Bells to note Civil War’s end anniversary

Crowder

Crowder

Bill Crowder played a bugle Thursday as history, military and political leaders gathered in Gov. Mark Dayton’s office to urge Minnesotans to commemorate 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War by ringing bells on April 9.

“Bells have long been ringing in our country for many reasons,” state Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said. “They commemorate births, deaths, sadness, alarm and warning. They sounded in April of 1865, at least in the North, when the war ended. They joyously proclaimed the end of this horrible conflict and may they ring again, may they peel again, on April 9 to commemorate what happened 150 years ago.”

Minnesota will note its contributions to the Civil War, joining icons such as the Liberty Bell, in the nationwide event.

Crowder, a Mounds View Civil War re-enactor, played his bugle when Dayton and other dignitaries entered the room, then accepted a governor proclamation commemorating the April 9 event.

Those at a gathering of said Minnesota has a special reason to note the war’s end since the state was the first to send volunteers to help the North and they were involved in major battles.

Minnesota Adjutant General Richard Nash, who leads the National Guard, said the state sent 22,000 soldiers to the war “from a developing state.”

Since Minnesota became a state in 1858, three years before the Civil War started, many volunteers had not had a chance to become American citizens, Dayton said, and some could not speak English.

“I have always been proud that Minnesota was the first state to defend the union in the Civil War,” said Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, himself a Navy Reserve officer.

Throughout the war, Minnesota soldiers were in major battles, including Gettysburg and Appomattox.

“Almost 2,500 Minnesotans … gave their lives to preserve their nation,” the governor said.

It is tough for today’s Americans to understand the Civil War, Reinert said. “As deep as sometimes we think our divides are, I cannot imagine anything as deep as that.”

“Bells Across the Land” organizers ask that bells in churches, temples, schools, public building history sites and elsewhere ring at 2:15 p.m. April 9. They are to toll four minutes.

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

Kelly, Daudt

Kelly, Daudt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The $7 billion plan includes:

— $4 billion for state roads.

— $583 million for city roads.

— $60 million for township roads.

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

— $1.4 billion for county roads.

— $139 million for greater Minnesota bus services.

— $164 million for Twin Cities transit improvements.

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans Daudt, Hann, Kelly

Republicans Daudt, Hann, Kelly

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

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

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

The $7 billion plan includes:

— $4 billion for state roads.

— $583 million for city roads.

— $60 million for township roads.

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

— $1.4 billion for county roads.

— $139 million for greater Minnesota bus services.

— $164 million for Twin Cities transit improvements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesotans in oil train ‘danger zones’ urged to prepare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

Anoka, 41,389

Becker, 6,975

Benton, 14,320

Chippewa, 1,465

Clay, 19,449

Dakota, 2,165

Douglas, 322

Goodhue, 6,711

Grant, 2,803

Hennepin, 59,359

Houston, 1,262

Kandiyohi, 9798

Lincoln, 10

Lyon, 5,550

Meeker, 1,673

Morrison, 5,163

Otter Tail, 4,137

Pipestone, 4,122

Pope, 855

Ramsey, 44,967

Rock, 831

Sherburne, 16,577

Stearns, 7,468

Stevens, 4,945

Swift, 4,186

Todd, 1,880

Traverse, 68

Wabasha, 5,937

Wadena, 2,790

Washington, 8,436

Wilkin, 2613

Winona, 22,325

Wright, 13,960

Yellow Medicine, 1,659

Forum News Service reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

 

State moves to protect 326,170 Minnesotans near oil trains

Oil Transport Safety

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

326,170 Minnesotans live near oil train tracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MNsure reform advances

The prime Senate advocate of MNsure becoming a state agency says his legislation follows recommendations in a report critical of the health insurance exchange.

Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, told the Minnesota Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday that he slowed down progress on his bill earlier this legislative session when he was criticized that it was out in front of an Office of Legislative Auditor’s report.

That report came out last month and also suggested that MNsure be a state agency, leading Lourey to proceed with is legislation.

“We need to do better,” Lourey said, and turning it over to the governor and Legislature would increase its accountability to the public.

MNsure was established in 2013 with a governor-appointed, but independent, board to govern the health insurance selling program. It got off to a rocky start, with a variety of problems.

Politically, Republicans generally oppose MNsure and Democrats support it, although there is a bipartisan feeling that changes are needed.

The Senate committee passed the Lourey bill Wednesday, sending it to the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, wanted to eliminate MNsure and let Minnesotans buy health care insurance from a federal health care exchange similar to MNsure.

“My hope is there is a way to salvage this,” he said about MNsure, “but I don’t know that we can.”

Gazelka dropped an amendment to “gut” MNsure, but said it could return later in the legislative session.

A successful amendment by Rep. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, would require MNsure to publish insurance rates 30 days before enrollment begins each fall so Minnesotans have the information early.

Wednesday’s hearing followed by a day a House committee vote to get rid of MNsure and by two days a request from Gov. Mark Dayton that lawmakers approve spending $500,000 to fund a task force that would recommend how, or if, MNsure operates.

A House health and human resources committee voted along party lines, supported by Republicans, to eliminate MNsure and utilize a federal web-based insurance sales program. It would take effect if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that subsidies offered via state health care exchanges can go ahead under federal control.

Republicans say the Legislature needs to act now to save the state money.

Dayton told legislative leaders that he wants the task force to investigate how to best run MNsure, and he even brought up the possibility that the state program be eliminated, with the equivalent federal operation taking over.

The Democratic governor is a MNsure supporter, but has said he prefers something along the lines of what Lourey suggests.

Education leads Dayton budget, with elderly care officials disappointed

Dayton

Dayton

By Don Davis, Forum News Service

and David Montgomery, St. Paul Pioneer Press

Gov. Mark Dayton proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending for education and families Tuesday, leaving some senior citizens’ advocates disappointed with what they said is a too-small increase.

The governor’s $866 million proposed budget increase would freeze tuition at state colleges and universities, start a new universal state-funded prekindergarten program and give more than $160 million to lower-income families. In all, Dayton is proposing to spend nearly 80 percent of the state’s $1.9 billion surplus on “Minnesota children, students and families.”

“I believe in these investments because Minnesota faces real challenges ahead,” Dayton said.

As Dayton updated his two-year, $42.5 billion budget proposal with new budget surplus funds, he added $25 million for nursing homes that complain state money does not allow them to pay enough to keep employees.

Nursing home leaders said the increase Dayton suggests in his revised budget is not enough, but said they are optimistic about a legislative funding increase plan that started at $200 million.

Dayton said he is open to spending more once he sees legislative proposals. He did not know how much his $25 million would raise nursing home workers’ wages, which is the main focus of the money.

“I anticipate the Legislature might very well want to go beyond that, and I’m certainly agreeable to doing so,” Dayton said.

Vice President-Senior Services Carol Raw of Morris-based St. Francis Health Services said the $25 million “is not going to solve our problems,” but added that it is a good sign that Dayton included anything.

President and CEO Mark Anderson of the Knute Nelson care center in Alexandria said he is hopeful the legislative proposal will prevail, but also appreciates that nursing homes are on Dayton’s radar.

While Dayton, a Democrat, concentrated funding on young Minnesotans’ education, Anderson said the reality is that by 2020, there will be more senior citizens than school-age children as 60,000 people turn 65 each year.

Administrator Deb Barnes of Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center in Fairmont said that for years, it seemed no one listened to nursing home needs. That is, until this year, when legislators decided “we need to look at grand reform,” she said.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the Dayton nursing home figure is too small, but predicted the final number will be smaller than what care facilities sought.

“Republicans have been talking for months now about how important it is to reform the way we reimburse nursing homes to make sure that we’re showing these folks the respect they deserve,” the speaker said. “We think that number needs to be probably closer to $160 million over the next biennium.”

A group feeling it didn’t receive enough attention, and is unhappy, represents those who care for the elderly and disabled in their homes. They are behind the 5 Percent Campaign, an effort to boost funding.

“Members of The 5 Percent Campaign are stunned that Gov. Dayton’s supplemental budget includes funding for nursing homes, but not a rate increase for home and community-based services,” said Bruce Nelson of the campaign. “It’s really a matter of fairness. It’s important that caregivers in home and community-based services are treated the same as those in nursing homes.”

About 19,000 American Indian students throughout the state, 93 percent of all Indian students, would benefit from $15 million more that Daytona folded into his budget, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said. The money would be used to improve academic achievement and reduce the dropout rate.

Dayton proposed spending $10 million to build 650 housing units in greater Minnesota communities that have job openings but housing shortages.

While Dayton had already announced his prekindergarten plan and tuition freeze, along with a tax credit for middle-income parents and caregivers, some of his welfare proposals were new.

The governor’s proposing $68 million to increase state assistance for low-income families. That aid that hasn’t been changed since 1986, meaning its value has plummeted due to inflation. A bill from DFL Sen. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis and Republican Rep. Mary Franson of Alexandria would implement a similar increase.

Dayton also wants to spend $83 million to expand eligibility for the Working Family Tax Credit, given to lower-income families, along with $11 million more to help parents buy school supplies and $50 million on child protection.

Leaders of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems praised the governor’s budget for funding tuition freezes, while the teachers union Education Minnesota also backed it.

This is just the opening salvo in budget negotiations that are likely to last until May. A final state budget needs to be approved by Dayton, the Republican-run House and the DFL-controlled Senate.

Legislative budget plans are due out next week.

While Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that he wants to raise state aid to local governments, Dayton did not include any in his Tuesday budget. Bakk said Monday that he expects some increase by the time lawmakers go home in May.

“By failing to support an increase in Local Government Aid, the message Governor Dayton sent to families and businesses in greater Minnesota is that even with a $1.9 billion dollar surplus the state doesn’t have the commitment, resources or will to invest in your community,” said Ely City Council member Heidi Omerza, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities president.

Nursing home leaders have been regular Capitol visitors this year as they try to get more money so they can pay staffs higher wages. They have told legislators that workers often go to higher-paying jobs at hospitals, or even fast-food places. Wages are determined by how much money the state provides.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” said Raw, whose Morris employer owns a dozen nursing homes around the state from Thief River Falls to Duluth to Renville. “I am feeling better than I have in probably the last 10 or 15 years.”

The $200 million in the initial legislation was what nursing homes need to meet their expenses, Raw said. “We need something that is sustainable.”

“We have critical, critical issues in our nursing facilities,” she added. “We are so far behind that we are desperate for whatever we can get.”

In Alexandria, Anderson said that with a rapidly increasing number of aging Minnesotans, nursing home funding reform is needed.

“Something needs to be done … to ensure that we are able to find sustainable funding sources for the care centers,” Anderson said.

Whatever is done, he added, requires the state to invest more money.

Doug Belden of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

Railroads would pay under safety plan

Williams

Williams

Railroads should foot the bill of improving rail safety, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday as he announced a proposal to tax them nearly $100 million annually.

The Democratic governor also suggested borrowing almost $80 million to improve railroad crossing safety and reduce congestion, as well as increasing training for public safety personnel who would deal with derailments.

The proposal would fund 75 railroad safety improvements around the state, mostly better crossings. The most expensive work, which Dayton wants to come from borrowed money, would be installation of bridges to separate tracks from roads in Moorhead, Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids.

In announcing his plan, Dayton was adamant that the state’s four largest railroads should pay for safety.

“Minnesotans did not cause these disruptions; they are not responsible for the endless barrage of dangerous cargo being shipped through their communities every day,” Dayton said. “The railroads responsible for the problems have a responsibility to pay for these essential safety improvements.”

The governor said congestion has delayed shipments of products ranging from farm goods to coal destined for power plants. It also delays the public wanting to cross railroad tracks and public safety personnel headed to emergencies, he said.

Like a Democratic legislative proposal announced earlier in the week, most of the money in Dayton’s plan would go to improving railroad crossings.

Railroad officials say if the state raises their taxes, they will take Minnesota to federal court. The railroads say federal law bans the state putting some of the proposed taxes on them, although Dayton said his revenue commissioner assures him it is legal.

“If they want to take us to court, that shows their true colors,” Dayton said.

Dayton’s rail safety funding plan would raise $33 million a year by increasing an existing assessment on the four largest Minnesota railroads. He also would increase railroads’ property taxes by starting to tax cars, bridges and other property now now taxes, bringing in $45 million a year for local governments to spend as they wish and another $21 million for the state.

Dayton and his Democratic colleagues should not expect Republicans to embrace their plans.

“While the governor and I agree that our railroad crossings need improvements, the funding source is still the main issue,” House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said.

Republicans generally say no new taxes are needed to deal with transportation improvements.

Kelly plans to announce his transportation funding plan next week.

Dayton hosted rail safety summits around the state last summer and fall. While they began as discussions about trains hauling North Dakota oil through Minnesota, rail congestion quickly entered the discussion.

Dayton said he regularly hears stories about waits from 10 minutes to 30 minutes.

Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, one of several local officials who joined Dayton at his rail safety announcement, said that railroad crossing safety issues always are on her mind, especially given a North Dakota derailment and explosion not far from her community.

However, she said, the public talks to her more about being forced to wait at rail crossings. “They are mostly annoyed.”

With five sets of tracks going through her town, three through downtown, there are 106 crossings of roads a day. Five to seven are trains hauling crude oil from western North Dakota.

Williams said that her community does not like the closed railroad crossings that can delay law enforcement, fire and ambulance responses to emergencies.

Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin, a former fire chief, said that his city’s fire department is well prepared for railroad problems, but “at the same time that (oil train derailment) is going to be very catastrophic if it happens in downtown Willmar.”

Since Willmar has a switching yard, he said, trains often go slow through the area, closing crossings for long periods of time.

BNSF Railway Co. and Willmar are working together to install a rail bypass on the west side of the city, with Dayton suggesting that the state fund an overpass.

One of the most unusual stories came from Police Chief Jon Priem of the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing, who said that oil carrying trains, as well as others, cross the only road leading to the community and its casino, Treasure Island. If the crossing is closed for a short time, he said, a helicopter may be called in to transport medical patients, but a longer closing such as forced by an oil train derailment could result in other emergency services being unable to reach the scene.

Prairie Island has dealt with hosting a nuclear power plant for decades, but with oil trains passing through, the police chief said: “There is a new concern that has been added.”

While state officials could not say just how many Minnesotans live within what is considered a half-mile danger zone from tracks carrying oil trains — Dayton said it was “hundreds of thousands” — Coon Rapids Fire Chief John Piper said that a third of his city’s 62,000 residents live there.

Local officials could not point to any cases of death or medical conditions made worse because of public safety equipment delays at railroad tracks. However, Calvin said that fires double in size every minute, so a crossing delay will increase fire damage.

The Dayton plan includes borrowing $3.1 million to construct a training facility at the National Guard’s Camp Ripley. It would help public safety personnel learn about dealing with emergencies such as oil fires.

 

Political Chatter: Boy’s death leads to abuse law updates

It’s not how Eric Dean’s family would have wanted to remember him, but his 2013 death could prevent the same fate from visiting other Minnesota children.

The Legislature is passing bills to remove some obstacles that apparently limited Pope County Pope County authorities’ information about 4-year-old Dean. Had authorities seen information about 15 previous child abuse complaints, Dean may still be alive.

The first of a series of bills unanimously passed the House and Senate, with Gov. Mark Dayton’s strong support.

“This new law will restore an important layer of protection that will help identify abuse and enhance the safety of our children,” Dayton said.

Dayton pledges to add $50 million to child protection services this year.

More bills are expected from the Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children, launched after the Dean case came to light, made its final recommendations.

The first set of changes makes some changes that may mean little to the public, but advocates say will mean to lot to abused kids.

For instance, the bill repeals a law that stops social workers from taking into account previous child abuse reports. It also clearly states that child safety is the top priority when dealing with children, not keeping a family together as often is the top priority now.

“This important bill will allow caseworkers to form a more complete picture and consider all important information when making decisions,” Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said. “Our child protection laws should focus on the health and safety of the child above all else. My heart breaks for the innocent victims who were not protected by the system in the past, but these changes are a fantastic step toward preventing tragedies in the future.”

The Dayton report

A spokesman says Gov. Mark Dayton’s annual two-day physical examination at Mayo Clinic in Rochester ended Wednesday with him receiving a clean bill of health.

He showed his health later in the week by showcasing both his humor and feistiness.

The latter was evident when he took after Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who has a bill based on Dayton’s proposal to require buffer strips along Minnesota water.

Torkelson said on Thursday that his bill would change, seemingly with fewer buffer requirements. Dayton did not like that.

“A lot of them like the status quo, that is everyone can do what they want,” Dayton said. “That is why we have water so polluted in southwest Minnesota that fish can’t live in it and kids can’t swim in it.”

Talking through reporters to Torkelson and other opponents, Dayton added: “Propose something as an alternative, don’t just reject everything.”

If his buffer zone bill does not become law this year, he promised “to pursue this if it is not successful.”

A buffer, such as grass, is supposed to keep pollution from reaching water.

On the funny side, Dayton revealed that legislative leaders asked him to delay his planned March 25 State of the State speech because lawmakers face some deadlines.

“I am postponing it from March 25 to 2019,” he joked. “I’m going to mail it in.”

But public demand could change his plans, he added. “I am seriously questioning whether the people of Minnesota can last another couple of weeks until they get to hear the State of the State.”

No new date has been set for the speech, but it is a safe bet it will be before 2019.

In other Dayton news, he said that he will release an updated budget plan Tuesday. It will take the budget proposal he offered on Jan. 27 and make changes to take into account that the predicted state budget surplus now is $1.9 billion instead of the $1 billion state officials expected a couple of months ago.

Franken wants wolf funds

U.S. Sen. Al Franken has told two Cabinet secretaries that it is important to provide federal funding to pay Minnesota farmers who lose livestock to wolves.

The Minnesota Democrat wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to keep funding flowing after a federal judge put wolves on the endangered list in Great Lakes states, a decision that took away options for farmers to protect their livestock.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed eliminating funding for the program.

 

Layoffs loom, but Target to stay in Minnesota

Smith, Dayton

Smith, Dayton

The Target Corp. leader promises to keep the company headquartered in Minneapolis as reports indicate thousands from the corporate office will be laid off.

Gov. Mark Dayton said that was a message he received during a 45-minute Monday meeting he and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith held with Target CEO Brian Cornell. The governor, whose family founded Target, said he came away from the meeting optimistic that the company is doing what it can for those who will lose jobs, and the state will provide help if needed.

“This is about their future growth as a company,” Dayton said.

Target last week announced it aims to cut $2 billion from its budget, mostly by eliminating several thousand jobs in its Minnesota and India corporate headquarters.

“It’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be painful,” Dayton said. “There’s no sugar-coating this for anyone.”

It is widely rumored that the layoffs will begin this morning, but Target officials refused to confirm that.

Dayton said he would leave it up to Target to provide details of the layoffs, but said Cornell suggested a follow-up conference call. The governor said that will happen Friday, lending credence to the rumor that something would happen this week.

In an email, Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said the governor and Cornell discussed “Target’s transformation plans and our recent announcement that, as a part of those plans, there will be a reduction of several thousand positions. We shared with the governor that we believe these transformative steps will help ensure that Target continues to grow and thrive in Minnesota.”

Target executives have said little about the layoffs.

About 10,000 work at a Target corporate campus in downtown Minneapolis and 3,000 in Brooklyn Park, a Minneapolis suburb.

Dayton said that the state is willing to help laid off workers find new jobs in Minnesota, but that Target is ahead of the state on the issue.

The governor said Cornell feels it is very important to help the workers and find “open doors for them to pursue.”

Dayton expressed concerns that talented Target workers could look for work in other states.

“I am very, very concerned,” he said. “These are very talented people.”

Smith said it is possible that some of those workers will start new businesses in the state.

Dayton said that as Target makes its business stronger, there is a chance that it will buy more goods and services from other Minnesota businesses.

Even though the Target news is not good for Minnesota, Smith told reporters that the number of the company’s workers “is just a fraction of the number of people who work in downtown Minneapolis.”

Smith also said that Cornell promised that Target would continue its charitable contributions during the budget cutting effort.

Dayton said that while his family founded the company that morphed into Target, he has no emotional attachment in the company.

“It was a very important company to my family and thousands of Minnesotans,” Dayton said, but his family has been out of the business for years.

His 96-year-old father, Bruce, is the last remaining Dayton who founded Target Corp. in 1962.

Madeline Koch of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development said the state has not been notified of a Target layoff.

She said DEED did receive a layoff notice from a previous Target layoff in January, when the discounter said it would lay off 550 employees who worked on its failed expansion into Canada.

“We have been in close contact with the company since and will continue to provide dislocated worker support to separated employees,” Koch said.

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

Transportation brings together Bakk, Dayton

Dayton, Bakk

Dayton, Bakk

“Let’s create a photo op.”

With those words from Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, and a hug with Gov. Mark Dayton, the two most powerful Minnesota Democrats publicly made peace Thursday, after a nearly month-long spat.

The two were in Dayton’s office promoting their plans to raise taxes for a $6 billion decade-long transportation plan. When a reporter asked how the two were getting along, Bakk invited journalists to take his picture with the governor as he put his right hand on Dayton’s shoulder; Dayton tentatively put his hand on Bakk’s back.

They smiled at each other and declared all is well with their political relationship. Bakk said the two are doing fine and Dayton said they are doing their best to serve Minnesotans.

When the news conference started, the two stood awkwardly side by side, wearing serious expressions and not taking note of each other. That all changed when Bakk launched the photo opportunity.

It is a notable accomplishment because a month ago Dayton raised the salaries of his commissioners by as much as $35,000 a year, telling legislators about it weeks later. Bakk quickly sponsored legislation to delay the raises, prompting Dayton to launch into harsh criticism of the Senate leader.

Dayton said Bakk, D-Cook, connived and was a backstabber and said he no longer would meet with Bakk without a witness present. They since said they made up, but Thursday was the first public appearance they planned together.

The appearance came as Senate transportation leaders joined Dayton in promoting their similar transportation plans.

The event featured a large map showing 26 locations the administration has been to promote the transportation proposal.

When a reporter noted that just one of the visits came in the northern part of the state, Dayton immediately responded that he plans to visit Moorhead and Bemidji next week. His spokesman said timing and other details of the visits are to be worked out.

In Moorhead, Dayton likely will discuss the need to build overpasses to allow trains to pass through the city with less traffic disruption. In Bemidji, Minnesota 371 improvements are bound to be on the agenda.

The governor also plans to be in Willmar today.

Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, said Transportation Commission Charlie Zelle plans to be in his city a week from today.

Reinert said greater Minnesota would be especially helped by the governor and Senate plans to increase transportation funding.

Dayton and other Democrats said the House transportation plan is inadequate and a volatile economy means the state needs stable and dedicated funding rather than relying on variable general tax revenues.

House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, says he plans to continue to investigate the real transportation needs and will come up with a full funding plan later this legislative session.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was critical of Democrats for continuing to seek a tax increase.

“Over the last two weeks, we’ve heard bipartisan agreement that Minnesotans don’t support a gas tax increase, and it’s the wrong approach for Minnesota families especially in light of a nearly $2 billion surplus,” Daudt said.