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About Don Davis

Forum News Service Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers that serve the state.

Bird flu likely to be around for years

The federal government has spent up to $30 million battling a new strain of flu that resulted in more than 1.6 million Minnesota turkey deaths and experts warn that the issue could go on up to five more years.

“This is something we may have to live with for a number of years,” Dr. John Clifford of the U.S. Department of Agriculture told a Minnesota House agriculture committee Thursday.

Most cases were reported March 5 to April 3, Dr. Carol Cardona of the University of Minnesota said, and as temperatures rise cases may slow down. However, she added, it is likely that the region will experience outbreaks each spring and fall for three to five years unless something is found to slow its spread.

Scientists say they think migrating ducks and geese bring the virus to Minnesota.

“It will reoccur, very, very likely in the fall,” Clifford said, because that is when the wild birds head back south.

Cardona showed legislators a photograph with one turkey left standing in a barn, the rest apparently dead.

“This is horrific,” she said.

Clifford, the USDA chief veterinarian, said his department has about 60 staff members in Minnesota fighting avian influenza. “We will continue this effort as long as it takes.”

Fifty full-time state employees are working on the issue, along with 15 temporary and 18 contract workers.

Warmer weather across Minnesota may be helping slow the outbreak.

“I am hopeful that the sunshine that we see today is leading to the end of this wave,” Cardona said.

Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, wondered what can be done to prevent bird flu from spreading.

“We are looking at a situation that has changed overnight,” Cardona said, indicating there is no firm answer. “We no longer are living in the same world as we were.”

That said, she added that procedures need to be continually improved to keep the virus out of turkey barns.

Northfield-area turkey producer John Zimmerman said that already is happening.

“Before, we would wash our boots,” Zimmerman said about when workers went from barn to barn. “Now we have separate boots.”

He said visitors are not allowed in barns.

Executive Director Steve Olson of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association said the procedures are working because there is no evidence virus is spreading from one barn to another or one farm to another.

The virus, probably coming from waterfowl flying through the area, can be attached to dust or other particles blowing in the wind.

While the issue is serious, Olson also tried to put it in perspective. Twenty-six of 2,500 flocks in the state have been infected. The infected flocks are in 14 counties, the state Board of Animal Health reported Thursday.

Minnesota is the country’s largest turkey producer, with 46 million birds a year.

Some countries and states have banned Minnesota turkeys although federal and state officials say there is no evidence that the bird flu has been transmitted to humans.

In a conference call with reporters, Clifford said the USDA is working with countries to try to reopen turkey sales. Mexico, China, South Korea and South Africa ban all American poultry and some other countries ban only Minnesota birds

“We are hopeful we can get things reopened in regards to Mexico,” Clifford said about a major American poultry buyer.

Experts say there is nothing to fear about Minnesota turkeys.

Any bird with the virus “will never, ever enter the food chain,” state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said.

The federal government has spent $15 million to compensate Minnesota turkey producers for birds they had to euthanize. Insurance is not available for turkey deaths.

Clifford said that up to $15 million more has been spent on other needs, and the federal government is considering whether more is needed in Minnesota.

The state House Thursday evening unanimously approved a measure to pay the Agriculture Department $514,000 and the Board of Animal Health $379,000 for state expenses.

More state money is likely to be needed and legislative leaders are considering it. A House committee already has approved a $1.2 million appropriation.

“We want to get it right,” Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, of the House Agriculture Finance Committee said.

Turkey virus: From China to Minnesota

Blame Minnesota’s famous lakes.

The country’s top veterinarian said the state’s lakes may be part of the reason so many Minnesota turkeys are taking ill from the latest strain of avian influenza.

Dr. John Clifford of the U.S. Department of Agriculture told a state House committee Thursday that the water attracts a large number of ducks and geese flying over the state during spring and fall migrations. Since there are so many lakes, many are near turkey barns, putting water fowl carrying the virus close to turkeys.

While it is not known how the flu virus is transmitted to turkeys, wind may blow feather pieces or feces from infected wild birds into barns.

Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota and North Dakota are on a migration flyway used in spring and fall by geese and ducks and all have reported possible avian influenza outbreaks. Minnesota leads the country in bird flu infections.

The virus originated in China or elsewhere in Asia late last fall and birds likely carried it into North America across the Bering Strait to Alaska and down the West Coast, Dr. Carol Cardona of the University of Minnesota said. It also has entered Europe.

Last month was the first time it was found in the Upper Midwest, where Cardona said the virus hit “with a vengeance.”

An emergency operations center has opened in the Agriculture Department building near the state Capitol to coordinate state and federal response.

State Veterinarian Dr. Bill Hartmann of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health said that when a producer sees an unusual number of deaths in a flock, the state is notified. State officials quickly get samples from the flock and immediately quarantine the farm, he added.

When flu is found, the remaining birds in a flock are killed to prevent spread of the virus. Hartmann said bodies are decomposed at temperatures of 240 degrees and the remains are not removed until tested to make sure they are virus-free.

Also, when the flu is confirmed officials quarantine and monitor all other poultry within about six miles and notify producers within about 12 miles.

The virus now spreading is known as H5N2, and like similar viruses it can change. State officials, including the Department of Natural Resources, are looking into what other birds could be affected by this version of bird flu. Cardona said that some owls, falcons, ducks and geese are vulnerable to the virus, but it varies from bird to bird.

Clifford said that it appears chickens are more resistant to the virus, but that could change.

No Minnesota chickens have been infected, but a Wisconsin flock was.

“Things change every day with this darn virus,” Cardona said.

Loud debate allows gun ‘silencers’

Minnesota guns may be a bit quieter if a House-passed bill allowing “silencers” gets Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton’s approval.

The bill passed the Republican-run House 89-40 Thursday after a vigorous debate, but faces a tougher road in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“These gun suppressors do not make a gun silent,” bill sponsor Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore, said during debate about one of several gun-related bills. “What they do is make it quieter.”

He said the suppressors change a gunshot from being ear damaging to “just really, really loud.”

“Neighbors, even out in the country, would benefit from less sound,” Anderson said, adding that gun owners using suppressors would be better able to hear each other at shooting ranges.

Rep. Joe Mullery, D-Minneapolis, said that his urban district differs from rural ones.

“In my district, when you hear the word ‘duck,’ you begin running for cover,” he said.

That is different than in a rural district, where “duck” may mean a hunting trip.

Minneapolis has devices around the city to determine where shots are fired, Mullery said, and they cannot be traced when silencers are used.

“This does work on stopping crime,” Mullery said about the shot finder device.

Long-time law enforcement officer Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said that a Minneapolis police officer said the shot trackers do not work all the time, even without silencers.

The silencer-suppressor legislation was one of several gun measures representatives debated Thursday.

“Minnesota is a gun state,” said Cornish, wearing a National Rifle Association T-shirt under his jacket, which itself was adorned with rifle and pistol pins. “It is past the time when you can beat up on gun owners.”

The House voted 92-38 to get rid of a law that requires people who want to carry a pistol in the Capitol to notify the public safety commissioner.

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said that since the law was passed, the Public Safety Department has developed a comprehensive database of gun permit owners. That, he said, is a better way to keep track of gun owners than a written letter.

Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, tried to amend the bill to ban guns when school children were present in the Capitol, as often happens when field trips are held each spring.

“They would not be able to carry firearms in the Capitol when school children are present,” Schoen said.

However, House Speaker Kurt Daudt would not allow the amendment to be heard because it would cost the state, and there were no provisions to pay for it.

Representatives approved 88-42 a bill to forbid police from confiscating firearms during a state of emergency. The measure by Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said it came about because New Orleans police took away guns soon after Hurricane Katrina hit the city, leaving residents with no personal protection.

Under the bill, police still could take away guns temporarily, such as when responding to a crime.

Farmers, businesses would get GOP tax breaks

Farmers and businesses would receive at least a quarter of the $2 billion of tax cuts Minnesota House Republican propose.
A GOP bill discussed Wednesday in the House Property Tax and Local Government Finance Division would phase out a statewide property tax on businesses, saving $453 million in the next two-year budget. A credit giving farmland owners refunds would add $49 million to the tax-break total.
Committee Chairman Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that his goal is to reduce “businesses taxes, specifically the statewide business property tax, and the almost-suffocating nature of farm property taxes.” Cabin owners’ state property taxes also would be phased out.
Property taxes levied by the state would be phased out over six years, but they would continue to pay to local governments.
The farmland tax cut is a revised version of what Drazkowski proposed before the legislative session began. It would provide a credit refunding half of what landowners pay for school construction bonding projects.
Current law requires farmland to be assessed for school construction projects, but farmers object because they often own so much land that their unoccupied property ends up footing a larger portion of construction costs than other property. Drazkowski’s bill requires the farm house, garage and one acre to continue to pay full price for school construction.
“Farmers pay 10 times what people in the cities might pay,” Thom Peterson of the Minnesota Farmers Union said.
“When somebody wanted to build a school gym, it ended up pitting neighbor against neighbor, farmer against farmer,” he added.
Past attempts to lower farm taxes have involved proposals that would shift taxes to home or businesses owners. The new proposal would lower taxes by the state paying the farmers, so the tax burden would be spread among all taxpayers.
Because farmers paid so much of construction costs, it became hard for rural school districts to pass bond issues to fund new facilities.
With support in the Senate, too, the Drazkowski plan had advanced further than any similar plan.
“We probably worked on this every year in the 13 years I have been with Farmers Union,” Petersen said.
Southern and western Minnesota, known as “the L,” would be most helped by the Drazkowski bill, Petersen said.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has promised that House Republicans will propose $2 billion in tax cuts focusing on the average Minnesotan. The entire tax package has yet to be unveiled.
The bill also would chop Local Government Aid to Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul (saving the state $85 million); repeal political contribution refund ($10 million); and eliminate aquatic invasive species payments to counties ($20 million).
The bill also would boost money available for Dilworth, East Grand Forks, Breckenridge, Moorhead and Ortonville to provide tax breaks $1 million annually in an effort to be competitive with South Dakota and North Dakota.

Legislators ready to up bird flu funding

Hamilton

Hamilton

Minnesota legislators are reacting to avian flu by providing money for state agencies to attack the spreading outbreak.

The Minnesota House agriculture finance committee Tuesday night voted to add nearly $1.8 million to the fight and its chairman said more is on the way.

Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said no one knows how much money is needed, adding that House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin understand the importance of providing funds to combat the disease that has resulted in about 1.5 million turkey deaths in the state in the past month and a half.

Legislators have until May 18 to pass a budget for the next two years, but if avian influenza costs after that Gov. Mark Dayton could call them back into special session.

Santo Cruz of the state Agriculture Department said employees of his department are being sent into the field to work on the situation quickly.

“We don’t have our green (accountant) visors on, we are just out there responding,” he said.

The House committee approved $550,000 to fund overtime and other unexpected costs through the end of the state’s fiscal year on June 30, with another $1.2 million for the next two-year budget that could be used to combat animal or plant diseases.

The Agriculture Department has hired more than 20 temporary workers for immediate needs, he added. “It is a cash flow problem; we don’t have the cash on hand to fund them.”

The department, Board of Animal Health and Health Department are working with federal authorities on the outbreak.

Tuesday night’s meeting came hours after officials announced that 22 flocks have been wiped out by the flu and euthanasia, and the impact probably will continue to spread.

“I just got some sad news from my district,” Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said about the first flock in his district being hit by the flu.

“It is sad to see someone’s business go down,” Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, said. “Very frustrating.”

Minnesota produces about 46 million turkeys a year, more than any other state.

Committee members from both parties supported adding funds, but many Democrats were unhappy that the money generally came from the Agriculture Utilization Research Institute, which helps provide better ways to market farm products.

“That is not the road we like to be down that is a very fundamentally sound, innovative, program,” Rep. Jeanne Poppe, D-Austin, said.

Hamilton that it was important to at least include some money in the agriculture finance bill so it can be discussed as the House, Senate and Dayton enter final budget negotiations.

“This is a work in progress,” Hamilton said. “I can’t stress that enough.”

Poppe explained how farmers see the flu issue: “It is like a tornado that is coming and it is constantly coming, and they never know if they are going to get hit.”

Bills cool to tuition freeze

Minnesota legislators are giving state-run colleges and universities a cool reception, but not the freeze they want.

Bills written by majority House Republicans and Democrats who control the Senate offer some tuition relief, but neither provides an across-the-board freeze.

Representatives of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and University of Minnesota systems were reluctant to say how their boards would react to the proposals, but U of M President Eric Kaler was not happy with the lack of freeze funding.

“If a zero percent increase stands, we are left with no choice but to raise tuition,: Kaler said. “I don’t want to do that. An increase will impact all of our students, whether they’re enrolled at the Crookston, Duluth, Morris, Rochester or Twin Cities campus. At the same time, we have real costs and increases fueled by inflation, new technology, physical infrastructure maintenance and repairs and other external factors.”

University lobbyist Pierre Willette said that without tuition freeze funds, he would expect a “2 to 3 percent increase each year.”

MnSCU had no such estimate, but lobbyists testified that the system strongly supports its original request for enough money to freeze tuitions.

Chairwoman Terri Bonoff, D-Minnetonka, of the Senate higher education committee said there should be enough funds to keep tuition in check.

“I would look at this bill that actually would allow you to freeze tuition,” Bonoff said.

Bonoff’s Senate bill includes a provision from Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, to freeze some two-year college tuitions.

In the House, the bill by Higher Education Chairman Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, MnSCU universities would be limited to a 3 percent tuition increase next year, while college tuitions would be frozen.

MnSCU university tuitions would be frozen for 2016-2017 school year would remain at next year’s levels. In 2016-2017, colleges would be forced to reduce tuitions 1 percent.

MnSCU schools include four-year colleges and universities and two-year technical and community colleges.

Committee members asked university and college officials to get specific reaction to their bills soon. The bills could receive full House and Senate votes early next week.

Bonoff said colleges and universities do not need more money than in her bill to keep tuitions static.

“There is a tremendous amount of community and market pressure for our universities to hold their costs,” Bonoff said.

Even without more money, she added, the schools can “find a way to freeze their tuitions.”

Bonoff’s bill includes more money than the schools now receive, which she said would enable them to keep tuitions in check, even if the funds are not dedicated to tuitions.

Kaler said surveys show nearly 70 percent of Minnesotans think the university does not get enough state money.

Political chatter: Dayton strongly fights Republican tax-cut wishes

It is impossible to listen to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton very long and not realize he hates Republican plans to disperse a state budget surplus by cutting taxes.

A surplus can “evaporate” quickly, he told reporters, adding that the surplus should be used to advance Minnesota.

Dayton said that Republicans’ idea of spending the nearly $2 billion state surplus on tax cuts is just wrong.

“If they insist on that, I will do everything I can to persuade them to change that,” the governor said.

“To wipe out that entire surplus” could hurt the state, Dayton said, as happened when Jesse Ventura was governor and tax cuts he spearheaded adversely affected state budgets for years.

The governor, who polls show maintains popularity, has saved some of his harshest comments for GOP tax cut talk.

Republicans, meanwhile, say they are fighting for tax cuts because that is what Minnesotans want.

House Republicans still are working on their plans, but the Senate GOP announced its proposal Thursday.

“It’s time for families to experience some of the ‘surplus’ enjoyed by state government,” said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said. “This plan is pretty simple and straightforward — everyone who pays income taxes will pay less.”

The average tax relief for a couple would be $524 a year, the Republicans said.

Income tax rate reductions would be in addition to exempting Social Security and veterans’ pensions from state income taxes and a tax credit for families with young children.

Hemp lobbying effort

Rep. Mary Franson represents half of Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen’s district and since both are conservative Republicans, people might think they agree on everything.

Think again. Franson is the House author of a bill to allow limited growing of hemp for research, in hopes it someday will be legal to grow hemp as a money crop.

Ingebrigtsen is a former long-time law enforcement official, including Douglas County sheriff, and strongly opposes legal hemp. In fact, he told Forum News Service that legalizing hemp is a baby step to legalizing recreational marijuana, which is related to hemp but has very little of the chemical that can make a person high.

So Franson decided so show Ingebrigtsen what Minnesotans are missing. “Just dropped off some hemp presents to my senator,” she tweeted the day the story about his hemp views appeared. “I’m sure he’ll enjoy them.”

Her gift bag included soap and hemp seed hearts. Hemp, grown just north of Minnesota in Canada, can be made into food, ropes, clothing and dozens of other items. It is illegal to grow in Minnesota.

The Ingebrigtsen story attracted a lot of attention by pro-marijuana websites and prompted pro-hemp Farmers Union lobbyist Thom Peterson to write on Facebook: “Well … not sure what to say about this … More work to do!”

GOP attacks Peterson

The National Republican Congressional Committee is trying to tie U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson to Hillary Clinton’s email scandal.

Peterson had nothing to do with expected presidential candidate Clinton setting up a private email server when she was secretary of state.

“Collin Peterson, however, has not called on Clinton to do so and has said nothing at all about this stunning breach of the public trust,” callers are telling Peterson constituents.

A news release says the calls are an attempt to pressure Peterson “to break his silence and demand transparency from Clinton. …”

Democrat Peterson has said he expects to run for re-election next year and Republicans see his western Minnesota district as ripe for a change.

Pressure for bonds

Capitol observers noted that Gov. Mark Dayton included public works projects in legislative districts held by Republicans.

They say those projects were in the Dayton bonding plan to gain GOP support. Votes from lawmakers in both parties are needed to pass a bonding bill.

“If they don’t want to support this,” Dayton said about Republican lawmakers, “let them go back to their districts and explain.”

Some Republicans did not like the Dayton pressure, and vowed to continue their opposition to a public works bill, which would be funded by the state selling bonds.

However, what had seemed to be unanimous GOP opposition appeared to melt away a bit after Dayton announced his plan Tuesday. Even many Republicans who all along have said there would be no bonding bill, unless an emergency cropped up, left the door open to something much smaller than the governor wants.

Of cigars and communists

A Minnesota Senate committee approved spending $100,000 for the state to develop trading ties with Cuba.

“This is all about cigars,” committee Chairman David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, joked.

Later, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, wondered: “What other communist countries do we do business like this with?”

“China,” Tomassoni responded. “How about China? I think that is a communist country.”

Smartphone proof

Smartphone uses are multiplying by the day and soon Minnesota law enforcement officials may accept them for proof of car insurance.

The House passed 127-0 a bill by Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, to join more than 30 other states in allowing electronic proof-of-insurance “cards.” The state-mandated cards long have been stashed in crowded glove compartments, but if the bill authored by Fabian and Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, becomes law, drivers could pull out their smartphones instead.

 

Broadband funds out, complaints come in

Garofalo

Garofalo

Many rural Minnesotans complain that lack of high-speed Internet hinders their ability to communicate, but when House Republicans left broadband assistance money out of their budget a high-speed response followed.

“We are astonished as to why the House would ignore one of the state’s biggest economic development needs,” said Willmar City Council member Audrey Nelsen, a member of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities’ board. “The lack of high-quality broadband affects communities and regions all across the state. Eliminating state funding for the broadband program will have a grave effect on greater Minnesota.”

Coalition President Heidi Omerza, an Ely City Council member, urged greater Minnesota residents to take action.

“We are calling on civic groups, community leaders and editorial boards to join with us in asking the House Republicans to reconsider their decision and restore funding for the broadband program this year,” Omerza said. “We simply cannot allow our lawmakers to stifle economic growth in greater Minnesota by refusing to fund this critical need.”

The League of Minnesota Cities on Friday urged its members to contact legislators to support broadband funding. The league told its members that broadband resources are “critical for cities’ economic development and vitality.”

The chairman of the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Committee did not appear to be allowing the rural firestorm to affect him.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said that wired broadband, which provides high-speed Internet connections, is too costly in sparsely populated areas. He said wireless and satellite technologies are more financially effective.

The chairman said he thinks negotiations with the Senate and governor will result in a compromise.

“Like every flight, there will be some turbulence, but I expect a smooth landing,” Garofalo said.

Garofalo said businesses that could provide satellite and wireless service are not interested in state aid because of strings that could come with it.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith wasn’t buying Garofalo’s explanation.

“In its first year alone, this program has partnered with private providers and local governments to expand broadband access to thousands of households, 150 businesses and 83 libraries, town halls, schools and other community institutions in greater Minnesota,” Democrat Smith said.

Legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton approved $20 million for broadband development in the current budget, about a 10th what advocates wanted. Democrats suggest spending more than that in the coming two-year budget.

Spending debates like over broadband likely will continue until near the Legislature’s May 18 adjournment deadline.

Executive Director Dan Dorman of the Greater Minnesota Partnership said businesses need high-speed Internet to compete.

“High-speed Internet service is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity for job and business growth,” said Dorman, a former Republican legislator.

Assistant House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said he worries about broadband funding’s future because the current $20 million was spearheaded by the House, with less interest in the Senate. The same senators are on the job this year.

The current broadband program provided grants to 17 organizations to expand high-speed Internet.

At the same time that many in rural Minnesota were worrying about broadband, fears were easing about Dayton’s proposal to require vegetative buffer strips around water.

The relief comes after Dayton’s Thursday night State of the State speech in which he called for people interested in buffers to work on a water pollution solution together.

“No one person or industry is responsible for our state’s deteriorating water quality,” Dayton said, “but every one of us is responsible for improving it.”

President Kevin Paap of the Minnesota Farm Bureau said the buffer issue would be best settled by “the ones with the boots on the ground.”

Farmers say they cannot afford to lose cropland to buffer strips.

Dayton sticks to education and transportation, but eases up on buffers

State of State opening

State of State opening

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton stuck to his tried-and-true themes during his Thursday night State of the State speech, but rural lawmakers said they felt he showed a willingness to ease a controversial proposal to require 50-foot buffer strips around all water.

The governor chided Republicans for wanting to cut taxes instead of spending more for state programs and plugged his desire to increase early-childhood education, boost transportation funding and a list of other priorities that he often has promoted.

He took advantage of a later-than-usual State of the State address to attempt to sway opinions of the 201 legislators, each with his or her own priorities.

He urged lawmakers to be bold.

“During the remaining six weeks of this legislative session, we will face our own moments of truth: Will we do what is easy, safe and popular or will we risk our political lives to preserve this great state for future generations?” he said.

Sen. Bakk, Justice Page

Sen. Bakk, Justice Page

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, echoed other lawmakers when he said that there were no surprises in the speech other than an apparent willingness by Dayton to back away from requiring 50-foot vegetation buffer zones around water. Dayton had blamed agriculture for water pollution, but Thursday night he said that more than one industry is at fault.

Dayton said he “is unwilling to wait another year, or longer, for legislation that will significantly improve Minnesota’s water.”

He did not mention his 50-foot requirement, which rural lawmakers took as a sign that he is willing to compromise.

Dayton said that when asked about his priorities this legislation session, he says “everything.” But he said his plan to plan to provide education for 4-year-olds is at the top of his list. Next, he said, is improving funding for transportation projects.

Dayton was critical of Republicans, who propose a transportation funding package less aggressive than the Democratic governor, who wants to add a new gasoline tax. The GOP plan to partially fund transportation by taking money from other programs “will inevitably pit those needs against educating our children, caring properly for our elderly, enhancing our natural resources, fulfilling the important promises of the Working Parents Act and providing quality, affordable health care for all our citizens,” Dayton said. “People should not be pitted against projects. Both are too important.”

Another sharp disagreement between Dayton and Republicans is whether to borrow money for public works projects, such as repairing state buildings and entering construction projects. Republicans say that can wait until next year.

“How can we tell the citizens and businesses in Worthington to ‘just wait another year’ for a reliable supply of safe drinking water?” Dayton asked. “Or tell people in Willmar to ‘wait another year’ before rerouting rail cars with volatile fuels away from their city. Or St. Cloud area residents to ‘wait another year’ for public safety improvements to the nearby correctional facility?”

Among those in the House gallery watching Dayton’s speech was Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, one of five Minnesotans House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, invited because, he said, they represent Democratic priorities that Republicans reject.

Democrats have called for increased rail safety, and Dayton would borrow money to build a safe Moorhead railroad crossing. The governor has made improving the safety of oil trains a major issue.

Major railroad crossing improvements — which also would go to Prairie Island Indian Community, Willmar and Coon Rapids — are in a public works funding bill Dayton proposes but Republicans say is not needed this year.

Republicans also oppose increasing a railroad assessment that Dayton and other Democrats want.

Greater Minnesotans watching the speech paid most attention to what he said about buffers.

Atwater farmer Frans Rosenquist sat with Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and said what many did after the speech: “One size does not fit all.”

Dayton challenged opponents of his buffer plan to come up with something that would work.

“Everyone professes to want clean water,” Dayton said. “Too many, however, don’t want to do what’s necessary to get it.”

If the state requires buffers, Rosenquist asked, “how much are you going to pay me for that?”

He said buffers would take land out of crop production and he has paid up to $10,000 an acre for farmland.

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, was happy that Dayton said southwest Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark water system needs to be funded. “That is absolutely a necessity.”

Dayton barely touched on elder and disabled care. House Republicans made increasing long-term care funding one of their top priorities.

“My heart just breaks over the message Gov. Dayton sent to the elderly and disabled,” Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said.

Democrats, on the other hand, were happy with what they heard.

Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, said he especially liked Dayton’s call to use the state’s $1.9 billion budget surplus “to move the state forward.”

“There were no surprises,” added Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, who said that the governor was careful not to upset Republicans who soon will be negotiating spending and other issues with him.

“He was very firm and strong … but he didn’t back himself into a corner,” said Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley.

“The governor is right,” said Rep. Erik Simonson, D-Duluth. “With a $1.9 billion budget surplus, the time to invest in our future is now.  We may never have another opportunity like this to invest in our students, and to throw that away on corporate tax giveaways as GOP leaders have proposed would be a mistake.”

Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, said she was happy the governor emphasized freezing tuition at state-run colleges.

Dayton’s speech was his fifth State of the State as governor and the first in this second term, which he says will be his last four years in office.

 

Senator worries that hemp would lead to legal marijuana

Ingebrigtsen

Ingebrigtsen

If Minnesota approves limited industrial hemp growth, a state senator with a long-time law enforcement background fears recreational marijuana use will be close behind.

“To me, it is baby steps toward recreational marijuana and I think we will find that out by the end of the session,” Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said Wednesday after a committee approved a bill to allow hemp to be grown by researchers.

Ingebrigtsen predicted attempts will be made to amend the hemp bill to include recreational marijuana use. Minnesota law allows a limited use of medical marijuana, but recreational use remains illegal.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, brought the hemp bill to the Senate Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Finance Division. It would allow limited growth of hemp as part of a study, with the intention of eventually launching an industry with widespread hemp production.

Eken said farmers in his area of northwestern Minnesota would especially benefit from growing hemp, which can be made into products as varied as clothing and cooking oil. Hemp already is grown just north of Minnesota in Canada, Eken said, and $625 million worth of products made there are sold in the United States.

The senator said that manufacturing plants would sprout in Minnesota if hemp were allowed.

“Honestly, I have not had a bunch of farmers come through my door … and say we need this commodity in Minnesota,” said Ingebrigtsen, a former Douglas County sheriff who has opposed hemp growth whenever it has been debated in the Legislature.

Committee Chairman David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, said that he has not heard there will be an attempt to legalize recreational marijuana through Eken’s bill. However, he said, an attempt could be made in a committee to change the hemp measure.

Tomassoni said that testimony in his committee showed that hemp and marijuana, while related and look similar, are not compatible growing near each other, so he does not see the connection that Ingebrigtsen sees.

Many law enforcement officials oppose legalizing hemp because it looks so much like marijuana that they say the illegal plant could be hidden within a hemp field.

Thom Petersen of Minnesota Farmers Union said the only legal problem Canada had when it legalized hemp years ago was that people would steal it out of fields. They were disappointed when they tried to smoke it and it did not give them a high, Petersen said, adding that the thefts only lasted a year or two.

Tomassoni’s committee will continue to consider another bill debated Wednesday: to fund a study of Minnesota and nearby states’ livestock and poultry industry for the past 10 years. The bill requires the state agriculture commissioner to use the study to tell lawmakers how they can best help strengthen and expand the Minnesota animal agriculture industry.

No one objected to the study, but Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, raised concerns when Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, successfully added an amendment to study how lawsuits affect farmers.

Dibble said he could not support the overall bill if the Weber provision is included. It would require a state-conducted study of impacts from lawsuits about items such as farm dust and manure odor. He said the bill incorporating the study carries with it “a forgone conclusion that these lawsuits are not warranted.”

Tomassoni, however, said he does not think the Weber provision will kill the bill.

“It will be worked out,” Tomassoni said of the dispute.

Tomassoni’s committee also considered a measure that could be folded into a larger bill to spend $100,000 over the next two years to help farmers and agribusinesses export products to Cuba.

Bonding: Dayton for big spending as GOP backs little, if any

Dayton, Frans and bonding map

Dayton, Frans and bonding map

Hallock city officials in northwestern Minnesota want the state to borrow $255,000 to help replace a fire station, $360,000 to replace a swimming pool and $400,000 for sewage system improvements.

In southeast Minnesota’s Red Wing area, requests for state money include $14.8 million for a railroad overpass, $4.5 million for a downtown “renaissance,” $16 million for port improvements, $550,000 for Minnesota State Southeast Technical College repairs and $935,000 for the Minnesota correctional facility in Red Wing.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday said he wants the state to fund those and nearly 180 more projects across the state by selling $842 million in bonds. Republicans and the Senate leader were not on board, but even GOP legislators who have talked against a 2015 bonding bill did not completely rule one out.

Dayton said that his proposal would help Minnesota’s economy by allowing the state to “do what every smart business does, to lay the foundation for a better a better future.”

The Democratic governor said that now is when the state should sell bonds to finance projects with low interest rates. “What better time do we have to make these investments?”

Even Dayton admitted that it is a stretch to think legislators will grant his wish, given Republican reluctance to borrow the money. However, in the hours after Dayton announced his bonding proposal, Republicans gave bonding supporters some hope.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Republicans have no plans to pass a bonding bill this year but didn’t shut the door entirely.

“We are open to listening if the governor thinks some of these projects are timely,” Daudt said. “But we certainly are not planning for one right now.”

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said that he would consider a bonding bill, even if many Republicans want nothing. “I have been here nine years and I have never seen zero yet. This is pretty normal.”

The senator added: “Give it a little time to digest and see what happens.”

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that he fears if a big bonding bill like Dayton wants passes this year, the governor will push another big one next year (Dayton said that if his passes this year, he may propose a $200 million to $250 million one next year).

“I don’t know that we are going to see anything, but if there is (it must be) very, very modest,” Hann said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said he has instructed bonding Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, to draw up a basic bonding bill that includes statewide needs such as college repairs, but not local projects such as Hallock and Red Wing officials hope to see.

“That is not the real work of this session,” Bakk said about a major bonding bill. “The budget is our priority for this session.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he was happy to see Dayton included $48 million to complete southwest Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark water system. He said that Lewis and Clark should be in a bonding bill unless lawmakers and Dayton opt to pay cash for it.

Lewis and Clark is the largest single project Dayton put in his plan. The proposal also includes $65 million to build four railroad overpasses or underpasses in Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community, Moorhead and Coon Rapids, places where trains transporting crude oil travel.

Dayton’s office said that $360 million of the projects would be in greater Minnesota, $321 million in the Twin Cities and $161 million for statewide programs. A quarter of the money would go to education facilities.

Dayton said that his office received $1.9 billion in project requests and many items that he included in his plan could use more money. “We could spend $800 million on rail safety,” Dayton said.

“This bonding bill addresses high-priority needs,” Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and budget said.

Dayton said that projects like the Hallock pool and the southwest water system are important: “It makes a lot of difference to the people.”

St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Doug Belden contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

 

Q and A about rest of Minnesota legislative session

Minnesota state legislators return Tuesday from an Easter-Passover recess.

The 201 lawmakers have finished a dozen weeks of their year’s work, with six remaining. With the break ending, it seems like a good opportunity to answer some questions about the time legislators have remaining to complete their work for the year.

With just six weeks left in the legislative session, is there much left to be done?

Oh, yes. Lots. In fact, all of the major work of the year remains.

In 12 weeks, it seems like there has been plenty of time to pass lots of bills. How many have passed?

Five.

Only five? What were they about?

Gov. Mark Dayton signed one in mid-March to enhance child protection. Earlier ones funded urgent needs, such as disaster payments, and a measure matching state tax laws with federal law to speed up Minnesotans’ income tax filings. He signed one that allows rural ambulance services to be more flexible when working with neighboring services.

Does the fact that so few bills have passed mean that not many bills have been introduced this year?

Not at all. As lawmakers prepared to head out on recess, representatives had introduced 2,139 and senators 2,011.

How will legislators find time to consider every one of those bills?

They won’t. While some states require legislative committees to consider most bills, that is not the case in Minnesota. Only a small fraction of bills ever makes it to committees. In some cases, there are duplicate bills. There also are times when a legislator introduces a bill to satisfy a constituent, but it has no chance of passage so the lawmaker never seeks a committee hearing. Much of the time, however, bills are folded into bigger ones, known as omnibus bills.

What is the biggest dispute left to settle?

In the Capitol, money almost always is the biggest issue, so the state taxpayer-funded budget is the hottest topic. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton wants to increase spending for education and other programs. Republicans who control the House want to provide $2 billion in tax breaks, with modest increases in most spending areas. Democrats in charge of the Senate fall in between, and emphasize putting more money in the bank to be ready when the economy heads south.

What other legislation could produce divisions?

Almost anything. The second biggest Democrat-Republican split now appears to be transportation funding. The governor and Democratic senators want to add a gasoline tax and increase a couple of transportation-related fees. House Republicans oppose new or increased taxes, preferring instead to divert some existing taxes to transportation and to borrow some money. However, both parties agree that billions of dollars are needed for roads and bridges in the next decade.

Do Democrats and Republicans disagree on everything?

It seems like it, doesn’t it? But the four bills that have passed this year gained bipartisan support. So will many other bills that pass yet this year. However, there usually are disagreements on the few omnibus bills that contain most of the legislation for the year.

When must lawmakers be done this year?

The state Constitution requires them to wrap up by May 18. If legislators and the governor do not have an agreement by then, Dayton can call them back into special session. If there is no budget in place by July 1, there would be a government shutdown.

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Nearly every issue in front of lawmakers remains under consideration, but here is a look at where some issues stand:

Assisted suicide: A bill to allow doctors to prescribe drugs that people could take to commit suicide has been discussed, but no vote is expected until next year.

Blue alert: Provisions are advancing to establish a program to alert Minnesotans when a police officer is killed or seriously injured, much like Amber Alert is used to find lost children. Blue alert would be designed to help track down suspects in police attacks.

Body cameras: A Senate committee approved legislation, due for a full Senate vote, that limits public access to video from cameras worn by law enforcement officers. However, the House has not passed a body camera bill and a key representative in the debate wants a task force to study the issue.

Bonding: Republicans do not want the state to sell bonds to finance public works projects this year, while Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton proposes borrowing $850 million. Senate Democrats say they will be ready with a partial proposal in case Republicans change their minds.

Broadband: Rural Minnesotans say they need access to high-speed Internet, known as broadband, like their city cousins enjoy, not just for home use but for businesses to be competitive. As committees finish their budget work, they are considering proposals up to $100 million to boost broadband.

Budget: Republicans and Democrats disagree on many, many specifics, but it is pretty clear that the state will spend between $42.6 billion and $43 billion in the next two years. Spending in the current two-year budget is on track to be almost $40 billion. House and Senate committees will take the next few weeks to firm up plans about just how to spend the money.

Buffers: Dayton suggests there be a 50-foot vegetation buffer around bodies of water, an effort to cut water pollution. Farmers and agriculture groups oppose such an extensive requirement and talks are occurring to find a compromise.

Capitol renovation: No legislation is needed to continue an extension multi-year renovation effort, but it has hampered work during the legislative session as two-thirds of the building is closed. However, there is a $30 million request to restore art and repair leaky stairs.

Child protection: The governor has signed legislation into law designed to improve child abuse investigations. It would put a focus on the child’s safety instead of keeping a family together. More bills to fight child abuse are expected this year and next year.

Commissioner raises: An early-session dispute between Democrat Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, occurred when the governor gave his commissioners raises without telling legislative leaders for a month. The two renewed their friendship and a provision passed to revoke the raises and give Dayton one day to reinstate them on July 1.

Disaster: Early this session, nearly $12 million was approved for June 2014 flood recovery efforts. There also are attempts to increase the amount of money Minnesota keeps in a disaster account so lawmakers do not need to be called into special session to appropriate money.

Drones: Legislation to limit unmanned aerial drone use has been debated, but little has passed through committees. One bill awaiting Senate action would forbid most drone use by law enforcement agencies without warrants.

Education: The governor wants to increase education spending, especially for pre-kindergarteners. Democratic senators’ budget plan calls for a boost in pre-kindergarten funding, but falls short of offering free pre-K to all students as Dayton wants. Republicans want to end the system that teachers with seniority get to keep their jobs during layoffs; the House approved a bill overturning the system, but it is unlikely to move in the Senate.

Elections: A wide variety of election-related changes have been discussed, but it is not clear what could pass this year. Proposed changes include allowing people convicted of felonies to vote, allowing early voting, registering people as young as 16 (although they could not vote until they reach 18) and advancing the primary election from August to June or March.

Health care: Some Republicans want to eliminate the MNsure health insurance purchasing program, but many lawmakers from both parties are behind efforts to eliminate the independent MNsure board and make the program a state agency that reports to the governor. Some Republicans are trying to eliminate the subsidized MinnesotaCare health insurance program.

License plate readers: Committees have discussed how to regulate car license plate readers, including how long images could be retained.

Loan forgiveness: Lawmakers are considering proposals providing loan forgiveness for a variety of professionals, including doctors and other health professionals who locate in greater Minnesota and for agriculture teachers.

Long-term care: Increased funding for nursing homes and home-care programs for the elderly and disabled is expected to pass, but the amount remains in question. House Speaker Kurt Daudt said he expects an increase of more than $160 million for the program, while the governor includes $25 million more in his budget.

Minimum wage: The state minimum wage increased last year, but Republicans now are seeking to change the law to include tips in how minimum wages are figured. While the GOP-controlled House passed the legislation, the Democratic Senate likely will not.

Online lottery: Discussions continue about whether online lottery games should be allowed.

Parks: The Dayton administration suggests raising fees to provide funds to improve state parks and facilities within them.

Rail safety: A variety of plans remain on the table for improving local public safety personnel’s response to oil train derailment, spills and fires. The governor and Senate Democrats want to increase taxes on railroads to fund safety improvements, while the House has not unveiled its plan.

School week: Greater Minnesota schools who have adopted a four-day week pleaded with lawmakers to allow them to continue after the state Education Department began ordering schools to return to five-day weeks.

Sex offenders: Even though a federal judge has told lawmakers they should take action to allow sex offenders to be released from a rehabilitation program where some are committed after serving their sentences, there has been no serious action to change state law. Without a legislative change, the judge could take over the sex offender program.

Sports: Legislative leaders and Dayton let Major League Soccer know they are not interested in providing state money for building a stadium for a new franchise. Meanwhile, the National Football League is asking for a $2.8 million increase in tax breaks for the 2018 Super Bowl game, to be played in Minneapolis.

Sunday sales: Liquor stores likely will remain closed on Sundays, but efforts are expected on the House and Senate floors to amend a provision onto other liquor bills to allow stores to open Sundays.

Taxes: House Republicans want to cut taxes $2 billion over the next two years, but have not said how those cuts would look. Dayton suggests tax cuts for families that pay for child care and Senate Democrats propose modest tax cuts, but like House Republicans have not released specifics.

Transportation: Dayton’s transportation plan calls for adding a gasoline tax and raising some fees to help fund his $11 billion, 10-year plan. Senate Democrats have a similar proposal. House Republicans want to use existing revenue for their $7 billion, 10-year plan.

Tuition freeze: The governor wants to provide enough funding to allow tuition freezes to continue at the Minnesota State Colleges and University of Minnesota systems, while House Republicans say their budget plan has enough money to freeze tuition at one system, but not both. Democratic senators also do not expect enough money for full freezes at both systems.

Workforce housing: Greater Minnesota officials have asked for state aid to build houses, mostly apartments, in communities that have job vacancies but not enough places for people to live. The proposals remain alive and will be decided in the state budget process.