Political Notebook: Democrats Express Election Concern

By Don Davis

Minnesota Democrats are getting advice from some of their leaders: Don’t push for more spending and higher taxes.

As Gov. Mark Dayton put it the other day, Democrats need to be satisfied with hot dogs and not hold out for sirloin steaks.

Listen to Ken Martin and you could get the idea that Minnesota Democrats are in trouble. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chairman said, however, that his worries are more about members of his own party rather than with Republicans.

A main concern is that Democrats will not turn out in numbers needed to elect their own party candidates to office. Martin had a reminder for them: The top two names on the ticket won only after vote recounts.

Indeed, U.S. Sen. Al Franken went through a lengthy recount before winning by 312 votes. Dayton’s recount went quicker and he eventually won by a bigger margin.

Martin’s point was that the top Democrats won by slim margins and there is no guarantee they can do that again, especially if Democrats do not work for them, provide financial support and, especially, vote for them.

Fifth-five percent of Minnesotans approve of Franken’s performance, a Star Tribune poll shows, and 58 percent like how Dayton has handled the state’s chief executive job. Both numbers are the best-ever for the two politicians, but their Republican opposition so far is more concerned about finding a GOP nominee than going on an all-out attack, which could eat into that support.

Offender policy may remain

Gov. Mark Dayton questions whether the Legislature can follow a federal judge’s guidance and change how the state deals with sex offenders who have served their prison time.

“I don’t see that happening in this session, short of a definitive court order,” Dayton told reporters during a conference call.

The governor said fellow Democrats and Republican senators agree that changes are needed, but he has yet to convince House Republicans to go along.

Federal Judge Donovan Frank has said the state should not continue keeping sex offenders in prison-like settings after their sentences end. But so far he has not ordered any action to be taken other than that the state must hire four experts to talk to offenders and others and report back on the post-prison treatment program.

The Minnesota program allows prosecutors to ask a judge to commit particularly dangerous offenders to the state sex offender treatment program. But just one person has graduated from the program, prompting a lawsuit claiming that the program is more imprisonment than treatment.

‘VW, come on up’

A state senator and two Dayton administration commissioners sent Volkswagen a letter saying the German car company would be welcome in Minnesota.

The letter follows Tennessee Republicans threatening to end state aid to the company after efforts to unionize a VW plant in that state.

“Since Volkswagen is considering expanding its production, please keep Minnesota in mind,” said the letter from state Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm, Commissioner Tony Sertich of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The trio pointed out that Minnesota has Lake Superior and the Mississippi River that can be used to transport goods, and colleges could help train workers.

“Unionized work forces don’t scare us here in Minnesota,” they wrote. “We value companies and employees that make them successful.”

Meal law a mistake?

A 2013 law that would allow organizations to buy legislators’ meals is being targeted.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, has a bill, awaiting a House vote, that would plug a hole in the state’s gift ban law that now allows legislators and their employees to receive free meals and drinks from a lobbyist as long as all lawmakers are invited.

“The problem is that it allows well-heeled interests to set the agenda … even more than they do already,” Winkler said.

Last year’s change came in a long-standing law that bans lobbyists from buying gifts, including meals, for legislators.

And they’re off…

Minnesota legislators got off to a quick start, the quickest in years.

Committees almost always begin their work for the year fairly slowly, taking time to get background on issues before making the big decisions. They don’t have that luxury this year, facing a March 21 deadline for bills to pass through all committees of the chamber of a bill’s origin.

With a deadline less than a month after they convened for the year last Tuesday, committees need to plow through hundreds of bills. The House Taxes Committee, for instance, had two dozen significant bills on its first agenda for the year, and unanimously passed $500 million of tax cuts in a short second meeting.

Legislative leaders have warned lawmakers that they need to be prepared to meet into the night, something usually reserved or later in the session.

Keep calm

One of the legislative session’s early committee hearings brought dire warning from Minnesota fire officials: An oil train derailment or pipeline explosion could lead to massive casualties.

Public safety officials told committee members that Minnesota first responders do not have enough training or equipment to fight oil train disasters such as occurred last year in North Dakota and Quebec.

But in an interview after the meeting, Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Mona Doman said Minnesotans should not panic. She said that public safety officials can worry about it, not the public.

Besides, she and Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Ken Prillaman said, while such disasters can be disastrous the chances of one happening are low.