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

Lawmakers seek probe into Mankato football coach process

By Don Davis

The Minnesota legislative auditor should put a priority on investigating the firing and last week’s reinstatement of the Minnesota State University Mankato football coach, two key legislators say.

A letter from higher education chairmen Sen. Terri Bonoff, D-Minnetonka, and Rep. Gene Pelowski, D-Winona, joined the university and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system in asking Legislative Auditor James Nobles to investigate.

Nobles said that his office will conduct a preliminary investigation, which could lead to a months-long full probe.

“Given the problematic outcome of these decisions, a thorough analysis and review is appropriate,” Bonoff said. “What happened? Was our process appropriate? What changes are needed? These questions are best answered by the independent legislative auditor.”

Pelowski said an investigation “will provide us with the information we need to ensure this never happens again.”

University officials investigated Coach Todd Hoffner after videos of his nude young children playing at bath time were found on his university cell phone. He was charged with child pornography, but a judge dismissed the charges in November of 2012.

Instead of giving him his coaching job back, the university assigned him to a newly created athletic department job, then fired him in May of last year, saying it had found that his university issued computer has been used to view pornography.

An arbitrator ruled April 9 that Hoffner should have received a reprimand, but should have been allowed to return as head coach.

When Hoffner resumed his coaching duties last week, players walked out of spring practice, saying they preferred the interim coach. The players returned for the next practice.

MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone told the system’s board that the university is limited on how much it can say about Hoffner.

“The data practices law limits our ability to even publicly acknowledge that there was an arbitration decision, much less to provide copies of arbitration decisions and underlying records or to discuss their contents,” Rosenstone said.

House committee votes to ban Minnesota State Lottery online sales

By Don Davis

The Minnesota State Lottery’s Internet ticket sales either are the wave of the future or will devastate families, a state House committee heard Thursday before approving a bill to ban the practice.

The bill would shut down Internet lottery ticket sales that have been available that past four years and it would shutter the online version of scratch-off tickets that debuted earlier this year.

David Gale of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries told the House commerce committee that Minnesota must continue online sales “if you expect to remain relevant, if you expect to have a player option 10 years from now.”

To remain viable, the lottery must reach out to youths, lottery Executive Director Ed Van Petten said. “That is the emerging market for all of us,” he said.

On the other hand, Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said no good would come from Internet sales.

“This is a massive, massive expansion of gaming with no statutory authority to do so…” Davids said. “This is not the online lottery, this in online crack. This is addictive and this will destroy families.”

Rep. Ann Lenczewski, D-Bloomington, said she authored the bill because it is “our responsibility to make this decision.” Legislators debate most gambling-related decisions for years, she said, but the online sales decision was made by Van Petten.

The lottery director told the committee that state law gives him the authority to make such a decision.

While Van Petten has set a $50-a-week limit for online lottery purchases for each customer, Jake Grasso of Citizens Against Gambling Expansion said that the director could raise that limit at any time is he decides “50 bucks is not enough.”

Van Petten said the scratch-off games, which began Feb. 6, are not hurting retail pulltab sales and should help them. He also said the lottery does not compete with charities that sponsor scratch-off games, but Al Lund of Allied Charities disagreed, saying charities would lose money to online lottery sales.

The bill heads to the House rules committee. A similar bill awaits Senate consideration.

Tired legislators take their holiday break with much done, much left

Schoen

By Don Davis

The looks on Minnesota legislators’ faces before they began a holiday break told the story: They are tired.

The 201 legislators put in long hours the past couple of weeks debating and initially passing pretty much every major bill of the 2014 session, often going well after dark just as spring presents Minnesotans with longer days.

When asked about what would happen after the Legislature returns on April 22 following an Easter-Passover break, Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, showed the exhaustion common to many as the House was adjourning Thursday night.

“My mind is not even there,” Schoen said. “My mind is so tired, I can’t even think straight.”

After pausing, he came up with a few issues he thinks need to pass, then added that some bills lawmakers already passed may need to be revisited because “in our tired, weary minds, we may have missed something that should be fixed.”

It is a different type of year for the Legislature. It came into session Feb. 25, later than most years, and lawmakers are trying to cram in more work than often occurs the year after a state budget is produced.

Lawmakers will have less than four weeks after the holiday break to finish their work before constitutional deadline of May 19.

Days after the session began, lawmakers passed a bill providing financial aid to Minnesotans with problems paying for heat during the intense winter. On March, after plenty of political posturing, they approved $443 million of tax breaks.

Two other major issues are set to take effect. One requires local school districts to write policies to prevent bullying or the state will force them to follow one it prepares. The other issue that has been decided is a higher minimum wage, which in three years will be $9.50 an hour for big businesses and $7.75 for smaller ones.

Otherwise, the House and Senate have passed differing versions of the major bills, such as one tweaking a $39 billion, two-year budget passed last year. Lawmakers dumped nearly all spending bills, and some that do not involve money, into the one massive bill.

Like most other remaining issues, the budget bills the House and Senate passed are different. So negotiators from both houses will sit down after the break and begin reconciling them, then sending them back for final votes.

One significant bill has passed the House, but not the Senate: a plan to move women toward equality with in the workplace.

Two hot-topic bills remain short of House and Senate votes.

Generally getting the spotlight in even-year sessions has been a bill funding public works projects around the state. In the House this year, it is a nearly $1 billion bill, funded both by borrowing money with state bond sales and some cash. It has made its way to near a full House vote, but the Senate measure will not be unveiled until soon after break ends.

Legislative leaders already agreed to spend $850 million, but many Democrats say they want to go higher. If so, they need Republican votes because Democrats alone do not have enough members to pass a bonding bill. Republicans are not eager to accept a higher figure.

The other big issue awaiting a decision is whether to allow marijuana, or an extract from the plant, to be made available to seriously ill Minnesotans, such as children suffering from seizures and cancer patients in great pain.

“We are trying to find ways to come to a solution,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said, but a compromise is needed with police and medical groups opposed to the medical marijuana plan.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, gave the issue a kick ahead when he ordered a committee hearing on the bill, similar to one stalled in a House committee. There was no vote, but supporters say that if leaders allow the bill to proceed after returning to St. Paul, there are enough votes to pass it.

The question then would be if Gov. Mark Dayton would sign a bill that does not meet his main requirement: support by law enforcement and medical communities.

Bakk and Thissen said they will talk about the remaining issues some during the recess, although House leaders also plan to travel the state saying they already have shown a productive session.

Bakk said he could not predict if there will be any problems in the final few weeks of session. “I think it would depend on the governor’s engagement.”

Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, said he is not concerned. “With the time that is left, we should get it all done. It will come together.”

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Here is the status of some issues:

Bonding: Gov. Mark Dayton proposed spending about $1 billion on new construction and repair work, money mostly obtained by the state selling bonds. The House and Senate are looking at borrowing about $850 million, with additional cash from a state budget surplus. The House has a bill in play and senators likely will introduce their bonding bill soon after returning to St. Paul.

Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $39 billion, two-year budget. The House and Senate have passed differing versions of a bill to tweak the budget and negotiators will work out differences after the recess.

Bullying: Legislative Democrats passed, with a few Republican votes, a bill that Gov. Mark Dayton signed just before the recess to require school districts to adopt strong anti-bullying policies. If a district does not comply, it will have to follow a state policy.

Constitutional amendments: No constitutional amendments have made much progress so far this year, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, wants one that would require a super majority of legislators to approve putting an amendment in front of voters. Now, a simple majority is needed.

Construction zones: Provisions have been folded into larger bills to outlaw mobile telephone use and increase speeding fines in highway construction zones. They have yet to receive final approval.

Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators say he does not have that authority. Bills approving online registration are progressing.

Gender equality: Ways to improve women’s pay and other aspects of their lives are being considered. The House passed its version, with the Senate expected to take it up after break. The fact that women earn less than men in the same jobs is a prime topic.

Home health: The House and Senate passed budget bills that include increasing home health care funding 5 percent.

Legislative offices: Committees provided final approval for a new Senate office building across the street north of the Capitol, so construction could begin this summer. However, a lawsuit against the building remains to be settled.

Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesota patients to use marijuana to relieve extreme pain has been debated, but stalled in a House committee after the governor expressed misgivings because law enforcement and medical groups oppose it. A Senate committee heard testimony on it just before the break, but will not vote until after legislators return to St. Paul.

Minimum wage: Legislative leaders negotiated a compromise to raise the state minimum wage to $9.50 an hour in three years for large businesses and $7.75 for small ones, then allow it to rise automatically up to 2.5 percent a year to stay abreast with inflation. It will be law in time for the first step of the raise to begin in August.

Payday loans: Religious and other groups want to clamp down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans. The issue has been debated in committees, but not in the full House and Senate.

Propane: Right out of the chute, lawmakers approved increased funding to aid homeowners with problems paying for propane to heat their homes after a shortage brought on high prices. However, long-term solutions to propane price volatility have not moved forward.

Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state’s sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. Legislators have made little progress toward agreeing on how to deal with the situation.

Synthetic drugs: Bills making synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts, more difficult to buy and to educate Minnesotans about their dangers have progressed and the House approved its bill. A Senate bill awaits a vote.

Taxes: Legislators approved two tax-cut bills, with the second portion awaiting negotiations after the break. The bills cut income taxes and property taxes and overturn some sales taxes enacted a year ago.

Transportation funding: A move to raise gasoline taxes appears to have failed, but some money was found for pothole repair and highway work in the state budget surplus.

Transportation safety: A series of transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted House and Senate transportation finance committee chairmen to propose a fee on oil transportation to fund improved training and better equipment for emergency personnel. The plans are included in an overall budget bill that remains to be negotiated.

Minimum wage headed up

By Don Davis

Minnesota’s minimum wage is about to rise.

After the House passed 71-60 a higher minimum wage Thursday, it heads to Gov. Mark Dayton, who is expected to sign it into law Monday.

“I think this is a great trade off, minimum wage for a better life for a great many people in this state,” Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-St. Paul, said.

Republicans said they agree higher wages are needed, but many did not like the bill that passed.

“This is too much, too fast,” Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, said.

The measure raises the minimum wage for businesses with sales of at least $500,000 in steps until it reaches $9.50 an hour in 2016. Smaller businesses’ minimum wages will go to $7.75 in three years.

Receiving the same wage as small businesses will pay bill will be teens, youths in training and some foreign youths working in resorts.

President Barack Obama, who wants to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from the current $7.25, praised the Minnesota House action.

“With this important step, Minnesota joins a growing coalition of states, cities, counties and businesses that have taken action to do the right thing for their workers and their citizens,” Obama said in a statement the White House released. “I commend the state Legislature for raising their minimum wage and we look forward to Gov. Dayton signing the bill into law soon.”

The president urged Congress “to follow Minnesota’s lead.”

A Mazeppa representative joined Uglem in saying the bill will most hurt Moorhead residents.

“North Dakota is going to zoom your district by,” Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, told Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead. “It is going to kill more jobs in your district and other districts throughout Minnesota.”

In response, Lien said that Moorhead’s population is increasing and his constituents are willing to pay higher prices a minimum wage increase might bring.

“If prices do go up marginally,” Lien said he hears from Moorhead residents, “we are willing to keep business in Minnesota and to support those low wage workers who will benefit from this bill.”

“The economy does not work that way,” Drazkowski shot back.

Uglem said that Minnesotans drive to Fargo, N.D., to shop now and more will do that once minimum wages begin to go up this August.

Rep. Jason Metsa, D-Virginia, said Canada has raised its minimum wage and that has not hurt northern Minnesota.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley, said Minnesotans will benefit. “By raising the Minnesota wage, we will see Minnesota workers doing better than they do in surrounding states.”

Republicans linked the minimum wage effort to a new Senate office building a House committee approved last week. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said Senate Democrats agreed to the minimum wage bill in exchange for the House panel’s vote.

“You guys traded small business owners’ money for a new Senate office building across the street…” Garofalo told Democrats. “What we are seeing today is a bargain among thieves.”

Democratic leaders, however, deny there is a link between the issues. They said the minimum wage bill is needed to raise pay for 357,000 Minnesotans.

“Find it in your hearts to put a couple bucks into the pockets of people, especially young people,” Rep. Tom Anzelc, D-Balsam Township, said.

“We can choose to go the low tax, low wage route…” Winkler said. “Or we can take a different path. We do not have to accept a race to the bottom.”

Legislature clarifies farmer market requirements

By Charley Shaw, Session Daily

Minnesota’s food safety laws would be specifically tailored to address farmers markets under a bill headed to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk.

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom, and Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, was passed 129-0 by the House late Wednesday. Senators passed it 55-0 Thursday.

“There are over 100 (farmers markets) in our state, probably every county in the state,” Barrett said. “They’re a good community resource to us.”

Barrett introduced the bill after constituents who run the Chisago City Farmers Market sought clarity to state laws that govern how food is handled at their market.

The bill would create a new section devoted to farmers markets in Minnesota law that deals with licensing food handlers. It would specify how food samples and cooking demonstrations at farmers markets should be regulated.

Farmers would be required to provide regulatory agencies with information upon request such as the source of the food and the equipment used to prepare it.

The bill was amended in the House to address food safety regulations for chili cook-offs. The chili amendment was crafted in response to cook-off contestants who were denied participation because they couldn’t fulfill food preparation rules.

In an amendment successfully offered by Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, organizations would be exempt if they follow rules including being approved by the local municipality and developing food safety rules.

Shaw writes for the nonpartisan Session Daily (www.house.leg.state.mn.us/sessiondaily) in the Minnesota House Public Information Office.

Minnesota revenue falls

Revenues flowing into Minnesota state coffers slowed in February.

While individual income tax revenues exceeded earlier expectations, other revenues fell from what was predicted in February.

Minnesota Management and Budget reports that some of the change comes from lower taxes paid on tobacco product sales. Various other smaller revenue sources also fell.

Overall, total February revenues were $2.6 billion, down $67 million from expectations. Income taxes were up $28 million.

Sales taxes were $4 million below predictions, which state officials said may due to lower spending during a harsh winter.

State officials warn not to draw long-term conclusions from monthly revenue reports.

Senate passes second tax bill, different from House measure

By Don Davis

The Minnesota Senate on Thursday approved a second tax-cut bill that pretty much matches the total dollar number of tax breaks representatives approved earlier, but the two chambers go different routes to get there.

Senators voted 57-6 for their $100 million tax-break measure, which spreads the money around to a wide variety of taxes. The House already voted 125-0 for a bill focusing on cutting property taxes.

House and Senate negotiators will work on producing a compromise bill after lawmakers return from an Easter-Passover recess April 22.

Sen. Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said much of his tax bill deals with relatively narrow provisions for specific communities and removing outdated laws.

Among the broader provisions is one to give active military personnel and veterans larger tax breaks.

Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, sponsored the military credit, which would increase a tax break from $120 to $200 a month for each month a person was in active military service in specific areas after Dec. 31, 2013.

Also, the annual credit for past military service would be doubled, from $750 to $1,500, and phase out beginning with income greater than $30,000.

Sen. Tom Bakk, D-Cook, has a provision in the bill to give the Revenue Department authority to negotiate an income tax reciprocity deal with Wisconsin.

Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty canceled the agreement after Wisconsin fell $17 million behind.

Reciprocity allows taxpayers who live in one state and work in the other to pay income taxes to just one state. Since more Wisconsin residents work in Minnesota than the other way around, Wisconsin always owed Minnesota money at the end of the year. But the Badger State fell behind in its payments.

“We would like to have an agreement with Wisconsin so these people only have to file one state income tax,” Skoe said.

If the agreement is reached by the end of this year, it may include up to a $1 million loss to Minnesota, an incentive for Wisconsin to settle. If it comes after that, Minnesota will not accept a loss.

Provisions in the bill include new and expanded income tax credits for transit users, parents paying for tutoring or reading assistance, greater Minnesota businesses hiring interns, and foreclosed and short-sale homeowners. Other tax relief would go to snowmobile clubs, postseason high school events tickets and nonprofit fundraising groups.

Skoe said fire departments struggle to get volunteers, and tax credits could help them and other volunteer public safety agencies recruit more people. Each of about 19,000 volunteer public safety workers could get the $450 income tax credit.

Also in the bill is a provision to split $10 million among 83 of the state’s 87 counties to fight aquatic invasive species.

House passes women’s economic aid

Melin

By Don Davis

The fight to close Minnesota’s gender pay gap passed a major hurdle Wednesday when the state House passed the Women’s Economic Security Act.

Supporters said the bill that passed 106-24 would advance their cause by requiring many businesses dealing with the state to pay women and men equally and better accommodate pregnant women and new mothers.

“Please, let’s show all women and the nation that it does not have to be an economic disadvantage to be born a woman,” Danielle Hans of Minneapolis told a Capitol rally before House debate began.

The bill’s chief author, Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, laid out her reason for pushing the bill in one sentence: “Women on average earn 80 cents to the dollar that men earn and in greater Minnesota women earn even less.”

She said many businesses already treat women fairly.

“Their business model will not change; they are the model,” Melin said. “But for the others, we must take it upon ourselves to address the pay gap in Minnesota. It is long overdue.”

Melin’s bill, and a similar measure that has not reached the full Senate, would force agencies to require a company doing business with the state to pay men and women equally if the company has a state contract for at least $500,000 and employs at least 50.

Some of the pay gap between men and women, Melin said, comes from factors such as discriminating against pregnant women and nursing mothers.

The bill would require businesses to give pregnant women accommodations, such as more frequent restroom breaks. It also would force employers to allow mothers to nurse and express breast milk on the job.

Parental leave would increase from six to 12 weeks, a grant program would be established to recruit and train women for some jobs, families of children could not be discriminated against and affordable child care would be expanded.

The bill also would prohibit employers from enacting rules to stop employees from discussing how much they are paid.

The provision follows testimony in legislative committees from women who said they found out they were paid less than male counterparts after the males said how much they received. Testimony showed that several businesses ban wage discussions.

Republicans said the Melin bill would cost businesses too much money.

Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, said that in her area women are doing well.

“Gosh darn, you need to move up to northwest Minnesota,” Kiel said. “We have jobs and we’ve got pay.”

But Melin said women often are not treated fairly.

“Mothers shouldn’t have to choose between working and the ability to nurse their child,” she said.

Anti-bullying bill becomes law

Dayton signs

By Don Davis

Gov. Mark Dayton put pen on paper 15 hours after final legislative approval of an anti-bullying bill, enacting a new law requiring schools to have bullying prevention policies and providing guidance about how they would be written.

Dayton signed the bill late Wednesday afternoon in front of many legislators and dozens of the bill’s other supporters.

“Nobody in this state or this nation should have to feel bad about who they are,” Dayton said.

The House passed the bill 69-63 early Wednesday, following nearly 12 hours of debate. Senators passed it earlier.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis, said the measure will let school districts write their own anti-bullying policies.

“Frankly, we’d rather that school districts engage their community and create new policy to limit bullying that we know is happening rather than use the state model policy that will be created with the passage of this bill,” Davnie said, adding that the new law “sets a high standard for defining bullying.”

But Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the new law creates a “one-size-fits-all mandate.”

“I trust the schools in our community to address bullying more effectively than politicians and bureaucrats in St. Paul,” Franson said. “Instead of empowering local school districts, this bill infringes on the rights of students, parents and locally elected school boards.”

Senate approves $9.50 minimum wage

Sens. Jeff Hayden, Terri Bonoff

By Don Davis

Supporters of raising the state minimum wage say a bill senators passed Wednesday would boost 357,000 Minnesotans’ pay.

The measure that passed 35-31 would raise the wage floor to $9.50 an hour at large businesses in three years. The Democratic-controlled House is expected to pass the bill as early as today, and Gov. Mark Dayton says he supports it.

“We are taking the stance that we are going to support the bottom line of the poorest people,” said Sen. Chris Eaton, D-Brooklyn Center.

Republicans argued that raising the wage will lead to job losses and maybe businesses closing.

“I don’t think it puts us in the economic position we want to be in …” said Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls. “We are a global economy and we have to start looking at that.”

Joining Republicans in voting against the bill were Democratic Sens. Lyle Koenen of Clara City, Dan Sparks of Austin and Vicki Jensen of Owatonna. Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, was excused from the Senate for the day.

The current state minimum wage is $6.15 an hour, but most Minnesota employers fall under the federal wage of $7.25. Businesses would have to follow a higher state wage if it is enacted.

Dahms offered an amendment to put the state wage at the $7.25 federal level. It was defeated.

The new wage would be phased in over three years, with employers showing gross sales of at least $500,000 annually paying $8 starting this August, $8.50 in 2015 and $9.50 in 2016.

Smaller firms would be required to pay $6.50 this year, $7.25 next year and $7.75 in 2016.

Businesses could pay teen workers at the same rate as small business.

Wages would increase to match inflation beginning in 2018, but no more than 2.5 percent a year. The state labor commissioner could suspend the increase in bad economic times.

Republicans said higher wages especially would hurt businesses near other states, which all would pay less than required in the Minnesota bill.

“This is going to hurt our rural communities along the borders,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd.

Gazelka asked Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, if that bothered him.

Eken replied: “I believe that the minimum wage will create and generate more economic activity.”

People who get higher pay, he said, will “put more money back into the local economy.”

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said the state frequently has enacted laws that put border businesses at a disadvantage to other states.

“How many prices can you raise?” he asked, indicating that businesses in his area will have to boost prices to fund higher wages.

Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, called the bill “a big step forward.”

“Every sixth household with children at some time during the month does not have enough food,” Marty said.

A new KSTP-SurveyUSA poll showed that 61 percent of Minnesotans approve of a higher minimum wage and 49 percent liked the idea of automatically raising the wage to keep up with inflation.

House votes to fight synthetic drugs

By Don Davis

Minnesota representatives sent a strong message against synthetic drugs Wednesday, unanimously passing a bill to give a state agency more authority over them.

“If you are not seeing this in your community, it is because you are not looking hard enough,” Rep. Erik Simonson, D-Duluth, told fellow lawmakers.

The bill that passed 130-0 now moves to the Senate.

While his community has gained the most publicity about synthetic drugs, he said that the problems are seen across the state.

The use of synthetic drugs “continues to be a problem, especially among young people and at colleges,” he said.

The drugs, which often are designed to mimic illegal drugs, are sold under a variety of names, ranging from K2 to spice. Some are called bath salts.

Medical and law enforcement officials say synthetic drugs are just as dangerous as the better-known ones.

Officials in cities from Duluth to Moorhead have worked for years to shut down retail shops that legally sold synthetic drugs under other names.

The bill expands the definition of “drugs” in state law to encompass synthetic drugs. It also gives the state Pharmacy Board authority to order stores to stop selling the drugs.

“The bill is the result of extensive conversations we held around the state with those most affected by synthetic drugs: former addicts, their families and local police and prosecutors,” Simonson said.

Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, said she is glad the state would hold people who sell the drugs accountable.

“People who sells these drugs … know they are selling very dangerous drugs,” Lohmer said.

Dayton to sign bullying bill

By Don Davis

Gov. Mark Dayton this afternoon plans to sign a bill written to prevent school bullying across Minnesota.

Representatives early today approved a bill 69-63 to require school districts to establish rules against bullying, better train staff on the issue and provide guidance about what must be included in local policies.

The bill representatives debated for nearly 12 hours is based on one they passed last year and was rewritten by senators this year. Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign it into law this week.

“It provides students, teachers, parents, administrators a strong set of tools to write their own local school anti-bullying policy,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis.

If a school district does not write its own bullying policy, the bill requires the state to impose its own policy on the district.

Democrats had little to say about the bill, but Republicans laid out their opposition.

Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said Democrats pushing the bill were enacting the “big brother” concept featured in the book “1984.”

“If this isn’t a mirror image of ’1984,’ I don’t know what is,” Newberger said. “The only problem is (author) George Orwell is off by 30 years.

“If it has a battery, Democrats want access into your private life,” he said, because the bill would allow schools to monitor electronic messages and take action, even if the activity occurs away from school.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the bill is “fascist” and is “simply another attack on the Bible and on Christians.”

Davnie responded that the bill would help youths deal with “an increasingly diverse society.”

“The bill deals with behavior, not belief,” he added.

Existing state law devotes 37 words to bullying, which supporters of the bill say makes it the country’s weakest anti-bullying law. With so little state law, school districts have a variety of policies that supporters say should be more standardized.

Longtime teacher Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said that 93 percent of schools have adopted a six-page state school board association anti-bullying policy.

Republicans said local districts know their needs best and should be given freedom to make their own policies. Opponents also say the bill would create an unfunded mandate.

“Those of you who live in rural Minnesota know that this is one of the most hot-button issues this legislative session,” Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said, because voters are upset that the state is taking over writing policies that local officials should write.

There is not a bullying problem in rural areas, said Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore.

“This is really a rift between rural and metro,” he said. “We are not hearing it out there.”

Davnie, however, said schools still will administer bullying policies. He said they can deal only with activities related to school.

The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act is a top priority for Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators and their supporters.

The bill is tied to a proposal that passed a year ago to legalize gay marriages. The measure, supported by many of the same people who backed the marriage proposal, specifies that students cannot be bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity and several other reasons.

Opponents argue that gives special protection to certain students, but supporters say specificity is necessary to ensure that all students are protected.