Pope meets with Farmers’ Union leader

Peterson with pope

Peterson with pope

Two Minnesotans were among American farm leaders who met Wednesday with Pope Francis.

Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson and the National Farmers Union chief counsel, Minnesotan David Velde, were part of discussions about the role family farmers play in food security. They talked about the fact that most food produced in the United States comes from family farmers, the Minnesota Farmers Union reported.

Five state Farmers Union presidents, including Peterson, were in the meeting.

Velde said that the discussions that took place in Rome transcended national borders and religious beliefs.

“All religions are concerned about stewardship and the environment,” Velde said.  “And this is a belief that can help unite a very divided world.”

Monsignor Peter Wells, assistant secretary of state for the Vatican, expressed concerns about the worldwide loss of family farmers, food security and environmental stewardship.

“I’m pleased to hear the Vatican State Department’s belief that stewardship is ecumenical worldwide,” Peterson said.

Peterson is a former state representative and frequently is in the state Capitol.

The Farmers Union delegation also spent time with the largest farm organization in Italy, the International Catholic Rural Association and the secretary general of the World Farmers Organization.

 

Legislative notebook: Looking for lottery winners

A Minnesotan is a $1 million winner in a Powerball lottery game, but at 5 p.m. today will lose his or her ability to claim the prize.

Last week, a $100,000 lottery winner lost out, too. Last year, $9.4 million Minnesota Lottery winnings went unclaimed.

State Rep. Joe Atkins, D-Inver Grove Heights, said on Wednesday that he plans to introduce a bill that would help track down winners before the winnings are forfeited.

He said that his legislation would require the Minnesota Lottery to publicize the location where a winning ticket is sold when its value is at least $100,000. If a winning ticket is unclaimed for 10 months, the lottery would be required to review video security footage and other information from the store that sold the ticket in an effort to identify the winner.

“It breaks my heart to see a $1 million prize be forfeited to the state,” Atkins said. “Like the Minnesota Lottery ads say over and over, ‘This is an amount that could change someone’s life.’ But not if the winner never gets their money.”

Oil training suggested

Firefighters and other emergency personnel could be trained to deal with oil spills and fires by expanding an existing Lake Superior College program, state Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, said Wednesday.

He submitted a bill to spend $1.13 million to equip the college with simulators and otherwise expand the program to deal with rail and pipeline safety education.

“Lake Superior College already has an excellent fire response training program, and this money will help Minnesota first responders get the training they need to deal with this very specific, and highly dangerous, risk,” Reinert said. “Local responders are at their best when they can train with simulators that resemble specific hazards that may occur in the line of duty.”

The senator said 1,500 first responders a year could receive training under his proposal.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation last week announced that 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of railroad tracks that carry oil trains, an area known as a “danger zone” that would be evacuated in case of a derailment.

Volkswagen plant invite renewed

Minnesota state officials sent a second invitation for Volkswagen to move a Tennessee plant to Minnesota.

State Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, was joined by Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben of the Department of Employment and Economic Development and Commissioner Mark Phillips of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. The letter reacts to a Tennessee lawmaker’s comments against unions while discussing VW’s plans to expand its American production.

“When I hear state lawmakers voicing serious concerns about a company that is bringing jobs to an area, simply because they do not like union labor, I feel the need to speak up,” Tomassoni said.

Tomassoni said that Minnesota “has proved itself as a great home for businesses, with a current unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, a budget surplus of $1.89 billion, and is home to 20 Fortune 500 companies.”

Nashville Public Radio last week reported: “Tennessee lawmakers look like they’re going to sign off on $180 million to subsidize Volkswagen’s expansion in Chattanooga. While they’re willing to write the check, they’re still taking shots at the automaker for its welcoming attitude toward unions.”

U worries about freeze

The University of Minnesota president says a House Republican budget proposal endangers extending a tuition freeze.

“Our top priority this (legislative) session has been tuition affordability for our students and their families,” President Eric Kaler said, “In order to accomplish that shared goal, we need strong partnership from the Legislature. Funding is limited, but I will continue to advocate strongly for University of Minnesota students and their families.”

House Republicans announced a budget outline on Tuesday, saying their higher education proposal could fund a tuition freeze at the U or the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, but not both.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton includes funds for both systems to keep tuitions static. Democrats who control the Senate plan to announce their budget outline Friday.

No Sunday sales

The Minnesota Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday approved a liquor bill that does not allow liquor stores to open on Sundays.

On what appeared to be a unanimous voice vote, the committee sent to the full Senate legislation that would allow beer growler refills to be sold on Sundays and for bloody Mary drinks to be sold at 8 a.m. Sundays, instead of the current 10 a.m. start time.
“Not everything that everyone wanted is in it,” Committee Chairman James Metzen, D-South St. Paul, said. “But it is a balanced bill.”

A bill written by Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, to allow liquor stores to open on Sundays was not discussed by Metzen’s committee. However, attempts are expected to amend the Sunday sales provision onto Metzen’s bill when it reaches the full Senate.

Cities that border Dakotas want continued state support

Hutchins, with Rep. Paul Marquart in background

Hutchins, with Rep. Paul Marquart in background

Minnesota legislators who regularly complain that North Dakota and South Dakota lure business away with lower taxes are considering renewing a law in effect since the mid-1980s that gives five western Minnesota communities money to compete with their neighbors to the west.

Deputy City Manager Scott Hutchins of Moorhead told House and Senate committees Wednesday that his community, Dilworth, East Grand Forks, Breckenridge and Ortonville use tax reductions to attract businesses that otherwise could have gone to one of the Dakotas. Money also is used to keep firms in their communities.

“These disparities have only grown greater over time,” Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said.

Lawmakers discussed the bills Wednesday, and in both chambers they are expected to be folded into overall tax bills due to pass before the May 18 legislative adjournment date.

The current two-year state budget provides $750,000 a year to the five cities, and bills sponsored by Eken and Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, would up that to $1 million.

“We actually could use more than a million,” Eken said.

In Moorhead alone, more than $300,000 in tax cuts is used to provide businesses aid to make up for Minnesota’s more expensive workers’ compensation program.

Hutchins provided legislators a workers’ comp comparison showing the per-employee premium for a sugar refinery worker in Minnesota is $5,458 while North Dakota charges $957. To help make up that difference, Moorhead used the state program to lower American Crystal Sugar taxes $25,000 last year.

The five cities also help some of businesses because Minnesota taxes are higher than North Dakota. For instance, a Fargo business would pay nearly 20 percent lower property tax rates than one in Moorhead and a Grand Forks business would pay 8 percent less than in East Grand Forks.

East Grand Forks used some of its money to help build a $5 million, 67-bed hotel. Dilworth provided aid to a dentist business expansion and to lure an international corporation, which will have 100 employees, that conducts prescription drug trials.

Kiel said the five cities are the only ones on the border with one of the Dakotas, or in Dilworth’s case adjacent to Moorhead.

“They are right there,” she said. “It is easy to go across the border.”

Kiel said that the bill could help East Grand Forks attract businesses that support the Grand Forks Air Force Base’s new mission of controlling drone aircraft. The border cities bill, she said, could put East Grand Forks on more equal footing with Grand Forks when recruiting businesses.

Strong support for the Kiel-Eken provision came from Bloomington Democratic Rep. Ann Lenczewski, who when she was House Taxes Committee chairwoman included the program in her tax bills.

“With a big (state budget) surplus, we might have a chance to prioritize this,” she said. “This is extremely important.”

Senate Taxes Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said: “We have a couple hundred businesses, more or less, that participate.”

 

Minnesota Republican budget plan features $2 billion tax cuts

Daudt

Daudt

House Republicans want to cut Minnesotans’ taxes $2 billion and increase state spending $1.5 billion in the next two years.

House committees are to work out the details after GOP leaders this morning announced spending targets for each finance committee.

While Republicans promoted the budget growth, Democrats said the plan does not allow as much growth as already planned.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the House Taxes Committee has not decided who would receive tax cuts. However, he said that most would go directly to Minnesotans, not businesses.

The idea is to “put money back into the pockets of working Minnesotans,” Daudt said.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said he expects tax relief to mostly go to corporations who politically support Republicans.

The Republican plan would send back in tax cuts the same amount as projected for a state budget surplus in the next two years. Daudt earlier had said that he did not expect to refund all of the surplus, but state Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey led a campaign to “send it all back.”

Overall, the GOP proposes modest health and human services spending growth from current spending, and Daudt said he expects at least $160 million more for long-term care spending, such as for nursing homes and home care for the elderly and disabled.

Thissen repeatedly compared the Republican proposal to 2011, when state government shut down after the two major parties could not agree on a spending bill.

“It’s a recipe for getting nothing done and shutting down government,” Thissen said.

Republicans said their plan matches what happens in families: not spending more than is available.

“Government spending should not grow faster than family budgets,” Daudt said, echoing comments Republicans made in last year’s campaigns. “We set our budget targets with that value in mind and aimed to prioritize education, roads and bridges and protecting our aging Minnesotans’ quality of life.”

Republicans propose increasing higher education spending $103 million and early-childhood-through high school funding by $1 billion.

Chairman Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, said the increase would be enough to freeze either the University of Minnesota or Minnesota State Colleges and Universities tuitions, but not both. Dayton proposes to freeze tuitions for both systems.

Democrats tend to figure spending based on what had been expected to be spent in the next two-year budget, while Republicans compared it with what actually is being spent in the current budget.

 

Transportation funding comes down to new taxes vs. no new taxes

Kelly, Daudt

Kelly, Daudt

The announcement of Minnesota Republican legislators’ transportation plan Monday sets up the debate about how to fund road, bridge and transit programs: increase taxes or use existing revenue.

Republicans and Democrats agree that some transportation money should be borrowed, but differ beyond that. Republicans would use budget surplus funds and money that Democrats would spend on non-transportation programs. Gov. Mark Dayton and other Democrats build their transportation plan on a new gasoline tax that would cost about 16 cents a gallon at current pump prices, higher transportation-related fees and a Twin Cities transit tax.

Republicans say they could fund all 607 Minnesota road and bridge projects Dayton and other Democrats propose, but without tax increases.

Republicans on Monday announced a $7 billion, 10-year plan. Dayton calls for $6 billion in more taxes and fees over a decade, part of a nearly $11 billion transportation proposal.

“We’ve been listening,” House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said, adding that Republicans heard from Minnesotans that they do not want higher taxes.

Existing vehicle-related taxes such as sales tax on car parts and rental vehicles would be sent to an account dedicated to transportation funding under the GOP plan. That would produce $3 billion over 10 years.

Republicans propose borrowing another $2.5 billion during the decade, starting next year, a bit more than Dayton would, and require the transportation department to trim $1.2 billion from its expenses. Another $228 million would come from the surplus.

Republicans did not say from what programs they would take General Fund money, but House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said there is enough revenue to cover transportation needs.

Daudt complained about Dayton’s willingness to raise taxes. “His fallback position is always to increase taxes.”

Dayton said he is glad to have a GOP proposal to examine and that the plan looks ahead a decade. But, he added, he needs to see what programs might suffer under the proposal.

“They’re siphoning some $3-plus million out of the General Fund and transferring that to transportation needs, which means that $3 billion over the next decade is going to come out of other needs and other programs, so the question is what’s the trade-off,” the governor said.

Like Dayton’s plan, the Republican proposal could be changed by lawmakers and governors any year.

Republicans used a Star Tribune poll released a few hours before their announcement as evidence their plan is what voters want.

The newspaper survey showed Minnesotans statewide oppose the Dayton plan 52 percent to 45 percent and about 60 percent of greater Minnesota residents disagree with the governor’s proposal.

The $7 billion plan includes:

— $4 billion for state roads.

— $583 million for city roads.

— $60 million for township roads.

— $282 million for roads in cities smaller than 5,000 population.

— $1.4 billion for county roads.

— $139 million for greater Minnesota bus services.

— $164 million for Twin Cities transit improvements.

For the most part, the GOP plan leaves finding new money for Twin Cities transit improvements up to agencies running transit programs. Democrats propose increasing Twin Cities sales taxes for transit needs.

Daudt said that he expects the House to approve its transportation bill by the end of April.

Kelly said a separate bill to fund rail safety improvements eventually will merge into the overall transportation plan.

Rachel Stassen-Berger of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.

GOP presents $7 billion, 10-year transportation plan with no new taxes

Republicans Daudt, Hann, Kelly

Republicans Daudt, Hann, Kelly

Legislative Republicans say they can fund all 607 Minnesota road and bridge projects Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton proposes, but without tax increases.

Republicans this morning announced a $7 billion, 10-year plan that relies on money that Dayton would spend on other programs, as well as borrowing money. Dayton calls for $6 billion in more taxes over a decade, part of a nearly $11 billion transportation proposal.

“We’ve been listening,” House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said, adding that Republicans heard that Minnesotans do not want higher taxes.

The $7 billion plan includes:

— $4 billion for state roads.

— $583 million for city roads.

— $60 million for township roads.

— $282 million for roads in cities smaller than 5,000 population.

— $1.4 billion for county roads.

— $139 million for greater Minnesota bus services.

— $164 million for Twin Cities transit improvements.

Vehicle-related taxes such as sales tax on car parts and rental vehicles would be sent to an account dedicated to transportation funding under the GOP plan. That would be $3 billion over 10 years.

Republicans propose borrowing another $2.5 billion during the decade, starting next year, a bit more than Dayton would, and require the transportation department to trim $1.2 billion from its expenses. Another $228 million would come from money the state already has in the bank.

The governor’s plan would add a new gas tax and increase some transportation-related fees.

Like Dayton’s plan, the Republican proposal could be changed by lawmakers and governors.

Republicans used a Star Tribune poll released a few hours before their announcement as evidence their plan is what voters want.

The newspaper poll showed Minnesotans oppose the Dayton plan 52 percent to 45 percent. However, about 60 percent of greater Minnesota residents opposed the governor’s proposal.

“It’s a fundamental shift and it’s what Minnesotans want,” Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, said about the GOP proposal.

Families would gain religious right to prevent autopsies under legislation

Two American Indian families’ efforts to prevent loved ones’ bodies from undergoing autopsies earlier this year resulted in Minnesota legislation to require religious objections to be considered.

The bill by Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, specifically allows families to make religious objections to autopsies, although judges still could order them to be performed in the least intrusive manner over those objections. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed it Friday, sending it to the Finance Committee.

The bill comes after two northeastern Minnesota February incidents in which a medical examiner did not want to release bodies to families even after court orders to do so.

“Because of these delays, the family was not allowed to mourn in its traditional ways,” said Tadd Johnson, a University of Minnesota Duluth professor and attorney who helped get a court order to give one of the families the body of a loved one.

The families objected to autopsies, Johnson said, because their religion forbids desecration of the body such as would happen when it was being examined by a medical examiner. They also could not perform some ceremonies required to happen soon after death, he said.

Lourey’s bill would provide a method for a medical examiner to seek a court order to conduct an autopsy despite the family’s objection if there is “a compelling state interest.” If an autopsy were allowed, the senator added, it would need to be conducted “in the least invasive means.”

Johnson said that in case where he was involved, the death of MushKoob Aubid, 65, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the medical examiner “did not even talk to the family.” The examiner did not want to release the body even after a court order to do so, Johnson added.

Eventually, the body was released without an autopsy.

“Three days later, the very same thing happened to a 24-year-old Fond du Lac woman,” Johnson said.

Both Aubid and Autumn Martineau died in Carlton County traffic accidents.

In both cases, St. Louis County Medical Examiner Thomas Uncini, who also works for Carlton County, scheduled autopsies and later relented. Uncini resigned earlier this month.

“I think people have to learn more about us as a people,” Lee Staples, a Mille Lacs Band elder and spiritual adviser said in February. “It’s our teachings, our traditions. It’s the way we were taught as a people to do.”

At the Friday Senate committee hearing, Dr. Andrew Baker said in 17 years as a medical examiner, he never has had an impasse with a family like those that happened two months ago after the Carlton County wrecks.

“I virtually have always been able to be able to find some middle ground with the family,” said Baker, whose office handles Hennepin, Dakota and Scott counties.

Brian Rusche of the Minnesota Joint Religious Legislative Council said that American Indian beliefs are not the only ones that could come into conflict with current law. He said that Hmong, Amish, Muslim and some orthodox Jews are among religions that object to invasive autopsies. He said the “fundamental right” to express religion is in danger under current law.

The Lourey bill, Rusche said, will “more than anything else, give families a platform to assert themselves.”

Forum News Service reporter Tom Olsen contributed to this story.

Political chatter: North Dakota gun law leads to Minnesota committee shootout

Minnesota legislators often discuss North Dakota, usually in relation to its oil wealth and usually the talk is accompanied by envy.

But the Minnesota House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee underwent a lengthy and spirited debate about a topic with even more firepower than money: whether North Dakota residents’ gun permits should be honored in Minnesota.

After a meeting split between morning and night Thursday, the committee cast a divided vote to allow Class I North Dakota permits to be legal. The next stop is the full House.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, is author of a similar Senate bill.

The argument came because gun rights groups do not agree with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s decision that the North Dakota gun permit law is not close enough to Minnesota law to allow reciprocity.

Current Minnesota law requires the state to honor gun permits from states with “substantially similar” laws to Minnesota. The BCA makes that decision and puts a list of those states that do not have similar laws on its Website.

The bill in front of the House would remove the word “substantially” from the Minnesota law, but also specifically requires the BCA to allow Class I North Dakota permits. Class I permits require more testing than North Dakota’s Class II permits.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s Website indicates that “holders of a Class 1 license have reciprocity in many more states than those who have a Class 2 license.”

Minnesota allows gun permit holders from 11 states to carry weapons in the state. The bill could nearly triple the number of states.

Lawmaker rejects immunity

Minnesota legislators have discussed for years whether they are immune to arrest during a legislative session.

Like in many states, there is a constitutional provision dealing with legislative immunity. Some say lawmakers cannot be arrested, while others disagree, so legislation often is discussed about clarifying that in most instances lawmakers can be arrested like anyone else.

The debate is back on the table in this year’s Minnesota legislative session, and it faces a tall hill to climb, but the issue arose in another state.

It came up this year in Kentucky, when state Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard was charged with drunken driving. At first, Smith claimed legislative immunity from arrest, but later withdrew a court motion requesting that because, he said, he did not want to look like he was seeking a special favor.

“Quite frankly I would have liked to have been arguing that today (in court) but he felt like he did not want to rely on that,” the senator’s attorney, William Johnson said, as quoted in The State Journal of Frankfort. He explained that it’s been embarrassing and difficult for Smith to carry out his legislative duties while facing these charges. “He felt you ought to go through the justice system and that’s what we’re doing.”

Smith, who lost his driver’s license because he did not obtain a lawyer by the Kentucky deadline, has pleaded not guilty and expects an April jury trial on the charge.

Spirited debates go nowhere

The two liveliest debates of the 10-week-old legislative session resulted in lots of talk but no bill moving forward.

Senators got into how schools should handle transgender athletes when Republicans tried to pull a bill out of a Senate education committee that did not appear to be going anywhere. The attempt to move the bill directly to the full Senate failed, but senators took plenty of time to debate transgender issues.

Representatives took part in a 90-minute debate about long-term care funding when Democrats tried to get an immediate vote on a bill that would increase senior care funding.

The colorful debate included Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, saying Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, wanted to be king and Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, saying House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was “acting like a dictator.”

Winkler’s comments came when Daudt ended the session for the day as Thissen was seeking a roll call for adjournment.

Lawmakers will get a break from each other when they take an Easter vacation March 28 to April 6.

Statues under scrutiny

First it was Christopher Columbus; now it is Leif Erickson.

A bill by Rep. John Persell, D-Bemidji, calls for a Columbus statue plaque on the Capitol grounds to be reworded from him discovering America to him landing here. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, D-Minneapolis, now has added a bill to make a similar change to an Erickson statue across the street from the Capitol.

Historians do not agree on who actually was first to land in what now is the United States.

Columbus is being attacked on another front, too.

With some cities opting to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, there now is a state House bill to do the same statewide.

Rep. Susan Allen, D-Minneapolis, introduced legislation to make the second Monday in October American Indian and Indigenous People’s Day “to acknowledge and promote the well-being and growth of Minnesota’s American Indian and Indigenous community.”

State of State April 9

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to deliver his annual State of the State address at 7 p.m. in the House chamber.

He originally was going to deliver it next Wednesday, but legislative leaders asked him to postpone it because of deadlines. Then he asked if he could speak on April 8, but House Republicans reported a scheduling conflict.

 

Minnesotans in oil train ‘danger zones’ urged to prepare

032115 n mcb railsafety mapThe 326,170 Minnesotans who live near railroad tracks carrying North Dakota crude oil should be prepared for a train accident, a state emergency management official says.

“If you live by the train, people need to take some personal awareness of what’s around them,” Kevin Reed of the Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management department said. “‘How do I get out of the way before the fire department gets here?'”

Minnesotans should answer in advance questions such as “what would I take with me?” he added.

People also should make plans for how to deal with loved ones in schools, nursing homes, businesses and other locations near oil train tracks, Reed said.

First responders such as firefighters and law enforcement officers cannot do everything needed to protect residents in the so-called danger zones, Reed said, leaving residents themselves to bear some responsibility.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation drove home the impact of oil train derailments and potential explosions and fires Thursday by reporting 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of railroad tracks with trains that carry western North Dakota Bakken oil field oil. A half mile is the distance public safety officials say likely would be evacuated in an incident.

On Friday, the department released the number of people in 34 counties where Bakken trains travel.

The state’s largest county, Hennepin, has the most residents in the danger zone, 59,359, followed by 44,967 in adjoining Ramsey County. Another Twin Cities county, Anoka, was close behind with 41,389.

Nearly half of those affected are in the Twin Cities area.

In greater Minnesota, Winona in the southeastern part of the state has the most residents near tracks, 22,325. Clay County, where most Bakken oil enters Minnesota, has 19,499 residents near the tracks.

Stearns, Benton and Sherburne counties in the St. Cloud area combine for 38,365 residents in the danger zone.

Most Bakken oil trains come into Minnesota in Moorhead, go through the Twin Cities and then south along the Mississippi River. Some oil trains head south to Willmar then out the southwest corner of the state.

A new state report indicates an average of 6.3 oil trains transverse Minnesota daily, most on BNSF Railway Co. tracks.

Derailments of trains carrying North Dakota oil in the United States and Canada in the past couple of years have produced spectacular explosions and fires. One in Canada resulted in 47 deaths, but many have been in isolated areas.

Gov. Mark Dayton and other Democrats propose more oil train safety training money, railroad crossing improvements and other measures, funded by increasing assessments on the state’s largest railroads, taxing more railroad property and borrowing money. Republicans who control the House have yet to say what they would support to improve rail safety.

Railroads say some of the Democrats’ proposed taxes would violate federal law and promise to take the state to court if those taxes are approved.

“I’m very disappointed to hear some of the companies are strenuously opposing an increased share of the responsibility for these improvements,” Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday after visiting a Newport elementary school, blocks from heavily used rail lines along U.S. 61 in Washington County. “They’re coming through the state in the volume they are and they’re adding (to) their own profitability, which is why they’re in business, but then to just turn their backs on the people who are living in the vicinity and say, ‘Well, now you have to come up with your own resources to make these safety improvements,” I think is really, really irresponsible.”

Dayton said the report that 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of rail lines carrying North Dakota crude oil highlights the need for rail safety improvements.

“It just underscores the risk factor and why it’s imperative that we do everything we possibly can to prevent these derailments and the catastrophes that can result from them,” he said.

Dayton said he is glad that beginning in April, North Dakota will require removing volatile gases from oil being transported by rail through Minnesota.

“That’s very, very important,” he said.

—-

Minnesota transportation officials Friday released a county-by-county list showing how many people live within a half mile of railroad tracks carrying North Dakota oil, an area officials say is in a “danger zone:”

Anoka, 41,389

Becker, 6,975

Benton, 14,320

Chippewa, 1,465

Clay, 19,449

Dakota, 2,165

Douglas, 322

Goodhue, 6,711

Grant, 2,803

Hennepin, 59,359

Houston, 1,262

Kandiyohi, 9798

Lincoln, 10

Lyon, 5,550

Meeker, 1,673

Morrison, 5,163

Otter Tail, 4,137

Pipestone, 4,122

Pope, 855

Ramsey, 44,967

Rock, 831

Sherburne, 16,577

Stearns, 7,468

Stevens, 4,945

Swift, 4,186

Todd, 1,880

Traverse, 68

Wabasha, 5,937

Wadena, 2,790

Washington, 8,436

Wilkin, 2613

Winona, 22,325

Wright, 13,960

Yellow Medicine, 1,659

Forum News Service reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

 

State moves to protect 326,170 Minnesotans near oil trains

Oil Transport Safety

A third of firefighters, law enforcement officers and others who protect 326,170 Minnesotans living near oil train routes have received initial training about how to deal with oil disasters.
“We are opening their eyes but we also are giving them a place to start,” said Kevin Reed of the state Homeland Security and Emergency Management department.
About 1,800 first responders have received the training, which lawmakers funded last year as a way to prepare for an increased number of oil trains.
His comments came Thursday, shortly after the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced that 326,170 people live within a half mile of tracks that carry crude oil trains, mostly from western North Dakota’s Bakken oil field.
About 65 fire departments have received training in oil train and pipeline safety, Reed said, out of 340 that serve areas along oil train tracks.
First responders are urged to know about schools, nursing homes and other facilities in the “danger zone” and how to protect them.
“We talk through with all the players what will happen,” Reed said. “They really want to know what can we help them do and where are resources coming from.”
In releasing the 326,170 number the transportation agency provided Minnesotans’ their first view of those who live in the danger zone.
“The numbers are not a surprise, but it does highlight the fact that there is a significant risk and that is important to use to pay attention to that risk,” MnDOT’s Kevin Gutknecht said.
State transportation officials delivered the 326,170 estimate Thursday after they could not answer a Forum News Service question about it last Friday. The state’s population is nearly 5.5 million.
People within a half mile of tracks usually will be evacuated if an oil train could explode or catch fire after a derailment. The area often is called a “danger zone.”
The transportation department did not immediately release data showing how many in any specific geographic area live in the danger zone.
A state report issued this week shows an average of 6.3 trains a week carry western North Dakota crude oil through Minnesota. A train with 110 tank cars would carry 3.3 million gallons of oil.
Crude oil trains travel on 700 miles of Minnesota tracks, carrying oil that originates in western North Dakota and southern Canada oil fields. Bakken oil trains are destined for the East and Gulf coasts.
Most oil trains enter Minnesota in Moorhead and travel through the Twin Cities, although some head south through the Willmar area. Canadian oil enters the state near International Falls and goes through Duluth.
Minnesota officials say about 70 percent of Bakken oil travels by rail. A majority of that goes through Minnesota, and BNSF Railway hauls most of it.
State Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said that while the number of residents living near oil train tracks did not surprise him, it could result in “quickening the step of other legislators” to agree with him and find money to avoid potential disasters.
“I’m not comfortable that our public safety responders can respond adequately to some sort of catastrophe,” Dibble said, adding that firefighters and others say they do not have enough training and firefighting materials or equipment needed to deal with a major oil issue.
“It is sheer dumb luck” that no major oil train issues have occurred in Minnesota, Dibble said.
House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, plans to release his overall transportation funding plan next week, but said he will work with Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, on a separate rail safety plan.
More work is needed to figure out what needs to be done, Kelly said, focusing on whether money is best spent on preventing derailments, responding to accidents or fixing railroad crossings.
Democrats are pushing for more oil train safety training money and railroad crossing improvements, funded by increasing assessment on the state’s largest railroads, taxing more railroad property and borrowing money.
Most of Gov. Mark Dayton’s rail safety plan deals with improving railroad crossings, including adding overpasses and underpasses in Moorhead, Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids. More than 70 other crossings also would be improved under the Dayton plan.
The governor also proposes borrowing money to add an oil disaster training facility at the National Guard’s Camp Ripley in central Minnesota.

326,170 Minnesotans live near oil train tracks

State officials estimate that 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of railroad tracks that carry crude oil, a distance often known as the danger zone.

People within a half mile of tracks usually will be evacuated if an oil train could explode or catch fire after a derailment.

The estimate, released this morning after state officials could not answer a Forum News Service question about the issue last week, is the first time Minnesotans had an idea about the number of people that state transportation and public safety officials say could be in danger of oil train explosions like those seen elsewhere in the United States and Canada.

“This data provides a greater emphasis on the need for a strong rail safety program,” Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said. “If trains derail and an emergency occurs, many lives could be in danger.”

Zelle’s department did not immediately release data showing how many in any specific geographic area live in the danger zone.

State funds were appropriated last year to begin improving firefighter and other public safety workers’ training in dealing with crude oil explosions and spills.

“It is sheer dumb luck” that no major oil train issues have occurred in Minnesota, Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said.

Democrats are pushing for more oil train safety training money this year, as well as railroad crossing improvements, funded by increasing assessment on the state’s largest railroads, taxing more railroad property and borrowing money.

Crude oil trains travel on 700 miles of Minnesota tracks, carrying oil that originates in western North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield. Oil trains are destined for the East and Gulf coasts.

Most oil trains enter Minnesota in Moorhead and travel through the Twin Cities, although some come into Minnesota and head south through the Willmar area.

State transportation officials say each train carries about 3.3 million gallons of oil.

Most of Gov. Mark Dayton’s rail safety plan deals with improving railroad crossings, including adding overpasses and underpasses at crossings in Moorhead, Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids. More than 70 other crossings also would be improved under the Dayton plan.

“Improved crossings will mean fewer chances for train and wheeled vehicles crashes, which will mean less likelihood of derailments,” Zelle said. “If an incident does occur, well-trained emergency personnel will be better able to protect the citizens and communities that lie along rail lines.”

None of the recent oil train explosions have occurred at road crossings. Five oil trains have derailed and caught fire in the past six weeks.

A Quebec train carrying North Dakota crude exploded in 2013, killing 47. A nonfatal derailment and fire near Casselton, N.D., brought the issue closer to home late that year.

The governor also proposes adding an oil train response training facility at the National Guard’s Camp Ripley.

Lawmaker immunity challenged again

Police need to know they can arrest state lawmakers, supporters of clarifying legislation say.

“It is not necessarily clear to law enforcement, lawmakers or the general public,” Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, on Wednesday told a Minnesota House committee about a state constitutional provision, similar to those in other states, that grants lawmakers immunity from arrest during a legislative session “in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace.”

Testifiers told the committee that the constitution’s words are designed to prevent government law enforcement officers from intentionally interfering with lawmakers’ ability to vote or otherwise do their legislative work. The provision does not prohibit a drunken driving arrest, for instance, the committee heard.

A law enforcement officer could fear being penalized if he arrests a lawmaker, Winkler said. “You create a significant chilling effect on their willingness to engage.”

Winkler’s bill would only penalize an officer who stops a lawmaker with the intention of hindering the legislator’s official work.

The full House will consider the bill, similar to one it passed last year, after the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee passed it on a Wednesday voice vote.

The chairman of a key Senate committee does not plan to take up the measure, but Winkler said that the equivalent of his bill, offered by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, could surface as an amendment to another bill.

The chairman, Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, said part of the issue was due to the secretary of state handing out “get out of jail free” cards to legislators for decades. The card, which quoted the constitution, was designed to be shown to law enforcement officers who stopped lawmakers.

Those cards no longer are being given to legislators and old ones have expired.

“Whatever confusion there was that was caused by the cards … is gone now and certainly the education campaign has been very effective,” Latz said. “But that doesn’t mean we have to change the law.”

The issue has drawn quite a bit of publicity in recent years thanks to Concordia University-St. Paul students taking up “get out of jail free” cards as an issue.

Student Adam Woods said on Wednesday that the Winkler bill would “make sure every citizen is held to the same standard.”

Jim Franklin of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association said that his members do not oppose more clarification, but are concerned that the bill might require law enforcement officers who charge legislators with drunken driving to drive them to the Capitol.

“We don’t want to arrest legislators because they never do anything wrong,” Franklin said to laughter, then turned serious: “But if they do, we will arrest them. We have even come to the Capitol and called them off the House floor and arrested them. Be clear, law enforcement will do what they have to do.”

Long-time law enforcement officer and committee Chairman Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, summed up his opinion of the feeling that lawmakers may be immune from arrest: “It stinks to have this language and it’s embarrassing.”

St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger contributed to this story. The Pioneer press is a media partner of Forum News Service.