Political chatter: Is Scott Walker a Tim Pawlenty rerun?

Republican presidential candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines Aug. 17, 2015.  A well-known online magazine compares him for then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who ran for president four years ago. (Reuters photo by Joshua Lott)

Republican presidential candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines Aug. 17, 2015. A well-known online magazine compares him for then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who ran for president four years ago. (Reuters photo by Joshua Lott)

Scott Walker has outlasted Tim Pawlenty as a presidential candidate, but there are similarities between the two and some wonder if Walker’s campaign is doomed.

The well-known online Slate magazine asks if Walker is Tim Pawlenty 2.0.

Writer Jamelle Bouie wrote what others have thought.

“He’s not a firebrand and he doesn’t alienate ordinary Americans,” Bouie wrote about Walker. “Instead, he looks and sounds like a middle manager; an ordinary, almost boring guy who just wants to save you money.”

The Wisconsin governor should be a winner, Slate reported, since he has done well in a generally Democratic state. The same was written about Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty when he was running for president.

Politicos have called both dull and uninspiring. In a recent campaign stop in Carroll, Iowa, C-SPAN showed the country — or at least those who watch the channel — that Walker has a ways to go before becoming a charismatic candidate. He sounded much like Pawlenty did in his Iowa campaign, far from a Donald Trump, whose brash talk attracts attention.

“Right now Walker looks like he’s on the wane,” Slate reports. “He’s not quite Tim Pawlenty — the doomed Minnesota governor who quit the 2012 Republican primary after poor showings in polls and onstage — but he’s coming uncomfortably close.”

Pawlenty dropped out of the race Aug. 13, 2011, a day after he finished third on a straw poll that Iowa Republicans canned this year. That may have been about where Walker would have finished this year.

One difference is that Pawlenty put all of his eggs in the Iowa basket, expecting his neighboring state’s first-in-the-country caucuses to give him a boost into the rest of the campaign. Walker, on the other hand, has spent time in New Hampshire and elsewhere as he apparently is using a broader strategy and has more money.

It also could be argued that Pawlenty did not have the success in Democratic-leaning Minnesota that Walker has to the east.

“On paper, Scott Walker is a winner,” Bouie wrote. “He doesn’t just govern a blue (Democratic) state — a win in its own right — he’s transformed it, making Wisconsin a vanguard for conservative causes, from right-to-work laws and public education cuts, to voter ID and strict limits on abortion.”

But, Bouie continues, Walker has been “a non-presence. He doesn’t flicker, let alone catch fire, and when it comes to issues and answering voters, the Wisconsin governor has been awkward, clumsy and flat-footed. Yes, he has money and yes, he has an organization. But that doesn’t make up for skill, or a lack thereof. So far, he just isn’t good, and it shows.”

Still, Slate says, “none of this means Walker is doomed. If he improves in debates, learns to answer questions, begins to capitalize on missteps from his opponents and otherwise boosts his performance, he could soar. The raw material is still there.”

Dayton vs. North Dakota

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is not happy with his neighbor to the west.

When asked during a Minnesota Public Radio State Fair interview, Dayton said Minnesota is on track to meet climate change goals, but not every state can say that.

“These other states like North Dakota … just have their heads in the sand and want to profit and then pollute our air accordingly,” he added.

At issue, among other things, is a lawsuit North Dakota won overturning a Minnesota law that basically bars the purchase of coal-generated electricity from North Dakota. Dayton said Minnesota will continue the court fight.

Dayton used the term “Neanderthal” in referring to North Dakota climate protection policies.

Ironically, on the same day Dayton went after North Dakota, officials of the two states held a conference call to see how their differences could be worked out.

Dayton and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple are childhood friends, but that has not smoothed out rough edges in relations between the states.

Klobuchar for president?

There is plenty of talk that U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has a higher office in her sights, especially given her new book, and Minnesotans apparently want to know her intentions.

A reporter following Klobuchar around the Minnesota State Fair for an hour and a half heard some people mentioning the possibility of a presidential run during the quiet morning tour before most people had gone through the turnstiles.

The senator never seems to answer the presidential question directly, although in her most recent Senate campaign she eventually pledged to serve out her term after Forum News Service peppered her with presidential questions.

Dayton relaxed

Gov. Mark Dayton says he is more relaxed at this year’s Minnesota State Fair than he has been in a long time.

For most of his adult life, Dayton either worked for government or was running for office.

This year, he still will talk to fair visitors, but it will be for information, not campaigning.

“I like to find out what is on people’s minds, and they are not shy about telling me,” Dayton said on the fair’s opening day. “It is like a rolling focus group.”

Where are we?

St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges joined Gov. Mark Dayton to present proclamations making the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair Ye Old Mill day in the state and their cities.

Interestingly, however, no one from Falcon Heights appeared in the ceremony, and that is the city where the fair is located.

After the ceremony, Dayton joined the mayors in a ride in the century-old fair attraction. Dayton’s office said it was not planned in advance The mayors sat in the front, mostly hiding the state’s governor from cameras when they disembarked at the end of the three-minute ride.

Dayton takes advantage of single-day window to raise commissioners’ pay

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton says on Wednesday, July 1, 2015, he is solely responsible for giving raises to commissioners he appointed. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton says on Wednesday, July 1, 2015, he is solely responsible for giving raises to commissioners he appointed. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton handed state commissioners annual average raises of $29,000 Wednesday, admitting that many Minnesotans cannot relate to that big an increase.

“My goal is to make government as good as possible,” Dayton said, adding that he came in thousands under the limit legislators set for commissioner pay.

“I did what I was authorized to do…” he said. “I am solely responsible for this.”

Dayton said he understands that the size of the raises may be tough for the public to understand, and the average raise alone is more than some families bring home. He asked Minnesotans to give him the benefit of the doubt that the raises are needed.

Top-level workers’ salaries have not risen as much as needed in recent years, he said. “We are playing catchup.”

The Democratic governor took action on the only day he was allowed to under a deal he and legislative leaders cut early this year. The Democratic-controlled Legislature of 2013-2014 gave Dayton the freedom to decide commissioner pay, but lawmakers of both parties objected in January this year when he upped salaries nearly a month before he told legislators.

The salaries announced Wednesday are similar to those he gave in January, before he and legislators agreed that the raises would be revoked and the governor would be able to hike commissioners’ pay only on Wednesday, the first day of the state’s $42 billion, two-year budget. After midnight Wednesday, power to set salaries returned to the Legislature.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Dayton should have talked to Minnesotans after the January dispute so he would know they do not support paying $900,000 more to his appointees.

“The governor apparently is more out of touch than I thought with Minnesotans,” Daudt said.

Top commissioner salaries of $154,992 annually go to those running transportation, revenue, public safety, natural resources, human services and budget departments. Not far behind, at $150,002, are commissioners of corrections, education, employment and economic development, health and pollution control.

Most Dayton Cabinet members received $25,000 to $35,000 raises.

Five Public Utilities Commission members each get a $43,000 raise to $140,000 annually. They do not sit on the Dayton Cabinet.

In all, 31 officials will get paid more under Dayton’s action.

The governor said one commissioner was offered $50,000 a year more for a private job, but she turned it down. He said no commissioner has complained about pay.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the Legislature overwhelmingly gave Dayton authority to raise salaries.

“I share the concern of hiring and retaining our highly qualified, dedicated commissioners and other public servants who perform the outstanding work of our state departments,” Bakk said.

GOP leaders were critical of Dayton, even though Democrats pointed out that most Republicans voted in favor of the bill that gave Dayton authority to deliver pay raises Wednesday.

Daudt predicted lawmakers will attempt to overturn the pay raises in the 2016 legislative session.

The Republican also said that it will be tough to approve any agency budget increases next year in light of the pay hikes.

The speaker said that Dayton already had given 5 percent commissioner raises each of the past two years and he could have accepted raises in the 3 percent to 5 percent range.

The raises will be used in next year’s legislative campaigns.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the raises are part of a larger issue he sees with Democrats who want to help themselves and their friends.

Hann said that compared to other states, Minnesota commissioners are overpaid. Dayton has had no problem getting commissioners, even with the old pay, the senator added.

 

Political chatter: Negotiations take a different path

This year’s negotiations to end the Minnesota legislative session could be called different, unusual, strange or, even, weird.

Of course, one difference — although far from unique — is they did not produce a budget before the May 18 constitutional end of the session. That aside, the process was, er, uncommon.

One example is that fewer leaders than normal were taking a direct part in talks.

As the regular session neared an end, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, excused themselves from a meeting with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and went into one of the governor’s residence rooms to negotiate their own deal.

The pair handed it to the governor, then went out to brief waiting media on the “deal,” not really saying that Dayton had not approved it.

As the Legislature tried to wrap up its work late May 18, negotiations continued into the last few minutes. But they failed, and Dayton vetoed three of eight state funding bills.

The big dispute was about education, in particular whether to fund Dayton’s top priority of sending all 4 year olds to school.

After the regular session, Dayton and Daudt became the chief negotiators. Bakk said his caucus could accept whatever the governor negotiated, although the senator and governor remained in close contact.

Dayton eventually gave up on his pre-kindergarten plan, in the name of wrapping up the budget. He promised to continue the debate in the remaining three years of his term.

Once the education debate ended, attention turned to a provision Dayton said was a must-do in special session: overturn part of a law he just signed into law that allows counties to hire private accountants to check their finances instead of using the state auditor.

Dayton, a former auditor, said that he would not call a special session without promises that lawmakers would overturn the clause.

But he eventually gave in on that, too, saying that it was more important to finish work on time than to press the auditor issue.

With that seemingly last disputed item out of the way, more disputes arose. They had to do with jobs, environment and energy legislation and in the end they appeared to be settled with little to-do.

The one thing Dayton would not give up on was his insistance that each of the Legislature’s four political caucuses promise that in a special session they would pass the remaining bills as negotiated, without changes. That is a common demand of governors who call special sessions, but then lose control over what lawmakers can do once they convene.

With Dayton insisting each of the four legislative leaders sign a promise that bills would not change, he ran into yet another snag. This time it was Senate Democrats, many of whom appeared to be distancing themselves from the environmental provisions they did not think were strong enough, threatening one of the budget bills.

Dayton finally decided the bills would pass, and he signed a document calling a special session hours before it started.

Move looks bad

Dayton said there is nothing illegal about an official in his administration leaving for a job with a medical marijuana company, but it does not look good.

Assistant Health Commissioner Manny Munson-Regala announced he is resigning from a position that included helping design the Minnesota medical marijuana program. In early July, he goes to work for Cottage Grove-based LeafLine Labs.

New IP leader

Minnesota Independence Party members have elected Mark Meyer of Lake Crystal state chairman.

He succeeds Mark Jenkins, who says he will remain active in the party.

Meyer has been involved in the party for years,

“We are the party serving the political needs of centrists, moderates and independents,” Meyer said. “We are the party of reform, small business and the working middle class. Working together we will move back to major party status and beyond.”

Phil Fuehrer of St. Paul was elected state party director.

Wolf delisting attempted

A U.S. House appropriations subcommittee is considering a provision to remove gray wolves from the endangered list, and forbidding courts from reviewing the decision.

A court ordered the wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes area to be protected. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., wants wolves to continue to be protected.

“This rider is a tremendous overreach that would interfere in the federal listing of endangered species,” McCollum said. “Our committee’s role is to appropriate the necessary funds to allow the expert staff of scientists and professionals to do their jobs working to protect endangered species. This bill should not be mandating which species do or do not require protection.”

She also said that the courts should be allowed to do their work.

Franken: Save mail

U.S. Sen. Al Franken tells the head of the U.S. Postal Service that northeastern Minnesota mail service has deteriorated since a Duluth mail processing facility closed.

In a letter to Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan, the Minnesota Democrat asked her to fix service problems. He said the problems hurt residents, businesses and communities across the region.

“People and businesses from Grand Rapids to Grand Portage rely on the postal service to get their mail — including notes from loved ones, checks, medicine, and newspapers — in a timely fashion,” Franken said. “Mail that used to take a day or two to arrive now takes at least three to five days, and that is simply unacceptable.”

Political chatter: Pre-special session grumbling loud this year

Scaffolding surrounds the Minnesota Capitol building Friday, June 5, 2015, as an extensive renovation project continues. During the work, the building is closed, forcing a special legislative session to be held across the street in the State Office Building. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Scaffolding surrounds the Minnesota Capitol building Friday, June 5, 2015, as an extensive renovation project continues. During the work, the building is closed, forcing a special legislative session to be held across the street in the State Office Building. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

There always is plenty of grumbling among legislators near the end of a regular session when deals are being cut behind closed doors, and it gets even louder during special session preparation when most legislators are back home waiting for news.

It may be even worse this year. After lawmakers saw some bills for the first time minutes before they had to vote on them before the regular session ended May 18, dozens demanded that legislation be posted online at least 48 hours before any special session vote, allowing plenty of time to get to know bills’ contents.

“The public — and legislators — need 48hrs to read the bills before voting,” Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, tweeted, joining a chorus of legislators from both parties.

Reinert and other lawmakers also appeared to get more information from the media than they did from legislative sources. The Duluth senator tweeted to political reporters: “I’m pretty thankful for you … right now.”

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said it would be nice to get the bills out early, but said most of what his colleagues would see in a special session was what they saw in the regular session. It should not take long to figure out the differences, he said.

The Minnesota form of legislating nearly always involves private meetings among the governor and legislative leaders to hammer out budget deals near the adjournment deadline. That follows months of committee testimony and debate on individual projects, work that may or may not be considered in final negotiations.

Those final negotiations often last until the constitutional deadline to adjourn. This year, for instance, Forum News Service reported just after this year’s adjournment (which came two minutes late):

“The Minnesota Legislature ended early today amid shouts of ‘crooks’ and ‘shameful,’ with plenty of confusion mixed in, as lawmakers failed to finish everything they wanted to do in 2015.

“‘This is no way to make public policy,’ Sen. Barb Goodwin, D-Columbia Heights, said at eight minutes before midnight after senators received a 94-page jobs, economic development and energy bill.

“Senators passed the measure at two minutes before midnight, and a Senate worker ran it to the House.

“The House approved it with many representatives not voting at a minute before midnight as the House speaker avoided eye contact with everyone and called for an immediate vote, refusing to acknowledge anyone wanting to speak.

“Democrats shouted protests at Daudt.”

Minnesota not alone

Other states joined Minnesota is missing their budget deadlines this year.

Alan Greenblatt of Governing Magazine reports that Minnesota is not all that bad: “Just having a budget for the governor to sign or veto, however, puts Minnesota ahead of some other states. There are eight states where control of the legislature is divided between the two parties. In most cases, they haven’t been able to get much done, failing even to send the governor a budget at all.”

In Minnesota, lawmakers sent Gov. Mark Dayton all eight budget bills, but he vetoed three, necessitating a special session to finish work on a $42 billion, two-year budget.

Iowa, Washington and Colorado are among the other late states. In Washington, lawmakers ate through a 30-day special session without success so are on their second special.

“The parallel universes Democrats and Republicans have inhabited over the writing of the state’s two-year operating budget don’t seem to be inching closer together,” the Seattle Times reported.

Frequent candidate dies

Dick Franson was a common Capitol pressroom visitor during election season.

He would bring around copies of an American Legion newspaper and show an advertisement he bought, usually in color, and proclaim that as an example of his campaign rolling along nicely.

Franson, who recently died at 86, ran for statewide office nearly three dozen times, and always lost. Badly lost.

“Dick always spoke out for the issues most important to him and, in true DFL fashion, was interested in serving his community any way he could,” Chairman Ken Martin of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party said. “He ran for local and statewide offices always with an eye to giving a voice to veterans and with a message of duty, honor and country.”

Franson ran for a variety of offices, mostly statewide, after serving one term on the Minneapolis City Council. He ran for U.S. Senate, governor and secretary of state, besides other offices.

He was born in Little Falls, Minn., on Valentine’s Day.

Governor’s house open

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who opened his house to reporters covering budget negotiations, on Tuesday will open it to the public for the first of six summer tours.

Tours will begin every 10 minutes on Tuesday, June 23, July 14, July 28, Aug. 4 and Aug. 18 from 10:30 a.m. to noon.

Reservations are accepted, but not required, at (651) 201-3464 or residence.gov@state.mn.us.

Women’s Auxiliary of the Minnesota Historical Society volunteers will answer questions in each room on the first floor and lower level of the residence. The home is at 1006 Summit Ave., in a St. Paul neighborhood with many historic homes.

There will be no charge, but non-perishable food items will be accepted for food shelves.

Political chatter: Reporters take what information they can get in budget talks

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk talk to the media, who waited for hours before leaders emerged for this May 2015 "availibility."(Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk talk to the media, who waited for hours before leaders emerged for this May 2015 “availibility.”(Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesotans read their newspapers, watch television, listen to radio and follow social media to get updates about state budget talks, but the average news consumer has little idea about how that information reaches them.

Or how much more information does not.

The story is a hurry-up-and-wait tale of politicians vs. the media, this year with a twist of fancy digs, rain and sunburn.

Here is how it typically works: The governor invites legislative leaders into his office (his home this year, but more on that later) to discuss how to work out the state’s two-year budget. While there certainly are policy differences to iron out, too, it generally is the budget where most of the efforts are focused.

Reporters do not know what really goes on behind the closed doors, but from what some say who have been there, it often is an exchange of talking points like what the politicians dish up to the public. Offers are exchanged, which in a good year leads to a compromise between the two sides.

Outside the private talks, about the public budget, reporters and photographers wait. And wait and wait and wait. It is called a stakeout.

Once a politician emerges from the talks, reporters jump from their camping chairs (known for a few weeks as stakeout chairs), floor space or conversation spots to see what the politician will reveal about negotiations.

One of two things happens: the politician says something worthwhile or he doesn’t.

This year, Gov. Mark Dayton got other negotiators to agree to put a “cone of silence” over participants of talks before the end of the 2015 regular session. He and House Speaker Kurt Daudt discussed whether the gag order should remain in place when the two discussed state spending before a special legislative session.

“I lost on a 1-1 vote,” Dayton joked, so he and Daudt have talked to the media after negotiations sessions end.

They never reveal many details, but without the cone of silence at least the media can tell the public where holdups are, what progress has been made and explain a few — a very few — details.

In some years, legislative leaders and the governor hand reporters copies of offers they exchange. Not so much this year.

Stakeouts generally are in front of the governor’s office in the Capitol, where cold marble floors wait the media.

Things are different this year, with the Capitol shuttered for renovation. Gov. Mark Dayton invited legislative leaders to his official home, on swanky Summit Avenue in St. Paul.

For legislative leaders, that means they have to drive back to their offices, instead of walking to the next building, to discuss developments with others. They also must face the media when they come and go, unlike at the Capitol where there are multiple entrances they can use to avoid reporters and cameras.

For reporters, this year’s accommodations are different than in the past.

They either set up their camping chairs on the governor’s front lawn (unlike other governors, he allows them inside the locked gate) or in an ornate, but slightly musty, basement. The basement is preferred on rainy and chilly days, and by photographers who need to get out of the sun to edit photographs.

Journalists staying outside have got wet and sunburned.

The bottom line is that wherever talks are held and whatever the issues, the media and thus the public are at the whims of politicians to release any information about the secret talks.

Achievement gap

There is a lot of talk about the “achievement gap,” but little understanding of what it means.

Take, for instance, early-childhood education expert Art Rolnick, who said: “We are going to close the achievement gap. That is the No. 1 problem in education in the state and in the country.”

Basically he is talking about the difference in education levels from most poor minority students and those who come from families with more money. The difference between well-off students and those whose families can afford little is the achievement gap.

That gap is what the state budget argument has been about.

Rolnick and Republicans favor scholarships and other aids for the poor, to give them a better chance for education. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton prefers to fund school classes for all Minnesota 4 year olds.

Walz picks manager

Former state Rep. Terry Morrow will manage U.S. Rep. Tim Walz’ re-election 2016 campaign.

“Terry shares the southern Minnesota values of hard work, caring for our neighbors and building strong communities,” Walz said. “He brings a deep understanding of Minnesota politics and knows how to win elections.”

Paying for telemedicine required under Minnesota bill

Bell

Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Political Chatter: Midwest man to run GOP convention

A long-time Minnesota political operative with North Dakota roots and who lives part-time in Wisconsin will run the 2016 Republican National Convention.

The four-day event Jeff Larson will oversee is to be in Cleveland. He did the same for the 2008 national convention in St. Paul, about 20 miles from his Hudson, Wis. home.

“From planning and preparation, to execution and implementation, I will work to the best of my abilities to ensure the Republican Party holds a successful national convention to showcase not only our nominee but also our party’s vision for the future of this country,” Larson said of his chief executive officer duties.

Larson, who divides his time between Hudson and the East Coast, helped Republicans win back U.S. Senate control last year.

Larson has worked in Minnesota politics, particularly advising Sen. Norm Coleman.

He brings to the 2016 convention a varied of Upper Midwest background.

Larson got his political start volunteering for then-Grand Forks, N.D., Mayor Bud Wessman. He earned his degree in his hometown, at the University of North Dakota, and worked on a statewide campaign before heading to the state’s Agriculture Department for a marketing gig.

He was not there long, getting involved in politics again in 1984, and staying involved ever since, including a stint in South Dakota. He moved to Minneapolis in 1990 and later to Hudson.

Larson received his most notoriety for paying $130,000 for 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s clothes at the 2008 convention. The Republican Party eventually repaid him.

‘Black market highway’

Recent news reports of cigarettes being smuggled into Minnesota come as no surprise.

Dale Erickson of Henry’s Foods in Alexandria told Gov. Mark Dayton in a March 2013 town hall meeting in Moorhead that a proposed cigarette tax increase would mean Interstate 94 “will become a black market highway” as cigarettes taxed at a lower North Dakota rate would show up in Minnesota. “There is no way to trace the cigarettes.”

Erickson and convenience store owner Frank Orton told Dayton that they would lose business to Fargo, N.D., stores that collect smaller taxes.

“Minnesotans could drive across the bridge to Fargo and buy their cigarettes for $18 less per carton,” Erickson said.

Minnesota legislators and Dayton upped the cigarette tax, along with adding a higher tax to the richest Minnesotans in 2013.

The Star Tribune recently reported that cigarette smuggling is on the upswing, and state officials say they need $1 million to improve their tobacco law enforcement. Officials say cigarette smuggling costs the state $2.6 million in tax revenues.

GOP unveils MNsure plan

Republicans have wanted to get rid of MNsure since it launched, but with it firmly in place, at least some have turned their attention into making major changes instead of eliminating the health insurance sales program.

One plan would confine MNsure to serving those on public health care programs and establish a non-profit entity for people who want to buy private insurance without public subsidies.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said that since 91 percent of people MNsure serves have policies fully or partially paid by government, that should be the emphasis of the controversial program.

“MNsure has been serving two masters and it’s time for that to stop,” Benson said.

Another GOP proposal, by Sen. Julie Rosen of Fairmont, would add insurance expertise to the MNsure board and require that its budget obtain legislative approval.

A third Republican bill authored by Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, would open the MNsure marketplace to more companies and products and would let Minnesotans buy insurance across state lines.

State wolf control?

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and other representatives have introduced legislation to return wolf management decisions in the western Great Lakes area to the states.

A December federal court decision put the region’s gray wolves under federal protection in Minnesota and other nearby states, meaning the state has little authority to manage them or to allow farmers to protect their livestock from wolves.

“This legislation returns gray wolf management to the state of Minnesota where it belongs,” the western Minnesota Democrat said. “Farmers should not have to choose between protecting their livelihood and complying with federal law.”

The bill came after the Minnesota Farm Bureau and the Minnesota Farmers Union jointly asked Minnesota members of Congress to take that action.

Lobbying like trial

Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court likens her lobbying lawmakers for a 7.5 percent budget increase to going to trial.

She calls paperwork she hands out to legislators “evidence” and like a lawyer heading into a trial, she remains focused on the main goal, not letting anything distract her. In the legislative case, she concentrates on the budget issue, and does not promote changes in policy during this budget legislative session.

The chief said she likes to talk about the courts system: “I do go pretty much wherever two or more are gathered.”

Check is doubtful

Bluestem Prairie blogger Sally Jo Sorensen writes that newly elected state Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, may be barking up the wrong campaign donation tree.

“He sent a fundraising letter to one of Swift County’s most successful farmers and business people, Murdock seed farm owner Jim Falk of Murdock, whom Miller’s letter identified as a ‘fellow Republican’ who shares Miller’s values…” Sorensen wrote. “Bluestem suspects that Miller shouldn’t get his hopes up, since Falk is not only Swift County DFL chair, he’s also the father of Andrew Falk, whom Miller defeated in a fairly personal campaign last fall.”

 

Political chatter: 2012 ag controversy continues with committee assignments

Republicans who will control the Minnesota House next year angered Democrats by leaving a strong environmentalist off the environmental committee.

House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, released a list of committee members Thursday night, and the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee list did not include Rep. Jean Wagenius, D-Minneapolis. She has served on the committee each of her 14 terms in the House, earning a reputation of detailed-oriented environmentalist.

“I am deeply disappointed that Speaker-designate Daudt has taken the unprecedented step of refusing to accept the individual the minority caucus has designated as its lead on a Minnesota House committee,” current Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “So much for the ‘balanced approach’ the Republicans touted repeatedly during the campaign.”

Two years ago, when Democrats took control of the House, Thissen put Wagenius in charge of an environment and agriculture committee, angering rural Republican who said Wagenius is against traditional farming and that putting the subjects together reduces the importance of agriculture.

Republicans gained control of the House in last month’s election, and established several rural-oriented committees. Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake will be chairman of the Agriculture Finance Committee, while Rep. Paul Anderson of Starbuck will lead the Agriculture Policy Committee.

Daudt’s office said little about the decision, but issued a statement from him: “We have put together a committee structure that is balanced and we look forward to rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on problems Minnesotans care about.”

Thissen said Wagenius’ voice is important for the committee.

“Just because House Republicans don’t take climate change or protecting Minnesota’s water and air seriously doesn’t mean that the majority of Minnesotans agree with them,” Thissen said. “Rep. Jean Wagenius is a woman of great integrity who would bring much needed experience to the important work of the environment committee.”

Democrats’ rural problems two years ago were not limited to the Wagenius chairmanship. They also took heat by making Minneapolis’ Thissen speaker and Erin Murphy of St. Paul majority leader, skipping over Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth. He had run to give a rural balance to leadership; next year he will be an assistant minority leader after 10 rural seats flipped from Democrat to Republican in the November vote.

Bachman doesn’t go quietly

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann surprised no one as she exited Congress for the unknown.

The Republican firebrand was critical of Democratic President Barack Obama to his face at a White House holiday party, she weaved critical remarks around thank-yous in her final floor speech and she sent an email blasting her own party’s congressional leaders.

“Speaker John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and the GOP leadership cut a deal with the Obama Democrats to approve another staggering $1.1 trillion in new spending,” she wrote in an email from her political action committee. “What happened to the Republican commitment to fight the reckless Obama agenda, balance the budget and save our country?”

She added: “Unfortunately, I can’t say I am surprised. Dismayed, disappointed and angry — but not surprised.”

Franken for Hillary

Hillary Clinton has the support of both of Minnesota’s Democratic U.S. senators.

Sen. Al Franken told MSNBC that he is in the Clinton camp. Amy Klobuchar already expressed her support, despite talk that she could be a presidential candidate herself.

Clinton has not announced she is running in 2016, but she is expected to and is considered the leading Democratic candidate, by far.

“I think that Hillary would make a great president,” Franken said in the MSNBC interview.

“I think that I’m ready for Hillary,” he said. “I mean, I think that we’ve not had someone this experienced, this tough, and she’s very, very impressive.”

 Solid agreement already

Minnesota’s legislative leaders and governor are feeling out each other to find out what to expect in the coming legislative session, but they already agree on one thing.

“We are going to the last day,” House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, predicted.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said he, too, thinks legislators will use every day until the constitutional deadline to adjourn. He said all deadlines for the session will be set with that date in mind.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton probably would not argue. He often has said that the nature of a Legislature is to use all of the available time.

The 2015 session begins at noon Jan. 6. And while it must end by May 18, Dayton could call legislators back into session if they do not complete a budget or new issues arise. However, Dayton has shown a reluctance to call special sessions.

Seifert to lobby

Former state Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, will lobby for greater Minnesota issues in the 2015 Minnesota Legislature.

He has joined the Flaherty and Hood law firm, which represents the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and several cities that belong to that group.

Seifert has lost two campaigns for governor, including a Republican primary loss this year in which he ran as the only greater Minnesota candidate.

Franken in Uber fight

The fast-growing Uber transportation service and U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota are engaged in a privacy battle.

Franken, an outspoken privacy advocate and chairman of a subcommittee on the subject, has complained about Uber’s data collection practices. He also has wondered whether Uber misuses consumer data.

“I believe Americans have a fundamental right to privacy, and that right includes the ability to control who is getting your personal location information and who it’s being shared with,” Franken said. “I recently pressed Uber to explain the scope, transparency and enforceability of their privacy policies. While I’m pleased that they replied to my letter, I am concerned about the surprising lack of detail in their response.”

Uber’s response indicated that the company that connects riders with drivers for hire has disciplined its workers who broke its privacy policy.

Part of the problem, as Franken explains it, is that the global positioning system Uber uses allows the new company to track riders’ locations.

Pawlenty happy out of politics

Pawlenty meets media

By Don Davis

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was not involved in the 2014 election, and seems just happy with that.

“I have kinda taken a political sabbatical,” Pawlenty told reporters Friday after he talked to Republican state House members.

However, he later sent a message to reporters that he meant that he was retired from politics.

“I think I had a full run,” he said, reminding reporters that he spent three years on the Eagan City Council, 10 in the state House and eight as governor before his unsuccessful run for president. “I don’t know what more I can do.”

Pawlenty said he avoided politics this year, but House GOP leaders invited him to speak to their caucus before they picked a speaker and other leaders.

“This is an enormous privilege,” he said was his message, especially to newly elected lawmakers who gave Republicans the House majority.

He advised the members, and any Republicans looking to win, that they stick to the basics “that people care about” like jobs and public safety. GOP candidates need to learn to appeal better to independent voters, he added.

Pawlenty said that this year’s election reminded him of his last Minnesota campaign, with Democrats and Republicans splitting wins.

“Minnesota is unpredictable,” he said. “It is not unlike 2006. … Minnesotans want to balance things out.”

Pawlenty was the last Minnesota Republican to win a statewide office.

Since his presidential bid failed, Pawlenty has led the Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, D.C. He said he returns to Minnesota every week to the same Eagan house where he has lived for years.

Rural votes decide House control

New House GOP majority

By Charley Shaw and Don Davis

Rod Hamilton summarized the Republican takeover of the Minnesota House: “This election should be a wakeup call to all state leaders! Do not turn your back on greater Minnesota!!”

Indeed, the Mountain Lake Republican legislator’s tweet pointed out, 10 of 11 House seats Republicans picked up from Democrats came from outside of the Twin Cities.

The GOP rural performance gave the party a say in state policy after Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office the past two years. Voters Tuesday retained Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, while the Democrat-controlled Senate was not up for election.

With the Tuesday election, it appears Republicans will control the House by a 72-62 tally after Democrats held a 73-61 edge for two years. However, one race is headed toward a mandatory recount.

Republicans and Dayton agreed on Wednesday that they did not want gridlock like occurred when Republicans controlled the Legislature and a newly elected Dayton was in the governor’s office in 2011. That was when state government shut down for three weeks as the two sides could not agree on a budget. Dayton and House Republicans said Wednesday they would give no promise that will not happen again next year.

If Republicans do not want to compromise, Dayton said, “it’s a prescription to gridlock unless we rise above it.”

House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt of Crown, one of at least two people running for speaker on Friday, said that cooperation “is up to the Democrats.”

There was plenty of talk about hope among those headed to the Capitol when the new Legislature convenes Jan. 6.

“I’m excited about working with a good two-party system,” Rep.-Elect Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said as Republicans celebrated their House majority.

He learned that he beat Democratic Rep. Mary Sawatzky just before 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, who said that in her first term “we made great strides across the board in carrying for people.”

In a story heard often, the race between Baker and Sawatzky had been the target of a massive advertising blitz by the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as by outside political action groups that had filled voters’ mailboxes with fliers during the campaign season.

Like many Republicans who won Tuesday, Baker said he ran for office because he believed that in the past two years the state produced a “bad tax policy” that was harming private sector job growth and there were “too many unfunded mandates in public schools.”

Daudt said Republicans won in greater Minnesota because Democrats ignored the area outside of the Twin Cities.

“We are not going to forget about any part of the state, especially rural Minnesota,” said Daudt, who lives on a farm north of the Twin Cities.

But House Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis said that his party has taken care of rural Minnesota.

“If you look at the objective facts, I think we did quite well for greater Minnesota,” Thissen said, citing additional funding for nursing home, education and broadband.

The biggest factor in losing the House majority, the speaker said, was low turnout. Just half of Minnesota’s voters cast ballots Tuesday, with the average in recent non-presidential years about 60 percent. When turnout is low, it generally is because Democrats stay home.

“We need to really think from our party perspective about what we missed in some of those races this year,” Thissen said.

Twenty-six new members (or those returning after an absence) will be sworn in on when the 2015 session convenes; all but five are Republican.

Most of the 11 Democratic incumbents who lost Tuesday were first-termers, but veterans ousted included greater Minnesota Democratic veteran Reps. John Ward of Baxter, Andrew Falk of Murdock and Patti Fritz of Faribault.

DFLers held onto all but one of several competitive seats in the Twin Cities suburbs that they had picked up in 2012. The exception was House District 56B where Rep. Will Morgan, D-Burnsville, lost to Republican businesswoman Roz Peterson of Lakeville.

Like in rural Minnesota, parts of the Twin Cities likely will continue to be a battleground as many contests were decided by slim margins, notably House District 48A where Rep. Yvonne Selcer, D-Minnetonka, awaits an automatic recount in the race that shows she beat former GOP Rep. Kirk Stensrud by 36 votes.

Among crucial House races:

2A: Republican Dave Hancock of Bemidji was first elected to the House in 2010 and served one term before he was defeated in 2012 by Rep. Roger Erickson, D-Baudette. Hancock, who co-owned a tire and automotive business for many years, won his seat back on Tuesday in a rematch by 4.87 percentage points. The district was predictably difficult for DFLers, having been won in 2012 by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and on Tuesday by GOP 8th Congressional District candidate Stewart Mills.

10A: Four-term DFL House member John Ward of Baxter, who had managed to win decisive re-elections in previous years despite the Republican tilt to his district, met his match against Republican Josh Heintzeman of Nisswa. Ward won in 2010 by 15 points despite that year’s GOP wave that sent many DFLers in greater Minnesota packing. Heintzeman runs a log construction business.

10B: The victor of one of the DFL’s biggest upsets in 2012, Rep. Joe Radinovich, D-Crosby, knew he had a big target on his back in his rematch with Republican farmer from Aitkin, Dale Lueck. Radinovich won the first contest by a mere 1.47 points in a district that favored GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney by 9 points, but succumbed to Lueck on Tuesday by 3.86 points.

11B: Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, has had one of the most volatile electoral rides of any lawmaker in recent memory. Faust met his second re-election defeat on Tuesday in his east-central Minnesota district that also includes Mora and Pine City. Faust was first elected in 2006 on his second try to unseat former GOP Rep. Judy Soderstrom. He lost his seat in the subsequent 2010 election only for voters to send him back to St. Paul in 2012. After one term back in the House, Faust, a Lutheran minister, lost the swing district to Republican Jason Rarick, an electrical contractor from Pine City.

12A: Jeff Backer, a businessman and former mayor of Browns Valley, successfully won the seat from first-term Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake. McNamar had beaten his Republican opponent in 2012 points with an Independence Party candidate getting 6.14 percent of the vote.

14B: Jim Knoblach, who previously served six terms in the House and is a former Ways and Means Committee chairman, will return to the House. Knoblach, who retired from the House in 2006 to run unsuccessfully for Congress, won back his House seat against first-term DFL incumbent Zach Dorholt by 0.61 point, barely exceeding the threshold required to avoid an automatic recount.

17A: Rep. Andrew Falk, D-Murdock, saw his bid for a fourth term representing western Minnesota counties of Swift, Chippewa and Renville Counties upended by Tim Miller. The race was a rematch from 2012 when Falk beat Miller by a 7.9-point margin. Miller, a consultant from Prinsburg, eased past Falk on Tuesday by 10.9 points. Falk, a farmer, had worked extensively on agriculture and renewable issues in the House.

17B: Throughout Tuesday night, the race between Rep. Mary Sawatzky, D-Willmar, and her Republican challenger Dave Baker was agonizingly close. At times the secretary of state’s website showed a difference of less than a quarter of 1 percent. In the end, Baker, a hospitality business owner from Willmar, unseated the first-termer Sawatzky in a district that has swung back-and-forth since veteran DFLer Al Juhnke was upset in 2010.

24B: Rep. Patti Fritz, D-Faribault, lost her bid for a sixth term. Fritz, a nurse and leading advocate for anti-abortion issues that split the House DFL caucus, had won close elections before. This was another close contest. But Fritz was on the losing side of a race decided by 1.87 percentage points in favor of first-time candidate Brian Daniels. Daniels is a businessman and brother of Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, who ran unopposed this year.

27A: Republican challenger Peggy Bennett won big on Tuesday. The Albert Lea elementary school teacher beat first-term Democratic incumbent Shannon Savick of Wells by 13 points, with the wild-card factor that Independence Party candidate Thomas Keith Price of Alden garnered 6.9 percent of the vote. Democrats lost the House seat despite winning 27A in the governor’s, Congressional and U.S. Senate races. The southern Minnesota district has flipped between Republicans and Democrats in the last three House elections.

48A: Before Democrats’ hopes of holding onto control of the state House were dashed in greater Minnesota, victories in competitive districts in the Twin Cities suburbs provided them with early optimism on Tuesday night. Things have preliminarily gone the DFL’s way in 48A where Rep. Yvonne Selcer, D-Minnetonka, won by 36 votes, an outcome so slim that state law requires an automatic recount. Assuming the recount doesn’t change things, Selcer, a former Hopkins school board chairwoman, will have won a second term by defeating the seat’s former GOP incumbent Kirk Stensrud, whom she beat in 2012 by 202 votes, or 0.82 percentage point.

56B: Although the Twin Cities suburbs are loaded with swing districts, this Burnsville/Lakeville district was the only GOP pickup on Tuesday. Commercial realtor and Lakeville school board chairwoman Roz Peterson won a rematch with Rep. Will Morgan, D-Burnsville, from the race she lost two years ago by 0.8 percentage point. The race was one of that year’s marquee DFL pickups in the Twin Cities area, and Peterson began campaigning for a rematch shortly afterwards. On Tuesday she unseated Morgan, a Burnsville High School physics teacher, by 8.16 points. Morgan had served two terms in the House from 2007 to 2011, before himself being defeated and then regaining his seat in 2012.

Voters split their picks

Dayton

By Don Davis

Minnesota retains its reputations for being, well, unpredictable when it comes to elections.

In Tuesday’s election, the state’s voters gave two Democratic former recount survivors relatively easy victories, but turned over control of the state House to Republicans. They gave Democrats wins in two hotly contested U.S. House races, with one a razor-thin margin.

And a third party no longer will get state perks.

One look at maps illustrating the vote leads to a definite conclusion: Minnesotans are not shy about splitting tickets.

The most dramatic map would be of the U.S. House representation. Three massive mostly rural districts, along with Hennepin and Ramsey counties, elected five Democrats to the U.S. House. Three suburban districts, a far smaller acreage, picked Republicans for Congress.

Look on the map of where Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton drew votes and there are some clusters, such as the urban and northeastern areas. Republican Jeff Johnson did well in most rural counties, even those that voted for Democratic U.S. House candidates. It is just that most of those counties have fewer residents than where Dayton won.

Bring out the map for the state House races and you have a Republican domination.

Tuesday was a split verdict.

“We did very well in Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis counties,” a happy Dayton said Wednesday.

But, he said in response to reporters’ questions, that does not mean that he will ignore less populated counties that voted for Johnson.

“We made a lot of progress in the state, but there is a long ways to go,” he said, adding that he likes to travel the state talking to its residents — and that will not change in his final term in office.

“I am not going to sit in St. Paul the next four years,” he declared.

Election returns will not affect him, he added.

For Dayton, Tuesday marked a first and a last. It was the first time he tried to be elected to a second term, after opting against running a second time for state auditor and U.S. senator. On the other hand, he has said that at 67 this was his last election.

Across the state, Dayton beat Johnson 50 percent to 45 percent in complete but unofficial returns. The five-point win was big compared to his race four years ago that was decided by a recount.

Even more luxurious was Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s 202,899-vote margin over Republican Mike McFadden. Franken beat then-Sen. Norm Coleman by 312 votes after a lengthy recount and court battle in the 2008 election.

All statewide winners were Democrats, as they have been since Republican Tim Pawlenty won his second term in the governor’s office eight years ago.

The closest race came for secretary of state to replace retiring Secretary Mark Ritchie. Democrat Steve Simon received 22,408 more votes than Republican Dan Severson. Other statewide winners were incumbent Democrats Auditor Rebecca Otto and Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Statewide Democratic winners came in the face of a national Republican wave that washed the party into control of the U.S. Senate and boosted GOP’s U.S. House members, too.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party statewide victories came despite a low turnout that normally spells trouble for the party.

“Turnout was clearly an issue,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, whose Democrats face being a House minority. “I suppose there are a lot of reasons for that. There wasn’t a particularly exciting statewide campaign.”

Two of the most exciting races came in mostly rural U.S. House districts.

Incumbent Democrat Rick Nolan and Republican challenger Stewart Mills waited until early Wednesday to learn that Nolan is headed back to Washington after winning 49 percent to 47 percent in the north-central, northeast and east-central part of the state.

In the large western Minnesota congressional district, 24-year veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson had an easier time beating Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom 54 percent to 46 percent.

About half of the state’s 3.9 million registered voters went to the polls Tuesday or voted via newly legal early ballots. Ritchie said that in the last non-presidential general election, in 2010, turnout was 56 percent and in 2006 it was 60 percent.

Since there will be no statewide races in 2016, Republicans have four years to figure out how to get a winner.

It may take longer than that for the Independence Party, made famous by Gov. Jesse Ventura as the Reform Party. Since before Ventura was elected in 1998, the party carried legal status of a “major party,” giving its candidates easier ballot access and the chance to get state campaign money.

However, a major party must obtain at least 5 percent support in a statewide race, which it failed to do on Tuesday. That means Independence candidates will be treated by the state like other third parties, such as the Greens and Libertarians.