Political chatter: Minnesota looks to cut drug sentences

State officials are looking into reducing some drug sentences and whether the action could help relieve prison overcrowding.

Drawing from available data, Executive Director Nathaniel Reitz of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission said that “probation may be something that may not harm public safety.”

Hours after Reitz told that to a prison overcrowding task force, his commission started in motion a plan that could allow some drug offenders be on probation instead of in prison and could reduce prison sentences for others.

The number of prisoners held on drug crimes peaked in 2005, dropped through 2008 and is rising again. For years, he said, prison populations have grown much quicker than overall populations.

Reitz said that 2005 was the peak of the methamphetamine boom. Still, he said, 64 percent of prisoners had some meth connection.

The task force is looking into how to deal with a prison system that is nearly 600 inmates overcapacity, and growing rapidly.

Reducing sentences is one potential way to help, but increasing space is another. Some legislators favor leasing a private Appleton prison to provide more space, while the state corrections commissioner is preparing a plan to build more prison space.

Lawmakers are divided over whether prison sentences should be shortened. Some even would increase sentences, including for drug offenders.

The Sentencing Guidelines Commission backed cuts in the amount of time many drug offenders would spend in prison, similar to what other states have done in recent years. The effort to cut or eliminate prison time will go to a public hearing and final commission vote. The Legislature can stop the changes when it meets next year.

Emmer wants war declaration

A freshmen Minnesota congressman wants the United States to declare war on the Islamic state.

“The Islamic State has declared war against America and now we have an obligation to act,” Rep. Tom Emmer said. “The wolf of tyranny is at our doorstep and now is the time to euthanize this evil before it enters America’s home.”

The Minnesota Republican said Congress should take action to give President Barack Obama more power to use the country’s military and diplomatic tools.

“It is time that we speak with one voice and unite as a country against the Islamic State,” Emmer said in the days following the group’s attacks on Paris.

While Congress has authorized the use of military overseas in recent years, this would be the first time a war declaration has been enacted since 1941.

Emmer’s resolution was assigned to a committee, which will debate whether the full House should vote on it.

U of M seeks input

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler has led school officials on a greater Minnesota tour over the last four months, a combination of seeking input and selling the university’s broad impact.

“In meeting with students, legislators, alumni and community leaders, I learned first-hand what the most pressing issues of their communities are,” Kaler said. “Additionally, I heard that the communities of greater Minnesota value the university for a variety of reasons, including our commitment to solving the state’s most critical challenges, from clean water to the educational achievement gap to agricultural challenges; the human capital we supply with more than 300,000 alumni across the state; and for our work in educating and preparing Minnesota’s future leaders.”

In his travels, Kaler talked to more than 30 state legislators, who will consider whether to approve his construction requests next year.

Turkey farmers thankful to be working

"Aaron Rodgers," as Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton named this turkey, is calm as the governor rubs his neck during an annual pre-Thanksgiving event to promote the state turkey industry. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

“Aaron Rodgers,” as Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton named this turkey, is calm as the governor rubs his neck during an annual pre-Thanksgiving event to promote the state turkey industry. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota turkey growers are back in time for Thanksgiving.

Minnesota governors annually recognize the state turkey industry, the country’s largest, this time of year. But this year the light-hearted event turned to serious talk about farmers rebounding from the worst livestock disaster in United States history.

“It has been a challenging year for turkey growers in Minnesota,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “They are back in force.”

More than 9 million Minnesota chickens and turkeys died due to avian influenza last spring, about 5.5 million of them turkeys. But Steve Olson of the Minnesota Turkey Growers’ Association said most farmers have restocked their flocks and he knows of no one who went out of business because of the flu outbreak.

“They know there are good years and bad years, so they put money away,” Olson said.

But they will need more money than usual in coming years as they increase biosecurity to keep the flu virus away from their birds.

Robert Orsten of Willmar, who keeps 345,000 turkey hens a year for their eggs, said his “small family farm” will need to pay up to $1.8 million by 2016 to improve its biosecurity.

Security changes farmers are making range from installing devices to disinfect everything that enters poultry barns to enclosing areas between barns so birds are not moved from one to another outdoors, where viruses are more likely.

Despite what Orsten and other farmers face financially, he was in a good mood.

“This Thanksgiving, we give special thanks,” he said, rattling off a long list of government and other organizations that helped fight bird flu earlier this year.

Olson said that consumers probably will notice no difference with turkey prices this Thanksgiving.

“There will be plenty of turkey available for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said.

Stores lower turkey prices this time of year, making it a “loss leader” to attract customers to buy other groceries. However, Olson said in response to a reporter question, once the loss leader aspect disappears, turkeys may cost  $1.08 to $1.15 per bird more because, in part, of the new security in the turkey industry.

Minnesota’s 450 turkey growers usually sell 46 million turkeys a year, but the flu dropped that to 40 million this year.

No cases of bird flu have been reported this fall. Experts think the flu is transmitted by migrating ducks and geese, but some say it is more likely to be passed on in the spring than the fall.

Colleen Moriarty of Hunger Solutions Minnesota accepted $12,000 from turkey producers to help families that cannot afford food. She said she was especially thankful for the gift this year since turkey producers have has such a tough year.

Stealing the show during the traditional turkey event was an 18-week-old, 40-pound tom turkey from near Morristown.

Dayton named the turkey Aaron Rodgers after the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback who led his team over the Minnesota Vikings 30-13 less than 24 hours earlier.

Once Orsten put the turkey on a table, Dayton began petting it and it was so calm that it sat right down and placed its head down on the tabletop. At times over the years, some turkeys have escaped or at least flapped so much to startle governors and journalists covering the event.

NAACP, government leaders talk about easing Minneapolis tension

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges talks to reporters Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, after what she called a big-picture meeting about how her city's police deal with minorities. The meeting included local, state and national NAACP officials and Gov. Mark Dayton. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges talks to reporters Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, after what she called a big-picture meeting about how her city’s police deal with minorities. The meeting included local, state and national NAACP officials and Gov. Mark Dayton. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Tension over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man turned to talks about the future Friday, the most peaceful day in North Minneapolis since the early Sunday incident.

Minnesota leaders met with local, state and national NAACP representatives trying to find solutions to six days of conflicts between police and hundreds of protesters.

National NAACP President Cornell William Brooks urged the black community to stand up, but to be peaceful, as Minneapolis police have come under criticism of how they deal with the community.

“We have to vote, turn up the heat and turn up the light,” Brooks said as hundreds held up flaming lighters during a Friday night rally and vigil. “We have to press our case, make our case forcibly but also nonviolently.”

He urged his audience, which turned out in 30-degree weather, to be patient. “We need to be in this fight for the long run.”

The gathering came after protests over 24-year-old Jamar Clark’s death to a single bullet in the head fired by a Minneapolis police officer. Police said that he was interfering with ambulance personnel treating his girlfriend.

The shooting, which sounded much like other American cases of police shooting unarmed black men, set off the siege of a nearby North Minneapolis police precinct station.

Protesters have shut down Interstate 94 and tossed objects at police, and police have moved them away from the front door of the station. Tensions mounted through the week, but Friday night that was much less palpable than other nights.

About 400 attended the rally and vigil, then many walked to the shooting scene.

The big change from previous nights was there was no show of force, from either side, at the barricade separating police and protesters. There was no police presence noticeable outside the precinct building, where the rally was held.

“We must use the power of the vote,” Brooks said in his brief speech. “We must use the power of civil disobedience. We must use the power of non-violence, and we must use the power of love for one another.”

He advised the crowd to be organized and disciplined to “find the justice we seek.”

Brooks followed Minnesota civil rights legend Josie Johnson, who said she is passing the torch to those in the crowd.

She called the shooting “a repeat of history.”

“The way we can avoid this start and stop and start and stop is for us to stay focused,” Johnson said. “Understand this condition is one that has been in existence and has been created since slavery. There is no way for you to just come out once in awhile.”

Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds said that people should not always turn to government for answers. “Sometimes, the answers are with the people: diverse backgrounds, diverse ideas.”

She urged the crowd not to harbor anti-police sentiments, but to oppose police brutality. “We want them to treat us like their own family.”

Before the rally, Gov. Mark Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges met with local, state and national leaders of the NAACP, the country’s best-known civil rights group.

“I asked the president of the national NAACP to give us examples of other states in terms of community policing, in terms of various outreach that could be made,” Dayton said. “I want very much to learn from what other states are doing better than Minnesota, and we’ll engage NAACP leaders and others throughout the state.”

When leaving the meeting, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said the 90 minutes of talks were general and long-term.

“The governor and I expressed that our hands are out and our doors are open to anyone who wants to talk about what is happening now, but also long term to what solutions regarding police-community relationships,” Hodges said.

If Friday was relatively quiet, there still was activity.

Late Friday, police said they found lighter fluid, rags, bottles and other things used to make Molotov cocktails near where protesters have been camping. Two Molotov cocktails were tossed at police earlier in the week, police said.

Police said they arrested two people after the outside walls and windows of the station were vandalized with graffiti: “Jamar Clark,” “No Justice, No Peace” and an obscenity.

Also, a sports utility vehicle driver was arrested after driving into a precinct parking lot gate. There was no indication whether the incident was connected to the precinct occupation.

Three protesters were removed from a Minneapolis City Council meeting after they voiced their disapproval over how city leaders have handled the investigation.

Also Friday, about 30 students joined protesters at the precinct after marching from a nearby middle and high school.

Clark’s brother, 32-year-old Jermaine Robinson, was among a small group of people who congregated at a shrine of balloons and liquor bottles where the shooting took place.

Federal and state investigators are on the Clark case, with state officials saying it could take four months before they wrap it up.

Forum News Service reporter Robb Jeffries, Reuters news service and St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.


Senate joins Dayton in backing Range unemployment special session

Minnesota Mark Dayton meets the media Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, to discuss issues ranging from Minneapolis police shooting a black man to whether a special session should be held. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton meets the media Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, to discuss issues ranging from Minneapolis police shooting a black man to whether a special session should be held. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Senate Democrats and the governor want a special legislative session to extend unemployment benefits for nearly 600 people laid off from an Iron Range mine.

The Minnesota House, controlled by Republicans, has been silent on the issue. Dayton asked legislative leaders last week to agree to a special session.

The workers will run out of benefits before the next regular legislation begins on March 8.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, wrote to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday saying that his caucus members support a special session not only to extend benefits but to approve an expanded state identification that soon will be needed to board airliners and get into federal buildings.

Hundreds of workers have been laid off because of mostly temporary shutdowns in northeastern Minnesota’s taconite mines.

Those layoffs continued Tuesday as Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. announced it will close Northshore Mining operations in Silver Bay and Babbitt due to the continuing oversupply of iron ore in the U.S. and global markets.

The move will put most of Northshore’s 540 workers out of a job by Dec. 1 through at least the first quarter of 2016, although no firm date is set for re-opening.

Dayton referred to Tuesday’s news as further evidence of Iron Range financial problems, although the Silver Bay and Babbitt workers likely would not be affected by special session legislation.

Bakk said steelworkers’ jobs are affected by “international trade forces.”

“The economy in northeastern Minnesota would be significantly impacted without action by the Legislature prior to next session,” Bakk wrote in a letter urging Dayton to call a special session.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he is discussing the special session issue with GOP House members before commenting in public.

Bakk suggested that a one-day special session also deal with Real ID, the federal requirement that state-issued identification cards such as driver’s licenses be enhanced with more information. Minnesota had previously outlawed Real ID, but there is a growing support among legislators to change the law.

“Minnesotans are currently restricted from using their driver’s licenses to enter federal facilities and nuclear power plants, and the deadline for air travel requirement is quickly approaching,” Bakk wrote.

Dayton said that while federal officials have indicated Minnesota could wait until the March 8 start of the regular session, he would like it to be included in an unemployment benefits extension session.

The governor promised “to make absolutely sure” that Minnesotans will be able to get an ID card that allows them to fly and get into federal buildings.

Legislators earlier rejected a Dayton request for a special session to deal with the closing of Walleye season on Mille Lacs Lake, which cost area businesses.

Republicans increase demand to pause refugee flow

Republicans from the U.S. House speaker to Upper Midwest state lawmakers want the United States to delay admitting Syrian refugees until the country’s terrorist screening program can be reviewed.

While it is unclear whether more-than-two-dozen governors who want to pause the refugee flow have any power to do so, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is looking at legislation to stop the 10,000 refugees Democratic President Barack Obama wants the country to accept.

In the Upper Midwest, Democratic Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is the only state executive to say he is satisfied that the Obama administration’s plan would separate terrorists from refugees.

On Tuesday, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple joined fellow Republican Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin who already said they oppose accepting refugees now.

Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota said Syrian refugees are unlikely to come there and called refugee resettlement a federal issue.

The concern is that a terrorist can hide among refugees, like is suspected in at least one case in Friday’s Paris attacks.

Dalrymple’s office issued a news release Tuesday saying Dalrymple would send Obama a letter outlining his position.

The North Dakota governor’s letter, like others already headed to the White House, cites testimony by the FBI Director James Comey, who told Congress of inadequacies in the system that would prevent the thorough vetting of the 10,000 refugees the administration has pledged to admit into the U.S.

Dalrymple joined other governors Tuesday on a call with senior administration officials from the White House, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the U.S. Department of State and the National Counterterrorism Center to express his concerns with the administration’s plan to resettle Syrian refugees.

“For generations, our country has welcomed individuals and families seeking safety and asylum within the borders of the United States,” Dalrymple said. “However, I am deeply concerned about the recent terrorist attacks carried out in France and the potential for this situation to arise in the U.S., especially given the testimony by FBI Director James Comey revealing gaps in the refugee screening system.”

Syrians have not been a part of North Dakota’s refugee resettlement program in the past.

On Monday, Branstad told Iowa reporters that governors have no say in the refugee issue, but Tuesday he ordered all state agencies to stop work on Syrian refugee resettlements immediately.

Dayton said Republican governors opposing refugees is “showmanship” by governors “who have no expertise in the area.”

“I want to protect the people of Minnesota every bit that the governors of those states want to protect the people of their state,” Dayton said.

“There are people with children in their arms who are fleeing terrorists…” Dayton said. “They are not a threat to anyone.”

Minnesota officials know of seven Syrian refugees who have moved to the state, although people can move in and out without telling anyone.

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, on Monday asked for confirmation that federal authorities have a workable plan in place to screen terrorists out of refugees. Dayton said he understands that and his aides have contacted the federal government to get that assurance.

In Washington, meanwhile, Republican House leaders are drawing up plans to suspend Obama’s efforts to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country.

Ryan, less than three weeks in office as leader of the House Republicans, said he set up a task force to consider legislation “as quickly as possible” that would pause Obama’s Syrian refugee plan.

“The prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population,” Ryan told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Several Republicans said they wanted a vote as soon as this week on legislation to halt Obama’s plan.

The Senate, where Republicans hold a smaller majority than in the House, would also have to approve any legislation on the refugees before it could take effect. Rhetoric there has been less heated than in the House.

“All of us are God’s children … so I disagree with that assumption that only Christian children should be able to come to the United States,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said.

Reuters news service contributed to this story.


Political chatter: Again, property taxes head up

Minnesota’s Revenue Department tells property owners something they already assumed: Property taxes will rise next year.

The department received data from local governments indicating that overall city taxes will jump 5.2 percent, counties will be up 3.7 percent and townships plan a 2.4 percent increase.

School tax levies next year are expected to be up 7.5 percent, an increase of $186 million. While in other local governments an elected body makes taxing decisions, half of the schools’ increase came from the public approving them.

The figures represent the most that governments may tax property owners, but elected officials may lower taxes after hosting truth in taxation hearings. Also, the figures the state released are just averages, and some jurisdictions may raise taxes more and some may lower taxes.

House Republicans pledged to provide ways for local officials to lower property taxes, prompting Democrats to complain when the Revenue Department released the new numbers.

“Minnesota homeowners, businesses, and farmers received news … that they are facing property tax hikes totaling hundreds of millions of dollars,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “Given our state’s strong budget surplus, this is inexcusable.”

However, Republicans say local elected officials make property tax decisions, not state officials.

Railroads fight back

Railroads are fighting back when newspapers print criticisms of their safety records.

They have not been very vocal in recent years as state officials and others criticize their handling of North Dakota crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials. That appears to have changed in recent days.

Railroad lobbyist John Apitz wrote a piece alleging that a commentary by key Dayton administration commissioners printed by the Alexandria Echo Press underplayed what railroads are doing to improve safety.

Apitz began: “For Minnesota’s railroads, working to keep our employees and the communities we serve safe is the most important thing we do.”

He pointed out that railroads voluntarily have increased track inspections, improved technology to discover problems early, lowered speeds of trains carrying hazardous materials and increased training for local public safety workers.

Also, he said, Minnesota’s four biggest railroads “will spend $500 million in our state improving infrastructure to safely operate and serve Minnesota’s businesses.”

Amy McBeth of BNSF Railway Co. wrote to the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune. She complained that the newspaper’s editorials and other Minnesotans say railroads are only doing the minimum possible to promote safety.

“Safety is paramount to BNSF,” she said, adding that derailments are down more than 40 percent since 2000.

Franken tries again

U.S. Sen. Al Franken again is trying to get Congress to outlaw smartphone stalking apps.

The Minnesota Democrat so far has not convinced colleagues that the apps that track a smartphone user’s movements should be banned, so he has reintroduced his legislation.

“A majority of Americans have smartphones now,” Franken said. “And disturbingly, a growing number of them have become victims of dangerous cyberstalking. My commonsense bill will help a whole range of people affected by cyberstalking, including survivors of domestic violence and it would finally outlaw unconscionable — but perfectly legal — smartphone apps that allow abusers to secretly track their victims.”

The legislation also would give consumers more control over who has access to location data.

Revenue up again

Minnesota state government revenue in October continued its trend of rising.

Minnesota Management and Budget reports revenue rose 0.2 percent, about $4 million, more than previously expected for the month. Individual income tax, sales tax and other revenues exceeded expectations, although corporate taxes fell $29 million.

MMB announced that it would release a comprehensive budget report on Dec. 3. It gives legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton an early look at how much money they will have available in the next legislative session.

However, since the 2016 legislative session begins late next year, March 8, another revenue report will be released a few days before lawmakers return to St. Paul.

LGA remains priority

From the it’s-no-surprise category: The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities puts Local Government Aid payments at the top of its 2016 legislative priority list.

During the coalition’s annual meeting in Alexandria, its leaders said that with a state surplus of at least $1 billion, it is time for lawmakers to return state payment to cities to levels enjoyed in 2002.

“LGA is absolutely vital to our communities,” said Robert Broeder, Le Sueur mayor and coalition president. “Many cities rely on LGA to help pay for basic services like police and fire protection and street repairs. Without it, we’d be forced to either cut staff and services or drastically raise property taxes.”

Since 2002, the coalition, which represents 85 cities, has either fought attempts to lower LGA payments or fought to restore payments. It usually is atop the group’s legislative priorities.


Environmentalists want anti-PolyMet Minnesotans to stay involved

Paula Maccabee of WaterLegacy  tells reporters Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, a northeastern Minnesota copper-nickel mine environment impact statement does not explain the true impact on the environment. Maccabee stands behind one binder from a 3,500-page envrionmental review released a week ago. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Paula Maccabee of WaterLegacy tells reporters Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, a northeastern Minnesota copper-nickel mine environment impact statement does not explain the true impact on the environment. Maccabee stands behind one binder from a 3,500-page environmental review released a week ago. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis) Environmentalists say the Dayton administration has failed to adequately vet a proposed Iron Range copper-nickel mine and they want thousands of Minnesotans to let state officials know how they feel.

Environmentalists say the Dayton administration has failed to adequately vet a proposed Iron Range copper-nickel mine and they want thousands of Minnesotans to let state officials know how they feel.

Leaders of a variety of environmental groups told reporters Friday that they fear Minnesotans will think the fight against the PolyMet mine is over after release of a “final” environmental impact statement a week earlier. However, the public has until 4:30 p.m. Dec. 14 to make one last attempt to stop the mine, they said.

Copper, nickel and other such metals have not been mined in Minnesota and Steve Morse of Minnesota Environmental Partnership said “this mining is much more risky” than taconite and other mining that has been common for years in the northeastern part of the state.

A preliminary environmental impact statement drew 58,000 comments over three months, and Morse is concerned that in a condensed one-month comment period that it will be hard to get such a response.

Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr has said that comments must be narrowly focused on whether the report did an adequate job examining potential environmental consequence of the proposed mine. When he released the environmental report, he said the conclusion was sound when it concluded that the PolyMet operation “would not cause any significant water quality impacts.”

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to decide himself about whether the mine will be allowed to receive the 23 permits it needs to open. If those permits are approved, environmental groups are expected to take the issue to court, further delaying the PolyMet project beyond the decade it already has been in the works.

PolyMet Vice President Bruce Richardson said the environmental report was comprehensive and included plenty of public review and comment already.

“The final environmental impact statement for the PolyMet project reflects 10 years of intensive independent review and analysis showing that the environment will be protected while delivering hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic benefit to the region over a sustained period of time,” Richardson said.

Landwehr said the 3,500-page review is sound. “Obviously, we would not have put out a document we didn’t think was adequate.”

Paula Maccabee of WaterLegacy disagreed.

She said the regulations call for the review to be done independently, but “it relies on poor quality data and unsubstantiated assumptions provided by PolyMet.”

One problem she pointed out is a tailings (waste) holding area left over from a taconite mine at the proposed copper-nickel mine site. It leaks badly, she said, and would continue to do so with toxic waste from the new mine.

Environmental groups also are concerned that the small PolyMet company never has operated a mine and that the company and state have yet to tell taxpayers how they PolyMet would pay for cleanup needed for at least decades after the mine closes.

Landwehr said state law requires the Department of Natural Resources to update a financial review annually to make sure the mine sets aside enough money to provide for any potential cleanup. Dayton has said the cleanup financial question is one of his concerns and promised to do what he can to make sure taxpayers do not foot a cleanup bill.

To comment on environmental impact statement: Comments will be accepted until 4:30 p.m. Dec. 14. They may be emailed to NorthMetFEIS.dnr@state.mn.us or mailed to Lisa Fay, EIS Project Manager, DNR Division of Ecological and Water Resources, Environmental Review Unit, 500 Lafayette Road, Box 25, St. Paul, MN 55155-4025.

Senate GOP: Heck no, we won’t go

The nearly complete Minnesota Senate Building. shown in this picture taken Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, may not house offices of Republicans next year. They refuse to move from their old offices about a block away. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

The nearly complete Minnesota Senate Building. shown in this picture taken Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, may not house offices of Republicans next year. They refuse to move from their old offices about a block away. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Senate Republicans refuse to move into a nearly complete $90 million building they say is a waste of money.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that his members see no reason a move is needed now. In a year, voters will go to the polls to pick all 67 senators, and there are bound to be changes that would result in more moves before the 2017 legislative session.

The GOP decision did not set well with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook.

“This is exactly the kind of short-term political gamesmanship that Minnesotans have no time for,” Bakk said Thursday.

Bakk said the Republican decision to stay in the State Office Building will cost the taxpayers.

“There are other state entities currently planning to move into the State Office Building space, moving these entities to that space will save thousands of taxpayer dollars,” the majority leader said.

Bakk’s spokeswoman said that a non-partisan legislative department hopes to move into the Senate Republicans’ space from a private building. The department pays $55,614 annual rent.

That was news to Hann “and opposite to what we heard from the Department of Administration,” which manages state buildings.

“As soon as Sen. Bakk lets us know who the new tenant is and when they are moving in, we will move to the new building,” Hann said.

Administration Commissioner Matt Massman released a statement saying there are uses for the space Republicans now use, but he stopped short of saying that anyone has received commitments to move into it.

“There are a variety of alternative uses for the currently occupied space, including providing much needed public space during the 2016 legislative session since available space in the state Capitol will be very limited, temporary press space or moving state functions from leased to owned space, such as the Reviser of Statutes,” Massman said. “We will continue to explore those contingency options as construction concludes on the new Senate office building.”

The commissioner said he learned of the Republican decision to stay put via media reports.

The new building, which includes an underground parking garage, was built to house all 67 senators. The majority party, usually Democrats for the past several decades, has had offices in the Capitol while minority party members were in the State Office Building across the street.

The Capitol is closed for a $307 million renovation, leaving Democratic senators without private offices since early summer. The timing of the new building construction was meant to give them a home for the 10-week 2016 legislative session that begins March 8.

The Senate building is almost complete, while more than a year remains on the Capitol renovation project.

Bakk had wanted some Senate leaders and committee chairman to have offices in both the Capitol and Minnesota Senate Building. He cut back the request when it came under fire, especially by Republicans, but now says that Republicans are resisting the move so they can have two offices.

“The idea of Republican senators wanting two offices is a laughable attempt to deflect criticism away from the Senate DFL’s wasteful expenditure on this building,” Hann said.

The new building is across the street north of the Capitol. The State Office Building is across the street west. While the two buildings are about a block apart, if the 27 GOP senators want to avoid winter weather and use the Capitol-area tunnel system that connects those two buildings and others to the Capitol, it will be a much longer hike.

All House members’ offices are in the State Office Building, as are House committee rooms.

The new building will have the only Senate committee meeting rooms until the Capitol reopens. Even then, most committee rooms will be in the Senate facility.

The largest of the new building’s committee rooms will be used as a Senate chamber next year while the Capitol is mostly closed. The House, however, will spend an estimated $500,000 to reopen its chamber for the 2016 session.

The House chamber will be the only part of the Capitol open next year, and the Capitol will have no running water or restrooms. Galleries used by the public to watch House sessions will be closed.


Dayton seeks special session for unemployed miner benefits

Gov. Mark Dayton wants Minnesota lawmakers to meet in a special legislative session to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off miners.

The state projects that 596 miners will run out of regular unemployment payments before the Legislature is slated to return to work on March 8. The Democratic governor said he would like the special session by the end of this year or early in 2016.

Dayton opened his letter to legislative leaders with: “I want to make you aware of the financial crisis confronting Minnesota steelworkers, who are currently laid off in northeastern Minnesota.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, had no immediate reaction. A Bakk spokeswoman said Senate Democrats will meet Monday with a special session to be discussed.

Earlier this year, legislators extended by 13 weeks unemployment benefits for Minnesota’s turkey industry workers in light of bird flu that devastated flocks in many parts of the state. However, Dayton said, “fortunately, very few avian flu workers have needed those special benefits.”

However, many miners are expected to be off work at least six months.

Dayton’s letter said that two weeks ago, 1,413 workers were affected by Iron Range mine layoffs and had applied for unemployment insurance benefits. Most applications were filed from May through August, the governor wrote.

That figure has dropped to about 870 workers who still collect unemployment benefits, and almost 600 of them run out of benefits before the regular legislative session is set to begin.

Another 74 workers laid off from U.S. Steel probably will exhaust their benefits this month, the governor said.

Whenever Dayton has considered calling a special session, which only he can, he has demanded an agreement with legislative leaders about what will be taken up and passed. Once Dayton calls a session, lawmakers can debate and pass whatever they want.

A session like Dayton requests likely would last a day.

The Capitol building is closed for renovation, with only the House chambers to be open during the 2016 session. Senators plan to meet in a committee room in a Senate office building just being completed.

Dayton sent the letter Wednesday, but it was not released to the public. He has been away from his office for days to be with his ailing 97-year-old father, Bruce Dayton.

Minnesota’s taconite mines continue to struggle, with a glut of taconite part of a crushing depression in the U.S. steel and iron ore industries thanks to the influx of cheap, imported steel from places such as China. All of those imports have drastically cut demand for U.S.-made steel and its primary ingredient, taconite iron ore.

Hundreds of workers continue to be affected by shutdowns at several mining operations — U.S. Steel’s Keewatin Taconite, Cliffs Natural Resources’ United Taconite in Forbes, Mesabi Nugget near Aurora and the Mining Resources iron concentrate plant near Chisholm, as well as parts of Grand Rapids-based Magnetation’s operations.

There also were layoffs at U.S. Steel’s Minntac operations in Virginia over the summer, with most employees reportedly called back to work by September.

Forum News Service reporter Andrew Krueger contributed to this story.

Bruce Dayton dies, father of governor and leader of retail giant

Bruce B. Dayton, the last of the famed retailing family and father of Minnesota’s governor, died this morning at 97.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s office reported that he was surrounded by family at his Orono, Minn., home.

His death was expected and the governor has been out of the office for more than a week to spend time with family.

Bruce Dayton was the former chief executive officer and chairman of the board of the Dayton-Hudson Corp. It owned the Dayton retail chain and formed Target.

A memorial service will be 11 a.m. Nov. 20 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 S. Marquette Ave, Minneapolis.

In addition to the governor, he is survived by his wife, Ruth Stricker Dayton; children Brandt (Tian), Lucy (Mark O’Keefe), and Anne; 11 grandchildren; and two great grandchildren.

Bruce Dayton and his brothers expanded the Dayton Co. from a single Minneapolis department store into a national retailer. The Dayton family sold the company, which today is Minneapolis-based Target Corp., one of the best-known store chains in the country.

Gov. Dayton often talked about his father and how he wanted his children to understand the meaning of work even though they lived in a wealthy family.

The governor has called his father the “most important and positive influence” in his youth.

“My father often said, ‘The only thing worse than a bum is a rich bum’,” Mark Dayton frequently said. “He made us understand that we’re very fortunate, and with that came an opportunity and responsibility to give back.”

The St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this story.


Lawmakers say state not putting child safety first in abuse cases

Minnesota state Reps. Peggy Bennett of Albert Lea and Ron Kresha of Little Falls discuss child abuse prevension during a break in a Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, St. Paul meeting. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota state Reps. Peggy Bennett of Albert Lea and Ron Kresha of Little Falls discuss child abuse prevension during a break in a Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, St. Paul meeting. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota legislators who crafted legislation earlier this year to make sure a child’s safety is first priority in abuse cases say the state is not following through with that requirement.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, opened a Tuesday meeting of a legislative child abuse task force meeting chastising state and county officials working on the issue for not putting safety first. “When you walk in, that child has to be safe.”

“People seem to have forgotten safety,” Sen. Kathy Sheran, D-Mankato, said.

Kresha and Sheran, co-chairs of the task force, did not like the mission statement of the county-state panel working to implement this year’s child safety law: “Children are positioned within their cultural foundation and their families to achieve their fullest potential.”

The legislators said the mission statement does not say children’s safety should be the top priority. Sheran said state and county officials are going down a “slippery slide” away from safety first.

Legislators earlier this year passed a bill, signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, to change the priority in child abuse cases away from keeping the child in his or her family. Instead, the new law specifically says a child’s safety must be the paramount concern.

Assistant Human Services Commissioner Jim Koppel said in an interview that he disagrees with Sheran, Kresha and other legislators critical of his department.

“I think we have child safety as the paramount concern,” he said. “I think the department is following the intent very well.”

Others in his department pointed out that the “vision” of the state-county task force, listed even before the mission statement, puts “safe children” first. And right after the mission statement comes the goal that “children are safe.”

The new law and discussion that surrounded a well-publicized child abuse case prompted changes in counties.

“We are doing a better job assessing, we are going to be doing a much better job providing the right information to the right people so the right actions can be taken,” Koppel said.

Child abuse hit center stage early this year when reports surfaced that 4-year-old Eric Dean died in Pope County two years ago after 15 reports had been filed stating that he may have been abused. The county child-protection agency investigated one report and one was given to law enforcement officers, even though state law requires that every suspected abuse case should be referred to law enforcement.

With that as background, lawmakers easily passed legislation aimed at spurring more investigation into child abuse reports and making more information available to investigators.

Koppel said many counties changed how they dealt with child abuse after reading about the Dean case, before the state made any changes. Counties have primary responsibility to investigate abuse.

A governor’s task force on the issue made 93 recommendations for changes. Eight were included in this year’s law, many can be implemented without new laws, some are expected to be debated in future legislatures and the Human Services Department says some are unworkable as written.

Kresha said that the 2016 legislative session, to last just 10 weeks, will be too short to make further changes in child abuse laws, but the issue likely will arise again in 2017.

Political chatter: Second American Indian to take office

Peggy Flanagan joins a rare segment of the Minnesota Legislature: an American Indian legislator.

Peggy Flanagan

Peggy Flanagan

The 35-year-old Democrat is a White Earth Nation member who lives St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb. After a special election Tuesday, in which she had no opposition, Flanagan joins Rep. Susan Allen, D-Minneapolis, as the only two Native Americans in the Legislature.

Six American Indians served in the Legislature in the 1800s, five in territorial days. Three served in the 1900s.

Flanagan said her mother moved to St. Louis Park when the representative-to-be was a baby because she thought it would provide more opportunities. She has been a political organizer since her days at the University of Minnesota and is the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota executive director.

With her White Earth background, Flanagan has close ties to northern Minnesota. Ironically, the representative she is replacing, Ryan Winkler, had northern ties, too, since he came from Bemidji. Winkler resigned to move to Belgium, where he wife took a job.

The last northern Minnesota  Native American to serve in the Legislature was Harold “Skip” Finn, who served in the 1900s.

Allen has a South Dakota background, with her father from the Pine Ridge Reservation and her mother from the nearby Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

MNsure pushes shopping

The state’s MNsure health insurance sales program says that what its officials have said for weeks now has a study to back them up.

Interim CEO Allison O’Toole and others have promoted, heavily promoted, shopping around the MNsure Website to find the best insurance deals.

Wakely Consulting Group now has released a study showing that 85 percent of this year’s MNsure enrollees who do not receive government subsidies will deal with a 389 percent premium increase if they just let their current plan renew. However, Wakely says, those increases would drop to 20 percent if they pick a lower-cost plan.

However, lower costs plans also can provide fewer benefits and could have higher payments for deductibles, co-pays and the like.

Government subsidies, provided via tax credits, are only available to MNsure enrollees, not for those who buy insurance from private sellers.

With the just-opened enrollment period for 2016 insurance, MNsure is providing an online tool for customers to compare plans to find what best fits their needs.

State officials earlier announced that insurance premiums would increase up to 49 percent.

Apprenticeships expanding

The number of Minnesota businesses that offer apprenticeship programs has risen 25 percent in the past four years, the state Department of Labor and Industry reports.

That has allowed the number of people serving as apprentices to jump 59 percent to more than 11,000. Three-fourths are in the construction trades.

The economic recovery, demographic trends and an increased need for skilled labor are driving more businesses to establish apprenticeship programs, the department said.

“Apprenticeship is a great model employers can use to develop a highly trained, skilled and motivated workforce,” department Commissioner Ken Peterson said. “Apprenticeship not only helps businesses be successful, it also offers employees an opportunity to develop their skills and climb into the middle class.”

Not Obama fans

A majority of Minnesota do not approve of how President Barack Obama is doing his job.

A SurveyUSA poll conducted for KSTP-TV shows 56 percent do not like Obama’s job performance, while 37 percent approve. Just 7 percent are not sure.

Minnesota Democrats fare better. Gov. Mark Dayton received a 52 percent rating, U.S. Sen. Al Franken 55 percent and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar 60 percent. Klobuchar long has been the state’s most popular politician.

Transportation gap grows

Minnesota is falling further behind in transportation funding, the Minnesota Department of Transportation says.

With funding as is in today’s law, the state would be $16.3 billion short in the next 20 years, MnDOT reports, $3.8 billion more than predicted last year.

The report comes as legislators and the Dayton administration prepare for the 2016 legislative session to begin next March, with debate about transportation funding near the top of the agenda.

“Our planning process is thorough and objective,” MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle said. “It is clearly indicating that the growth in revenue will not meet what we need to spend to provide a competitive system by 2037.”

Zelle said legislative transportation funding inaction is part of the reason the shortfall is expanding. He also blamed the aging transportation system, quickening deterioration, inflation and new requirements that require more money to meet.

When debating the issue earlier this year, Republicans and Democrats agreed that highways need more money. However, Democrats wanted to raise taxes and Republicans wanted to take money from other state programs.