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About Don Davis

Minnesota political reporter since 1998. More than 40 newspapers that serve the state have access to his stories.

Poultry producers prepare for potential fall flu outbreak

Minnesotans do not appear to be letting bird flu concerns keep them from eating at the state turkey growers stand at the 2015 Minnesota State Fair. Experts say poultry cooked properly is safe for human consumption, just like when bird flu was not a problem. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesotans do not appear to be letting bird flu concerns keep them from eating at the state turkey growers stand at the 2015 Minnesota State Fair. Experts say poultry cooked properly is safe for human consumption, just like when bird flu was not a problem. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Temperatures have dipped into the 40s and even the 30s, in northern Minnesota.

Ducks and geese are beginning their annual migration south.

Leaves are just beginning to turn.

“We are there,” Badger, Minn., farmer John Burkel said about fall.

For many like Burkel, it is not about the pretty autumn colors or the arrival of football. This year, at least, his thoughts turn to whether he has increased biosecurity on his farm enough to avoid another avian flu outbreak like the one that resulted in 9 million turkey and chicken deaths on 108 Minnesota farms from March to June. The state was the hardest hit in the country, with 48 million bird deaths nationwide.

Since migrating ducks are and geese are thought to spread the flu virus, the migration’s debut marks the start of a worrisome time for turkey and chicken producers.

Burkel lost 26,000 turkeys to the flu outbreak that was diagnosed on his farm April 14. Some died of the disease, but most were euthanized to prevent the virus’ spread.

State Veterinarian Dr. Bill Hartmann said that he is glad experts were right that hot, dry weather stopped the virus this summer (the last bird flu confirmation was June 5), which “allowed us to catch up on the farms that we had quarantined.”

“There is a frantic search for a vaccine or how to prevent it,” Gov. Mark Dayton said during a Minnesota State Fair visit.

That work likely will reduce the number of affected flocks, Hartmann said.

However, he warned, “this virus is more unpredictable than other viruses we have seen.”

Hartmann remained optimistic: “We are more prepared that we were last spring. We know a lot more about this virus.”

Steve Olson, leader of Minnesota poultry groups, said many of his members feel that any fall flu outbreak will be milder than the one in the spring, and perhaps lessor than an outbreak in the spring of 2016. However, poultry producers said that is more of a feel than something backed by science.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is stockpiling vaccines that have shown to be effective in protecting chickens from the deadly flu, although tests on turkeys continue. While the federal government is collecting the vaccine, the poultry industry likely will pay for vaccinations, Olson said.

“It is very difficult because internationally countries have in the past said if you vaccinate them, no poultry or poultry products can come into their country,” Hartmann said. “And we are one of the countries that said that.”

Minnesota is the country’s largest turkey-producing state, but most are sold in the United States.

Most poultry farmers spent the summer increasing their efforts to stop the virus before it gets to their birds, protection known as biosecurity.

Burkel and other producers have banned clothes and boots worn elsewhere to also go into poultry facilities, and they forbid clothes being worn in two different barns. He, and many others, set up wash facilities to clean feed trucks and other vehicles before they enter farms. Farmers also are looking into air filters that could keep out air-borne viruses.

“We feel we are ready,” Hartmann said. “We have made sure we have adequate equipment and trained personnel. Having lived through it once, I believe we are well prepared.”

The virus is thought to be carried by ducks and geese, with it deposited on farms in their droppings or on their feathers. It still is not known just how it gets to the poultry, but it could be by people tracking it into barns or through the wind. The bottom line for farmers is to not let anything that could be carrying a virus near the birds.

The poultry industry is conducting biosecurity audits to make sure farms are as safe as possible, although not everything can be done right away.

“They are focusing on the highest risks factors,” Hartmann said. “It will take some time before people have filled in all the gaps.”

If the virus does reach a flock, Minnesota and federal officials say they have honed their operations enough to quickly begin the euthanizing process, which they call “depopulating” the birds, to stop the spread of the disease and to get farmers back into production quickly. After birds are killed, it takes months of cleaning and testing to put new birds in the barns.

Most turkeys are raised in west-central to southern Minnesota, although farms can be found in much of the state, such as Burkel’s northwestern Minnesota flock.

In 2013, Burkel gained notoriety when he accompanied two of his turkeys, Popcorn and Carmel, to the White House to see them earn a President Barack Obama pardon just before Thanksgiving.

He said that he is happy with state and federal response to the flu outbreak. And, like Hartmann and Olson, he said he is confident officials and farmers alike know more about what to expect.

“We spent a lot of time with what-ifs … but I don’t think anybody realized that once it happened how quickly it spread,” Burkel said of the time before the spring outbreak. “Given what we now know, after the fact, we will be much more prepared moving forward.”

No mistaking Klobuchar book for one from Trump

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar signs her new book at the Minnesota State Fair  for President Doug Peterson of the Minnesota Farmers' Union. Her book is entitled "The Senator Next Door: Memoir frm the Heartland." (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar signs her new book at the Minnesota State Fair for President Doug Peterson of the Minnesota Farmers’ Union. Her book is entitled “The Senator Next Door: Memoir frm the Heartland.” (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

No one will confuse U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s just-released book with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s biting comments.

The Minnesota Democrat, serving her second Senate term, said one of her priorities in “The Senator Next Door: A Memoir from the Heartland” was to encourage politicians in Washington to work together “in this day of Trump and this day of not exactly civil discourse.”

She called it the anti-Trump book as she laced it with funny stories about people getting along, although she touched on serious topics such as her well-known father’s alcoholism. She also went after controversial Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and money in politics.

Klobuchar has become one of the Senate’s most-sought speakers at Democratic events across the country, including recent stops in Nebraska and Louisiana. President Barack Obama called her “Minnesota’s funniest senator,” even though the state’s voters also sent comedian Al Franken to Washington.

The book was written entirely on an iPad in airplanes, at coffee shops and wherever Klobuchar could find some time. It helps, she said, that “I only sleep like five hours a night.”

The 55-year-old senator said she has kept notes for years.

Many, if not most, politicians who write memoirs do so because they are seeking higher office, such as president. Klobuchar often has been mentioned as a presidential, vice presidential or Supreme Court possibility, but during a Forum News Service interview she denied that as a motive.

“I like to write,” she said.

Unlike other politicians, she added, she did not employ a ghost writer. She did all the work herself.

The Democrat long has talked about working with Republicans to get things done, and talked more about them than Democrats when her party’s convention endorsed her for a second term.

On Page 273 of her 344-page book, she talks about her close relationship with Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who took her to see the oil boom in the western part of his state.

When the pair later appeared at a Minneapolis distracted-driving event, she wrote, “I knew things were going to bit too far on the Klobuchar-Hoeven bipartisan scale … (when) we were asked to tie ‘friendship bracelets’ on each other’s wrists and pledge to take care of each other for the rest of our lives. We did it.”

In an interview, Hoeven gave examples of cooperation in a recently passed Senate bill. She co-sponsored his drivers’ privacy provision and he co-sponsored her distracted driving measure. They also co-sponsored a bill to aid science, technology, engineering and math education.

Both senators say that is an example that could be followed by others in Washington.

“I think she is trying to foster more bipartisanship,” Hoeven said after calling Klobuchar to congratulate her on her book. “She tries to take a positive tone and … be solution oriented.”

In the book, Klobuchar provides examples of “how people come together and pass legislation.”

Klobuchar said that “The Senator Next Door” title was meant, in part, to encourage politicians to treat others like their neighbors. “You have to look for things you can talk about.”

In her prologue, Klobuchar wrote that as she got publicity as Hennepin County attorney and U.S. senator, many people used to think she was a neighbor, even if they live far apart.

“As the years went on, I figured out it was much easier if I just answered, ‘I don’t exactly live on your block, but you can always think of me as the senator next door,'” she wrote.

Klobuchar said she wrote the book in part to convince average people they can be active in politics. Coming from Iron Range roots and suburban upbringing, with little money when she was young, parents who divorced and a father who was an alcoholic and a Star Tribune sports columnist, Klobuchar’s goal was to get more people involved.

With Klobuchar, humor seldom is far away. In the interview, Klobuchar recounted one of her favorite stories in her best southern accent. It was about when she and Franken boarded a plane and a flight attendant announced: “We have some celebrities on the plane, Mr. and Mrs. Al Franken.”  

Franken tried to correct the attendant. “No, no. She’s the other senator from Minnesota.”

To that, the attendant responded: “Oh, my. How cool is that? Husband and wife senators.”

No bird flu worries shown at State Fair

Minnesota State Fair poultry exhibits in 2015 are limited to photos and other displays without live birds because of avian flu concerns. Across the street from the poultry barn is Turkey to Go, which continues attracting long lines for turkey sandwiches and drumsticks. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota State Fair poultry exhibits in 2015 are limited to photos and other displays without live birds because of avian flu concerns. Across the street from the poultry barn is Turkey to Go, which continues attracting long lines for turkey sandwiches and drumsticks. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Jody Taubert and Forrest Appleton sat on a bench near the Turkey to Go booth at the Minnesota State Fair, eating a chunky turkey sandwich.

“It’s easy to share,” Appleton said of the juicy meal the Minnesota Turkey Growers’ Association booth has featured for almost a dozen and a half years.

It is an annual treat, added the Taylors Falls native who now lives in Florida.

The pair was far from alone in visiting the booth, which appeared to be at least keeping pace with previous fair sales, despite publicity beginning in March about avian influenza, which resulted in the deaths of 9 million turkeys and chickens in Minnesota, the country’s top turkey producer.

“I just feel terrible for the farmers,” said Taubert, of suburban Centerville. “It’s their whole livelihood.”

The message from the state Health Department, turkey growers and others that poultry is safe to eat apparently has reached Minnesotans. There has been little worry expressed about the food during the fair, which includes several displays about bird flu.

In the biggest of those displays, where live birds usually are housed, Kathy Olson was studying poster board displays like students produce for science fairs, history days and the like.

“I’m just a Minnesotan who lives in Minneapolis,” Olson said, adding that she likes poultry and would love to have a few chickens at her southern Minneapolis home when she retires.

Like others at the fair, she said the avian flu issue “doesn’t bother me at all” when it comes to eating poultry.

Olson was reading displays that explained about how birds are raised, about bird flu and steps being taken to prevent it from spreading.

The state Board of Animal Health banned bird shows this year in an effort to stem spread of the disease. State Veterinarian Dr. Bill Hartmann said cooperation was good, with the only group that scheduled one quickly canceling it once it learned of the order.

At state and county fairs, 4-H members have used photos, stuffed poultry and bird toys to illustrate their knowledge of poultry to judges.

“You learned more about your project this year,” said Wayne Boettcher, who was working at the Minnesota Farmers’ Union State Fair booth.

His own Isanti County Fair was a good example, he said. “They came out OK.”

Many said 4-H members learned more about poultry because they were forced to do more research.

“I am pretty impressed,” said Steve Olson, leader of Minnesota poultry organizations. “When you get lemons, you make lemonade.”

Among lessons youths learned this year, he added, is that crisis situations such as this year’s bird flu are part of life.

Poultry industry leaders will be in the spotlight from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday when they host a game show-like presentation on the fair’s Christensen Farms stage. While the show will not delve much into the flu, Olson said, poultry experts will be on hand to answer questions.

Rose Neu, who hands out recipes at the turkey growers’ booth in the Dairy Building, said that questions have been much the same as during a non-flu year.

“I’m not hearing the negatives that I expected,” she said, although she has been briefed about the flu situation so she can answer some basic queries.

Around the corner at the Board of Animal Health booth in the Agriculture Building, questions center at dangers to backyard poultry flocks and how to prevent the avian flu. One backyard flock was hit by the virus this spring.

Turkey to Go employees are ready to answer basic bird flu questions, Olson said, but they would pass any tough ones on to the experts.

Those who want to know more about the flu only need to walk across the street from Turkey to Go to the Poultry Building, which this year houses only quiet rabbits instead of rabbits and noisy poultry.

There, visitors may watch a video about turkey farming, write a thank-you note to turkey producers and pick up recipes.

Other bird flu-related displays, without live birds, are at the Agriculture Department booth and the Miracle of Birth Center.

 

Political chatter: Is Scott Walker a Tim Pawlenty rerun?

Republican presidential candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines Aug. 17, 2015.  A well-known online magazine compares him for then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who ran for president four years ago. (Reuters photo by Joshua Lott)

Republican presidential candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines Aug. 17, 2015. A well-known online magazine compares him for then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who ran for president four years ago. (Reuters photo by Joshua Lott)

Scott Walker has outlasted Tim Pawlenty as a presidential candidate, but there are similarities between the two and some wonder if Walker’s campaign is doomed.

The well-known online Slate magazine asks if Walker is Tim Pawlenty 2.0.

Writer Jamelle Bouie wrote what others have thought.

“He’s not a firebrand and he doesn’t alienate ordinary Americans,” Bouie wrote about Walker. “Instead, he looks and sounds like a middle manager; an ordinary, almost boring guy who just wants to save you money.”

The Wisconsin governor should be a winner, Slate reported, since he has done well in a generally Democratic state. The same was written about Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty when he was running for president.

Politicos have called both dull and uninspiring. In a recent campaign stop in Carroll, Iowa, C-SPAN showed the country — or at least those who watch the channel — that Walker has a ways to go before becoming a charismatic candidate. He sounded much like Pawlenty did in his Iowa campaign, far from a Donald Trump, whose brash talk attracts attention.

“Right now Walker looks like he’s on the wane,” Slate reports. “He’s not quite Tim Pawlenty — the doomed Minnesota governor who quit the 2012 Republican primary after poor showings in polls and onstage — but he’s coming uncomfortably close.”

Pawlenty dropped out of the race Aug. 13, 2011, a day after he finished third on a straw poll that Iowa Republicans canned this year. That may have been about where Walker would have finished this year.

One difference is that Pawlenty put all of his eggs in the Iowa basket, expecting his neighboring state’s first-in-the-country caucuses to give him a boost into the rest of the campaign. Walker, on the other hand, has spent time in New Hampshire and elsewhere as he apparently is using a broader strategy and has more money.

It also could be argued that Pawlenty did not have the success in Democratic-leaning Minnesota that Walker has to the east.

“On paper, Scott Walker is a winner,” Bouie wrote. “He doesn’t just govern a blue (Democratic) state — a win in its own right — he’s transformed it, making Wisconsin a vanguard for conservative causes, from right-to-work laws and public education cuts, to voter ID and strict limits on abortion.”

But, Bouie continues, Walker has been “a non-presence. He doesn’t flicker, let alone catch fire, and when it comes to issues and answering voters, the Wisconsin governor has been awkward, clumsy and flat-footed. Yes, he has money and yes, he has an organization. But that doesn’t make up for skill, or a lack thereof. So far, he just isn’t good, and it shows.”

Still, Slate says, “none of this means Walker is doomed. If he improves in debates, learns to answer questions, begins to capitalize on missteps from his opponents and otherwise boosts his performance, he could soar. The raw material is still there.”

Dayton vs. North Dakota

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is not happy with his neighbor to the west.

When asked during a Minnesota Public Radio State Fair interview, Dayton said Minnesota is on track to meet climate change goals, but not every state can say that.

“These other states like North Dakota … just have their heads in the sand and want to profit and then pollute our air accordingly,” he added.

At issue, among other things, is a lawsuit North Dakota won overturning a Minnesota law that basically bars the purchase of coal-generated electricity from North Dakota. Dayton said Minnesota will continue the court fight.

Dayton used the term “Neanderthal” in referring to North Dakota climate protection policies.

Ironically, on the same day Dayton went after North Dakota, officials of the two states held a conference call to see how their differences could be worked out.

Dayton and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple are childhood friends, but that has not smoothed out rough edges in relations between the states.

Klobuchar for president?

There is plenty of talk that U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has a higher office in her sights, especially given her new book, and Minnesotans apparently want to know her intentions.

A reporter following Klobuchar around the Minnesota State Fair for an hour and a half heard some people mentioning the possibility of a presidential run during the quiet morning tour before most people had gone through the turnstiles.

The senator never seems to answer the presidential question directly, although in her most recent Senate campaign she eventually pledged to serve out her term after Forum News Service peppered her with presidential questions.

Dayton relaxed

Gov. Mark Dayton says he is more relaxed at this year’s Minnesota State Fair than he has been in a long time.

For most of his adult life, Dayton either worked for government or was running for office.

This year, he still will talk to fair visitors, but it will be for information, not campaigning.

“I like to find out what is on people’s minds, and they are not shy about telling me,” Dayton said on the fair’s opening day. “It is like a rolling focus group.”

Where are we?

St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges joined Gov. Mark Dayton to present proclamations making the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair Ye Old Mill day in the state and their cities.

Interestingly, however, no one from Falcon Heights appeared in the ceremony, and that is the city where the fair is located.

After the ceremony, Dayton joined the mayors in a ride in the century-old fair attraction. Dayton’s office said it was not planned in advance The mayors sat in the front, mostly hiding the state’s governor from cameras when they disembarked at the end of the three-minute ride.

Vaccine not at top of federal avian flu response plan

Poultry producers and government officials are preparing for a predicted renewed fall avian flu outbreak, such as improving biosecurity, but they disagree about whether a vaccine should be used.

The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday heard from federal officials and a panel representing poultry farmers, with an eye toward fall when wild water fowl begin their southerly migration, which will be late August in Minnesota. Experts think the flu is spread by migrating birds, but do not know specifically how.

“We are facing the largest animal health emergency in this country’s history,” said Dr. John Clifford, a key U.S. Department of Agriculture official in dealing with the flu outbreak.

However, Clifford said, vaccine may not be the answer.

Some foreign countries are hesitant to buy poultry from this country.

“We’ve seen trade cut off by trading partners concerned about the devastating effects of this disease, causing over $1 billion in poultry products to be directed to other markets at a cost to producers,” Clifford said.

The USDA has investigated vaccinations, he said, but none has proven effective to the current H5N2 strain that has hit Midwest poultry farms.

“Aside from questions about its effectiveness, USDA believes that if a vaccine were used, some additional trading partners would ban all U.S. exports of poultry and eggs and not necessarily just those from the states currently affected … until they could complete a full risk assessment,” Clifford said. “The loss of these markets could cost U.S. producers at least $3 billion in trade revenue.”

Eighteen countries have suspended all American poultry imports, with 38 others stopping imports only from areas where bird flu has been confirmed.

Dr. David Swayne of USDA’s Agriculture Research Service said that in countries where vaccines have been used, they have not eradicated the disease.

“While testing looks promising, much more work needs to be done before a registered vaccine is found to be a viable option,” Swayne said.

Poultry farmers testifying in front of the committee delivered a mixed reaction to using vaccines.

“To truly recover from this devastating chapter, we need every means possible to eradicate the disease in commercial poultry,” said turkey farmer Brad Moline of Manson, Iowa. “There are many strategies that will be employed, but one of the most powerful potential tools in the toolbox will be a vaccine to fight the virus.”

On the other hand, James Dean of United Egg Producers in Sioux Center, Iowa, said vaccinating his flock would reduce egg production 10 percent because birds would need to receive three shots.

“That would mean a lot of people going into the building to do vaccination,” Dean said.

President Ken Klippen of the National Association of Egg Farmers said the virus had been hard on his members.

He told the story of Amon Baer of Lake Park, Minn., who testified in front of the Senate ag committee in 2012.

“He’s also one of the egg farmers devastated by avian influenza,” Klippen said. “When he discovered birds on his 300,000 egg layer farm dying suddenly in April, the laboratory confirmation of avian influenza made his heart sink. He would have to destroy every chicken on his farm.”

The virus has resulted in deaths of 10 percent of the chicken egg-laying population (42 million birds) and 3 percent of turkeys (7.5 million). Minnesota is the country’s top turkey producer, while Iowa is first in egg production.

Farmers and federal officials at the Senate hearing agreed that work to better keep the virus out of poultry flocks, an effort known as biosecurity.

While no new Midwestern bird flu cases have been reported in weeks, some of the farmers said federal officials could help them improve biosecurity, and perhaps help fund their efforts, before the predicted fall outbreak.

“We need some help knowing what areas of biosecurity we can improve on,” Moline said.

Clifford said that the USDA plans to give advice about improving biosecurity.

Moline was not happy with what some have said about his industry: “Could we all have done more to stop the spread of this virus? Most likely, but I take great offense to the notion articulated by some inside and outside the government that we in the turkey industry were careless or knowingly negligent. We in the industry, and my family farm specifically, have everything to lose by being sloppy; we don’t win by cutting corners.”

The new strain of avian flu needs new security procedures, Moline said. “What we have done successfully for years clearly needs to be revisited.”

 

—-

 

The U.S. turkey slaughter in May tumbled 12 percent from the prior month, government data shows, as the country’s worst-ever case of bird flu decimated flocks in top producer Minnesota and surrounding states.

The 17.8 million turkeys slaughtered nationwide last month was 8 percent fewer than May 2014, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s monthly poultry slaughter report. It was also the lightest slaughter for the month of May since 1987, USDA data showed.

More than 7.5 million turkeys have been killed by highly pathogenic avian influenza or culled to control its spread since December, according to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Hardest hit have been top producer Minnesota, which to date has lost more than 4.8 million birds, and No. 8 producer Iowa, where more than 1.5 million have died.

Minnesota’s May slaughter of 2.9 million young turkeys was down 31 percent from the previous month. However, the slaughter in Iowa rose 5.4 percent in May to 1.2 million birds.

— Reuters

Emergency managers want more railroad communications

Oil rail safety advocates hold up a banner Tuesday, July 7, 2015. Roses were used to remember the 47 who died in a Quebec oil train explosion two years ago Monday. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Oil rail safety advocates hold up a banner Tuesday, July 7, 2015. Roses were used to remember the 47 who died in a Quebec oil train explosion two years ago Monday. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Many Minnesota emergency managers say railroads that haul crude oil should communicate with them better.

“Planning done in a silo is not effective,” Director Judson Freed of Ramsey County Emergency Management and Homeland Security said Tuesday as rail safety advocates called for more cooperation. “We need to know what their experts are saying.”

Some of that information is becoming available after five railroads filed state-required emergency response plans with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last week. However, the emergency managers say that is not enough.

Rick Larkin, Freed’s St. Paul equivalent, praised a couple dozen citizens gathered for the rail safety news conference “to really demand action from the railroads.”

While Larkin said railroad trainers do a good job working with local firefighters and other public safety officials, “we need a willing partner” with railroad executives.

Democratic legislators and members of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety-Twin Cities called the news conference to demand that last week’s reports be made public.

MPCA spokesman Dave Verhasselt said that already was his department’s intention, once railroad and state lawyers remove parts that should not be public due to security and competitive reasons. City and county emergency managers can view the reports now.

A spokeswoman for the railroad that carries the most North Dakota crude oil across Minnesota, BNSF Railway Co., said it has complied with state law.

“We understand MPCA is in the process of reviewing BNSF’s plan and we’ll work with the state agency as it responds to requests for public release of the plan,” Amy McBeth said. “We will continue working with officials and responders to share information and provide ongoing training as we have done for decades.”

In the past two years, she said, BNSF has conducted hazardous materials training with 1,700 public safety personnel near its Minnesota tracks.

“We have emergency response plans in place that we routinely evaluate, test and update,” McBeth said. “We have always and continue to work with state responders on preparedness planning and training.”

A leader of the citizens’ safety group, Cathy Velasquez Eberhart, said that no realized how dangerous living near railroad tracks could be “until we started to see them exploding in other parts of the country.”

No oil trains have derailed and exploded in Minnesota, even though much of the crude from western North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield moves across Minnesota rails. Most goes on rail lines from Moorhead, through the Twin Cities and south along the Mississippi River. Canadian oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials also travel in Minnesota.

“Oil trains go within a few feet of our Mississippi River,” Eberhart said, standing in the parking lot of the pollution agency that would be in charge of cleaning up oil spills and a few hundred feet from tracks carrying oil-filled rail cars.

Eberhart said she hopes her group can expand statewide to represent those concerned about rail safety.

Larkin said that state law requires railroads to meet annually with public safety officials in communities where oil trains travel. The reports filed last week are “starting points” for those meetings, he said.

However, those annual meetings are not open to the public and many at the Tuesday event called for more public information.

“They are not willing to share it in an open forum,” Larkin said. “They do the minimum compliance.”

State Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, said that keeping some information private makes sense so it is more difficult for people to discover weaknesses in rail security.

However, Schoen added, the public needs more oil train information, something he said would help railroads.

“The trust factor with railroads might be down,” said Schoen, a Cottage Grove police officer.

 

Dayton takes advantage of single-day window to raise commissioners’ pay

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton says on Wednesday, July 1, 2015, he is solely responsible for giving raises to commissioners he appointed. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton says on Wednesday, July 1, 2015, he is solely responsible for giving raises to commissioners he appointed. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton handed state commissioners annual average raises of $29,000 Wednesday, admitting that many Minnesotans cannot relate to that big an increase.

“My goal is to make government as good as possible,” Dayton said, adding that he came in thousands under the limit legislators set for commissioner pay.

“I did what I was authorized to do…” he said. “I am solely responsible for this.”

Dayton said he understands that the size of the raises may be tough for the public to understand, and the average raise alone is more than some families bring home. He asked Minnesotans to give him the benefit of the doubt that the raises are needed.

Top-level workers’ salaries have not risen as much as needed in recent years, he said. “We are playing catchup.”

The Democratic governor took action on the only day he was allowed to under a deal he and legislative leaders cut early this year. The Democratic-controlled Legislature of 2013-2014 gave Dayton the freedom to decide commissioner pay, but lawmakers of both parties objected in January this year when he upped salaries nearly a month before he told legislators.

The salaries announced Wednesday are similar to those he gave in January, before he and legislators agreed that the raises would be revoked and the governor would be able to hike commissioners’ pay only on Wednesday, the first day of the state’s $42 billion, two-year budget. After midnight Wednesday, power to set salaries returned to the Legislature.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Dayton should have talked to Minnesotans after the January dispute so he would know they do not support paying $900,000 more to his appointees.

“The governor apparently is more out of touch than I thought with Minnesotans,” Daudt said.

Top commissioner salaries of $154,992 annually go to those running transportation, revenue, public safety, natural resources, human services and budget departments. Not far behind, at $150,002, are commissioners of corrections, education, employment and economic development, health and pollution control.

Most Dayton Cabinet members received $25,000 to $35,000 raises.

Five Public Utilities Commission members each get a $43,000 raise to $140,000 annually. They do not sit on the Dayton Cabinet.

In all, 31 officials will get paid more under Dayton’s action.

The governor said one commissioner was offered $50,000 a year more for a private job, but she turned it down. He said no commissioner has complained about pay.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the Legislature overwhelmingly gave Dayton authority to raise salaries.

“I share the concern of hiring and retaining our highly qualified, dedicated commissioners and other public servants who perform the outstanding work of our state departments,” Bakk said.

GOP leaders were critical of Dayton, even though Democrats pointed out that most Republicans voted in favor of the bill that gave Dayton authority to deliver pay raises Wednesday.

Daudt predicted lawmakers will attempt to overturn the pay raises in the 2016 legislative session.

The Republican also said that it will be tough to approve any agency budget increases next year in light of the pay hikes.

The speaker said that Dayton already had given 5 percent commissioner raises each of the past two years and he could have accepted raises in the 3 percent to 5 percent range.

The raises will be used in next year’s legislative campaigns.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the raises are part of a larger issue he sees with Democrats who want to help themselves and their friends.

Hann said that compared to other states, Minnesota commissioners are overpaid. Dayton has had no problem getting commissioners, even with the old pay, the senator added.

 

Dayton uses second chance to hike commissioner pay

Standing near the state Capitol building being renovated, Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt Wednesday, July 1, 2015, says that the governor was not listening to citizens when he boosted state commissioners' pay. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Standing near the state Capitol building being renovated, Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt Wednesday, July 1, 2015, says that the governor was not listening to citizens when he boosted state commissioners’ pay. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota legislators gave Gov. Mark Dayton one day to raise his commissioners’ pay and, to no one’s surprise, he did that today.

Dayton is giving an average $20,000 raise to his commissioners and overall raises are similar to the $800,000 he awarded them in January, before he and legislative leaders agreed that the raise would be revoked and the governor would be able to up commissioners’ pay today only.

His action early this year created an uproar among lawmakers who were upset that he gave the raises and did not tell them until nearly a month later.

“It’s a lot of money; it’s more money than most Minnesotans make,” Dayton said on Minnesota Public Radio. “But these are very talented people who have the ability to command these salaries — in fact, higher salaries — in the public sector elsewhere, even in Minnesota.”

Top commissioner salaries of $154,992 went to those running transportation, revenue, public safety, natural resources, human services and budget departments. Not far behind, at $150,002, were commissioners of corrections, education, employment and economic development, health and pollution control.

He could have raised those 11 and eight other commissioners’ salaries to $164,803.

Another eight commissioners will be paid up to $144,991, short of a $148,694 cap.

“All Minnesotans depend upon their skills to organize and deliver needed public services, while also creating efficiencies and saving taxpayers money,” Dayton wrote to legislative leaders about his commissioners.

He also wrote: “The salaries of high-level public officials are continent targets for anti-government partisans, who don’t understand the sophisticated administration skills required to provide quality government services, and care even less.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the Legislature overwhelmingly gave Dayton authority to raise salaries on July 1.

“I share the concern of hiring and retaining our highly qualified, dedicated commissioners and other public servants who perform the outstanding work of our state departments,” Bakk said.

But Republicans said Dayton is out of touch with Minnesotans, who do not want commissioners to get the size of raises given Wednesday.

“I will not say I am surprised, but I will say I’m very disappointed,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said about Dayton’s decision.

He called the governor out of touch with average Minnesotans and predicted lawmakers will attempt to turn back the pay raises in the 2016 legislative session. He said the average pay increase in the state was 1.7 percent, but some commissioners received more than a 30 percent boost.

Daudt also said that it will be tough to approve any agency budget increases next year in light of the pay hikes.

The speaker said Dayton already has given 5 percent commissioner raises each of the past two years and he could have accepted raises in the 3 percent to 5 percent range.

The $42 billion, two-year state budget started today, but it does not include funds for commissioner raises.

 

Aid for poor included in new laws

Thousands of poor Minnesota families begin getting more state aid Wednesday as the new state budget begins.

The $42 billion, two-year overall state budget provides more housing assistance, as well as lower child care costs.

“Too many children are living in poverty without proper housing and other basics,” Assistant Commissioner Jim Koppel of the Human Services Department said. “These investments will help families trying to stretch their monthly budgets to care for their children and provide them healthier, more successful lives.”

Nearly 20,000 families getting aid from the Minnesota Family Investment Program will receive an additional $110 a month to help with housing costs. The housing assistance getting a boost was begun by the 2013 Legislature and increased this May.

The grants will be available to people who do not live in public housing or receive other rental assistance.

Families will pay less for child care through a state program that lawmakers gave an additional $10 million. State officials say the extra money should reduce a child care waiting list that now counts 4,500 families. It should help more than 600 children.

“Stable housing and strong early childhood experiences are two of the best ways to ensure these children have a bright future,” Koppel said.

Most state law changes come Aug. 1, but since the state fiscal year is July 1 to June 30, Wednesday also features a good many changes that are included in the state budget.

Education, one of the most-discussed issues in the Legislature this year, will experience a number of changes other than more state money (most notably for early learners).

One new provision allows experienced and well-trained teachers from other states to have an easier time getting Minnesota teacher licenses.

School districts will be allowed to start classes before Labor Day this year, since the holiday comes late. However, there are reports from some districts that this is too late to change next school year’s schedule.

Other new laws include:

— Drivers participating in Uber and other transportation-sharing services using private vehicles are required to carry insurance.

— Nursing homes and senior citizen organizations will be allowed to conduct bingo more than twice a week, which now is the limit.

— Funding is available to combat recruitment of Minnesotans by terrorist organizations.

— The state political contribution rebate ends, which prompted political groups in recent weeks to push for contributions before the $50 refund expires.

 

Judge to Minnesota: Fix program or sex offenders may be released

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility at Moose Lake, Minn. (2011 file / News Tribune)

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility at Moose Lake.

A federal judge says sex offenders have rights, too, and told state officials Wednesday to either make the Minnesota Sex Offender Program constitutional or he may release some offenders.

It is a debate that began after the kidnapping and killing of Dru Sjodin in 2003, when the number of sex offenders committed to the treatment program began a dramatic increase.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank did not order specific changes to the program and said no sex offenders will be released immediately. However, without changes, he indicated that closing the program or releasing sex offenders is possible.

“The stark reality is that there is something very wrong with this state’s method of dealing with sex offenders in a program that has never fully discharged anyone committed to its detention facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter since its inception in 1994,” wrote Frank, who as a St. Louis County, Minn., prosecutor and state judge dealt with sex offender cases.

“It is undisputed that there are civilly committed individuals at the MSOP who could be safely placed in the community or in less restrictive facilities,” Frank wrote about the program that keeps some sex offenders in prison-like hospitals for years after they finish serving prison terms.

The ruling gives state officials one last chance, after several warnings, to change the program before the judge makes the decisions for them.

“We are going to have to make it a real treatment program,” said Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, a key legislative player on the issue.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson disagree with the ruling and pledged to defend the program.

“He has not ordered any specific changes…” Jesson said in an interview. “We are just continuing to run the program.”

Some changes that Frank suggested already are in the works, she added, including putting some offenders in less restrictive facilities. Another Frank idea matches one from Dayton, which did not pass the Legislature, to regularly evaluate the progress that sex offenders make in treatment.

Frank, who then-U.S. Sen. Dayton recommended be named a federal judge in 1998, asked state leaders to attend an Aug. 10 meeting to design a constitutional treatment program. He said that among those he wants at the meeting are Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk

“There may be changes that could be made immediately, short of ordering the closure of the facilities, to remedy this problem,” Frank wrote.

Jesson said that legislators would have to change state law and appropriate money for most of Frank’s ideas. If he insists that happen before the Legislature convenes next March 8, it would require a special session.

Lourey said that Frank wants politicians reluctant to be seen as letting sex offenders go free to get the message “that we really do have to do something.”

Senators already have voted to make changes, some of which fit with Frank’s proposals. The House has not taken action.

The attorney for sex offenders who brought the class-action lawsuit against the state was happy that Frank said that offenders have rights.

“This order highlights the complete failure of the political system in Minnesota with respect to these important issues but more importantly, it reaffirms that all people, no matter how disliked they are or how reprehensible their prior conduct, are entitled to constitutional protection,” Dan Gustafson said.

Frank said in a 76-page ruling that the sex offender treatment in Moose Lake and St. Peter state hospitals gives sex offenders no “realistic hope of ever getting out,” even though some offenders could live outside the treatment centers.

The debate about what to do with sex offenders after their prison terms end began when Sjodin was killed in 2003.

Shortly before Sjodin disappeared, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. completed his 23-year prison term and was released, but was not committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

Federal and state laws changed after Sjodin was kidnapped on Nov. 22, 2003, from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall parking lot. Her body was found five months later and Rodriguez of Crookston, Minn., was convicted of her death.

The fact that Rodriguez did not go into treatment raised such an uproar among Minnesotans that politicians, prosecutors and judges began putting more and more offenders into treatment, boosting the number of clients from 150 then to 714 today.

Minnesota politicians increased prison terms for the worse sex offenders, but did little with the treatment program. In the past couple of years, legislators expected Frank to order major changes, but they mostly avoided voting to let sex offenders go free.

Sjodin was a University of North Dakota student and a Pequot Lakes High School graduate.

The St. Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this report.

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Sex offender ruling quotes

Here are some excerpts from Frank’s ruling:

“(The program) challenges the boundaries that we the people set on the notions of individual liberty and freedom, the bedrock principles embedded in the United States Constitution.”

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“It is fundamental to our notions of a free society that we do not imprison citizens because we fear that they might commit a crime in the future. Although the public might be safer if the government, using the latest ‘scientific’ methods of predicting human behavior, locked up potential murderers, rapists, robbers and, of course, sex offenders, our system of justice, enshrined in rights guaranteed by our Constitution, prohibits the imposition of preventive detention except in very limited circumstances.”

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“The court concludes that Minnesota’s civil commitment statutes and sex offender program do not pass constitutional scrutiny. … The stark reality is that there is something very wrong with this state’s method of dealing with sex offenders in a program that has never fully discharged anyone committed to its detention facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter since its inception in 1994.”

—-

“In light of the structure of the MSOP and the history of its operation, no one has any realistic hope of ever getting out of this ‘civil’ detention. Instead, it is undisputed that there are committed individuals who meet the criteria for reduction in custody or who no longer meet the criteria for commitment who continue to be confined at the MSOP.”

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“There are some sex offenders who are truly dangerous and who should not be released; however, the criminal and civil justice systems should say so and implement appropriate procedures so as to afford individuals their constitutional protections.”

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“The rate of (sex offender) commitment in Minnesota is 128.6 per million, the rate of commitment in North Dakota is 77.8 per million and the rate of commitment in New York is 15 per million. The rate of commitment in Minnesota is significantly higher than the rate of commitment in Wisconsin, which is demographically similar to Minnesota.”

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“A significant increase in commitment and referral rates followed the abduction and murder of Dru Sjodin in late 2003.”

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“The evidence clearly establishes that hopelessness pervades the environment at the MSOP, and that there is an emotional climate of despair among the facilities’ residents, particularly among residents at the Moose Lake facility.”

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“Site visit auditors also confirmed that frequent staff turnover, particularly at Moose Lake, has negatively impacted therapeutic treatment engagement.”

—-

“The court is hopeful that the stakeholders will fashion suitable remedies so that the court need not consider closing the MSOP facilities or releasing a number of individuals from the MSOP with or without conditions. As the court has stated in a number of previous orders and will now say one last time, the time is now for all of the stakeholders in the criminal justice system and civil commitment system to come together and develop policies and pass laws that will not only protect the public safety and address the fears and concerns of all citizens, but will preserve the constitutional rights of the class members (those in treatment).”

 

Minnesotans must wait to see sex offender treatment plan changes

A federal judge says the Minnesota Sex Offender Program is unconstitutional, but what happens next is unclear.

The judge did not order specific changes to the program in his Wednesday ruling and said no sex offenders will be released immediately. However, without changes in the program he indicated that a mass release of sex offenders is possible.

“It is undisputed that there are civilly committed individuals at the MSOP who could be safely placed in the community or in less restrictive facilities…” U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank wrote about the program that keeps some sex offenders in a prison-like setting for years or decades after they finish serving their prison terms. “The stated goal of the MSOP’s treatment program, observed in theory but not in practice, is to treat and safely reintegrate committed individuals at the MSOP back into the community.”

Gov. Mark Dayton and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson disagree with the ruling.

“We continue to believe that both the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and the civil commitment statute are constitutional,” Dayton said in a statement. “We will work with the attorney general to defend Minnesota’s law.”

Dayton and Jesson were thankful that Frank did not order any sex offenders released.

“He has not ordered any specific changes…” Jesson said in an interview. “We are just continuing to run the program.”

Some changes that Frank suggested, but did not order, already are in the works, she added. Included among them are less restrictive facilities for some offenders, compared to prison-like hospitals where treatment now is provided.

Dayton proposed funding, which did not pass this legislative session, to regularly evaluate the progress sex offenders are making in treatment. Frank suggested that as one change he would like to see.

The debate about what to do with sex offenders began when Dru Sjodin was kidnapped and killed in 2003.

Frank asked state leaders — including Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk — to design a constitutional treatment program. They are to meet later this summer.

Since Sjodin’s death, most politicians have leaned toward keeping the state’s worst sex offenders in prison or at a state hospital as long as possible. But Frank ruled that keeping them indefinitely hospitalized violates the U.S. Constitution

“There may be changes that could be made immediately, short of ordering the closure of the facilities, to remedy this problem,” Frank wrote.

The attorney for sex offenders who brought the class-action lawsuit was happy that Frank said that the offenders have rights.

“This order highlights the complete failure of the political system in Minnesota with respect to these important issues but more importantly, it reaffirms that all people, no matter how disliked they are or how reprehensible their prior conduct, are entitled to constitutional protection,” Dan Gustafson said.

Frank was frank in his ruling.

“The stark reality is something very wrong with this state’s method of dealing with sex offenders,” Frank wrote, offering several potential remedies for state leaders to consider.

Frank said he will hold an Aug. 10 conference where state executive and legislative branch officials “will be called upon to fashion suitable remedies to be presented to the court.”

If they cannot resolve the issue, he warned that he could close the program and release offenders.

The judge said in a 76-page ruling that the sex offender treatment in Moose Lake and St. Peter state hospitals gives sex offenders no “realistic hope of ever getting out,” even though some offenders could live outside the treatment centers.

Federal and state laws changed after Sjodin was kidnapped Nov. 22, 2003, from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall parking lot. Her body was found five months later and Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of Crookston, Minn., was convicted of her death.

Not long before Sjodin disappeared, Rodriguez completed his 23-year prison term and was released, but was not committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program.

The program allows state officials to keep sex offenders in prison-like hospitals as long as they want after their prison sentences are completed.

Sjodin’s death and the fact that Rodriguez did not go into treatment raised such an uproar among Minnesotans that politicians, prosecutors and judges began putting more and more offenders into treatment, boosting the number of clients from 150 then to 700 today.

Minnesota politicians increased prison terms for the worse sex offenders and took other measures, but did little with the treatment program. In the past couple of years, legislators expected Frank to order major changes, but with the issue a political minefield, they mostly avoided dealing with it.

Sjodin was a University of North Dakota student and a Pequot Lakes High School graduate. Her mother, Linda Walker, has worked more than 11 years to change laws to keep people safe from sex offenders.

No sex offender has been fully released from the treatment program.

Keeping an offender in the treatment program costs $120,000 a year, three times the cost of an average prison inmate.

The St. Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this report.

 

Federal judge orders Minnesota sex offender treatment to be fixed

Dru Sjodin, slain Unversity of North Dakota student

Dru Sjodin, slain Unversity of North Dakota student

Dru Sjodin’s 2003 death produced what may be its most important side effect yet, a federal judge’s ruling Wednesday that the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program violates the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank ordered those involved in the program, including leaders from the state executive and legislative branches, to work on a solution.

“There may be changes that could be made immediately, short of ordering the closure of the facilities, to remedy this problem,” Frank wrote.

Frank said he will hold an Aug. 10 conference where state executive and legislative branch officials “will be called upon to fashion suitable remedies to be presented to the court.”

The judge said in a 74-page ruling that the sex offender treatment facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter “will not be immediately closed.”

The program gives sex offenders no realistic chance of getting out, he said, even though some offenders could live outside the treatment centers.

Federal and state laws changed after Sjodin was kidnapped Nov. 22, 2003, from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall parking lot. Her body was found five months later and Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of Crookston, Minn., was convicted of her death. Not long before Sjodin disappeared, he completed his 23-year prison term and was released, but not committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program.

However, Minnesota politicians did little to change the treatment program that Frank criticized last year by calling it “one of the most draconian sex offender programs in existence” and adding: “The time for legislative action is now.”

The program allows state officials to keep sex offenders in prison-like hospitals as long as they want after their prison sentences are completed.

Sjodin’s death and the fact that Rodriguez did not go into treatment raised such an uproar among Minnesotans that politicians, prosecutors and judges began putting more and more offenders into treatment, boosting the number of clients from 150 then to 700 today.

Minnesota politicians increased prison terms for the worse sex offenders and took other measures, but did little with the treatment program. In the past couple of years, legislators expected Frank to order major changes, but with the issue a political minefield, they mostly avoided the issue themselves.

Sjodin was a University of North Dakota student and a Pequot Lakes High School graduate. Her mother, Linda Walker, has worked more than 11 years to change laws to keep people safe from sex offenders.

Those in the state treatment program live in prison-like conditions at Moose Lake and St. Peter state hospitals. Just one has graduated from treatment and he continues to live under supervision.

The class-action lawsuit filed by clients of the sex offender program claims that the program is punitive detention with little chance of getting out, even though their prison sentences have been served. That, they say, is unconstitutional.

On the first day of a spring trial in the case, the clients’ attorney produced a witness that compared Wisconsin to Minnesota. Both states created sex offender treatment programs about 20 years ago. But in Wisconsin, just 362 people are in the program and 118 have been discharged.

The state’s attorney said that the program is designed to keep Minnesota safe, which it does by treating sex offenders.

Keeping an offender in the treatment program costs $120,000 a year, three times the cost of an average prison inmate.