Updated: Minnesota surplus rises $832 million

Frans

Frans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surplus up to $1.9 billion

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

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

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

Details of the budget report are due out later today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dentists not smiling over payments

HelpMNSmile Signs v100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complicating the situation around greater Minnesota is lack of dentists.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Elections take spotlight

Minnesota’s elected officials are looking at election changes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five states use similar commissions, including Iowa.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Legislative notes: Budget forecast due Friday

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

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

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

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

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

Hemp legalization bill advances in Minnesota House

An effort to legalize hemp in Minnesota continues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phasing out Social Security tax on seniors considered

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

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

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

Most states do not tax Social Security.

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

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

Bill would allow easier path to appoint county officials

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pappas bill provisions include:

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

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

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

— County commissioners would appoint the official.

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

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

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

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

Blue alert could help track down police attackers

Ingebrigtsen

Ingebrigtsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twenty states have blue alert laws.

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

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

Lawmaker says wild rice water rules threaten mines

Melin, LaDuke

Melin, LaDuke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House passes first part of child abuse law changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Absolute crisis’ in rural workforce, housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota has stake in Cuba trade debate

Klobuchar speaks at Cuba news conference

Klobuchar speaks at Cuba news conference

American politicians placed a trade embargo on Cuba 53 years ago this month and only politicians can remove it, something being considered in Washington.

The process of normalizing relations with Cuba began on Dec. 17 when President Barack Obama took unilateral steps in that direction. Only Congress has power to lift the trade ban and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is lead sponsor on a bill to do just that.

Her Freedom to Export to Cuba Act would repeal trade restrictions and a related bill she co-sponsors would allow Americans and Cubans to freely travel between their countries.

The bills face plenty of opposition, but the Minnesota Democrat said that she will attempt to shift the focus away from politics and toward business and agriculture, which she said, could attract needed Republican votes.

“This is a different take on it,” Klobuchar said about concentrating on money.

Open trade supporters are banking on Democrats being pretty much united for ending the trade ban, and picking up Republicans who see it as helpful to business and agriculture.

Farm-state lawmakers are especially open to trade, Klobuchar said, because “they understand the economic factors in our own country. It is a very big deal to the ag community. … It is 11 million people right off our shores.”

Klobuchar and two other senators returned from a Cuba trip Monday.  U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., landed there the next day with other congressmen. More U.S. officials are expected to make the trip south as the two sides examine ways to reach a more normal relationship.

However, Minnesotans issue warnings that Americans should not expect too much from Cuban trade.

“I think everyone should remember that Cuba is a fraction of the population of places like Mexico or Brazil,” said Bill Blazar of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “I pick up the paper and see all of these political folks going to Cuba … but I hope we don’t lessen our efforts in places like Mexico.”

President Kevin Paap of the Minnesota Farm Bureau added that Cuba does not hold nearly the potential of much larger countries like China and India. “They are not a big market, but they certainly are a good market.”

Minnesota already has an “in” to the Cuban market, thanks in a large part to former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who led a trade mission to the island in 2002.

While the trip’s big news was Ventura asking then-Cuban President Fidel Castro if he was involved in President John F. Kennedy’s assassination (Castro said he wasn’t), there was a lot of talk about agriculture trade, too. Relations built on the Ventura trip continue to keep open export opportunities today.

The state’s Cuba exports are allowed under a humanitarian exemption to the trade ban. The exception allowed Minnesota to sell nearly $27 million of agriculture products to Cuba in 2012 and $166,700 of medical products last year.

While the state has no predictions about how much Minnesota could export in medical devices and other products, Chief Economist Su Ye of the Minnesota Agriculture Department has ideas about ag exports.

Ye said the best-case scenario would be selling about $46 million of ag products to Cuba. If that happened, she added, Cuba would rise from Minnesota’s 50th most lucrative export market to 30th.

However, there are issues in dealing with the country.

Minnesota exports to Cuba fell 25 percent in 2013 and another 20 percent last year. Minnesota prices were higher in those two years and China was standing by with products of its own to sell.

China has “shown pity” on Cuba and offers to sell “at a very cheap price,” Ye said.

Cuban-American political drama also affects exports.

“Whenever there is tension between the two governments, Cuba then would turn to someone else,” Ye said.

Ye’s figures show that corn accounts for about half of Minnesota’s sales to Cuba, with soybeans, soybean meal and feed the others topping $1 million of exports in 2012.

She said that besides the top sellers, Minnesota has a potential of selling poultry, meat, dairy products, wheat and edible beans.

In a Thursday Havana news conference with other congressmen, Peterson said he has supported lifting the trade embargo since he was first elected 25 years ago.

“It’s hurt my farmers, and it’s hurt your people, because your food costs more,” Peterson said. “And it’s really a policy that makes no sense.”

While the United States can sell food to Cuba, Peterson said that Americans can help Cuba develop its own agriculture industry.

“You’re importing 75 percent of your food, and you don’t need to be doing that,” Peterson said. “You could be producing a lot of that food in Cuba. And I think the United States could help.”

Among Cuban officials Peterson and other congressmen met was Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who is expected eventually to replace Raul Castro as president. It was Diaz-Canel’s first meeting with an official American delegation.

Much of the attention now turns to getting Republican support to end the embargo since the U.S. House and Senate both are GOP controlled.

Paap said he will be with a group of Minnesota Farm Bureau members in Washington beginning Monday, with trade at the top of the agenda.

“Trade is a huge deal to our members,” Paap said. “We grow more than we can use and we need to realize that 96 percent of the world’s population is not in the United States.”

Republicans must get on board the effort to normalize Cuban relations, he added. And action needs to come soon.

“If something doesn’t happen in Congress this spring and summer, we will be thinking presidential election,” Paap said, and once the presidential campaign is in full swing there is little chance of any change in Cuba policies.

Klobuchar, who hosts a Monday morning Cuba summit at the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, said she was surprised that she was no stranger to many Cubans she met during her trip. “They knew who I was because of my bill to lift the embargo. … It was completely unexpected.”

Senators consider body camera issues

Long line for meeting. (Minnesota Senate Media Services photo by David Oakes)

Long line for meeting. (Minnesota Senate Media Services photo by David Oakes)

The national debate about how much police body camera video is public landed in the Minnesota spotlight Thursday.

A bill a Senate committee considered would make most of the video private.

“Given the sensitivity of some of the data that is going to be on the cameras … the best premise to start with would be that the data will be private,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park.

Executive Director Dennis Flaherty of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association agreed because law enforcement officers often see people “in bad times of their lives … times when they would not want a camera rolling and later released for the entire world to see.”

On the other hand, the American Civil Liberties Union and others said that the default position of making data private is backwards from how the state normally considers law enforcement data.

Assuming videos are public would allow the public to keep police accountable, the ACLU’s Ben Fiest testified.

“At the end of the day, the accountability piece of body cams will be significantly undermined if almost everything is private,” Fiest said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not vote on the body camera bill, but Latz, the panel’s chairman, said it will consider the topic again later this legislative session.

Several Minnesota police departments already are using body cams or plan pilot projects, including Burnsville, Farmington, Brooklyn Park, Duluth, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Hastings.

The issue became much discussed across the country after police shootings in several communities, including Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

Body cam controversy often revolves around whether the video should be private to protect innocent people who may be on it or if it should be public to keep police more accountable.

One of the major issues Latz mentioned is cost in storing video. Estimates are that Minneapolis police alone would need to store a million videos each year. Some data would be stored for years.

Under the bill, videos not expected to be needed by law enforcement officers must be kept at least 90 days and destroyed in a year. If it appears the video might be needed, such in cases where excessive police force may be alleged, it must be kept a year and destroyed after three years.

Police chiefs and sheriffs could opt to keep videos longer.

Latz said that an exception to the provision that keeps videos private is when a subject of a video requests a copy. If one person in the video wants a copy, but others in the video do not agree, the video and audio must be made so the others are not recognizable.

“Only the subject of the data” has access to a video, the senator said.

But Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he worried that hackers could get access to videos stored on the Internet.

“With all of our good intentions, I really think this is going to happen,” Newman said.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said that when there were no videos in some recent police shootings, tensions increased.

“When we do have a camera and it is available to the public, it often exonerates the police department,” Limmer said.

Public information proponents agreed with the civil liberties union that the data should be considered public. Mark Anfinson of the Minnesota Newspaper Association said police already have about two dozen ways to withhold information, which cover body cam videos.

Burnsville has used body cams since 2010, Anfinson said.

“Has anyone heard of a problem?” he asked. No one responded.

Before discussing body cameras, the committee approved on a divided vote a bill to give felons the right to vote once they are released from prison.

Current law bans felons from voting until they complete probation or parole.

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, D-Minneapolis, said he brought up the bill because there is no evidence that current law leads to better public safety or gives any other benefits.

However, Champion said, allowing felons to vote would make felons feel more part of the community and set good examples for their children who would see parents voting.