Rail slowdowns have widespread impact

Packed committee room

By Don Davis

A soybean farmers from southwestern Minnesota and an official of a taconite mine in the northeast, and more than a dozen others, came to the same conclusion: Significant railroad delays throughout the Upper Midwest are hurting nearly everyone.

Bill Gordon, who farms near Worthington, told a joint Tuesday meeting of five Minnesota legislative committees that the state should consider allowing heavier trucks on Minnesota roads and shippers should make more use of the Duluth harbor to ease a crush on railroads.

U.S. Steel official Larry Sutherland said hundreds of thousands of tons of taconite, used to make steel, are sitting on the ground on the Iron Range because of delays in trains needed to pick it up.

Power plant operators testified that coal was not being delivered quickly enough, farmers said they are struggling to get crops to markets, an Amtrak official said freight traffic is delaying his trains by hours and propane suppliers said that while things look better than a year ago, they still worry about getting heating fuel to Minnesotans when cold weather arrives.

More than 40 state legislators attended the meeting to hear about the impact of railroad congestion.

“Welcome to America,” state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said. “It’s a supply-and-demand situation.”

The committees took no action, but bills are expected to be considered to relieve the rail delay problem when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 6.

Tuesday’s meeting, which lasted four and a half hours, brought testifiers from across the state and beyond who told of growing problems with widespread impacts. Railroad officials said they are working on the issue, while at the same time admitting the situation has been ugly.

“We recognize that we need to do more and we need to do it better,” said Brian Sweeney of BNSF Railway Co.

While Minnesota legislators repeatedly have blamed BNSF’s delays on the railroad placing priority on transporting western North Dakota oil across Minnesota, Sweeney strongly denied that.

“There is a perception out there that we are prioritizing oil,” Sweeney said. “That is not at all true. … Everyone’s service has suffered.”

Sweeney said that oil companies are not happy with BNSF because their shipments are being delayed, like those of other shippers.

The railroad official said that all types of shipping are up.

BNSF is adding 350 employees in Minnesota and buying locomotives this year, Sweeney said. In the next three years, he said, the railroad is undertaking billions of dollars’ worth of projects including adding a second track in much of the state.

However, he said that just as helpful is adding track in places like North Dakota, where the country’s largest oil boom is demanding more railcars.

“All of the solutions are several years out,” Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation said

While Republicans say pipelines are the answer to rail issues, Christianson said they take time to build and even if all the proposed pipelines would be built, the same number of oil trains would travel through Minnesota as North Dakota’s Oil Patch is not expected to reach peak production for a decade.

Christianson said that coal-fired power plants may be affected the most by train delays.

Power plant operators told legislators that options other than coal are expensive and limited. Consumers will end up paying the cost, they said.

Amtrak official Derrick James blamed delays on BNSF and Canadian Pacific in Minnesota, which own tracks the passenger trains use.

The Empire Builder, which goes through Minnesota and North Dakota as it travels between Chicago and the northwest, has been seriously affected by heavy freight traffic, he said.

“The state of affairs is unsustainable,” he said, adding that hours-long delays mean fewer are using Amtrak and the rail organization is losing money. “The capacity of the (rail) network is not out there to provide the needed capacity.”

Before Tuesday’s meeting, delays farmers experience were the prime talking point. But bad news for farmers could be good news for railroads, Frederickson said.

Lower prices farmers are getting for crops this year, he said, probably means more crops will be stored on farms and in elevators until prices rise again. That could ease agriculture demand for trains for the time being.

Also cutting the demand could be sky-high costs of leasing rail cars. Rep. Patti Fritz, D-Faribault, said her farmers say rail cars that used to go for $750 have soared to $4,000 in recent months. Others said cars can go for up to $6,000.

Grain elevators have suffered, Bob Zelenka of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association said. “We have elevators that have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Gordon said that farmers need quick shipping to get their products to international markets on time. He said that shipping on the Great Lakes through Duluth would be one solution.

He also suggested that the state allow heavier trucks on the roads, as do many nearby states. However, House Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said that heavier trucks would lead to more road and bridge damage.

Sutherland said one of U.S. Steel’s two taconite plants is in good shape because its product needs just a short lift to Two Harbors or Duluth. But the other plant ships taconite to Illinois and Alabama, shipments now delayed by rail congestion.

With 250,000 tons on the ground at the one plant alone, the situation “is a great concern,” he said.

And it is not just shipping the taconite. His plants use more electricity than the entire city of Duluth, so coal Minnesota Power needs to generate electricity must be delivered on time.

Sutherland said railroad delays have cost his company millions of dollars. Al Rudeck of Minnesota Power said his company’s customers, mostly large firms, have paid $16 million more because of slow rail service.

Political Chatter: Campaigns deliver urgent messages

By Don Davis

It is breathless time for political campaigns.

In what reminds one of an old-time messenger trying to catch his breath when delivering urgent news, the campaigns fit in as much drama as possible during this time of a campaign. The term “breaking” is used in many an email subject line, followed by a comment in all capital letters that seems to indicate the sky is falling.

Take, for instance, an email from Gov. Mark Dayton’s campaign seeking money from supporters.

With bright yellow highlighting in the background, the solicitation begins, and the last sentence underlined and in blue type: “BREAKING FINANCE UPDATE: Tea Party opponent Jeff Johnson is outraising Governor Mark Dayton! Four years of progress is at risk: Give now to save our progress with Mark Dayton!”

In the exact same format, Executive Director Corey Day of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party declares: “ACTION NEEDED: MPR reports the Minnesota Business Partnership – which includes CEOs from the state’s biggest corporations – is laser-focused on helping Republicans take control of the Minnesota House. Give right now to defend our DFL majorities, and your gift will be MATCHED dollar-for-dollar!”

Carl Kuhl of Republican Mike McFadden’s U.S. Senate campaign was a bit less dramatic: “Senator Al Franken is getting a lot of help from Washington D.C. friends like Senator Harry Reid and Senator Elizabeth Warren. In fact, it was just announced Elizabeth Warren’s Super PAC is raising money and creating a ‘firewall’ to protect her friend Al Franken. Because of this D.C. money help, Senator Franken is beating us in fundraising, but we’re closing the gap and need your help to finish this month strong.”

Like so many of the donation-seeking emails, Kuhl begs supporters to “act before it is too late.”

A closer look at Dayton’s situation leaves the Democratic governor  looking in better shape than his campaign’s email may indicate.

While Dayton emphasized that Johnson outraised Dayton in the last campaign finance reporting period, the incumbent governor still has more money than the Republican. And while a recent poll gave Dayton a 12-point lead, the fundraising letter emphasized the 20 percent of voters who apparently have not decided between Johnson and Dayton.

“With so much at stake – 162,000 new jobs, a higher minimum wage and affordable college tuition – we CANNOT fall behind now,” the Dayton email breathlessly declared. “We have to fight back.”

‘Keep off trigger’

The Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee says it wants to keep Minnesotans safe by paying for gun training classes for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.

A picture of the Democrat who serves northeast and east-central Minnesota attracted lots of social media attention because he had a finger on the trigger of a gun.

“The basic rules of firearms safety, taught to students as young as 12 in … hunter safety classes, state clearly that one’s finger should be kept off the trigger until ready to shoot,” committee Executive Director Bryan Strawser said. “Mr. Nolan’s actions are unsafe and dangerous.”

Strawser’s committee offered to pay for firearms training for Nolan at Mills Fleet Farm indoor shooting range in Baxter. Of course, Nolan’s Republican opponent in his re-election campaign is Fleet Farm official Stewart Mills.

Who gets the credit?

It is election season and every politician’s comment is closely scrutinized.

A case in point is something re-election candidate Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, said about the Lewis and Clark project that is to bring southwestern Minnesota water.

“The area’s Republican legislators gave it lip service,” Dayton said. “We gave it $72 million.”

Dayton should not be surprised the “the area’s Republican legislators” did not take kindly to the comment.

“Gov. Mark Dayton’s comments today on the Lewis and Clark project don’t hold water,” Sen. Bill Weber of Luverne and Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake said in a joint statement. “It’s outrageous he is taking credit for this project when the opposite is true.

“Everyone agreed the Lewis and Clark water project was worthy of funding, but Gov. Dayton and the Democrats repeatedly used the project as leverage to get Republicans to agree to more borrowing for wasteful projects.”

Weber and Hamilton accuse Dayton of playing “political games with basic human needs like having sufficient potable water in our communities.”

GOP lawmakers were working on their colleagues at the end of the spring’s legislative session as Lewis and Clark became the major hang-up to adjourning for the year. At one point, a weary but happy Hamilton sat at his back-row House seat, relieved that House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, had just agreed to a solution those in the southwest could live with.

Tuition freeze promoted

Minnesota House Democrats have traveled the state in recent days promoting their plan to freeze college tuition until 2017.

President Eric Kaler of the University of Minnesota praised the effort, a rare comment by someone in his position about a political initiative.

“We’re pleased that leaders and members of the Minnesota House DFL support that goal and vision and we look forward to working with all members, the Senate and the governor to achieve that goal,” Kaler said.

But Kaler’s comment came with a warning: “If we do not get sufficient funding to support this freeze, the Board of Regents is prepared to raise tuition, as needed, to fill the gap.”

Looking heavenward

Well-known national political pundit Stuart Rothenberg wrote in Politico that U.S. Sen. Al Franken has a pretty good chance to be re-elected in Minnesota.

Republican challenger Mike McFadden probably needs “divine intervention to have any chance of winning,” Rothenberg wrote.

Dayton seeks rail data

Gov. Mark Dayton has asked about 300 communities near railroads that carry oil trains to tell him how increased train traffic and oil going through their towns affect budgets and quality of life.

At five meetings about railroad oil safety, with a sixth planned for Duluth, local leaders have told Dayton stories of long trains being parked in their communities for hours and that their public safety workers are not prepared if there is an oil train derailment.

“In my meetings with local leaders across the state this summer, it became clear that increased traffic on our railways is having real and costly impacts on Minnesota communities,” Dayton said. “This survey will help identify those challenges, and provide a roadmap for the state to address these problems in the 2015 legislative session.”

Broadband grants ready

Minnesota officials are accepting applications for grants to expand high-speed Internet in areas that lack speed.

The service, also known as broadband, is especially lacking in rural Minnesota, where officials say it puts them at a disadvantage to those in cities.

The Legislature and governor approved spending $20 million on broadband grants earlier this year, with up to $5 per grant.

Political Chatter: Klobuchar report shows propane costs

By Don Davis

It was cold last winter, really cold.

Propane was in short supply last winter, really short. And the fuel was expensive, really expensive.

The 10 percent of Minnesotans who heat with propane — as well as farmers, businesses and others that use it — felt the crunch to the tune of $70 million more they had to pay than a year before.

Others in the Midwest, where propane is most used, also felt the financial pain. Michigan residents’ bills went up $71 million, Iowans’ $64 million, Wisconsinites’ $44 million, North Dakotans’ $32 million and South Dakotans’ $17 million.

The figures come from a report U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., released in her capacity as vice chairwoman of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee.

“My report confirms what so many Minnesota families and businesses felt firsthand last winter: The propane shortage had significant financial consequences,” Klobuchar said. “Minnesotans rely heavily on propane to keep warm during the brutally cold winter months. That’s why I worked with Sen. John Thune (of South Dakota) to pass bipartisan legislation to help address future shortages, and I will continue to work to make sure this vital energy source is readily available for consumers.”

Last winter’s propane shortage was brought on by a variety of factors. Users noticed a price that in some cases quadrupled.

Minnesota officials are optimistic that such a shortage and price spike will not happen this winter, but a task force that has met several times since spring is making preparations, just in case.

On the federal level, Klobuchar and her colleagues passed legislation to give governors more authority during a propane emergency and required the Energy Information Administration to provide early warnings if it appears propane could be in short supply.

Another Klobuchar bill streamlines transportation to communities affected by a shortage.

Kline vs. Maher

Residents of the 2nd Congressional District, on the south edge of the Twin Cities and further south, may have thought Mike Obermueller was U.S. Rep. John Kline’s election opponent.

Maybe not so much. His real opponent may be well-known comedian and late-night television host Bill Maher.

Kline was the “winner” of Maher’s “Flip a District” contest because he blames Kline, chairman of the House education committee, for high student loan debt.

“We want to highlight student loan debt as being an incentive for students, who often do not vote in the midterms, to register and vote,” HBO “Real Time” executive producer Scott Carter told Politico.

Maher is expected to turn up in Kline’s district a couple of times, but Cater said he will not campaign for Obermueller.

The Washington Post questions Maher’s battle against Kline since national election handicappers give Obermueller little chance to win (although he has played up the Maher decision). National Democrats are not targeting Kline for defeat, the Post pointed out, and two years ago when he was a target he still received 54 percent of the vote.

“As promised, Maher is turning his liberal guns on our districts and using his TV megaphone and million-dollar war chest to defeat me in November,” Kline wrote in an email to supporters.

Minnesota helps tree probe

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture helped crack a case of why trees were dying.

The department first began hearing about mysterious tree deaths in 2011 and tied them to Imprelis herbicide. In the years since, Minnesota and other states worked with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which just fined herbicide maker DuPont $1.8 million because Imprelis was not properly labeled and the company did not tell federal officials about potential problems.

“The MDA laboratory played a critical national role in developing methods to test for Imprelis in samples collected from yards and landscapes,” the Agriculture Department’s Joe Zachmann said. “MDA investigations provided EPA with a significant amount of data showing the damage Imprelis had caused to trees throughout the Midwest.”

Cases of tree damage and death from Imprelis were widespread in the Midwest, especially Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

3 debates planned

The subject line in an email from Minnesota’s Republican U.S. Senate candidate read: “More false attacks — and still no debates.”

But Mike McFadden’s email to supporters was sent after he and U.S. Sen. Al Franken had agreed to a trio of debates. McFadden wants at least three more debates, but as most challengers, he at least has accepted what the incumbent will give him.

The campaigns agreed to debates:

– 8-9 a.m. Oct. 1 at a Duluth News Tribune-Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce event.

– 10-11 a.m. Oct. 26 on WCCO-TV in Minneapolis.

– 7-8 p.m. Nov. 2 on Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

A McFadden spokeswoman said her candidate wants more greater Minnesota debates. A Franken spokeswoman said the three debates, plus an early-August Farmfest forum, is about the same as normal in Minnesota U.S. Senate races.

Political chatter: Ag wins water vote

By Don Davis

A little known federal issue that has farmers riled came out of the U.S. House with a vote friendly to agriculture.

The House voted 262-152 last week to forbid the federal Environmental Protection Agency putting nearly all water in the country under its control. Farmers fear a proposed change in the Clean Water Act would give the EPA control of every body of water from puddles on up.

There is little chance that the Democratic Senate will follow the Republican House’s lead.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents western Minnesota, was one of 35 Democrats to vote against the EPA rule.

He said the proposal would create “more confusion and is bad for agriculture. … The EPA does not seem to understand the real world effects these regulations will have on farmers across the country.”

Minnesota’s House delegation split on the issue.

Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat representing the eastern Twin Cities, voted opposite Peterson.

“Once again Republicans are taking aim at the environment and clean water by unnecessarily intervening in a critical rule-making process,” McCollum said. “Preserving the health of America’s wetlands and streams is essential to Minnesota, a state with more than 10,000 lakes and over 69,000 miles of river. The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers need to continue moving forward, in consultation with key stakeholders, and develop a sound definition that protects the health of a precious natural resource: America’s waters.”

Farm groups sided with Peterson.

“The U.S. House of Representatives stood with farmers and ranchers … to tell the Environmental Protection Agency they cannot and do not have control over all waters,” President Kevin Paap of the Minnesota Farm Bureau said. “We sincerely thank Minnesota Reps. “(Tim) Walz, (John) Kline, (Erik) Paulsen, (Michele) Bachmann and Peterson for voting in support of the final bill.”

Walz and Peterson were the only two Minnesota Democrats to support the measure.

Paap said the vote was not the end of the battle. “Until they withdraw their proposed rule, we must continue to send comments to the public docket sharing our story to the EPA on how constricting these regulations would be on our ability to farm, perform normal land improvement activities and continue conservation efforts.”

The Farm Bureau has been out front in fighting the EPA on the issue, running a “ditch the rule” campaign.

Mills gets more attention

If national media attention illustrates a candidate’s viability, Stewart Mills is in very good shape.

Hardly a week goes by when the first-time Republican candidate in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District is not featured in a story from outside Minnesota. One of the latest is the National Journal, which called him “the most interesting candidate of the year.”

“Minnesota is a state known for electing its share of unconventional candidates,” Josh Kraushaar wrote in his Brainerd-datelined story. “It voted for Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler, as its governor. Comedian Al Franken, who once wrote a book joking about running for president, is now the state’s junior U.S. senator. Paul Wellstone parlayed his job as a rumpled college professor into a progressive icon in the Senate.”

It did not take long for Kraushaar to focus on the same things as other national reporters:  Mills’ long hair and his resemblance to actor Brad Pitt.

“He’s one of the few congressional candidates who has been attacked for hitting a beer bong…” the story says.

Kraushaar calls Brainerd a small town (its population is nearly 14,000) and incorrectly labels Mills’ company as a “sporting goods shop” (the chain of stores sells a variety of items ranging from farm equipment to kitchen utensils, and does sell sporting goods).

Mills is trying to kick Democrat Rick Nolan out of the House.

Nolan is in his first term back in the House, serving the northeast and east-central Minnesota district, after earlier serving during the Vietnam war era. He gets much less media attention than Mills in a race that is attracting outside funding by the bucketful.

Horner for Johnson

Tom Horner returned to his Republican roots to endorse GOP governor candidate Jeff Johnson.

Horner was the Independence Party candidate four years ago, getting 12 percent of the vote as Democrat Mark Dayton narrowly beat Republican Tom Emmer. For years before that, he worked with Republicans.

Horner went after Dayton for not knowing specifics of items in bills such as one funding the Vikings stadium.

Johnson “will get it right the first time,” Horner said.

Horner said that Independence candidate Hannah Nicollet did not seek his endorsement. He said since she could not raise the $37,000 needed to obtain state campaign funding that she “won’t have a voice” in the governor’s race, leaving Dayton and Johnson in the spotlight.

Homes lead in propane

As Minnesota leaders try to prevent a propane shortage, with accompanying price increase, like what hit the state last winter, they primarily are trying to protect homeowners.

The state propane industry reports that in 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, 206 million of the 341 million gallons of the fuel used in Minnesota heated homes. Another 78 million gallons went to agriculture uses, things such as drying grain and heating livestock facilities. The rest was used by businesses, industries and for engine fuel.

Minnesota propane outlook improves, but officials will monitor

Dayton

By Don Davis

The propane outlook for this winter is brighter than a year ago, when shortages nearly quadrupled the heating fuel’s price, but state officials urge poor Minnesotans to apply now for heating assistance if they think they will not be able to fill their tanks.

“The situation is very encouraging,” Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said Tuesday after meeting with about 50 people involved in the propane industry in St. Paul, with another 20 joining by telephone.

Still, he added: “We’re not out of the woods. Nobody is complacent.”

With more than 200,000 Minnesotans, mostly in rural areas, depending on propane to heat their homes, Dayton called in users, transportation officials, suppliers, marketers and others involved in the propane industry to assess the situation.

Many at the meeting said that more propane storage and Minnesotans buying more of the heating fuel in the summer instead of waiting for cold weather have helped ease concerns.

Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said a Kansas facility that supplies much of Minnesota’s propane increased storage 15 percent. Storage also has been built in Minnesota and North Dakota.

However, the bad news is that the permanent shutdown of a propane pipeline at the end of the past heating season is forcing more of the gas onto rails, which already are so congested with North Dakota crude oil that farmers complain they cannot get good service from area railroads.

Dayton lately has complained that the BNSF and Canadian Pacific railway companies have put a priority on crude at the expense of commodities such as fertilizer that farmers need and hauling grain to market. After Tuesday’s meeting, Dayton said he thought railroads can handle added propane shipments, even though “there is no question that the railroad system is very seriously over extended.”

The state and the industry are better prepared to monitor the propane transportation situation this year, Dayton added.

The governor promised to put pressure on the railroads, if needed, “once the situation is real.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that Midwest propane supplies are 1.9 million barrels higher than a year ago, but still 1.6 million barrels below the five-year average.

Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap called the meeting “a perfect example” of how to avoid a problem “before the government steps in and makes it worse.”

“We are in a better position if it happens again,” Executive Director Steve Olson of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association said, recalling last year’s problems.

Besides being the coldest winter in nearly 30 years, crops harvested last fall were wetter than normal, requiring more propane to fuel grain dryers. There also were difficulties getting propane to Minnesota.

Rothman suggested that people who think they may not be able to afford propane this year should fill out heating assistance applications right away so money can be sent as soon as the federal government makes it available. Information is available at (800) 657-3710.

Dayton said that his administration is urging federal officials to release the money soon.

In addition to heating rural homes and drying grain, propane is used by a variety of businesses and poultry producers and other farmers to heat facilities.

Earlier this year, the Propane Education and Research Council reported that the country had more propane than ever, but it was not where it was needed.

“We’ve never had it in the right place at the right time,” Paap said.

Updated: Special session not expected for flood disaster

By Don Davis

Minnesota leaders say they can avoid a pricey special legislative session and still provide local governments money as they recover from early-summer floods.

A new $3 million state disaster fund may be enough to reimburse local governments until legislators return to work Jan. 6, but Gov. Mark Dayton said his administration will continue to monitor the situation and could convene the Legislature if government leaders say they are running short of money.

A memorandum sent Tuesday from the state finance commissioner and emergency management director laid out the situation.

The total state and local government damage from floods across the state is pegged at $40.8 million for local government facilities, with the federal government due to pay 75 percent. That leaves $10.2 million for the state to pay, and the $3 million disaster fund should be enough to get by for now, Commissioner Jim Schowalter and Director Kris Eide said.

In an interview, Schowalter said local governments are not losing out on money by waiting until next year. However, he added, the Legislature may need to act soon after it convenes in order to keep money flowing.

If a special session is called before Nov. 4, it would come during a busy campaign season for Dayton and most House members.

“We will continue to monitor this situation and stay in touch with the administration, local officials and legislators in both parties to ensure communities affected by summer storms are receiving the aid they need before the 2015 session begins,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “And next session, we will give full consideration to remaining requests.”

Federal transportation officials already have sent millions of dollars to the state for road repairs. Dayton said that if that money runs out, “I would talk with (legislative) leaders about a special session.”

The Obama administration ruled that 37 of the state’s 87 counties and three tribal governments sustained enough damage to receive federal aid. The administration denied help to Morrison and Dakota counties.

To qualify for federal help, a county needed to show it incurred at least $3.50 per resident in damages.

Federal funds are only for governments to recover costs for flood fighting; they do not help private citizens and businesses that were damaged in flooding that began June 11 and in some cases extended into July.

Federal officials decided that damage in Morrison County did not occur during the disaster period. County officials say damage was $206,000 and under a new law the state would pay $155,600 of it if federal officials do not provide money.

Dakota County, meanwhile, sustained $1.7 million in public infrastructure cost, which federal authorities said they would not pay. The state and county are appealing that decision. If the federal government does pay, the state’s Dakota County cost would be $427,000; if federal officials continue to reject the request, the state portion would be $1.28 million.

 —

Counties receiving federal funds are Beltrami, Blue Earth, Brown, Carver, Chippewa, Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Hennepin, Jackson, Koochiching, Lac Qui Parle, Lake of the Woods, Le Sueur, Lyon, Marshall, Martin, McLeod, Murray, Nicollet, Nobles, Pipestone, Redwood, Ramsey, Renville, Rice, Rock, Roseau, Scott, Sibley, Steele, Todd, Wadena, Waseca, Watonwan, Wright and Yellow Medicine. Tribal governments getting the money are Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Prairie Island Indian Community and Red Lake Band of Chippewa.

Political chatter: Group focuses on defeating 12 DFL representatives

By Don Davis

A dozen mostly rural Minnesota state House districts could decide which party controls the body the next two years.

The Republican-oriented Minnesota Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund announced 12 districts Democrats now hold that it is targeting for the Nov. 4 election.

Coalition leader Ben Golnik said the Democrats “who despite promises of working across the aisle, being independent voices for their regions and other appeals to their moderate districts, voted lock-step with Minneapolis and St. Paul Democrat leadership for higher taxes on all Minnesotans, a crushing regulatory environment and billions of dollars of wasteful spending.”

The lawmakers are Reps. Tom Anzelc of Balsam Township, Zachary Dorholt of St. Cloud, Roger Erickson of Baudette, Andrew Falk of Murdock, Tim Faust of Hinckley, Patti Fritz of Faribault, Ben Lien of Moorhead, Jay McNamar of Elbow Lake, Joe Radinovich of Crosby, Shannon Savick of Wells, Mary Sawatzky of Willmar and John Ward of Baxter.

The Jobs Coalition list is a bit larger than some other lists of key districts.

Republicans and Democrats all along have said there are some key rural districts that could decide House control. Top Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party House leaders have talked a lot about rural issues in the past year, knowing some of their incumbents face tough races.

Republicans need to take away a net six seats from Democrats to regain control of the House.

Who controls the House is especially important this year for Republicans who want to eliminate all-Democratic control in the Capitol, holding the House, Senate and governor’s office.

Senators are not up for election this year, so that body will remain under Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party control at least two more years.

Klobuchar in Africa

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has returned from an 11-day visit to Tanzania, Ethiopia, Senegal and Rome.

The Tanzania Daily News reports that the Minnesotan was accompanied by four other Democratic women senators, including Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. The delegation was headed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the Senate agriculture committee chairwoman. The State Department funded the trip.

The Daily News reported that delegation traveled to Africa to “have an opportunity to witness conservation and natural resources management in promoting sustainable economic development.”

The senators found time to tour the Serengeti National Park, made famous on public television for the opportunity of close encounters with lions, zebras, giraffes and other animals.

Two can talk

Gov. Mark Dayton’s trip to the Moorhead area a few days ago uncovered stories that some state Department of Natural Resources people were saying things not approved by the governor or Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

The revelation came up during discussions about a water diversion project planned to protect Fargo and Moorhead from Red River flooding. People told Dayton in meetings what DNR employees said.

“I think in a project of this magnitude and this sensitivity and this controversy, that from this point forward, the only two people authorized to speak on behalf or represent the state of Minnesota are Commissioner Landwehr or myself,” Dayton said.

The diversion is very controversial, and Dayton had harsh words for the governmental body responsible for the project.

High drama court race

Judicial races generally produce little drama and little interest among voters.

One this year between Justice David Lillehaug and Michelle MacDonald is producing drama, but probably not much voter interest.

Republican state convention delegates overwhelmingly endorsed MacDonald last spring. Most judges not wanting political ties, but Republicans like to endorse conservatives to the high court.

Things changed when some GOP leaders discovered she was awaiting trial on a drunken driving charge. She also faces a count of violating terms of her driver’s license that was restricted due to her drunken driving charge.

At first, Republican governor candidate Jeff Johnson said he still supported MacDonald. Now, however, he has backed away and says she needs to run a serious campaign before getting his backing.

GOP attorney general candidate Scott Newman withdrew his support early and went so far as to endorse Lillehaug, a longtime Democratic activist who Gov. Mark Dayton appointed.

MacDonald has filed documents requesting the state Office of Administrative Hearings (an agency similar to a court) to take up her case against Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey and other GOP leaders for not following through and backing her after the party endorsed her. She was barred from the Republican State Fair booth by two volunteer security guards.

8,000 online registrations

More than 8,000 Minnesotans have registered online to vote.

More than 5,000 of them updated their addresses or names, while nearly 3,000 registered for the first time in Minnesota.

“This tool makes it convenient for eligible voters to register, and helps reduce costs to local governments,” Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said.

He launched the online registration tool last year, a judge found it illegal and the Legislature established a system that is much like Ritchie started.

Voters must register for the Nov. 4 election by the end of the day Oct. 14.

Minnesotans head to the polls this fall to pick a U.S. senator, statewide officials, all eight U.S. representatives and all 134 state house members. Many local offices also are on the ballot.

Voters do not need to wait until Nov. 4 to cast ballots. They may vote absentee by mail or at local election offices starting in about two weeks; this year for the first time anyone may vote absentee, not just those unable to go to the polls Nov. 4.

Ritchie’s office offers more voting information at at www.mnvotes.org.

Next to the trains

One of the reasons Gov. Mark Dayton traveled to Moorhead early last week was to discuss oil train safety, a subject of meetings he is holding along railroad tracks that transport oil from western North Dakota.

While in Moorhead, Dayton stayed in the modest Travelodge motel. Ironically, it is next to tracks where more than 40 trains a week haul oil through the area. At one point during his stay, an oil train was parked next to the motel.

‘Give bees a chance’

Spivak

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson promises to plant more flowers.

It is part of a new program his department launched at the State Fair on Thursday to encourage Minnesotans to provide good homes to bees, wasps, butterflies and other insects that pollinate plants.

Pollinators’ numbers are falling and scientists do not know all the causes, although some pesticide use is suspected as one problem.

“More than one third of all plants are plant products that we consume are directly or indirectly dependent on insects for pollination, and a decline in pollinators negatively affects us all,” Frederickson said.

Participants in the program are asked to join Frederickson and pledge to take an action to help pollinators.

Frederickson said his department will focus on educating the public about how regular Minnesotans can help. His promise to plant more flowers may be a popular way to help, but he also suggested letting dandelions grow because bees like them.

Other ideas the commissioner offered include leaving areas of a lawn unmowed, reducing pesticide use, setting out water bowls to give pollinators a drink and to start a beehive.

Besides pesticides, parasites and diseases are among factors believed to be causing the pollinator decline.

There still is too little known about bees and other pollinators, said Marla Spivak, a nationally known bee expert from the University of Minnesota.

While about a third of Minnesota honey bee colonies are lost each year, Spivak said that native bee population trends are not well understood (honey bees are not native to the state). However, she added, studies on the topic are beginning.

Of Minnesota’s 18 or 19 bumble bee species, she said, two “are very endangered.”

Frederickson and legislators at Thursday’s announcement said Minnesota has passed more bee-related laws than any other state. For instance, it now is illegal to label a product as bee friendly if it really can harm the insects. Also, state agencies are required to take bee-friendly actions, such as improving habitat.

The issue is well known in rural areas, where farmers need pollinators for their crops. But state Rep. Jean Wagenius, D-Minneapolis, said she has been hearing about it in her urban area as she goes door-to-door campaigning.

Rep. Rick Hanson, D-South St. Paul, said that lawmakers will take more actions to help pollinators, but urged common Minnesotans to help, too.

“Give bees a chance,” he pleaded.

Frederickson

Republicans fall in behind Johnson

Johnson, Zellers, Seifert

By Don Davis

It is one thing for defeated politicians to back their conqueror, but quite another for rank-and-file supporters to do the same.

As Jeff Johnson was edging his way toward victory in Tuesday’s Republican governor primary election, backers of other candidates were saying they could accept any of the four main hopefuls. And they said that the just-completed primary race, testy toward the end, may have been a good thing.

“I think it will be better for the party because we had a better real talk of who we think will be the best candidate …” Andy Gladitsch, a political science major at Gustavus Adolphus College said at candidate Marty Seifert’s post-election gathering in Mankato. “I think it will make the party stronger.”

Republicans appeared ready to back any of the four candidates because they see an opening in the campaign against Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

“He (Dayton) lacks communications skills,” said Trina Denay of North Mankato, also at Seifert’s gathering. “He’s not a very good public speaker.”

She said that for the GOP candidate to win, “it means talking to the people, listening to people and not just ‘this is what I do.’ “

The other three major GOP candidates joined Johnson in a Capitol-area news conference Wednesday to say they will support the winner.

“This state deserves to have leaders to take it to its full potential,” Scott Honour said, adding that Johnson is the person to do it.

Honour and Johnson had the most testy exchanges in a rare four-way Republican governor primary election race.

The other two major candidates, Kurt Zellers and Marty Seifert, joined Honour in offering full support for Johnson, a 47-year-old lawyer and Hennepin County commissioner. He is a Detroit Lakes native, graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead and worked for Cargill. He also served in the Minnesota Legislature before losing the state attorney general’s race to Democrat Lori Swanson in 2006.

Johnson won the party nomination in Tuesday’s primary with 30 percent of the vote.

He is a known as a nice guy, something he plans to embrace.

“Being perceived as a nice guy is a good thing in elections in Minnesota,” Johnson said in response to a reporter’s question, but hastily added that he will contrast his positions with those of Dayton.

Johnson predicted that Democrats will spread stories about him wanting “to drown kittens in the river for fun.”

Chairman Ken Martin of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party agreed that Johnson is a nice guy, but called him a Tea Party extremist. He said that the Republican nomination of Johnson means that party “wants to move us backwards” to the days “when people had to work two or three jobs and still live in poverty.”

Johnson, on the other hand, said that while Dayton proclaims the state economy is strong, many Minnesotans “are scared to death” of the economy. He said 49 percent of Minnesotans are underemployed, working lesser jobs than they want.

He said that the key to improving the economy is to “grow business in this state.”

“We are celebrating people who are successful,” Johnson said. “We never, ever give up on people who are poor.”

Johnson credited his win on obtaining the Republican state convention’s endorsement and the feeling that he is electable.

Endorsed candidates generally won Tuesday, although Jim Hagedorn upset Republican-endorsed Aaron Miller 54 percent to 46 percent in southern Minnesota’s U.S. House district. Hagedorn will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz in the Nov. 4 election.

Republican Chairman Keith Downey credited Hagedorn’s name for the win. His father was a southern Minnesota politician.

In the Independence Party primary vote, Steve Carlson took 34 percent of the vote, upsetting party-endorsed Kevin Terrell, who had 22 percent.

Another endorsed candidate made it look easy. Auditor Rebecca Otto moved on to the general election, emerging from the Democratic primary by getting 81 percent of the vote. That came after challenger Matt Entenza spent more than $600,000 to oust Otto.

Martin had nothing good to say about the Entenza effort, declaring that the former DFL House leader’s days as a politician are over.

The secretary of state’s office estimated that 286,292 Minnesotans voted in the primary, a near record low and a fraction of the 3 million who normally vote in the general election.

Martin said that it is not good for democracy when just hard-core partisan voters go to the polls. He said that he will continue to lobby lawmakers to move the primary to June, when he thinks more Minnesotans would vote.

Joseph Ryan Denton contributed to this story.

Oil train disaster training not here yet

Talking oil train disasters

By Don Davis

Forum News Service

LITTLE CANADA, Minn. — Minnesota emergency services personnel will be trained and equipped in a few years to deal with oil train disasters, but the governor worries about what could happen before then.

“If the accident would just wait for two years, three years, four years, boy, would we be ready,” Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday told his first in a series of rail safety roundtables.

Dayton’s public safety commissioner, Ramona Dohman, told the governor that every city and county must have plans for dealing with disasters, but not specifically how to handle volatile North Dakota crude oil that fills about 50 trains that cross Minnesota each week.

“We are the cross-country freeway for this because it is going to the East Coast,” said Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Local government plans are “one size fits all…” Dohman said. “They cover whatever may happen in your community.”

“It is just that they have not responded to these spills and fires…” the commissioner said. “How do you respond to the Casselton fire?”

Dohman and others from the public safety community said they are concerned about how Minnesota would deal with an oil train fire like in Casselton, N.D., late last year. Or an accident that killed people in Quebec. Or a fire in West Virginia. Or any of a number of other incidents involving crude oil pumped from the Bakken oil field in western North Dakota. Most of that oil is transported across Minnesota.

Doug Bergland, the Washington County emergency management director, said many firefighters already have 40-hour classes dealing with hazardous material response, but nothing specific about the crude oil that often moves in 100-car unit trains. He said he does not think that most law enforcement officers have any significant training on that issue.

“We are in uncharted territory here,” said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, a sponsor of legislation that passed earlier this year to help fund training for first responders.

Christianson said that problems exist on several levels, including lack of training, lack of proper equipment and aging 1960s-era rail cars. “You have gaps layered upon gaps, layered upon gaps for the next three years. … In the meantime, we have real risks for communities.”

Dohman said that first responders will begin to get rail oil safety training next month. “Bakken awareness 101,” she called it.

However, she added, limited money is available and none will be spent on improving training for responders who already know the basics.

Dayton said the first thing that needs to be done is to make sure someone is in charge of looking ahead to see what the oil transportation situation will be in the next decade. He promised that person will be named within a week.

The task will be difficult. Hornstein said that Bakken oil transportation has increased 70-fold since 2005, and North Dakota oil production continues to increase.

“This is not a theoretical problem,” Hornstein said.

A report from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration singled out Bakken crude as being more volatile and riskier to transport than other U.S. crudes. However, a recent North Dakota Petroleum Council-commissioned study yielded similar data as the PHMSA study but found Bakken crude to be consistent with other types of light, sweet crude.

Christianson contends that Bakken crude is more dangerous than other oil: “This stuff if so volatile, you don’t fight the fire, you evacuate.”

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman called the situation frustrating for elected and public safety officials, who have a difficult time dealing with the ever-changing situation.

With an expanding railyard in his city, more trains will carry many types of dangerous substances are expected. Up to eight oil trains a day go through St. Paul.

In additional to the legislation that funded training, lawmakers ordered state officials to report back on how many crossings along oil train routes need to be upgraded, and to complete an assessment of training and equipment in public safety agencies where oil trains travel.

Dayton said that he plans similar meetings along oil train routes in coming weeks, with the next in coming days in Moorhead, near where most North Dakota oil enters Minnesota.

More counties to get federal flood aid

Federal authorities on Friday added 24 Minnesota counties affected by summer floods to its disaster list.

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa and Prairie Island Indian Community also were declared federal disaster areas.

State officials earlier this week asked Washington to add 30 counties and the two tribes.

“I will continue advocating strongly for the inclusion of the six additional counties that sustained significant damage during this summer’s flooding,” Gov. Mark Dayton said.

Friday’s announcement means 30 Minnesota counties are included in the disaster, even though state officials have said more than half of the state’s 87 counties sustained at least some damage.

Federal money will fund 75 percent of state and local government costs related to floods that began on June 11. The other 25 percent is to be paid by the state.

The 24 counties added to the federal disaster list are Beltrami, Blue Earth, Brown, Carver, Dodge, Faribault, Koochiching, Lac Qui Parle, Lake of the Woods, Le Sueur, Marshall, Martin, McLeod, Nicollet, Redwood, Rice, Roseau, Scott, Sibley, Steele, Todd, Wadena, Waseca and Yellow Medicine. The counties that originally were designated are Chippewa, Freeborn, Jackson, Murray, Nobles, Pipestone, Renville and Rock.

Still being considered for federal aid are Dakota, Hennepin, Lyon, Ramsey, Watonwan and Wright counties.

Federal funds only are available to local and state governments, not individuals or businesses.

New Minnesota laws include measure to fight synthetic drugs

Synthetic drug wrappers

By Don Davis

Synthetic drugs will be a bit easier to fight beginning today.

They can be handled much like other illegal drugs under one of dozens of Minnesota laws that took effect today. The drug law classifies any substance that mocks an illegal drug as also being illegal, so synthetic drugs that sell under names such as K2 and Spice no longer should be sold.

“If you are using it and you are getting high, in my interpretation, it is a drug,” said Duluth police Lt. Steve Stracek, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force.

The law gives the state Pharmacy Board the power to order stores to stop selling the drugs.

Also, the measure, which received widespread bipartisan support, says that synthetic drug sellers who claim the drug is legal can be forced to pay restitution for costs resulting from the sale. Those costs include emergency response expenses and health care needed by someone who takes the drugs.

A key state official in implementing the law said it will not end synthetic drug use, which has resulted in young people’s deaths and serious health issues. But Executive Director Cody Wiberg of the Pharmacy Board said it will be a continued step in the right direction.

Wiberg said a series of anti-synthetic drug laws and extensive publicity about a Duluth arrest is helping reduce use of the dangerous substances.

“I am not so sure it is 100 percent gone, the retail sales of it,” he said. “I am not sure there is any place being operated so openly as Last Place on Earth.”

Last Place on Earth was a Duluth head shop that, like others in the state, openly sold synthetic drugs as legal. But with the owner facing a potential federal prison sentence, Wiberg said, young Minnesotans who flocked to the drugs because they thought they were safe may be getting the message.

“What we have tried to do on the state level with synthetic drugs is try to limit the retail sale,” Wiberg said. “I think we are making some headway there.”

Stracek agreed. “The volume we were dealing with before is not there.”

“I think that certainly tells other people that there are consequences,” he said about the Last Place court case.

With the Last Place closed, synthetic drug use appears down in Duluth, Stracek said. Now, however, users are turning to the Internet, which he said likely is the next problem policymakers must deal with.

Wiberg said state and federal officials can’t do much about online sales, but Stracek said there could be ways to stymie delivery of substances ordered online.

On Wednesday, Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson is to announce a website designed to make the public more aware of the dangers of synthetic drugs — dangers that officials say are similar to the already-illegal drugs they mimic.

Wiberg said he has not heard from law enforcement organizations that they will want him to take action as soon as his board’s new powers kick in, but he does plan to remind them that the new law is available.

“The board will work with law enforcement, with county prosecutors to do what we can …” Wiberg said. “These are dangerous drugs, more dangerous than some of the users really believe.”

He likened synthetic drugs to Russian roulette because “there is no quality control in these products.” If someone tries one of the drugs, then buys more later, the new compound could be many times more potent than the first one, he added.

Stracek said one of the biggest synthetic drug problems has been “the underestimation of these drugs.”

Other news laws include:

– Law enforcement officers will be forced to obtain a warrant from the courts before collecting information from electronic devices such as smartphones, and eventually the device’s owner must be notified and information obtained generally will not be admissible in court.

– The state minimum wage begins a rise to $9.50 an hour by 2016 for large businesses; it rises to $8 an hour today, with small businesses paying $7.25.

– Public employees with access to driver’s license files must have a legitimate need to examine the data or face penalties.

– The use of cotton threads to remove eyebrow, lip and other hairs no longer needs to be done by cosmetologists.

– Notaries may charge up to $5 for their services after years with a $1 maximum.

– Thermostats containing mercury are outlawed and manufacturers must pay for collecting and replacing them; no items with mercury will be allowed in the waste stream.

– Retailers no longer can sell cleaning products containing the antibacterial compound triclosan.

– A person with multiple convictions for unlawfully killing wolves may be liable for a civil penalty.

– Snowmobiles mostly will be allowed only on forest roads during rifle deer hunting season.

– A person 60 or older may use a crossbow for hunting deer during the archery season; now, crossbows are allowed only during firearms season.

– Thermal imaging equipment may not be used to hunt deer.

– Social media communication between elected officials and the general public will be allowed without it being considered an open meeting violation.

– People who commit domestic abuse or stalk someone may lose access to their firearms.

– Motorists are required to stop and investigate when they strike an object.

– The state may store infants’ DNA without parental permission.

The nonpartisan House Public Information Office contributed to this story.