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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.

Update: Court overturns state home fire sprinkler requirement

A state agency failed to present enough evidence to justify requiring all new homes bigger than 4,500 square feet to include fire sprinklers, a Minnesota Appeals Court panel decided Tuesday.

The three judges unanimously overturned the state Department of Labor and Industry’s rule.

“After making a careful and searching inquiry of the record, we conclude that the 4,500-square-foot threshold for one-family dwellings is arbitrary and not supported by substantial evidence in the record,” the ruling said. “Based upon precedent from our Supreme Court, there must be a ‘reasoned determination’ as to why particular standards were chosen in an administrative rule. … Because the record does not include evidence of any reasoned determination to indefinitely exempt new one-family dwellings under 4,500 square feet, the sprinkler rule must be declared invalid.”

Fire chiefs and others have lobbied the Minnesota Legislature to require sprinklers in homes, saying they can save lives. Eventually, chiefs agreed to at least require them for larger homes. When lawmakers could not pass that requirement, the Department of Labor and Industry began the process of taking action itself.

The ruling pleased the Builders Association of the Twin Cities, which brought the lawsuit with backing from other construction and real estate groups.

“Today’s decision is a victory for all Minnesotans who are looking to buy a new home,” association Executive Director David Siegel said. “The sprinkler mandate was unnecessarily impacting the housing market and home ownership access for thousands of Minnesotans.”

Siegel said Minnesota homes are among the country’s safest.

“The sprinkler mandate would not have changed that safety record, but it would have made homes more expensive for Minnesota families,” Siegel said. “The court’s decision to invalidate the sprinkler rule confirms what the public, legislature, and code experts have overwhelmingly stated all along, the sprinkler mandate is arbitrary and not supported.”

The department did not immediately comment on the ruling.

The judges said that previous court opinions required sections of the building code that contained the sprinkler rule “must be based on the application of scientific principles, approved tests and professional judgment.”

The 4,500-square-foot limit was arbitrary, they said, according to evidence the department presented.

A requirement that all two-family homes require sprinklers contradicted the department’s decision that single-family homes smaller than 4,500 square feet do not need them, the judges wrote.

Nothing in the ruling indicated that the court would have overturned a rule requiring all single-family homes to have sprinklers.

“While we can appreciate (the department’s) concern with balancing the life-safety benefits of sprinkler systems with increased installation costs, the record simply does not contain a reasoned explanation as to how (the department) determined that an indefinite exception for all one-family dwellings under 4,500 square feet strikes that balance,” the ruling said.

Fire chiefs told a public hearing on the issue that they support sprinklers in all homes.

“We are mindful today that we are declaring a rule adopted by an administrative agency of the state invalid,” the judges said. “We do not do so lightly, but rather thoughtfully and unanimously. Nevertheless, we are bound to apply the law.”

Besides not adequately proving the 4,500-square-foot requirement, the judges said the department also violated state law by not adequately looking into the cost to small businesses and cities of implementing the rule.


Political chatter: Students, teachers lobby for college credit courses

Leave it to “real people,” as compared to lobbyists and government officials, to grab attention in legislative hearings.

Youths, especially, get lawmakers’ ears.

Natalie Resch was among Windom Area High School students who told Minnesota House and Senate higher education committee members that they should fight to maintain classes, taught by high school teachers, that provide both high school and college credits.

The senior said she will save $15,000 by earning 31 college credits before graduating from high school. And, she said, she is prepared.

“I can safely say I will be ready for college next fall,” Resch told legislators.

The classes that offer both high school and college credits include tests “at least five times harder than any I had taken before,” she added.

Windom math teacher Aniessa Sebring said instructors like her who teach “concurrent” classes have “been completely vetted by the university we are affiliated with.”

At issue is a plan by the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges in 19 states, to require each college instructor to hold a master’s degree in the field he or she teaches or a master’s degree in another field and 18 credits in the field he or she teaches by 2017. That would include high school teachers who teach concurrent classes.

Commission President Barbara Gellman-Danley heard nearly four hours of testimony Thursday, mostly from those who oppose her organization’s plan. She said she will take what she heard back to her board. While promising to “work collaboratively on this,” Gellman-Danley made no promises that the plan would be reversed.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, has offered a potential remedy to the situation, which will remain alive when state lawmakers return to session in March. It would provide tax credits to teachers or teacher prospects to earn master’s degrees in the areas they teach.

“This is something I have been working on for the better part of a decade and this situation might help create some urgency,” said Urdahl, who taught social studies in the New London-Spicer district for more than 30 years. “Not enough of our teachers have master’s degrees and the vast majority who do are not teaching subjects related to it.”

Minnesota pulls in taxes

Minnesota is No. 4 nationally in pulling in more tax money since the recession of 2008 and 2009.

The Pew Charitable Trusts looked at data and reported a 17.9 percent increase in Minnesota tax collections since the end of 2008.

Of course, that pales in comparison to the 119 percent increase North Dakota experienced, thanks to its Bakken oil boom. While North Dakota tax collections have fallen off in the past year as oil prices tumble, the state still looks to be in good shape compared to many others.

Illinois and Colorado reported tax receipt increases slightly greater than Minnesota. Twenty-seven states are collecting less money, when adjusted for inflation, than during the recession.

While Republicans often said that lowering taxes would help businesses be more profitable and result in higher tax collections, the Pew numbers do not support that. Florida, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin cut taxes since the recession, Pew reported, and collected less money. States such as Minnesota, Illinois and California raised taxes and reported more state revenue.

Pew does not take a stand on whether raising or lowering taxes is the best way to fill state coffers.

Averaging all 50 states, tax revenues are 4 percent higher than at the end of 2008.

“This means that states collectively had four additional cents of purchasing power for every dollar’s worth that they had in 2008,” Pew explains.

Franken plans book

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar released a book earlier this year, so now Sen. Al Franken plans his own.

The Washington media caught wind of Franken’s plans in recent days, but little is known about its topic or when it might hit bookstores. He has hired a lawyer to pitch the book to publishers.

A Star Tribune Washington reporter said the book is said to be a “psychological thriller” that draws from his background as a comedian and then working in dysfunctional Washington. The Minnesota Democrat has written five satirical books.

Klobuchar’s book, “The Senator Next Door,” was released this summer.

Crisis Link help ready

The new Crisis Link Web page can connect Minnesotans with urgent needs to state and other services. includes a link that allows people with urgent mental health, substance abuse, housing, health, job, transportation and other needs to find help. However, state officials say that those who face immediate danger should call 9-1-1.

“We want to make sure that people know there is a single place, the Crisis Link, they can go to get information and phone numbers for … professionals and agencies that meet a variety of immediate needs,” said Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.

Crisis Link has an extensive listing of contact information for organizations, primarily government and nonprofit agencies, including suicide and domestic violence hotlines. It features an online chat service available from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.

Political chatter: Want health insurance deal? Go shopping

State officials tell about 300,000 Minnesotans to go shopping.

In announcing health insurance premium increases ranging from 14 to 49 percent, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman and interim MNsure CEO Allison O’Toole repeatedly said that those 300,000 who buy health insurance themselves could save money by comparing policies on MNsure (

Nearly 6 percent of Minnesotans buy insurance on the open marketplace, either through the state-operated MNsure Web-based program or by dealing with insurers.

O’Toole said that many Minnesotans who use her organization’s Web site, and human helpers who are available around the state, could save money and maybe even pay less next year than they are this year.

MNsure gave examples of how their site could lower payments, including for a 60-year-old Granite Falls man. This year, the man received $360 a month in subsidies, which will increase next year to $514 a month. Depending on what plan he picks, he could pay far less than the going rate, or maybe pay nothing at all.

A complicated formula is used to figure subsidies, but MNsure says that a single person earning less than $47,000 annually likely is eligible. A family of four’s income could reach $97,000.

Premiums are based on a person’s age, family size and geographic area. Health care expenses vary across the state and insurance companies usually only serve certain areas.

O’Toole said that when 2016 enrollment begins on Nov. 1, MNsure’s Website will feature a tool Minnesotans can use to compare insurance policies and costs. In some cases, people may find better deals if they switch away from companies they use this year, prompting state officials to urge them to shop around.

For Minnesotans who buy their own insurance, the policies generally are the same on MNsure and directly through insurance companies. However, MNsure next year will not provide platinum plans, the most expensive ones with the most extensive coverage; they will be available through the companies.

Everyone in the state has a choice of at least six insurance companies, each of which offers multiple plans. That is a big difference from a couple of years ago when there was little choice in some areas, such as the southeast with just one company.

Large employers provide insurance for about half of Minnesotans, with small employers providing it to 5.4 percent. State and federal programs serve about a third of Minnesotans.

Disabilities plan OK’d

A federal judge has made one ruling about a state program and promises to rule on another later this month.

Judge Donovan Frank has been in the news about his upcoming order on what the state must do to make its sex offender treatment program constitutional (an order the state promises to appeal), but he just approved a new Minnesota plan to allow people with disabilities to live, learn and work in an setting of their choosing.

Gov. Mark Dayton promised to “continue to work hard to improve life opportunities for Minnesotans with disabilities.”

The key to what is known as the Olmstead Plan is a philosophy that people with disabilities should be allowed to make choices about their lives. The plan allows for more housing, employment and education options integrated with the rest of the community.

“Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan is focused on providing individuals with disabilities more opportunities to experience lives of inclusion and integration in their communities – just like people without disabilities,” Minnesota Housing Commissioner Mary Tingerthal said.

Good job news

The southwest Minnesota job news is a good-news, bad-news situation, Gov. Mark Dayton says.

The good news is there are plenty of jobs there.

“I have heard for so many years about people leaving southwestern Minnesota and going to Iowa or South Dakota for jobs,” he said. “Now, I am hearing about them being bused in for Sioux Falls, for example, which is great.”

The bad news is that buses are needed because there are not enough homes available close to places like meat packing operations and farm machinery manufacturing plants.

“There is not an easy answer,” Dayton said of the housing situation. “We don’t have resources in state government.”

The governor said the private sector needs to be involved in building new housing.

“I think the workforce housing issue will continue to be an issue as long as our economy continues to expand,” he said.

‘Your Vote Matters’

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon launched a project, Your Vote Matters, to get students now in high school prepared to vote in the next couple of years.

Your Vote Matters includes a new three-lesson unit for high schoolers that teaches students about voting rights, the importance of voting and how to get ready to vote.

“One of my top priorities as secretary of state is to increase civic participation among young people in Minnesota, and there is no better place than the classroom to instill those good habits,” Simon said. “I’m committed to helping educators prepare young Minnesotans to vote anyway I can and look forward to working with both schools and students throughout the state to achieve that goal.”

Return attempts

It appears Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders are finding success in asking defeated state House candidates to campaign in next year’s election.

The 2016 candidates are saying things like this from former Rep. Jay McNamar of Elbow Lake: “After talking it over with my family and hearing from concerned residents across the district, I know this is something our community needs — someone who is going to get work done. The two years I served in the Legislature saw major investments in our rural communities, and it came at a crucial time. We need a Legislature that is going to continue that work, and it’s not happening with our current representation.”

Plenty of Democrats who used to serve in the House are available for 2016 runs because Republicans regained House control in last year’s election at their expense.

Health insurance rate hikes upset state officials

Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman announces Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, that health insurance rates for individual policyholders will rise 14 percent to 49 percent. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman announces Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, that health insurance rates for individual policyholders will rise 14 percent to 49 percent. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesotans who buy their own health insurance will pay more next year, in some cases a lot more.

Officials of the state Commerce Department and the MNsure Web-based insurance sales site Thursday announced insurance rates for Minnesotans who buy their own policies will rise 14 percent to 49 percent. However, that only affects the 5.5 percent of Minnesotans who buy health insurance policies on the open market; most have employer-provided insurance or receive government-paid health care.

The increase prompted strong reaction, ranging from Gov. Mark Dayton predicting that the public would demand that today’s insurance companies “be removed as the providers of health insurance” to his commerce commissioner offering a multi-point plan to keep premiums in check to one insurer saying that even with big increases that it will continue to sustain significant financial loses.

Republicans said the increases were no surprise, and blamed them on Democrats.

State officials stressed the need to shop MNsure, or with insurers themselves, to get the best deal.

“Shop around” was a term Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman and interim MNsure CEO Allison O’Toole used. O’Toole said a new comparison tool will be available when 2016 enrollment opens Nov. 1, a tool she said would give Minnesotans a better way to decide what policy is best for them.

O’Toole said that people around the state are available to help people trying to pick a plan.

While rates are headed up in all of the state for 2016 plans, increases varied.

The Commerce Department provided data that showed for a 2016 mid-level plan compared to similar ones this year, rates in western Minnesota will rise faster than in other parts of the state.

In the southwest, the increase will top 40 percent, while the rest of western Minnesota the premium will rise 30 to 35 percent. A Twin Cities resident getting the policy would pay 28 percent more next year, followed closely by a 25 percent jump in the northeast and south-central regions.

The number of policies from which a Minnesotan may pick varies from 29 to 71, depending on where the person lives.

The prices apply both to policies bought via MNsure ( or privately through insurance companies.

O’Toole said that in many cases the increases are misleading because Minnesotans may be eligible for federal subsidies that lower insurance costs. A single person earning more than $47,000 could be eligible for the federal aid.

The rates he announced Thursday are “unacceptably high,” Rothman said.

The commissioner offered a plan that he said could help hold down premiums, including looking at how much insurance companies have in the bank and the size of salaries paid top executives.

His boss, Dayton, used stronger language: ““I am extremely unhappy with these extremely high insurance rate increases. The insurance companies, who are responsible for them, will force Minnesotans into plans with less complete coverage or drive them out of the insurance market entirely. … If health insurance companies make good coverage unaffordable for Americans, I believe citizens will soon demand that insurers’ excessive administrative overheads be eliminated, and that they be removed as the providers of health insurance.”

Republicans all along have opposed MNsure and blamed the high rates on the Democrat-pushed plan. However, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he likes part of Rothman’s plan that would lump small businesses in with individuals to create a larger pool that could lower premiums.

“Instead of saving families money and providing Minnesotans more access, MNsure really has cost Minnesotans more money and not really provided the access in health care that was proposed,” Daudt said.

A statement from the state’s largest insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, said its rate increases will not solve fiscal woes.

“We also understand the impact that these necessary price adjustments will have for many of our members,” the statement said. “However, even with these increases, Blue Cross is likely to experience continued significant financial losses through 2016.”

Some premiums for small businesses that provide insurance for employees will fall as much as nearly 13 percent, while some will rise almost 6 percent.

Rothman said that even with the individual policy increases that Minnesota will maintain the lowest Upper Midwest rates and will have some of the lowest in the country.

Minnesota insurance companies this summer submitted plans to increase insurance rates an average of 43 percent, with a high of a 74 percent boost in one plan. Rothman talked insurance companies down, Dayton said, but not as much as he wanted.

MNsure users no longer will have the opportunity to buy the top-level plans, with the most coverage. Insurers will not offer platinum plans next year through MNsure, although they still will be available from private insurers. While the Commerce Department does not have numbers for this year, in 2014, 5.3 percent of MNsure enrollees and 7.9 percent of others who bought private plans went with platinum.

While Rothman can lobby for rate changes, he cannot order them if insurance companies can justify their increases.


Average health insurance premium increase by company in Minnesota (not all insurers offer plans in all parts of the state):

— Blue Cross Blue Shield, 49 percent

— Blue Plus, 45 percent

— Group Health, 31 percent

— HealthPartners, 32 percent

— Medica Wisconsin, 14 percent

— Medica Insurance, 16 percent

— Preferred One, 39 percent

— UCare, 27 percent

Commission places Sandpiper project on hold after court decision

By Robb Jeffries, Forum News Service

Minnesota regulators took the “wait and see approach” Thursday, staying its approval of an oil pipeline with potential courtroom battles looming.

The state Public Utilities Commission voted to suspend its approval of a key permit needed for the Sandpiper pipeline after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled the commission erred in not conducting an environmental impact statement before granting a certificate of need.

Now, the commission and objecting parties will wait to see if project proposers and Enbridge subsidiary North Dakota Pipeline Company file an appeal of the court ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court by the Oct. 14 deadline.

The Sandpiper is a proposed 600-plus mile pipeline that would run across North Dakota and northern Minnesota from the Bakken oil fields to an existing Enbridge terminal in Superior, Wis. Enbridge originally forecast construction to begin on the $2.6 billion project to begin in 2016, although prolonged proceedings may push back that timetable a year or more.

The ramifications of indefinitely staying its decision to wait for court proceedings weighed into the commission’s decision to ask petitioning parties to file reports after the court appeal deadline passes.

“I don’t want stalling to become the order of the day,” commissioner Betsy Wergen said. “I firmly believe we have timelines and statues that have already been exceeded … I don’t want to see us become the federal government and just have things laying here. I want to be assured there will be movement forward rather than a three-year stay waiting for a Supreme Court decision.”

The decision to stay the certificate of need also means the North Dakota Pipeline Company’s motion to rejoin the certificate of need and route permitting proceedings will not come to pass. The commission has presided over only five oil pipeline projects in the last 15 years, but it traditionally has granted — or denied — both permits for pipeline projects at the same time.

Sex offender court order expected in October, but case will go for years

Attorney Dan Gustafson, who represents Minnesota sex offenders, tells jouirnalists Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, that it could be two years before a final court decision on whether the state Sex Offender Treatment Program is constitutional. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Attorney Dan Gustafson, who represents Minnesota sex offenders, tells jouirnalists Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, that it could be two years before a final court decision on whether the state Sex Offender Treatment Program is constitutional. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota officials make it clear they will not obey an upcoming federal judge’s order about how to make the state sex offender treatment program constitutional.

Instead, they will appeal the order, which Judge Donovan Frank will issue in October after ruling in June that the sex offender program violates the U.S. Constitution.

Frank’s June ruling indicates that sex offenders may be committed to the program with no chance to get out, which results in what amounts to an unconstitutional life sentence.

“We continue to believe the program as it is being run today is constitutional and we want to be able to appeal the judge’s ruling … as soon as we can,” Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said after a Wednesday hearing with Frank.

While the state disagrees with the June ruling that the program violates the U.S. Constitution, it has no grounds to appeal it until the judge orders the state to take a specific action, which is expected in Frank’s upcoming ruling.

The ruling will be a key marker in the case, but not the end.

Many Minnesota sex offenders have fought a state treatment program in court four years. Nearly four months ago, Frank agreed with them that the program violates the U.S. Constitution. Next up, the judge is expected to order changes within 30 days. But it could be two years before the issue is resolved.

Everyone sitting in the courtroom for two-plus hours Wednesday knew the final decision likely would not be in Frank’s hands.

Attorney Dan Gustafson, who represents sex offenders in two state hospitals, said he expects the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to decide the case a year or two after the state appeals

Just before he adjourned the hearing, Frank made some vague comments about letters he has received from patients in the sex offender program that apparently threatened a disruption at the two facilities.

“Everyone has a job to do,” Frank said. “I am asking everyone to treat people in a civil way. … Let’s see if we can make the system work.”

In an interview, Jesson said she did not know of any specific threat made against the treatment program staff. “I think he was just encouraging everyone to keep calm.”

During the hearing, there was discussion about frustration felt by patients who have been legally committed to the program, held in prison-like conditions for years but with no hope of release.

The program was designed to treat sex offenders so they could be released into the community, but in two decades, no one has been fully released.

Courts commit offenders to the program after they have served prison sentences. Offenders who sued the state say that amounts to a life sentence, more than state law allows.

More than 700 offenders are in the program, which experienced rapid growth after the 2003 kidnapping and death of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin at the hands of a Crookston, Minn., man who had just finished his sentence for sex crimes.

Gustafson gave Frank a long list of changes his clients want made, most of which would make it possible for offenders to be released. The state, however, argues that the program is constitutional and changes are being made.

“The governor and I have been supportive of additional reforms…” Jesson told reporters after the hearing. “Our point is the program as it is being run today is constitutional. We ought to be talking about these reforms in the Legislature, and they should not be directed by the court.”

She added: “I believe we are, in careful steps, making progress in this program.”

Gustafson, however, said some reforms “need to be enacted now.”

The attorney told Frank the court has “broad and flexible powers” to change the program. However, he and Frank said that power does not reach the level of a mass sex offender release.

One of Gustafson’s proposals is to require an annual assessment of each patient to see if they are ready for release. He also suggests that workers in the program need more training.


Minnesota prisons overcrowded, but have lower rates than most states

Minnesota Rep. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park, Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park and Rep. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center listen to a testifier Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, as a task force considers state pirson populations. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Rep. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park, Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park and Rep. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center listen to a testifier Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, as a task force considers state pirson populations. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota imprisons 194 people per 100,000 population, fourth lowest in the country, but the prison numbers are increasing the fifth fastest in the country.

The next lowest number of prisoners in the region is North Dakota, with 214 per 100,000; the country’s average is 471.

Minnesota’s prison growth rate for the past decade is fifth fastest in the country — trailing West Virginia, Idaho, North Dakota and Arizona — and the state is short 565 prison beds. The state Correction Department projects that shortage to more than double to 1,202 by 2022 if nothing is done.

Minnesota had 6,428 prisoners in 2001, 10,116 are locked up this year and the 2022 prediction is for 10,761 inmates.

“I believe Minnesota can do better,” Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, declared at the beginning of a prison population task force meeting he and Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, convened Friday.

The task force, made up of legislators and people connected to the prison system, is to look into whether to increase prison beds, examine ways to keep people out of prison or any other solution to the bed shortage.

Task force members did not generally dispute the numbers from the state Corrections Department, but there was a divergence about what should be done. The group is to continue meeting until the Legislature convenes March 8.

Cornish said that many of his constituents see no problem with the prisons, and they prefer locking up criminals.

“It would be a hard sell to the House of Representatives to greatly increase our spending when we have such a good record of incarceration,” Cornish said about the Republican-controlled chamber.

Latz said he wanted to form the task force to examine prisons, even though other lawmakers do not appear overly interested in the topic.

“I haven’t really hard one way or the other…” Latz said. “I can’t say there has been a legislative groundswell from outside these (public safety and judiciary) committees.”

The issue arose, in part, because the Corrections Department is considering asking the state to borrow more than $140 million to add 500 beds to a Rush City prison. However, Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy told the task force, Gov. Mark Dayton has not been fully briefed on prison needs and has not decided whether to support the request.

One question was why prison populations rose while crime fell 10 percent in a decade.

The answer is multipart, but a major reason is because legislators have increased prison time for specific crimes, Roy said.

For one thing, lawmakers expanded sex offender sentences after the 2003 Grand Forks, N.D., kidnapping and death of Dru Sjodin at the hands of a sex offender just released from a Minnesota prison.

Since 2000, the sex offender population has jumped 466 inmates, Roy’s figures show They are up 1,496 for all crimes against people, including murders and assaults.

Those in for drugs upped prison population by 905 in 15 years, 881 for methamphetamine-related crimes.

In recent years, sentences have increased for some weapons crimes, domestic violence and drunken driving. All added to the prison population.

Those convicted to prison are coming from across Minnesota. Roy reported that prison sentences for greater Minnesota residents are up 8.5 percent, while those in the Twin Cities increased 7.3 percent.

Three of the five counties with the most increases came from outside the Twin Cities: St. Louis, Otter Tail and Douglas.

Corrections Department officials said besides longer sentences, other factors contribute to added prisoners. One of the big factors is how law enforcement agencies and county attorneys decide to enforce the law and prosecute crimes.

Roy said the state is making it through the prison bed shortage, in part, by putting two bunks in cells meant for one. That, he said, added 1,200 beds.

In 2009, 700 beds were added to the Faribault prison.

County jails also house more than 500 state prisoners.

Among options the task force is to consider is whether some prisoners, such as those in for drug crimes, could avoid prison if they were sentenced to treatment programs.


Appleton prison supporters want state inmates

Minnesota Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson tells a prison population task force Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, that a closed private prison in Appleton could be used to house state prisoners. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson tells a prison population task force Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, that a closed private prison in Appleton could be used to house state prisoners. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

The latest proposal to put state prisoners in a west-central Minnesota facility appears more acceptable than when it was a privately run prison, but the plan has a long way to go before state lawmakers are ready to buy in. The plan would have the state lease, or potentially buy, the prison and staff it with state workers.

Swift County has hired a Twin Cities public relations firm to help sell the Legislature on leasing, or maybe even buying, the empty Prairie Correctional Facility at Appleton instead of borrowing more than $140 million to add 500 beds to an existing state prison in Rush City. The Appleton facility, owned by Corrections Corporation of America, has 1,600 beds.

“We feel it is a good opportunity,” Swift County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver said Friday before a prison population task force began talking about a prison overcrowding problem.

Pogge-Weaver heard some state lawmakers insist that the Appleton facility plan be examined, although no one said that was their preferred option. Others suggested that there are ways to send fewer people to prison, thus avoiding the need for more beds, and many said they remain open to all options, including Appleton.

Prairie Correctional supporters have suggested since the facility closed in 2010 that the state should return prisoners there, and Corrections Corporation run it. But Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said Friday that the only way the Democratic-controlled Senate and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton would consider using the facility is if the state owned or leased it and ran it with state-employed union workers.

“That has to be the case,” he said.

Still, Cornish said, he could accept double-bunking prisoners instead of reopening Prairie Correctional if that would ease overcrowding woes.

Task force member Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, asked Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy to report back with financial comparisons of leasing the Appleton prison and borrowing money for expanding Rush City’s prison.

Task force organizer Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, said the Appleton question will be vetted at the group’s Oct. 21 meeting.

Prairie Correctional held Minnesota and Washington state prisoners for years, before the states took back their inmates and it closed in 2010.

“I think there are some real questions about the effectiveness and safety of privately run prisons,” Latz said, but things would be different with the state running it.

Republicans, in particular, said there could be fiscal problems with expanding the Rush City facility.

Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, said that if the state borrows the expansion money through bond sales at 5 percent interest, the cost would be $25,000 per bed.

“We are talking about a huge amount of money,” he said.

Roy projected that by 2020, with no changes, the state will be short 1,202 prison beds.


Political chatter: Minnesotans of both parties sorry to see Boehner go

One day, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner was at the top of the world with Pope Francis speaking to a joint meeting of Congress after 20 years of the Ohio Republican asking pontiffs do to that.

The next day, Boehner resigned, effective in a month, surprising House members of both major parties.

“Speaker Boehner has a long record of dedicated leadership and I am shocked and saddened by his decision,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said shortly after the decision became public. “His announcement today is a selfless act and Speaker Boehner wanted to do what’s best for this institution and the country.”

Many think Boehner stepped down so he could negotiate a budget deal with Democrats before Thursday, the first day of the new federal fiscal year.

President Barack Obama set the tone for reaction to the news when he praised Boehner for being a “good man” with the interest of the country his priority.

Thirty conservatives within his own party were pressuring Boehner to accept a government shutdown if they did not get what they want in spending bills for a budget to begin Oct. 1.

“It’s become clear to me this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution,” Boehner told a news conference. “It’s the right time to do it and, frankly, I’m entirely comfortable doing it.”

On Thursday evening as Boehner left the Capitol, he told two reporters — one from Politico and another from the Washington Post — that he had nothing left to accomplish after bringing Pope Francis to the Capitol, Politico reported.

“The resignation of U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner is a snapshot of what politics means to the Tea Party and the far right wing: partisanship at any cost,” Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin said. “Boehner wanted to govern and avoid a government shutdown and he’s paid the price with his career as a public servant.”

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., often has said that Boehner tries to do the right things, but like Martin, the veteran congressman bemoans the fact that the extremely conservative wing of the Republican Party will not compromise.

Another Minnesota Democrat, Rep. Tim Walz, said he could work with Boehner. “I believe Congress needs more people willing to work across the aisle, not less. At his core, Speaker Boehner believes in the promise of America and has served this institution with dignity for more than two decades.”

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., said the speaker “should be commended for his tireless dedication to his constituents in Ohio and to the American people as a whole.”

Kline, whose name quickly surfaced as a possible short-term speaker, is the closest to Boehner of anyone in the Minnesota congressional delegation.

“He was one of the gang of seven which uncovered the House bank scandal almost 25 years ago,” said Kline, who is not running for re-election next year. “He was a trailblazer in efforts to rid Congress of pork-barrel spending and I am proud we stood together to ban earmarks from the House.”

Electronic filing comes

Minnesota courts will accept electronic files in all 87 counties by year’s end.

A plan just released by the state judicial branch expands to all courts the ability to accept documents by an online portal, as well as serving documents to opposing parties electronically. The change allows those dealing with court to file documents without going to a courthouse.

“The eCourtMN Initiative is the largest transformation in the 150-year history of Minnesota’s Judicial Branch,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea said. “This initiative will produce new efficiencies in our justice system and increase on-demand access to information for the public and our justice partners.”

The electronic system is used in Cass, Clay, Cook, Dakota, Faribault, Hennepin, Kandiyohi, Lake, Morrison, Ramsey and Washington now as part of a pilot project to get the bugs worked out.

Broadband money sought

Forty-four entities have asked for state money to expand broadband high-speed Internet in rural areas.

Those applications seek $29 million, but just $10.6 million is available.

“With grant requests nearly triple the available funding, it’s clear that the need for investment in rural broadband access is significant,” Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said. “The $10.58 million available this year is a start, but it’s essential that the Legislature provide sufficient funding next session.”


Book review: Mayor’s book is for politicians looking for change

Duluth Mayor Don Ness’ new book “Hillsider” is, in places, a memoir. Elsewhere, it is appears to be a college yearbook, full of pictures that often are not very mayoral. Then there are pages that present the history of the Don and Laura Ness family, beginning with their very first hug shortly after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in an airplane crash. It definitely is a Duluth booster book. And there are words and visuals that are nothing short of art.

But to a politico, more than anything, his manuscript is a textbook that every American politician should read, or at least politicians who want things to change.

A few sentences at the book’s end well explain the Ness political philosophy:

“Politicians and pundits too often claim ownership of the truth. … If we believe we’re the ones with the truth, we no longer seek, we simply defend. We built fortresses. Rhetorical attack and defense become the only ways we know how to discuss issues. We’re always fighting or preparing to fight.”

Through the pages of Ness’ book, his own political truth evolved, starting with his first run for City Council 16 years ago: “I figured if I had any chance of expressing my strengths, I couldn’t be afraid of exposing my weaknesses.”

A politician willing to expose weaknesses? From that comment on Page 16, it is obvious even to someone who had never met Ness that he is a different politician.

The book is a compilation of short essays, some only a few lines long. None ever stretches beyond two facing pages. This book has hundreds of photos, some just because they are pretty Duluth scenes.

The $24.95 book, subtitled “Snapshots of a Curious Political Journey,” will be available in some Duluth stores as well as In an interview, he said that he self-published the book and is distributing it, too, in order for it to be in people’s hands by the time he leaves office in January.

The mayor said he decided to write the book from notes he had taken over the years just last December and traditional publishing houses would need more lead time than if he did the work himself.

“This is, in many ways, a culmination of my time in public office and I wanted it to be kind of a book end, in essence, to help me end this chapter in my life,” he said.

Ness called the book a series of “snapshot essays … to essentially capture a different tone than your typical political books.”

The short story format “is a reflection of political life at the local level,” where elected officials blend official work with family and community.

“Each one kind of stands alone,” he said of the stories. “It is a good book in a waiting room.”

Time after time, Ness returns to politics:

“Politicians in campaign mode often subtly claim they can do magic. They don’t come right out and state it, but they strongly imply it by saying they can deliver significant public benefits without requiring people to contribute or sacrifice. Some even assure us they can increase and improve services while also cutting taxes. Incredible. Clearly magical.”

The book shows that Ness began his political career as an idealist running for Duluth City Council, not prepared for what would hit him during the eight years on the council and a similar time as mayor, a tenure ending in January. He said he has no plans to run again, at least until his youngest child (now 4) graduates.

Ness will be 41 when he leaves office early next year, the age many people get involved in politics.

In the interview, Ness said that he hopes young people will read his book and realize they, too, can get involved.

“It is a story that is coming to an end at a relatively young age,” Ness said. “It may be more relevant to the 20-somethings.”

Would-be politicians do not need to subscribe to the common partisan divisiveness, Ness said, adding that his experience proves that.

When Ness landed on the City Council, he was surprised that “there was no real thought in the system.

“It was almost entirely action and reaction,” he wrote. “I developed a real contempt for this type of traditional politics driven largely by personality conflicts and trivial grievances. Where was the system described in my seventh-grade civics class?”

At times, he succumbed to traditional politics, resulting with him upset with himself.

When he tossed and turned at night, did not eat well, stress took over (“I was a mess”) and his actions were not popular, Ness opted to do something politicians just don’t: “I acknowledged, expressed regret and remorse about and took ownership for how my choices were negatively affecting people.”



Audience hears something different from pope

U.S. senators, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (with hands on chin), listen as Pope Francis addresses Congress Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. In front of Sanders is Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. (Reuters photo by Jonathan Ernst)

U.S. senators, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (with hands on chin), listen as Pope Francis addresses Congress Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. In front of Sanders is Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. (Reuters photo by Jonathan Ernst)

Humility. Humbling. Hope. Inspiration.

Those who saw Pope Francis in Washington, D.C., Thursday spoke words not commonly used to describe speakers in the country’s capital city.

“I have been through a lot of speeches in the (House) chamber,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. “It was not a political speech … it was just a simple speech.”

Klobuchar had better access to the pope than most: She joined a handful of others from Congress in escorting him around the Capitol, and received a special papal blessing for it.

“There are some senators with pretty big egos,” she said. “I have never seen them nervous.”

One episode stood out for Klobuchar as, after his congressional address, the pope was getting ready to make a few comments to hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall: “One of the security guards plucked this woman out with her baby … and he blessed this brand new baby.”

Klobuchar said it was a first-hand experience that proved this pope does care about people.

Protestant Klobuchar and other non-Catholics said they were touched by the head of the world’s Roman Catholics.

“Getting a blessing from the pope (even for this Jewish guy) is a great way to start the day,” tweeted former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., one of the many on the mall.

One of two Muslims in Congress heard Francis say that American leaders should treat people as more important than money.

“His holiness made it clear: When we prioritize people over profits and politics, America wins,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who took his mother to the speech. “Too many Americans are working multiple jobs and still scraping by at the end of the month. Too many migrants are being held in appalling conditions. And too many people are becoming sick because of air pollution and climate change.”

For some in the audience, the papal speech reminded them of why they ran for office.

“I became a public servant because I felt I had a mission to help those who don’t always have a voice and who can’t always stand up for themselves,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said. “For many, including myself, the genesis of that mission starts with a strong founding in religion and faith. Today, my faith and that of so many others was again renewed.”

For Tim Marx of Catholic Charities in the Twin Cities, Klobuchar’s guest for the 51-minute speech, the pope reminded him of Minnesotans, who are known for “advocating for social justice. That is so much a part of Minnesota’s culture and Minnesota’s history.”

In a church beset with a wide variety of problems, Marx said that the speech can give Minnesota parishioners hope. “His basic humility should provide hope.”

In the House gallery, Marx sat next to a group of nuns. “They spoke of their work with the poor, their work in health care. … So much of the work in the church has been done by women.”

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he was grateful Francis offered “pastoral encouragement.”

“Pope Francis’ message focusing on liberty, equality, justice, dialogue as well as the reaffirmation of the family should be united issues for all Americans,” Cramer said.

For Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., the speech “reminded us that it is important that we cooperate with each other for the common good. Sometimes our differences in philosophy have been used to divide us, but Pope Francis today reminded us that these differences can make us stronger if we engage with a spirit of respect for the dignity of every human being.”

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he already was a Francis fan.

“The pope’s message was one of tolerance and compassion,” Franken said. “He spoke about issues that are important to me, such as immigration, poverty and economic justice. I also welcomed his message on climate change, because I believe that it’s an important one for all members of Congress to hear.”

Those in Congress see the president deliver the State of the Union speech each year, as well as other world leaders who are invited to speak. But they said Francis’ speech was different.

“There really is no comparison…” Klobuchar said. “We have never seen anything like this in terms of the outpouring of warmth.”

The speech could have a lasting impact to a fractured federal government, she added. “Sometimes these moments do make a difference.”


Prevent a fall, play with invisible ball

Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger take part in a tai chi demonstration Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, as part of an event drawing attention to the need to prevent falls. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger take part in a tai chi demonstration Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, as part of an event drawing attention to the need to prevent falls. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

To someone walking in late, dozens of people sitting in folding chairs may have looked like they were part of a mime class.

It would have been pretty obvious to the latecomer that each was pretending to hold a beach ball. But to those of us entering senior citizen status, as well as those well into that part of life, the exercise could be a lifesaver.

Dr. Fuzhong Li of the Oregon Research Institute Wednesday led the group, including many far from senior status, in a demonstration of tai ji quan, a gentle Chinese exercise that can help prevent falls.

On a per-person basis, Minnesota has twice as many fatal falls as the national average, with even more along the Rochester-to-Twin Cities-to-St. Cloud corridor (although rural areas report fatal falls at the national average).

The invisible beach ball exercise was part of a state-sponsored event, intentionally scheduled on the first day of fall, to emphasize the need to prevent older adults from falling and to prevent them being afraid of falling.

While Li promotes exercise, he said that is not enough. Li and others went through a list of things aging people should do:

— Modify the home. For instance, good lighting is essential, throw rugs probably should eliminated and rooms should be organized to prevent falls.

— Vision is vital. Li said many older people have problems seeing side to side, so part of his exercise instruction includes being aware of what is around them.

— Medication can contribute to falls. Li said three or more medications can contribute to dizziness and other issues that lead to unsteadiness.

— Activity was emphasized Wednesday, especially the tai chi-like program Li teaches. It is a mild exercise that allows senior citizens, among other things, to become comfortable walking.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said one of the issues seniors face is the fear of falling. “If you are afraid, you tense up.”

If someone is concerned about walking, and muscles are tense, the chance of a fall could increase.

Ehlinger and aide Mark Kinde said they do not know why Minnesota has more fall fatalities than other states, but they are working with Wisconsin on a study about the issue.

“The rates are more than doubling every five years,” Kinde said.

The health leaders also do not know why the Rochester-to-St. Cloud corridor has the highest fall fatality rate or why rural areas match the national average.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said the Board on Aging, which is under her purview, has made reducing falls “a real priority.”

While the state always ranks at or near the top in overall senior health, falls remain a concern.

Progress is reported in reducing nursing home falls. The state provides extra funding to nursing homes that participate in a fall-prevention program.

Jesson said the issue becomes more important over the years because between 2010 and 2030 the number of Minnesotans 65 and older will double.

Besides a pain issue, Jesson and Ehlinger said the cost to treat fall victims continues to increase.

The National Council on Aging claims that tai chi participants have 55 percent reduction in falls.

Looking like a mime holding an imaginary ball may seem may seem like a far-fetched way to reduce fall risk, but health officials say it has proven effective.

“Holding the ‘ball’ involves weight shift,” Li said. “As you get a ‘ball’ flying, you get side-to-side weight shift. Weight shift helps prevent falls. Lots of seniors fall because of their inability to shift weight.”

Tai chi instructor Paul Ryberg of Lake Elmo participates in a Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, St. Paul event promoting fall prevension, especially among Minnesota's elderly. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Tai chi instructor Paul Ryberg of Lake Elmo participates in a Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, St. Paul event promoting fall prevension, especially among Minnesota’s elderly. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)