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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.

Updated: Minnesota surplus rises $832 million



Minnesota’s real budget debate began today when state finance officials announced a $1.9 billion surplus, an increase of $832 million from a report less than three months ago.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he has been told it is the largest-ever state surplus, but Minnesota Management and Budget officials worked to confirm that this afternoon.

The governor, a Democrat, said that he will propose using the new money for education and transportation programs, along with adding to nursing home funding and providing money to make payments to borrow $850 million for public works projects.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, appeared to say he wants at least $900 million of tax cuts, as well as increasing spending on some programs such as nursing homes. He was not specific about tax cuts.

“Today’s news is very good news,” Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget said in announcing the surplus. “Over the last few years, we have righted the ship.”

Added Dayton: “This surplus comes from more Minnesotans working than any time in Minnesota’s history.”

The surplus did not influence Dayton to reverse his desire for a $6 billion, 10-year transportation plan, funded in a large part by a new gasoline sales tax.

“They are still proposing a huge tax increase on Minnesota families in the form of a gas tax increase,” Daudt said. “I am going to challenge Democrats in the Legislature and the governor to take this off the table.”

Instead of raising taxes, Daudt promised to push a plan to lower them. However, he had no specific proposals.

The surplus will allow lawmakers and the governor to spend more money, use it to cut taxes or increase the state’s reserves — or a combination of them. State legislators and interest groups already have announced desires to increase spending on a variety of programs.

Dayton said that spending for education and transportation “will pay off for Minnesota for years to come,” and it makes sense to spend the money in good economic times because it will not last forever.

Revenues are expected to be $616 million higher than expected in December and spending is predicted to be $115 million less. Other changes add $107 million more to the surplus, Minnesota Management and Budget reported this morning.

Dayton released his first budget proposal Jan. 27, based on an early December budget prediction showing a $1 billion surplus. Now he will tweak that $42 billion, two-year plan about how to spend state tax revenues to reflect today’s refined numbers.

Also, today’s announcement gives legislative leaders information they need to write their own budget plans, which will come out in the next few weeks.

Legislators have until May 18 to write a two-year budget and send to Dayton for his signature.

Today’s report was based on national economic forecasts and altered to fit anything different in the Minnesota economy.

Minnesota’s economy has shown good signs in recent months, including a lower unemployment rate than the national average. It is doing better than rival Wisconsin, which faces a $2 billion budget deficit this year.

After releasing his budget plan on Jan. 27, Dayton told reporters that if more money were available, nursing home funding would be at the top of his list for increased spending.

When state officials announced their budget forecast in December, they said that the $1 billion surplus would be eaten up if inflation were factored in. However, Dayton said that he would expect things such as higher salaries to be handled by his commissioners within existing budgets, not in higher budget requests.

Surplus up to $1.9 billion

Minnesota’s real budget debate began today when state finance officials announced a $1.9 billion surplus, an increase of $832 million from a report less than three months ago.

The surplus will allow lawmakers and the governor to spend more money, use it to cut taxes or increase the state’s reserves — or a combination of them. State legislators and interest groups already have announced desires to increase spending on a variety of programs.

Revenues are expected to be $616 million higher than expected in December and spending is predicted to be $115 million less. Other changes add $107 million more to the surplus, Minnesota Management and Budget reported this morning.

Details of the budget report are due out later today.

Chairman Ken Martin of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party credited lawmakers and the governor of his party for the good news.

“DFL leaders have made it a priority to improve the economy, create jobs and invest in education,” Martin said. “We’ve seen great progress, evident in today’s budget surplus, but we know more work needs to be done.”

One of the first Republican reactions came from Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, who said the surplus means both parties will look at the surplus to fund transportation.

“Jump in surplus kills attempts at raising gas sales taxes,” he tweeted. “Both sides will move toward dedication general fund revenue for transportation.”

Gov. Mark Dayton released his first budget proposal on Jan. 27 based on an early December budget prediction showing a $1 billion surplus. Now he will tweak that $42 billion, two-year plan about how to spend state tax revenues to reflect today’s refined numbers.

Also, today’s announcement gives legislative leaders information they need to write their own budget plans, which will come out in the next few weeks.

Legislators have until May 18 to write a two-year budget and send to Dayton for his signature.

Today’s report was based on national economic forecasts and altered to fit anything different in the Minnesota economy.

Minnesota’s economy has shown good signs in recent months, including a lower unemployment rate than the national average. It is doing better than rival Wisconsin, which faces a budget deficit this year.

When state officials announced their budget forecast in December, they said that the $1 billion surplus would be eaten up if inflation were factored in. However, Dayton said that he would expect things like higher salaries to be handled by his commissioners within existing budgets, not in higher budget requests.


Dentists not smiling over payments

HelpMNSmile Signs v100

Many Minnesota dentists pay money out of their own pockets to care for poor patients because, they say,  the state pays them too little.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, and some of the state’s 4,000 dentists launched a campaign Thursday to let the public know that Minnesota pays the least of any state for children’s dental care and is fourth worst in paying for adult care through the state’s Medicaid program, known as Medical Assistance.

The state’s Medical Assistance payment is 27 cents on the dollar that dentists receive from private pay patients. At that level, dentists say that they pay for much of the care for the poor.

A simple tooth filling could cost a private pay patient $90, but MA would pay just $27, dentists said.

Rosen told about one Martin County dentist who treated so many poor patients that “last month he made zero dollars.”

A Rosen bill, with Republican and Democratic legislative supporters, would spend an estimated $80 million to $100 million in the next two years to bring Minnesota up to the average of all states.

“Minnesota is dead last…” said Dr. Peter Cannon of St. Paul, president-elect of the Minnesota Dental Association. “You can’t go any lower. We are failing our children.”

Cannon said that dentists are not proposing “going from the bottom to the top,” but just asking that Minnesota payments are average.

“Last place is not what Minnesotans expect in health care,” Dr. Mary Seieroe of Hennepin County Medical Center said.

Poor, rural Minnesotans are the most affected by low payments, Rosen said, and have the most to gain by her bill.

Minnesota’s neighbors all pay more to dentists through their Medicaid programs, with North Dakota more than doubling the Minnesota payment.

Cannon said that rural dentists cannot afford to fund poor Minnesotans’ dental care.

In many cases now, rural and urban poor alike go to emergency rooms with oral pain. However, dentists say, ERs only treat pain, not the underlying cause. That can force patients back to emergency rooms when pain returns.

Dental leaders said ER visits are far more expensive than normal care by dentists. In a recent three-year period, Medical Assistance recipients cost $148 million when they went to ERs for dental problems.

Seieroe said the biggest chronic illness problem among children involves dental issues.

Her Hennepin County Medical Center alone treats 6,000 dental patients of all ages in the emergency room each year.

Complicating the situation around greater Minnesota is lack of dentists.

Two counties — Big Stone and Mahnomen in western Minnesota– have none. Murray, Swift and Marshall counties, also all in western Minnesota, have one dentist per 9,000 or more residents.

Legislators have told stories this year about communities being threatened with losing dental care because their dentists are retiring.

Other state legislation is being discussed to relieve the rural problem.

Dentists and Rosen said a proposal to forgive student loans if they agree to practice in rural areas could be a great help to increase the number of rural dentists.

The campaign launched Thursday is called Help Minnesota Smile ( and uses the theme: “It’s hard to smile when you’re in last place.”


Elections take spotlight

Minnesota’s elected officials are looking at election changes.

On Thursday alone, lawmakers considered bills to change the primary election date, allowing 16-year-olds to preregister to vote and establishing a commission to redraw political district lines every 10 years.

All of the issues remain under consideration, and face further committee examinations.

Young teenagers appeared before House and Senate committees to ask lawmakers to allow 16-year-olds to register to vote. It would not lower the voting age, just allow earlier registration.

“The younger you start something, the more likely it is to become a habit,” 15-year-old Edina student Eileen Campbell told the Senate elections subcommittee.

Current law allows 17-year-olds to preregister, with them automatically being registered when they become 18 and can vote.

Dan Thomas-Commins gave Sen. Jim Carlson, D-Eagan, the idea for lowering the registration age. Thomas-Commins, a Carlson constituent, said it could help fight voter apathy.

Carlson’s bill would allow a 16-year-old to preregister when getting a driver’s license.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said she is not convinced that earlier preregistration would lead to higher voting turnout. A former secretary of state, Kiffmeyer said that a better way of building interest would be programs like Kids Voting, which allows youths to cast ballots for people running for office.

Voter apathy also was a theme of Republican senators, who propose moving the primary election from August to March.

“I firmly believe we must move the primary date from August to an earlier date, so the voters have an opportunity to focus on the candidates in the general election,” Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said.

Moving the primary to March would add Minnesota to 38 other states to cast votes on the same day in presidential years.

About 10 percent of Minnesota voters cast ballots in last year’s primary, compared to nearly 40 percent who voted in the 1966 primary.

A debate that comes up after every 10-year federal census also was discussed Thursday.

The Legislature and governor are supposed to redraw lines for congressional and legislative districts after each census to maintain the one-person, one-vote concept. However, redistricting has ended up in Minnesota courts since 1960.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, proposed establishing a commission to handle the task. He suggests a five-person panel of retired judges.

“These judges would be responsible for drawing up the new redistricting lines,” he said.

Five states use similar commissions, including Iowa.

The Legislature would be required to approve and reject the commission’s plan.

“I believe there is a conflict of interest in drawing our own district lines,” Eken said.

When one party controls the Legislature and governor’s office, new district lines tend to favor that party.

Secretary of State Steve Simon added his support to Eken’s bill.

“Voters should choose their elected officials, not the other way around,” Simon said. “To some people, it looks like it is the other way around.”


Legislative notes: Budget forecast due Friday

A report that gives Minnesota’s governor and legislators information they need to write a two-year budget will be released Friday.

The so-called budget forecast will look at the economy and revenues coming to the state and predict funds available in the next budget cycle.

Gov. Mark Dayton already has released his budget plan, as required by law, but will tweak it after the Friday report. Legislative leaders will develop their budget based on the Dayton plan and Friday’s forecast, likely with considerable differences from the governor.

An early December forecast predicted the state will have a $1 billion surplus, but good economic reports since then have led many state officials to predict better news Friday.

The actual surplus numbers will be a tightly held secret until Friday morning.

Hemp legalization bill advances in Minnesota House

An effort to legalize hemp in Minnesota continues.

A state House committee Wednesday unanimously approved a bill by Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, to allow limited hemp growth. Hemp farming has been illegal in Minnesota since shortly after World War II.

Franson’s bill would allow hemp as a crop if the producer is licensed by the state Agriculture Department and follows federal law, which now only allows researchers to grow the plant.

Hemp is used for products ranging from ropes to clothes.w

It was declared illegal due to its close relationship with marijuana, although using hemp would not make a person high.

Franson said Minnesota hemp farming has a lot of potential and her bill would develop “on a very small scale” the beginnings of a hemp industry in the state.

A similar Senate bill passed its first committee test last week.

Phasing out Social Security tax on seniors considered

A Minnesota House committee dealing with aging Minnesotans voted Wednesday to phase out the tax the state charges on Social Security benefits.

The House Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee sent five bills to get rid of the tax to the Taxes Committee.

If Social Security were not taxed, the average Minnesota senior citizen would save $600 a year, the committee heard.

Most states do not tax Social Security.

Supporters of the bills testified that getting rid of the tax would help Minnesota’s elderly afford to live in their own homes longer.

The bills vary on how long it would take to phase out the tax, with two taking 10 years and the others less time.

Bill would allow easier path to appoint county officials

A few Minnesota counties annually seek legislative approval to turn elected offices into appointed ones.

Now, a bill making its way through legislative committees would give county commissions and the public a new way to decide if the change makes sense for them.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee Wednesday unanimously approved a bill by Sen. Sandra Pappas, D-St. Paul, to set up a procedure for appointing county auditors, treasurers and recorders.

Nearly 30 counties have gone to appointed recorders and a majority of Minnesota counties have opted out of the traditional system of separately electing auditors and treasurers. Almost half of the state’s 87 counties elect combined auditor-treasurers, while some counties appoint their treasurer-auditors and St. Louis County elects its auditor and appoints its treasurer.

“It does not mandate any change,” Pappas said about her bill.

She offered a similar bill 20 years ago, but then-Gov. Arne Carlson vetoed it. This year’s bill comes after years of negotiations among groups representing various county officials.

Pappas bill provisions include:

— If the current official wants to remain in office, the office must remain elected unless county commissioners sign a document promising to appoint the official with the same pay and benefits as when the office was elective.

— If an official decides not to seek re-election, county commissioners may pass a resolution making the office appointive. At least 80 percent of commissioners must approve.

— Within 30 days of the commissioners’ vote, a petition with at least 10 percent of registered voters’ signatures would force an election to decide whether the office is elected or appointed.

— County commissioners would appoint the official.

Existing law allows for local voters to decide if offices are appointive or elected, but Chisago County Administrator Bruce Messelt said that for a variety of reasons counties prefer to seek legislative approval to make a change.

Messelt, a former Moorhead city manager who grew up in Duluth, said that asking the public vote on making an office appointive gets little attention unless there is a controversy. “Good organizational decision making … and sound fiscal management don’t make for interesting ballot questions,” he said.

Stearns County Auditor-Treasurer Randy Schreifels said that decisions to appoint an official usually only follow a retirement.

The Pappas bill requires a public hearing before commissioners can make a decision, Schreifels said.

Paying for telemedicine required under Minnesota bill



Forcing insurance companies to pay for telemedicine appointments could bring specialized health care to all parts of Minnesota, hospital officials and lawmakers say.

While some health insurance policies already pay for telemedicine, the use of technology to allow a distance health-care professional to examine a patient, state legislation announced Wednesday would require all policies to provide reimbursement.

“Let’s get medicine into the 21st century,” Dr. Jon Pryor CEO of Hennepin County Medical Center pleaded.

Medical specialists are scarce in greater Minnesota, but patients can access them in local clinics or even from home via computer or other video connections.

Mandy Bell of Avera Health, with 15 southwestern Minnesota clinics, said that forcing insurance coverage would further increase telemedicine availability and improve health care.

Up to 30 percent of telemedicine patients say they would not receive health care if not for telemedicine, Bell said.

Maureen Ideker, who works in western Minnesota for Duluth-based Essentia Health, gave an example of someone who would benefit from telemedicine as a diabetic who needs weight control help. That service may not be available in parts of rural Minnesota, she said, but it could be provided via technology.

Ideker said that insurance does not cover assisted living and group home residents, but would under the bill, allowing them to say home or near home for medical services.

Health professionals said it is difficult to transport disabled or sick Minnesotans to specialists, while it would be much easier if they could stay in their home communities.

“It alleviates a lot of provider shortages we are seeing,” said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center.

Shortages of rural health care professionals likely will grow, added Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley. Expanded use of telemedicine could help the problem, he added.

“We want to make sure people in rural Minnesota have the same quality of life,” he said.

Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, said telemedicine is more convenient than making long drives.

“We really need to get to the point where we have patient-centered care,” Schultz said.

Bill supporter Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, said he has been a volunteer emergency medical technician for nearly 20 years and has seen firsthand local hospital personnel communicating with Fargo, N.D., doctors when treating patients.


Blue alert could help track down police attackers



Legislation is moving ahead to establish a Minnesota alert system that would be activated when a law enforcement officer has been killed or seriously wounded.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said a so-called blue alert program would help find suspects quicker because information about police attackers could be sent statewide immediately.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee Wednesday approved Ingebrigtsen’s blue alert bill unanimously, sending it on to other committees that need to consider it. A similar bill is progressing through the House.

Janell Rasmussen of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said a blue alert would be handled much like amber alerts, which notify the public about missing children.

“We can notify the entire state of Minnesota when it comes through that system in a matter of 60 seconds or less,” Rasmussen said.

Notices would go to law enforcement authorities, the media and businesses that subscribe to the service.

Ingebrigtsen, who worked in law enforcement for 34 years, said quickly finding suspects would help law enforcement families reach a level of peace. He told the committee that a partner of his died on duty six months after Ingebrigtsen took part in his wedding, so he said that he understands the issue.

Twenty states have blue alert laws.

Legislative discussion on the bill follows last year’s shooting of Twin Cities suburban police officer Scott Patrick.

Rep. Dan Schoen, a Cottage Grove policeman, said at an earlier House hearing that people who attack police officers usually know they are headed to jail, so they are dangerous to leave on the streets.

Lawmaker says wild rice water rules threaten mines

Melin, LaDuke

Melin, LaDuke

Existing water quality standards threaten one of Minnesota’s biggest industries, a state representative claims, and could force cities, industries and agriculture processing plants to spend millions.

“The 10 standard will bring down our taconite industry,” Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, said Tuesday while arguing for her bill that would suspend enforcement of existing rules that limit sulfate in water with wild rice to 10 milligrams per liter of water.

Melin and her supporters, however, said other industrial, agricultural and sewage facilities that discharge water could be in trouble, too, because sulfate exists across the state. Facilities that require state permits to discharge water may not be able to get that permission under current rules.

On the other hand, environmentalists and a nationally known American Indian activist say water needs to be protected and warn that Melin’s bill threatens water.

Assistant Commissioner Rebecca Flood of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said the federal Environmental Protection Agency could take over decision-making from the state if Melin’s bill passes. MPCA plans to release a draft report of new sulfate rules in a month, with full implementation at least two years away.

The debate came during a House Environment and Natural Resources Committee hearing. The issue is due to come back up before the committee Wednesday and Chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he may hold the bill over to possibly be included in an overall natural resources bill later this legislative session.

Minnesota long has had the current sulfate standard, but it was not enforced until 2010.

A 2011 law requires the MPCA to study sulfate standards and set new ones based on the latest scientific data available. The law also requires the agency to designate what waters in the state could contain wild rice, which would be where the standards would apply.

Melin, who was involved in passing the 2011 law, said the idea was to have those standards drawn up and the wild rice waters designated by now.

Flood said if the draft standards are released in about a month, as expected, the process likely will take about two years before the standards and water designation are final. Melin said it could take even longer.

Melin’s bill would forbid the MPCA from enforcing the 10 standard during that time. Flood said that while her agency has not directly asked the federal EPA, it would be possible that federal authorities would step in and decide whether water discharge permits would be issued if state enforcement were suspended.

Indian activist Winona LaDuke, a White Earth Nation member, told McNamara’s committee that wild rice is protected by at least three 1880s treaties. She said there is “historical amnesia” surrounding the issue.

“We would like to keep our part of the treaties and we would like you to keep your part of the treaties,” said LaDuke, once head of the largest wild rice marketing firm in the country.

While most wild rice stands are in northern Minnesota, the committee heard that sulfate standards affect facilities that discharge water throughout Minnesota, especially until the state designates which bodies of water have wild rice. Sulfate is found in most of the state.

“This is a tough issue, but the implications for a wastewater treatment plant in Fairmont, Minn., are serious,” McNamara said.

City Council member Chris Vreeland of Hoyt Lakes said that removing sulfates to the current level would cost $30 per household.

“If we get it wrong … there can be highly impactful economic consequences,” warned Kurt Anderson of Minnesota Power, arguing for Melin’s bill.

House passes first part of child abuse law changes

The state House passed the first step of a child abuse prevention effort that began when a west-central Minnesota boy died after 15 reports that he was being mistreated.

On a 130-0 Monday vote, the House approved legislation that would put into law the provision that a child’s health and safety are paramount concerns when making child protection decisions. It also reverses a law passed last year that bars consideration of some child abuse reports.

Current law puts emphasis on keeping a child in his or her family, often with health and safety concerns secondary.

“This bill is a first step in making sure Minnesota’s child protection system is accomplishing its goal of keeping children out of harm’s way,” bill sponsor Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said.

Kresha said his bill is just a first step and “it does not go far enough.”

The lawmaker said he expects more bills once a child maltreatment task force produces more recommendations on March 31.

The task force formed after the death of Eric Dean and media accounts indicated there had been 15 reports that he was maltreated.

The 4-year-old died Feb. 28, 2013. Amanda Peltier of Starbuck was convicted of murder last year and sentenced to life in prison. The boy’s father, David Dean, was Peltier’s live-in fiance at the time.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said most abuse reports in the Dean case had not reached the point where they required investigation under current law.

Monday’s bill will help make sure “no other child slips through the cracks,” Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, said.

Added Rep. Joe Mullery, D-Minneapolis: “We must resolve to overcome the system’s resistance to changing procedures which allowed serious abuse, and must overcome the reluctance to fund necessary protections.”

The Senate is expected to take up similar legislation in the next few days.

‘Absolute crisis’ in rural workforce, housing

KLN Family Brands in Perham has more than 100 job openings, but the western Minnesota community has no homes for people the company hires.

Similar stories came from far-flung parts of Minnesota,  such as Willmar, Roseau, Cook County and Red Wing, before a state Senate committee on Monday approved a series of bills designed to help pave the way for homes to be built, as well as for would-be workers to receive adequate training.

“In rural Minnesota, we have an absolute crisis in terms of our workforce,” said Steve Renquist of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

The Senate Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee passed five bills aimed at rural Minnesota worker issues. Similar bills are advancing in the House as lawmakers work to improve greater Minnesota’s economy. All the bills must make several committee stops.

Three bills dealt with worker housing, mostly providing cities methods to raise funds for apartment construction.

KLN, makers of Barrel O’ Fun snacks, Tuffy’s pet food and other products, employs 1,200 people in Perham, a community of fewer than 3,000 people.

Fred Sailor of the company told the Senate committee that KLN jobs are good: The firm offers profit sharing, pays a high percentage of workers’ health insurance premiums and jobs may start at up to $23 an hour. KLN also gives employees with the company at least three years of experience $10,000 forgivable loans for home down payments.

“We have people driving 45 miles, as far as 90 miles from Brainerd,” Sailor said.

Finding workers is important, in part because it cost KLN $330,000 when the company had to shut down some of its production lines for six months because of an employee shortage, he added.

City Council member Lisa Bayley of Red Wing gave a similar message. Much of the economy “is going gangbusters” in her southeastern Minnesota community, she said, but “the problem is they don’t know where to live.”

Renquist said it is difficult to build housing in rural Minnesota. Todd Peterson of Roseau Community Development testified that is because property is appraised lower in rural Minnesota, sometimes less than it costs to build. Banks only will loan less than the appraised value.

He told of an apartment complex being built in his northwestern Minnesota city. The project costs $3.2 million, he said, but because it was appraised at just $2.1 million, the bank only financed about half. The developer was forced to mortgage an unrelated property, land for the project was donated and the city and state contributed, Peterson said.

Even the $850-per-month rent expected to be charged for an apartment ($300 higher than current rents around town) could not bring in enough money to fund the project, Peterson added.

Nothing short of government involvement will help the appraisal issue, Jim Boyd of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce said. “This is a market failure; it is something the market will never fix.”

He urged senators to consider allowing counties to take advantage of the housing programs, although current legislation only gives cities that ability.

“We are growing older and older and older and losing our young people,” Boyd said.

Two bills of Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, passed. One would provide grants, the other tax credits for employers that need to have train workers.

“It addresses a need for skilled labor,” the senator said, and his bills are “open to all employers in greater Minnesota.”

Former state Rep. Dan Dorman of the Greater Minnesota Partnership said more jobs are remaining open. Incentives to get training could help change that, supporters testified.

“It is not a phenomenon to one area of greater Minnesota,” Tomassoni said. “It is happening all over the place.”

In his area of northeastern Minnesota, Tomassoni said that high schools and colleges already are training with would-be workers to fill jobs. He said that is the type of thing he wants to see through his bills.

53-year-old Cuba trade ban ‘hurtful’

Vorwerk, Gutierrez

Vorwerk, Gutierrez

A “farmer” who plants seeds the same way for years and they do not grow, “you probably are not a farmer,” Cargill Inc. Vice President Devry Boughner Vorwerk told a Monday summit on restoring relations with Cuba.

That was her description about how the United States has dealt with Cuba, imposing a 53-year-old trade embargo. She said the time has come for a change so both countries can progress.

“Cuba is a natural market for us,” Vorwerk said, but regulations in both countries are making it tough to trade.

“We can do it faster, cheaper, better and with higher quality,” she said of sending American products to the island country 90 miles south of Florida.

The embargo has been “very hurtful” to Cubans, added Rodolfo Gutierrez of the Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research organization.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., hosted the summit on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, bringing together the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hispanic advocates, agriculture experts and others with an interest in Cuba trade.

Klobuchar, who returned from a Cuba trip a week ago, is chief sponsor of a Senate bill to allow trade to resume with Cuba. She also is co-sponsor of a measure to eliminate travel restrictions.

Many Cubans are eager to trade with the United States, the senator said.

During her trip, “every Cuban I met remembered one date, Dec. 17, 2014,” she said, the day President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced movement toward a more normal relationship between the countries. The U.S. Congress must take action to make any major trade or other changes.

Klobuchar said people knew her face and name throughout the Cuba trip because she authored the bill to normalize trade relations.

“It was all over the news that I was carrying the bill to lift the embargo,” Klobuchar said.

Under Secretary Michael Scuse of the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the summit that Cuba trade is of “huge importance” for agriculture, but Obama needs congressional help.

“We have reached the point where the president has done everything he can,” Scuse said.

The United States was Cuba’s dominant trading partner before the embargo was imposed, the under secretary said, and could regain much of that if the embargo disappears.

Federal law bans Scuse’s agency and others throughout government from helping businesses prepare for exporting to Cuba. While there is an embargo, several hundred millions of dollars’ worth of agricultural products are sent to Cuba annually under an exemption for selling goods for humanitarian reasons.

Even with the embargo, Cuba is the eighth largest foreign market for American poultry.

Scuse gave those at the summit a warning that Cuba is a “small, limited-income country,” although Vorwerk reminded those attending that there still are 11 million people there, many of whom would like American goods.

Vorwerk said that the Cuban government laid off 600,000 government workers, and officials know it needs to find jobs for them. Opening American trade could help that, she added.

Minnesota has a surprisingly strong connection with Cuba, Gutierrez said. The number of Cubans in the state has grown since the 1950s to about 5,000.

“They are coming here for jobs,” he said, and for the most part they are better educated than other immigrants.

Farmer Ralph Kaehler of St. Charles, in southeastern Minnesota, has been to Cuba about 20 times, organizing beef, dairy cow and other exports.

One of the problems, Kaehler said, is what even when he can ship products to Cuba, nothing is allowed on the ships when they return to the United States. That greatly increases transportation costs.

Klobuchar said that her bill opening trade eventually will pass, but she could not predict when. She agreed with other assessments that if debate drags into the 2016 presidential election, chances for its quick passage will slip.

Opposition remains in both counties.

“There is still a lot of anti-American talk going on in the government,” she said about Cuba, and she is working with Senate Republicans to get them to back her bill.