference.”

The Buffalo facility gave its LPNs and CNAs a $2-an-hour raise. That means a starting CNA would get almost $15.

Workers at Aicota Health Care Center in Aitkin landed some of the biggest pay bumps. Every nursing-related worker received at least a 15 percent raise, with some getting a 25 percent boost. That puts the minimum wage in nearly every department at $15 an hour.

The Red Wing Care Center, meanwhile, boosted wages $2.45 an hour to $13 for certified nursing assistants. Licensed practical nurse pay rose to $21 an hour, a $3.87 raise, the SEIU reported.

In Montevideo, LPNs and CNAs generally received $4 an hour raises.

When Nordby started at Luther Haven 33 years ago, she earned $3.99 an hour and there was no need to advertise for aides because the pay was good enough that people wanted the jobs. Then advertising was needed to attract applicants, Nordby said, and eventually the facility turned to a company that provided pools of nurses and CNAs, but at a higher cost than regular employees.

Luther Haven has filled its day shift, Nordby said, and people are in the pipeline for other shifts, too. “They are hiring more all the time.”

While much of the talk has been on raising employee pay, the end result should improve resident care.

Besides residents seeing a happier staff, Peterson-DeVries said, they may enjoy more activities.

“The focus is on the quality of life,” she said, and some facilities will be able to add more activity positions with the new money.

When Luther Haven was shorthanded, Nordby said, residents “would complain about how long it would take to get (call) lights answered and get help.”

Instead of giving baths at certain times, she said, “we did baths whenever we had time.”

Now, however, things are changing as staffs grow back to where they should be.

“I think they notice it because things like their baths are more on a timely fashion,” Nordby said. “To the elderly, a routine is important to them.”

 

Political chatter: Privacy matters to be in the open

Every Minnesota legislative session seems to produce one issue no one saw coming, at least to the scale it reaches.

Perhaps that issue this year will be privacy.

When Minnesotans hear comments like from Rep. Peggy Scott, it could attract attention.

“In today’s schools, the highly sensitive and personal information … now is being uploaded up on third-party servers,” the Andover Republican said when she and Democrats joined together Wednesday in announcing a series of bills designed to protect Minnesotans’ privacy.

Most parents likely do not know that iPads, laptop computers and other devices schools provide students may come via a contract that allows businesses that provide the electronics the right to gather data on the students. It goes to private computer servers in the cloud, where the company may use it — or sell it for others to use — to target the kids with advertising.

Privacy advocates do not know how many schools’ contracts allow businesses to use student information, but Scott said her objective is to conduct a preemptive strike.

Besides contact information, Scott said, electronic devices contain information such as grades, Social Security numbers, disability status, disciplinary actions and financial information.

Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, said it is not just businesses that are looking at student information. Schools are, too.

The lawmaker said one of the half-dozen bills being proposed also bans schools from looking at private data.

“We want to make sure our students are protected from that,” he said.

Citizen-lobbyist Rich Neumeister, who has worked on privacy and open-government issues for decades, wrote about the issue on his Open Secrets blog two years ago, after St. Paul schools signed a contract to provide iPads: “Would there be a parent anywhere who would support the school district’s actions to abrogate their families and children’s privacy rights? Does the iPad initiative violate students-family privacy and liberty rights?  Does the school district have the right to install devices in the iPads that allow monitoring and surveillance of where students go and what they do? What are the choices that parents and students have?”

Many questions Neumeister raised in 2014 remain unanswered, the privacy advocates pushing legislation indicated.

Other privacy issues that could arise include how long police can keep body camera video, and who can see it, and whether drones should be regulated to protect privacy.

The wild card on privacy and most other issues this year will be how much legislators can do in a short session. They go into session March 8 and the Constitution requires them to wrap up by May 23. It is much shorter than usual, in a large part because pretty much all of the Capitol is closed due to renovation.

Parking garage woes

A $10.9 million parking garage repair request is getting attention.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s public works funding bill includes fixing the five-floor Centennial ramp after the state discovered during routine maintenance last year that some cables supporting the facility had broken.

“Although the ramp is currently safe, failure to make these repairs will render the parking ramp unsafe over time and could result in catastrophic failure,” the state Administration Department said in its request for funding.

The ramp has 1,489 parking spaces, but many now are not available as temporary braces hold up ceilings.

‘Happy birthday, new voter’

Minnesotans turning voting age may not get many printed birthday cards in this electronic age, but they can expect something in the mail from Secretary of State Steve Simon.

Simon announced he will send 100,000 letters in the next nine months to Minnesotans who recently turned 18, encouraging them to register to vote.

“I strongly believe we should be doing everything we can to get good habits started early with young Minnesotans, and this outreach effort is an important step in that direction,” Simon said. “This will not only help encourage pre-election registration and decrease wait times on Election Day, but by contacting voters on an ongoing basis, we can help ease the volume of voter registration applications received by counties in the last few weeks leading up to the election.”

Rural battle coming

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen did not want to talk about it, but he signaled that rural Minnesota again will be a battleground for control of the state House.

The Minneapolis Democrat and rural Democrats lined up at a news conference to lay out their plans for greater Minnesota, plans that were mostly like what they wanted a year ago.

Thissen said they were talking “not about November of this year, but this coming spring,” diverting attention away from the fall election and to the March 8 opening of the 2016 state Legislature.

Thissen used lines often heard before elections, such as: “Republicans talk a lot about tax cuts, they talk a lot about trickle-down economics,” policies, which he said only help big corporations.

Deputy Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, started with a comment that likely will be heard on the campaign trail: “A strong rural Minnesota means a strong Minnesota.”

Republican wins in several rural districts gave them control of the House last year, and rural Minnesota again appears to be a main focus.

Minnesota legislation seeks to keep electronic data private

Executive Director Charles Samuelson of the American Civil LIberties Union Minnesota chapter supports bills to strengthen Minnesotans' privacy on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Executive Director Charles Samuelson of the American Civil LIberties Union Minnesota chapter supports bills to strengthen Minnesotans’ privacy on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Students’ iPads and other technology devices may provide personal data that companies can use to target advertising at the youth.

Minnesotans’ emails more than 6 months old may be obtained by law enforcement officers without seeking search warrants from judges.

Schools and employers sometimes force students and employees to give them access to social media accounts.

Legislation to outlaw those and other technology-related issues are to be introduced in the Minnesota Legislature this spring, a diverse group of lawmakers and other privacy advocates announced Wednesday.

Executive Director Charles Samuelson of the American Civil Liberties Union Minnesota chapter said that Minnesotans would not accept someone walking into their homes and looking through financial documents, diaries, photographs and the like, so that should not be allowed on today’s electronic devices.

“It is the wild west right now for data collection,” Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, said.

Government access to personal electronic devices and social media accounts “is kind of big brotherish,” Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said. “This is a preemptive strike,” she said of the half-dozen bills that were announced Wednesday.

The privacy advocates had few examples of what is happening on the issue in Minnesota, but could produce some. Lesch said more examples will surface when legislative committees meet on the issues.

Lesch told of a deputy sheriff and assistant principal who demanded that a student give them her social media username and password. Minnesota media have reported cases in which employers, or potential employers, sought the same information from workers or would-be employees.

Such practices would be banned under one of the bills.

Matt Ehling, a privacy advocate, said schools, including in St. Paul, “routinely” cut deals with businesses such as Apple to provide iPads and other devices for students. Contracts can include permission for the company to collect data on students, he said, with the intention of targeting them with advertisements, Lesch said.

The businesses “gather large amounts of personal data,” Ehling said.

“It’s a gold mine,” Lesch added.

Discounts schools may get for allowing the data collection could disappear if the bill passes to end the practice, Lesch said.

Privacy advocates could not come up with examples of police looking at emails more than 6 months old, but Lesch said “it absolutely happens.” He recently left his long-time job as a St. Paul prosecutor.

A bill Minnesota lawmakers will consider is crafted after a new California law that requires a court-issued order to look at emails. In California, technology companies such as Google and law enforcement agencies supported the bill.

Overall, the six bills — similar to ones being considered in more than a dozen other states — require government officials and businesses to treat electronic data like paper records.

Minnesotans do not want government to “know everything about you at will,” Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said.

Ian Kantonen of Minnesota Public Interest Research Group said data such as Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and health records that now resides of mobile telephones and other electronic devices a few years ago would have been locked away in a filing cabinet.

“These bills will finally bring our laws up to date with technology,” Samuelson said.

 

Opposition continues after Obama water rule resolution veto

Opponents of the Obama administration’s efforts to regulate small bodies of water and streams pledge to continue fighting.

President Barack Obama vetoed a congressional resolution that would have prevented enforcement of the Waters of the U.S. provision.

“We must protect the waters that are vital for the health of our communities and the success of our businesses, agriculture and energy development,” Obama said in his Tuesday veto message. “As I have noted before, too many of our waters have been left vulnerable.”

He wrote that pollution affects some previously unregulated “rivers, lakes, reservoirs and coastal waters near which most Americans live and on which they depend for their drinking water, recreation and economic development.”

Even with Obama’s veto, his rule cannot be enforced because of a court order last fall.

Opponents promise to keep up their fight, both in Congress and in the courts.

“I will continue to work with my colleagues to kill this rule once and for all while supporting the states’ efforts to litigate this matter,” U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers finalized the rule in May but a lawsuit filed by 13 states, led by North Dakota, was successful in obtaining a preliminary injunction to block the rule’s implementation in those states. In October, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order blocking the rule nationwide.

Cramer said the rule would give federal authorities jurisdiction “over virtually all waters and wet areas in the country, and undermines the role of the states as partners and co-regulators of the nation’s waters.

A prime mover behind the congressional resolution against Obama’s water rule, Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst from Iowa, said after the veto that everyone wants clean water, but the Obama effort is “about how much authority the federal government and unelected bureaucrats should have to regulate what is done on private land.”

The resolution to dump the rule did not pass with enough votes to override Obama’s veto.

Cramer said there are several examples of the Obama administration violating federal rules in writing the law, including lobbying for it via social media.

The American Farm Bureau’s report on the rule says that the new rule grants “regulatory control over virtually all waters, assuming a breadth of authority Congress has not authorized.”

Minnesota’s congressional delegation mostly broke along party lines on the issue, with Rep. Collin Peterson the only Democrat joining Republicans to vote against the rule.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., said the GOP-led resolution against the Obama rule jeopardized public safety and the environment.

“The clean water rule is carefully designed to protect our lakes, rivers and drinking water and ensure that EPA requirements are applied fairly and consistently across the nation,” Nolan said. “Moreover, the rule includes and clarifies important exemptions for agriculture and timber. And it would allow businesses and communities the regulatory certainty they need to invest in projects that require clean water.”

Two U.S. Supreme Court rulings did not clarify how far federal water authority extends, so the administration issued the rule.

 

DFL, GOP agree on rural goals, but not the means

Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, with Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown and other Minnesota House Democrats, discusses policies to help rural Minnesota Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, with Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown and other Minnesota House Democrats, discusses policies to help rural Minnesota Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Democratic and Republican legislators agree on many goals for rural Minnesota, but often differ on how to reach them.

House Democrats unveiled their rural legislative plan Tuesday, mostly the same as they pushed a year ago, calling for better rural schools, improved roads and more jobs.

“It’s time to level the playing field for greater Minnesota and that won’t happen unless this Legislature truly makes greater Minnesota a priority,” Deputy House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said.

Assistant Majority Leader Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, agreed with the priorities. “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. … We know rural Minnesota is important; we have been focusing on that.”

Democrats added two priorities to eight they worked on a year ago: increasing focus on community and technical colleges, as well as improving care for Minnesotans with dementia.

Their returning rural priorities are expanding broadband high-speed Internet service, funding a transportation package, providing housing for rural communities that have jobs but not enough homes, training Minnesotans for new jobs, increasing Local Government Aid and County Program Aid, making farm property taxes fairer, improving train safety and providing property tax relief for the elderly.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, Marquart and Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown emphasized the need for high-speed Internet in rural areas.

Thissen talked about Pine City, where people park near the library to get wi-fi signal “because that is the only place they can get high-speed Internet.”

“There are pockets in my district in Lake County and South St. Louis County that have nothing,” Murphy said, with some not even able to get a dial-up Internet connection.

Marquart said it is not fair that 94 percent of Twin Cities homes have access to high-speed Internet while just 61 percent enjoy it in rural Minnesota.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and House Democrats want the state to pay $100 million to expand broadband; House Republicans passed $10 million last year, which Kresha said added to a separate allocation of  $86 million of federal funds.

Train safety is another issue both parties say they want improved.

Marquart said his bill would fund many crossing safety improvements, although major changes such as adding overpasses would need to be funded by the state selling bonds. It would use $20 million a year of state property taxes.

Thissen said a $1.2 billion state surplus should be used to fund things like transportation.

The Republicans’ 2015 plan, which remains alive, takes money from other programs and the surplus to fund $7 billion in transportation needs in coming years.

Part of train safety is cutting waits at crossings. Murphy pointed to one place in her area with two busy tracks: “Those people could be cut off for as much as 40 minutes … and ambulances cannot get through in any other direction.”

Kresha said no transportation funding bill passed last year because Dayton and Senate Democrats wanted to a new gasoline tax. Dayton since has said that will not pass, and no longer supports it.

Marquart estimated the total cost of the DFL rural plan could be $400 million.

Le Sueur Mayor Robert Broeder, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, praised the DFL’s proposal to add $45.5 million to aid the state sends to cities, bringing the total back up to 2002 levels. He also said the coalition appreciates efforts for housing, training, transportation and broadband. Republicans vote to eliminate aid to Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis, leaving other cities alone.

Marquart and Kresha made similar comments about rural Minnesotans’ feelings.

“What we are hearing from rural Minnesota is, ‘Just give us a fair shake,'” Kresha said.

Thissen, whose is courting rural Minnesotans in an effort to get House control back, said the plan announced Tuesday “is not about November of this year, but this coming spring,” when lawmakers will be back in session.

He called the 2015 session a “monumental flop” for Republicans’ rural plans.

In a year when Republicans are trying to maintain control of the House, Democrats see an opportunity to regain the majority by taking a handful of rural GOP seats. However, neither side wanted to explicitly talk about how rural Minnesota could flip power in the House.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, says on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, that he is glad Democrats are focusing on many of the same rural Minneosta issues as are  Republicans. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, says on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, that he is glad Democrats are focusing on many of the same rural Minneosta issues as are Republicans. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Bonding ‘like pushing boulder uphill’

Looking up to the heavens, Minnesota Gov. Gov. Mark Dayton wonders on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, what his father would have thought about his funding of arts programs. Bruce Dayton, who died last fall, was a major arts supporter. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Looking up to the heavens, Minnesota Gov. Gov. Mark Dayton wonders on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, what his father would have thought about his funding of arts programs. Bruce Dayton, who died last fall, was a major arts supporter. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

For those who took a long weekend and missed Friday’s announcement:

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton knows his $1.4 billion public works project plan cannot happen as proposed.

“It’s like pushing a boulder uphill,” he said Friday in announcing his proposal, one of the largest such requests in history and a big target for Republicans who prefer spending much less.

Knowing the opposition he faces, he began a campaign for the measure saying this is a good time to borrow money, through the state selling bonds.

“Today is the day we talk about investing in the future of Minnesota,” Dayton said.

Even though the figure is among the highest in history, it would fund just 37 percent of the funding requested by state officials and local leaders.

Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget said that if the Dayton plan were enacted, it would attract $600 million in federal matching funds.

“If we short shrift these projects and others … we are going to incapacitate Minnesota in the years ahead,” Dayton said.

He said he anticipated Republican opposition, which came moments after his announcement.

“Gov. Dayton’s historically large borrowing proposal should be cut in half before we even begin talking about statewide priorities and specific projects,” Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said.

After hearing the comment, Democrat Dayton said that was “a good line,” but the governor suggested that Hann and other Republicans look over projects that would not be funded by such a cut.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said she was disappointed that Dayton would fund few transportation projects.

“Fixing our state’s roads and bridges is a priority for Minnesotans in all parts of the state, and should be one of the first priorities in any bonding bill,” Peppin said.

Dayton said that transportation issues will come in a debate separate from  his general bonding bill.

Democratic lawmakers said the Dayton plan is a good start.

“The governor’s bill goes a long way toward helping support and revive our state’s aging infrastructure system,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, who leads the Senate’s public works committee. “Minnesota received around $3.5 billion in bonding requests, and by traveling the state for six weeks this fall it’s clear to me that there is a significant need for investments to maintain critical infrastructure systems like wastewater and safe drinking water, roads and bridges, colleges and universities and so much more.”

A bonding bill requires legislative approval, and since Republicans control the House the Dayton plan is expected to be a tough sell.

Security concerns were high on Dayton’s agenda.

The largest single project Dayton wants is $70 million to improve the St. Peter state hospital security. Staff members have been injured and Dayton said the public’s safety is threatened.

The hospital houses some of the state’s most dangerous mentally ill and sex offender patients.

Another security issue Dayton tries to address is spending $14.5 million on a St. Peter sex offender program and another $12.4 million to construct two new offender treatment centers.

A federal judge has ruled Minnesota no longer may hold sex offenders indefinitely in prison-like hospital wings. He said they need a chance to be released.

Although the judge’s ruling is under appeal, Dayton said it is right to try to move some offenders out of from behind barbed wire.

“There are a lot of things I would rather do,” Dayton said, other than building facilities for sex offenders.

He also deals with the fact that the state prison system is 500 inmates over capacity.

The governor proposes to spend $8.5 million to add room for 135 inmates in two existing facilities. He said new, shorter drug offender sentences and other measures could help fix the problem.

With North Dakota oil flowing through Minnesota on trains and in pipelines, Dayton proposes funds to improve safety in his state.

He calls for spending nearly $70 million to build overpasses or underpasses at railroad-road junctions in Moorhead, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids. He proposed them a year ago, but no agreement was reached on transportation funding.

He also wants to spend $5 million to improve warning systems where railroads cross roadways.

A $3.5 million center for training public safety personnel who may deal with oil train or pipeline incidents would be built at the National Guard’s Camp Ripley and a Minneapolis training center would get a $2.5 million expansion.

As usual, colleges and universities would receive a large part of the bonding plan. The Dayton proposal would give them $306 million in state money, mostly for fixing facilities and adding classrooms.

The Dayton administration says that about a third of the money would go to the Twin Cities, a third to greater Minnesota and a third to statewide projects.

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Here is a look at a sample of $1.4 billion in Minnesota public works projects proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton (they need legislative approval and Republicans want a far smaller package):

— $21 million to repair and add to Capitol-area parking facilities, repair state buildings statewide and repair Capitol-area monuments.

— $35 million in loans for farmers who cannot get the money elsewhere.

— $53.8 million for prisons, including adding 135 beds at Willow River and Lino Lakes, fixing and updating buildings and other projects.

— $14 million to finish two Red Lake school projects.

— $21 million for greater Minnesota cities’ utility and street work to support economic development.

— $90 million for improving low-income housing.

— $70 million to fix security issues at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, with another $14.5 million to renovate and add to the state sex offender facility there.

— $12.5 million to build two sex offender treatment centers as alternatives to the prison-like setting they now use.

— $20 million to construct and renovate early-childhood facilities.

— $5 million to build a chairlift at Giants Ridge ski area.

— $190 million for the Minnesota State Colleges and University system to repair facilities and renovate classroom space.

— $153 million for the University of Minnesota to repair facilities, build a chemistry building on the Duluth campus and health sciences classrooms in Minneapolis.

— $33 million to repair Department of Natural Resources facilities.

— $10.5 million for dam safety and avoiding floods.

— $3.5 million to develop a walleye fishery at Mille Lacs Lake.

— $220 million for various clean-water projects.

— $33 million to construct a new state emergency operations center, where government agencies work during emergencies such as floods.

— $78.1 million for oil train safety, including improving railroad crossings and building a training center for first responders.

— $40 million to repair transportation facilities.

— $6 million for Bemidji area dental facility.

— $5.3 million for Duluth airport runway work.

— $21 million for Duluth to change its steam heating system to hot water.

— $12.7 million to clean up the St. Louis River estuary and Duluth harbor.

— $16 million to complete Lewis and Clark water project in southwestern Minnesota.

Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget explains on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, some of $1.4 billion in public works funding requests. Gov. Mark Dayton looks on.(Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget explains on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, some of $1.4 billion in public works funding requests. Gov. Mark Dayton looks on.(Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

 

Political Chatter: Does the Legislature really need to do anything?

The temporary Minnesota Senate chambers are ready, other than erecting a wooden president's desk and secretary's table. It is shown Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in the new Minnesota Senate Building. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

The temporary Minnesota Senate chambers are ready, other than erecting a wooden president’s desk and secretary’s table. It is shown Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in the new Minnesota Senate Building. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

It’s a refrain often heard in the Minnesota Capitol complex: “There’s nothing we have to do this year.”

The two-year state budget passed last year, so anything that happens in the legislative session starting March 8 is purely optional. There certainly are issues that many people want debated, but nothing is mandatory.

Take, for instance, a tax bill that sits in a House-Senate conference committee from last year. Republicans want big tax cuts, while Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton emphasized late in the week that he wants “targeted” ones.

Or consider the matter of extending unemployment benefit for laid-off Iron Range workers. Most state leaders appear to back the cause, but there is nothing to mandate that lawmakers consider the issue.

Even funding public works projects, which there is little doubt will happen, technically is not a must-do.

Go down the list and you can find people giving impassioned pleas or one cause or another, but must-pass? No.

Then there is something Dayton has mentioned plenty of times in recent days: “Anything you do this year is going to be perceived through the prism of an election year.”

More of a realist than many politicians are in public, Dayton said that those election questions could mean his favorite programs may not get a lot of Republican love.

Republicans, of course, want to keep state spending down. That may especially hamper Dayton’s efforts to pass a $1.4 billion bonding bill, the measure funded by the state selling bonds to provide money for public works projects. GOP leaders wasted no time Friday in opposing the Dayton figure.

Dayton knew the Republican response was coming, saying that passing his plan would be like pushing a boulder uphill.

Even though Dayton likely will not get all he wants in the bonding bill, he could get more than some expect. Republicans dislike constructing new buildings, but nearly everyone this year seems to back a “fix it” bill that brings existing state facilities up to snuff and that is what Dayton emphasizes.

Bakk: No surplus

Anyone following the Minnesota Legislature may get tired of hearing about a nearly $2 billion surplus.

Actually, it is closer to $1.2 billion after state officials fulfilled a law that requires money to be put into budget reserved.

Then, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said, inflation could eat up $1.6 billion. That means there is no surplus.

State law does not allow inflation to be figured in when state officials make budget projections. But lawmakers can think about inflation when they work toward writing budgets.

If inflation is not factored in, expected pay raises and other budget increases may not happen.

When Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities officials — who want more state aid — were asked about facing a no-surplus budget, former Rep. Marty Seifert of Marshall said that cities did not get their fair share of money in last year’s budget.

“We were left stranded on the island of dysfunction,” Seifert said.

Even if there really is no surplus, as Bakk claims, Minnesotans can expect a stream of requests seeking a part of the “surplus” before lawmakers land in St. Paul March 8 for their regular session.

Minnesotan runs for president

Minneapolis resident Bill McGaughey Jr. says he knows he will not be the next president, but just running will drive home some points.

One of 28 presidential candidates in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, McGaughey is in New England to press his case.

“Not standing a chance to be elected president, I nevertheless think that my candidacy and those of other ‘minor’ candidates are more than freak shows featuring delusional characters,” he said.

McGaughey said he “plans to challenge the system” by going “on a ‘white man’s walk’ in each New Hampshire city or town I visit and invite the more courageous souls to join me.”

He said that his main issue is jobs, and by instituting a four-day, 32-hour work week would help the economy.

McGaughey ran in Louisiana’s 2004 Democratic primary, focusing on trade issues.

Special session fades

All the talk about a special state legislative session a couple of weeks ago appears a mere memory.

Blame the federal government.

Federal officials announced a bit more than a week ago that Minnesota would have two to four years to re-do driver’s licenses and state identification cards to meet new standards. State officials had expected a 120-day notice, which federal homeland security officials also told Forum News Service.

“It takes away one of the urgent reasons,” Gov. Mark Dayton said.

However, he quickly added, extending unemployment benefits to laid-off Iron Range workers remains important enough for a special session, as well as starting to fix black Minnesotans’ financial problems.

Even the new Real ID standards’ fix could be started in a special session, Dayton said. A 2009 state law forbids the public safety commissioner, who is in charge of issuing driver’s licenses, from even discussing Real ID-related issues, so a special session could remove that gag rule and allow work to begin.

“We don’t to run the clock on this,” the governor said.

No workforce center change

North Dakota earlier this month announced it would close seven of its 16 Job Service offices, and eliminate 60 jobs as federal funding dropped.

The Minnesota version of Job Service also receives less federal money, “but we’ve managed to limit the impact to our workforce center system,” Deputy Commissioner Blake Chaffee of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development said. No Minnesota offices have closed.