More counties expect flood aid

By Don Davis

More Minnesota counties likely will be added to a presidential flood disaster declaration.

President Barack Obama on Monday declared eight of 51 counties that experienced flood damage this summer as eligible for federal disaster aid. However, Gov. Mark Dayton’s office reports that more counties are expected to join the list as local officials complete their damage assessment.

Dayton said that he initiated the disaster response process before all county damage totals were available to speed federal money to the state.

So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports $37.1 million in damages from floods that begin on June 11. That is nearly $30 million more than needed for Obama to declare a disaster.

The eight counties on the list so far are Chippewa, Freeborn, Jackson, Murray, Nobles, Pipestone, Renville and Rock, mostly southern and western Minnesota rural areas. State Emergency Services Director Kris Eide has said the most expensive damage is in the Twin Cities area.

Federal aid that will follow Obama’s declaration will help local governments pay for flood-related costs such as debris removal, road repairs and fixing other public facilities like parks and water treatment plants.

Washington reimburses 75 percent of disaster costs, with the state picking up the rest. Dayton said that he may call a special legislative session to fund the state portion, but has not decided about the issue, and does not know when a session might occur.

The presidential declaration allows all Minnesota local governments to apply for funds to prevent or reduce future disaster risks to life and property.

While it is possible some aid will be made available to individuals and businesses, the Obama declaration only applies to state and local governments.

“Weeks of torrential downpour this summer triggered devastating flooding that inflicted severe damage all across our state,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. “This disaster declaration will deliver critical funding and support to communities impacted by flooding and help our state rebuild and recover.”

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., called Obama’s decision “a necessary first step to helping residents in the affected counties get back on their feet.”

State officials have called the June flooding, which remains a problem in parts of the state, the most widespread disaster the state has experienced. More than half the state’s 87 counties reported damage.

Political chatter: U.S. House races bring in money, too

By Don Davis

Everyone knew that U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Mike McFadden will run rich campaigns if they face off in November, as expected, but a couple of mostly rural U.S. House races involve more money than usual.

Northern and east-central Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District race between Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan and Republican challenger Stewart Mills is a financial barnburner.

Nolan reports $1 million raised in April, May and June, with $579,000 in the bank. First-time candidate Mills says he raised $989,000 in the same time period and has $429,000 available.

Mills, of the Fleet Farm supply store family, gave his campaign $121,000.

In the 7th district, taking in a huge area of western Minnesota, incumbent Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat, raised $1 million and has most of it in the bank: $717,000. State Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, surprised many observers by picking up $430,000 during the quarter, with $328,000 cash on hand.

National Republican groups have picked Westrom and Mills as two GOP candidates with bright futures and are helping them financially. Both districts are expected to attract lots of money from groups other than the campaigns.

Other incumbents hold massive leads over rivals, such as in southern Minnesota where Democrat Rep. Tim Walz collected more than $1 million for the quarter as two Republicans combined got little more than $200,000.

In the 2nd Congressional District, just south of the Twin Cities, Republican Rep. Kline amassed more than $2 million, with Democrat Mike Obermueller reporting less than $600,000.

For the Franken-McFadden race, incumbent Franken, a Democrat, reported that he took in more than $3.3 million during the quarter and had $5 million in the bank. McFadden, the Republican challenger, says he raised $1.1 million in the same three months, leaving $2 million in the bank.

Auditor race on TV

Minnesotans expect to see television commercials for governor, U.S. Senate and maybe even the U.S. House, but state auditor not so much.

In what may be a first, the two Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party auditor candidates have TV commercials looking for votes in the Aug. 12 primary election.

In what normally is a quiet, or maybe even invisible, campaign, incumbent Rebecca Otto and long-time DFL politician Matt Entenza are competing.

Entenza’s commercial clearly is looking for DFL votes.

“Matt Entenza, progressive for auditor,” his commercial ends.

“Progressive” often is used as another word for “liberal Democrat.”

He promises to “end unnecessary tax giveaways to big corporations,” something traditionally outside the bounds of the state auditor’s office, which usually is thought of as just auditing local governments’ books.

Otto’s commercial closely matches how most in government view the auditor.

She begins her commercial saying that she ran because she discovered “hundreds of millions of dollars in errors” in local government audits. She ends it with: “I will make sure the numbers add up.”

Pre-registration ending

Today is the final day for Minnesota voters to register before the Aug. 12 primary election.

They still may register at the polls, although that could result in a delay casting ballots.

Minnesotans may register online, at mnvotes.org, for the first time this year. They also may see who is running at that Website and download pre-registration applications.

Nearly 5,700 voters have registered online.

Where’s spell checker?

Republican governor candidate Jeff Johnson pointed to an embarrassing spelling error by the campaign of the man he hopes to replace, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Johnson wrote on his Facebook page about his son Thor and a visitor:

“A young man knocked on our door. Thor answered. The young man said, ‘Do you know who your household is voting for in the governor’s race?’

“Thor: ‘Jeff Johnson is my dad, so probably him.’

“Young man: ‘Dude, that’s so cool — I actually got Jeff Johnson’s house on my list. You should give this brochure to your dad; he’ll think it’s funny that they misspelled Minnesota on the top.’”

The young made handed Thor an item headlined: “Help us continue to build a better Minnesta.”

Separately, the Dayton campaign sent a tweet about his running mate: “Red Lake Senior High School on Red Lake Indian Reservation hosted a visited by @Tinaflintsmith today.”

Both campaigns and journalists fear such misspellings and misused words (the fear is especially bad for a journalist writing about someone else’s misspelling).

Thursday a bad day

Thursday was a rough day for those around Minnesota government.

That is when word came of three deaths: President David Olson of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, former state Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba of Long Prairie and Rueben Simpson of New York Mills, the 99-year-old father of Dean Simpson, a former state representatives Kurt Zeller’s lieutenant governor candidate.

Thompson becomes manager

Former Republican governor candidate Dave Thompson has become Scott Newman’s attorney general campaign manager.

Both are GOP state senators.

Thompson, of Lakeville, lost his party’s endorsement for governor to Jeff Johnson. Newman, of Hutchinson, faces token opposition in the Aug. 12 primary. He wants to replace Democratic Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Wage poster ready

Minnesota’s minimum wage is to rise on Aug. 1, and the state Department and Labor and Industry is ready with a new poster employers must display.

The poster is available at www.dli.mn.gov/posters.

Workers in large businesses will be paid at least $8 an hour, with those at small firms getting $6.50. It is the first step in boosting big-company wages to $9.

Dayton seeks presidential disaster declaration

By Don Davis

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton Wednesday asked that counties damaged by floods last month be declared a presidential disaster area.

Dayton also added 16 counties to the state disaster list, meaning 51 of Minnesota’s 87 counties reported damage from flooding that began June 11.

If President Barack Obama honors Dayton’s request, state and local government will get federal money to pay 75 of flood-related costs. The state will pay the rest.

Dayton said that eight mostly rural counties — Chippewa, Freeborn, Jackson, Murray, Nobles, Pipestone, Renville and Rock — have reported $10.8 million damage to public facilities. Minnesota needed to record at least $7.3 million to qualify for federal aid.

However, the governor said, 31 counties and one American Indian tribe so far have reported more than $55 million in costs, so total damages are expected to rise substantially as more damage reports come in.

As federal, state and local officials survey damage, Dayton said, damage assessments are coming in higher than initial reports.

State Emergency Management Director Kris Eide said she expects counties in the Twin Cities area to report far higher damages than rural areas because the population is higher and there are more public facilities.

Federal money only is available for government infrastructure damage and costs of fighting floods. Any help for private homes and business owners would come from other programs, but it is not clear if that will be available.

Even before Obama decides whether he will approve the Dayton disaster request, the U.S. Department of Transportation told state officials Wednesday that Minnesota will receive up to $5 million in “quick release” emergency relief funds to help fix the state’s flood-damaged roads.

The federal money will reimburse the state for emergency repair work and is in addition to $750,000 the federal government already sent Minnesota.

The state will share the funds with local road authorities.

“The flood damage recently inflicted on Minnesota roads, highways and bridges has been severe and widespread,” Dayton said. “These funds will speed up important repairs statewide.”

During a recent Minnesota visit, Obama promised that his administration will help Minnesota recover from one of the most widespread floods in state history.

The governor’s letter to Obama laid out the background for Obama: “Minnesota is experiencing historic summer flooding. The precedent conditions for the disaster were set this past winter when much of the state experienced well above average snowfall. Wide areas of northern and eastern Minnesota had between 150 and 200 percent of normal winter precipitation. Cool spring weather and an orderly snowmelt runoff fully charged the soils with moisture. By the end of April, wetlands and lakes were full; rivers and streams were running at high levels.”

The governor told the president about heavy rainfall in May and, especially, June.

The 10-member Minnesota congressional delegation followed Dayton’s letter with its own: “As we’ve toured affected communities in recent weeks, we’ve seen firsthand the damage these storms have caused. After disaster strikes Minnesota, we hit the ground running and do not stop until we have the resources in place to ensure that communities can recover. We urge you to make the federal government a full partner in that effort.”

Dayton’s letter explained that the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Federal Emergency Management Agency and county emergency managers are continuing to assess damage in affected counties.

Most of the damage reported by local officials is to roads and bridges. Also, local governments spent money to protect their communities from rising water.

In addition to fixing roads and bridges, local governments and some non-profits could use federal funds for debris removal and flood prevention as well as fixing water public facilities such as sewage treatment plants and parks.

Minnesota federal flood disaster likely, but homeowners in question

Eide

By Don Davis

Local governments across Minnesota and state agencies should receive federal aid to recover from widespread flooding last month, but it is not so clear where homeowners stand.

Commissioner Mary Tingerthal of the Minnesota Housing Finance Authority said Tuesday that her office has received relatively few reports of home damage, despite about 40 of the state’s 87 counties reporting flooding problems. However, Gov. Mark Dayton said he expects homeowners to report in as floodwaters recede.

Tingerthal suggested that homeowners document any damage: “photographs, photographs, photographs.”

She said they should first check with their insurance agents, even if they have heard their damage would not be covered. If it is not covered, the Small Business Administration may come to Minnesota to accept applications for federal aid. And if all else fails, the state has some emergency money available.

There have been no federal promises about homeowner aid, although state and local governments are all but assured some help.

Most home damage has been water in basements.

Until disaster service centers are set up, state officials suggest Minnesotans with questions should contact their county emergency management directors.

Tingerthal’s comments came as Dayton and key aides briefed reporters on floods.

In most of the state, waters are receding. However, some northern waters such as Lake of the Woods are not expected to crest until well into July.

“This dry weather has been a Godsend,” Dayton said, although it began raining outside his St. Paul office shortly after he spoke those words.

In general, Minnesota forecasts for this week are drier than they have been for weeks.

A few counties so far have reported $32 million worth of public facilities damage, things such as roads and sewage treatment plants. If verified during a process that started Tuesday, Minnesota easily will top the $7.3 million needed for federal financial assistance that would go to state and local governments.

Dayton said it is too early to know if he will need to call a special legislative session to provide the 25 percent of flood recovery costs that Washington would not send to local governments. He said the state has $3 million available, but other funds might be found or officials may opt to wait until the 2015 Legislature convenes in January when full damage costs are known.

Federal, state and local officials surveyed damage in Nobles, Rock and Jackson counties Tuesday and plan to wrap up work in Rock today, and move on to Renville. State Emergency Management Director Kris Eide said she hopes the survey can continue in the Twin Cities area next week.

More costly damage is expected in the Twin Cities, Eide said, because of the dense population and so much infrastructure is located there. Carver County alone has reported more than $9 million in damage.

In southwest Minnesota, Tuesday’s survey showed Rock County has $3 million in damage, Nobles $700,000 and Jackson $150,000.

Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said 80 percent to 90 percent of crop damage probably is covered by federal crop insurance. However, he added, farmers will not know how much they will receive until prices are set at harvest time.

Many other farm loses should be covered by regular insurance, the commissioner added.

While it is not known how many homes have been damaged, Dayton reported that 2,000 Minnesotans flooded the Commerce Department insurance hotline with questions. He said some insurance companies blame state law on lack of coverage from mudslides, but he said no law forbids that.

Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said most state roads already are repaired or are well on the way. A few in more severely flooded areas may not reopen until Labor Day, he said.

Numbers add up to Minneapolis Final Four bid

The stars

By Don Davis

Minneapolis is in the final eight and hopes to snare the Final Four with the help of two national champions.

It’s no slam dunk, but state leaders are optimistic that the National Collegiate Athletic Association will pick the as-yet-to-be-built Vikings stadium to host the 2019 or 2020 college basketball championship. Minnesota’s largest city is among eight communities competing to host the finals.

In the U.S. sports world, the Final Four is second only to the Super Bowl, which the new stadium will host in 2018.

“It is going to bring national and international attention,” Gov. Mark Dayton promised Tuesday at a Capitol news conference, even though the NCAA will not decide on the host cities until November.

Dayton appointed two Minnesota basketball stars as honorary co-chairmen of the organizing committee.

Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen and Trent Tucker, a former National Basketball Association player, join the head of HealthPartners and president of the company building the new stadium as organizing leaders. Whalen and Tucker both are University of Minnesota graduates and have won professional basketball championships.

“What a great sports community we have here,” Whalen said.

“Our time is now,” Tucker added.

The unnamed stadium is little more than a bowl in the ground sprouting cranes and pillars, as construction is in its early stages.

Final Four bid co-chairman David Mortenson of the construction company that bears his name said the stadium was designed to handle events such as the basketball extravaganza. It has four locker rooms and plenty of space for media that always descend on the host stadium.

“We would not be submitting this if it were not for this one-of-a-kind stadium,” Mortenson said about the Final Four bid.

He said the area could receive a $70 million to $200 million benefit from the tournament.

“It is a wonderful chance to showcase our state and region,” added Mary Brainerd of HealthPartners, the other co-chair.

Dayton said no state money would be needed for the Final Four. Also, he said, the NCAA does not demand tax concessions, like the National Football League did for the Super Bowl.

The governor said he took his sons to the 1992 Final Four in the Metrodome, which was demolished to make way for the new stadium, and they were so high in the stands that “I should have brought a telescope.”

If the new stadium hosts a Final Four, 140-foot end-zone television screens will help fans keep track of what’s going on, said Michele Kelm-Helgen, director of the public body that is building the stadium.

Tucker said the distance from the playing floor is not a concern. “People are going to come just to be part of the Final Four.”

Other areas competing for Final Four tournaments from 2017 to 2020 are Atlanta, Indianapolis, New Orleans, North Texas, Phoenix, San Antonio and St. Louis.

DFLers celebrate as Dayton nominated for second term

Dayton

By John Lundy, Forum News Service

Four years after his party denied Mark Dayton access to its state convention floor in Duluth, DFL delegates welcomed him to the same floor Saturday with a riotous celebration.

“This is a great time to be a Democrat in Minnesota,” the first-term governor told a pumped-up crowd of 1,200 delegates in the old arena at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center after accepting their unanimous endorsement. “Aren’t you proud to be a DFLer? I sure am.”

With the governor’s seat open in 2010, Dayton chose to bypass the endorsement process and take his case to Democratic voters in the primary. Then, he was left to chatting with convention delegates and reporters in the DECC’s hallways. The party endorsed Margaret Anderson Kelliher, but Dayton had the last laugh, sweeping to victories in the primary and general elections.

Dayton’s first two years in office were challenging because of Republican obstructionism, he told the party faithful, boasting that he vetoed 57 GOP-sponsored bills.

But after voters gave control to the DFL two years ago, “We produced what I had promised: progress,” Dayton said.

He cited improvements to early childhood education, all-day kindergarten, a two-year tuition freeze in the state’s public colleges and universities, marriage equality, the $9.50 minimum wage indexed to inflation, anti-bullying legislation, higher income taxes on the top 2 percent and “Republican deficits turned into DFL surpluses” as among their accomplishments.

“That’s a pretty good beginning,” Dayton said.

Then Dayton turned to Republicans, who were in Rochester deciding who to endorse to run against him.

“Republicans’ problem is that they’re against everything,” Dayton said. “They have a one-word political vocabulary: No. … And, oh, how it upsets them to see Minnesota get better. Well, they’re going to have a lot more to get upset about.”

Franken endorsed

With only the endorsement for secretary of state in contention and a potentially fractious platform debate on mining mostly put off until the next day, Saturday was a Democratic-Farmer-Labor “love fest,” in the words of delegate Wayne Pulford of Proctor.

They were in such good spirits that in the midst of unanimously endorsing Sen. Al Franken for re-election, they didn’t mind poking fun at his narrow win — determined by a recount — over then-Sen. Norm Coleman in 2008.

“Driving up here from Minneapolis, there were more people in Tobie’s than Al’s margin of victory,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar joked, referring to the popular diner in Hinckley. After a little more teasing, she gave Franken a glowing introduction.

Franken responded that he had promised DFL delegates six years ago that he would win, “and I did. I just didn’t say by how much. … This time I’ll even tell you the margin: by more than last time.”

Franken said that he, unlike a Republican senator, would represent the middle class, not the wealthiest Americans. As an example, he cited his opposition to the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, saying it would give Americans fewer choices, poorer service and higher rates.

Comcast, he said, has 114 lobbyists in Washington, and he understands it’s their job to protect their company’s bottom line. But, he added: “Minnesota families have a bottom line, too, and protecting their bottom line — that’s my job.”

Mining resolution

If there was a shadow over the festivities, it was cast by the festering dispute over a proposed resolution to change the party platform, declaring the DFL to be supportive of “responsible mining.” The Duluth News Tribune reported Saturday that some delegates see that as coming too close to endorsing potential copper mining in northeastern Minnesota.

Pulford said he already had turned in his ballot, marked in favor of the resolution.

But he said he wouldn’t be overly concerned if the resolution were voted down.

“If there’s no resolution either way, the party’s neutral on it,” Pulford said. “That might actually be the best thing.”

But Tom Rukavina, the retired state legislator from Virginia who was one of the candidates for governor four years ago, said he thought Dayton should take a strong pro-mining stand.

“Mark Dayton has always been for the steelworkers; I wish he’d come out a little stronger on the copper-nickel mining,” said Rukavina, who is running this year in a nonpartisan St. Louis County Board race. “I am a little disappointed about that. I think that might have some repercussions on the Iron Range.”

Retiring state Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, took a nuanced view, saying that “different parts of the state feel differently about it.”

But Dayton will have to pay attention to northeastern Minnesota, Huntley said.

“If we don’t do well in the 8th Congressional District for Gov. Dayton, we’re not going to do well anyplace in the state,” he said.

The issue will be unavoidable today, as the party platform is the major remaining item on the DFL agenda.

Simon endorsed

On Saturday, delegates endorsed Tina Flint Smith for lieutenant governor along with Dayton. Smith, his chief of staff, was Dayton’s choice to replace Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth, who did not seek re-election.

Also unanimously endorsed for re-election were state Auditor Rebecca Otto and Attorney General Lori Swanson. In the one contested race, state Rep. Steve Simon of Hopkins was endorsed over state Rep. Debra Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center for secretary of state. The incumbent, Mark Ritchie, is stepping down.

Little suspense for DFL

By John Myers, Duluth News Tribune

There will be little suspense but plenty of hoopla for 1,200 delegates to the DFL party state convention this weekend at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Most of the action is set for Saturday afternoon, when the delegates will endorse candidates for the U.S. Senate, governor and lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor.

However, those positions already are held by DFLers, and there’s no serious challenger to any of the incumbents.

That’s in sharp contrast to the Republican convention set for this weekend in Rochester, where nearly all of the top races are contested by two or more candidates, none of them incumbents.

“I shouldn’t say this, but I think the social gatherings will be the highlight,’’ quipped Kelli Latuska, Duluth Democratic-Farmer-Labor party chairwoman. “Seriously, it’s going to be good for everyone to get together. … It’s the one time when the candidates show up and really listen to the party.”

About the only DFL intrigue will be who gets the nod for secretary of state between state Reps. Debra Hilstrom and Steve Simon, both from Twin Cities suburbs.

Their race so far has been quiet, said state DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. Incumbent DFLer Mark Ritchie announced one year ago that he would not seek another term as secretary of state.

“I think with those lower-ballot races, most of the delegates come in undecided, so it gets decided at the convention,” Martin said. “I’m not sure there is a frontrunner going in.”

Gov. Mark Dayton and his new running mate, Tina Flint Smith, will be nominated about 4 p.m. Saturday. And Sen. Al Franken will get his podium time about 5 p.m. State Auditor Rebecca Otto will be endorsed earlier in the afternoon, as will Attorney General Lori Swanson.

The DFL also is expected to hold a tribute for outgoing Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth who opted not to run with Dayton again.

Franken is expected to be the darling of the convention and is working with a 3-to-1 campaign finance edge over all his potential Republican challengers combined. But the first-term freshman won’t take the election lightly after winning in 2008 by just 312 votes over Republican Norm Coleman — an election that required an eight-month recount and judicial review.

Alone on the convention’s Senate ballot Saturday, Franken won’t have to bend to the left to attract the party endorsement as he might in a multicandidate field. And that leaves his convention speech open to court the mainstream Minnesotan’s likely to decide the race.

“Sen. Franken is going tell the delegates the same thing he’ll tell Minnesotans throughout the campaign. He’ll talk about what he’s gotten done for Minnesota and the hard work he will continue to do if voters give him the opportunity to serve a second term,” Alexandra Fetissoff, Franken’s campaign spokesperson, told the News Tribune. “Ultimately, he’ll address how this campaign is a choice for Minnesota families between two different approaches to getting this country back on track.”

Martin said that, despite the lack of heated battles for party endorsement, the state convention still is an important time to bring party activists together “to get them re-energized” heading into the November election.

It’s also a rare year in which DFLers expect no serious primary election challenges, a chance for the party candidate to heal any wounds and save money while Republicans battle among themselves in August party primaries.

With the DFL party in full charge of all aspects of state government for the past two years — the state House, Senate and governor’s office — the party expects to take criticism for any problems, and expect Republicans to lambast the slow startups for Minnesota Care and Obamacare at their convention. But Martin also wants to get full credit for all the good news in the state.

“We have a great message to tell. Our job now is to go out and tell it,’’ said Martin, noting lower unemployment, lower state taxes for middle-income residents, more state aid to reduce property taxes, a higher minimum wage, statewide all-day kindergarten, more money for early childhood education, a new law protecting women’s workplace earnings and a new law legalizing same sex marriage.

“We promised Minnesotans in 2010 we were going to build a better Minnesota, and that’s what we delivered,” Martin said.

Convention registration begins today. Delegates also will re-work their party platform and rules on Sunday.

Martin said the party’s biggest challenge will be to turn out voters in November.

While Democrats tend to show up in droves for presidential year elections, the falloff in non-presidential years can be crippling for the party’s candidates. DFLers have only to look back to 2010, when nationally many Democrats stayed home and several of their incumbents, including Eighth District U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, were defeated.

“I’m not worried about Republicans. I think they have a pretty weak field of candidates for both governor and Senate. But could we still lose these elections? Absolutely,’’ Martin said. “In mid-term elections our base tends to stay home more than their base, and we are working to change that.”

That includes a nearly year-long effort to reach out to occasional DFL voters and make sure they understand the issues at hand, and why the need to vote in November, Martin said, “so we can avoid what happened in some races in 2010.”

Political notebook: Minnesota political conventions provide about-face

By Don Davis

People attending next weekend’s Minnesota state political conventions may wonder if they are in the right place.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor party delegates meet in Duluth, while Republicans are packing their bags for Rochester. But once in place, delegates may discover the feeling in the two convention halls to be very different than usual.

Democrats, known for boisterous conventions that often end with Democrats challenging other Democrats in primary election contests, could have a peaceful time of it. There is no doubt that U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton will be crowned for second terms.

Two legislators are running for secretary of state, but otherwise the convention could be less exciting than usual.

In Rochester, however, Republicans could have the weekend’s raucous convention.

Candidates will fight for U.S. Senate and governor endorsements. But in a rarity for the GOP, several candidates plan to take their races to the Aug. 12 primary election regardless of who delegates pick.

Some candidates for the two offices pledge to abide by delegates’ votes and some are not certain even less than a week before the convention begins.

The thing to watch will be how Republican faithful react to candidates who plan to ignore the convention vote. In some activists’ minds, that is very un-Republican.

Two who plan to compete in the primary are Senate hopeful Mike McFadden and governor candidate Scott Honour. Both are wealthy businessmen who can provide plenty of campaign money.

Mark Dayton, another wealthy candidate, was not allowed on the DFL convention floor four years ago because he planned to challenge the delegates’ pick in a primary. After the primary, Democrats embraced him and he won a narrow November victory over Republican Tom Emmer.

Will the same happen this year for Republicans who ignore the party tradition of going through the caucus and convention process? That is what politicos will watch.

Minimum wage to rise

Minnesota’s minimum wage goes up to $9.50 an hour for large businesses and $7.75 for smaller ones in 2016, but many may not realize the march toward higher wages starts in about two months.

The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry is reminding employers that as of Aug. 1, large employers must pay $8 and small firms $6.50. Small businesses are those with sales less than $500,000 a year.

Current wages are $6.15 for large businesses and $5.25 for smaller ones.

Most employers are required to pay the higher of the state or federal minimum wage. While President Barack Obama wants a $10.10 minimum wage, Congress likely will not go along with that for now.

Current federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Dayton happy now

Gov. Mark Dayton hosted a conference call with greater Minnesota reporters recently and one opened with a Minnesota nice question: “How you doing?”

Dayton did not hesitate with his reply: “Much better now that the Legislature has gone home.”

It was an interesting comment considering the Legislature is dominated by fellow Democrats.

Oberstar name pushed

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Minnesota Democrats, are trying to get the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters named for the late Jim Oberstar.

“Rep. Oberstar’s fingerprints can be found on just about every major federally funded transportation project during the last five decades: roads, bridges, tunnels, rails, locks and dams, bike paths,” Klobuchar said. “Every American who flies in an airplane or drives our federal highways can thank Jim Oberstar. Every American who bikes their bike trails, who hikes places like the beautiful Lake Superior trail in northern Minnesota or drives on our national highways and bridges should remember him. It is only fitting that the Department of Transportation building would honor his legacy.”

Oberstar died May 3. During his long congressional career he was best known as a transportation leader. At his peak, he was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Bicycling was his transportation passion, and he was deeply involved in aviation issues, but he dealt with nearly everything transportation.

“By the time Jim rose to chairman of the House transportation committee, he knew more about transportation than anyone in this country,” Franken said.

Before he was elected to the House, Oberstar was a transportation committee staff member for a dozen years.

No more growling

People who want to fill their beer bottles on Sundays no longer can growl.

Refillable bottles known as growlers soon can be filled at breweries and tap rooms on Sundays.

“While there remains much more work to be done in Minnesota on the Sunday sales issue, these small provisions are a step in the right direction and will lead to greater economic opportunity for our booming craft brew industry,” Senate bill sponsor Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, said.

His bill was signed into law, but it was far cry from what he wants. Reinert long has fought for allowing liquor stores to be open on Sundays.

New laws signed

Gov. Mark Dayton has signed many bills into law since the Legislature adjourned for the year on May 16, including some in the past few days:

– A somewhat reworded bill that passed a year ago to put the power to raise legislators’ pay into the hands of an independent body instead of the Legislature. Voters will decide whether to establish the salary council in November of 2016.

– A crackdown on synthetic drugs, giving the state Pharmacy Board power to order stores selling the drugs to stop.

– A prohibition on insecticides being labeled as “beneficial” to pollinators such as bees if they actually can kill the insects.

– Increased penalties for killing or assaulting a prosecuting attorney or judge.

Zellers decides on running mate, not on convention

Simpson, Zellers

By Kia Farhang

Minnesota Republican governor candidate Kurt Zellers Thursday announced his running mate, Perham’s Dean Simpson, but he said still does not know if he will seek the state convention endorsement or just go directly to the summer primary election.

Grocery store owner and former state representative Simpson, 63, joins Zellers’ ticket as the campaign moves toward the May 31 state party convention.

“Dean absolutely exemplifies that he is the quintessential main street Minnesota business owner,” Zellers, 44, said. “He’s just Minnesota to his core.”

Simpson’s grocery store in Perham anchors a 40-acre business park. He also owns a New York Mills store.

His business background will help him attract jobs to the state, Zellers said.

Former state House Speaker Zellers called Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration “Minneapolis-centric” and inefficient. Simpson said his 25-year service as mayor of New York Mills taught him what rural Minnesotans need.

“We need housing. We need employees. We need a transportation system that works,” Simpson said.

After announcing in Moorhead that he picked Simpson, Zellers stood in front of the state Capitol, where he and Simpson served in the House together, and said that he has not decided whether he will seek his party’s endorsement May 31 at the convention in Rochester.

Zellers, a Devils Lake, N.D., native, already said he will run in the Aug. 12 primary, but still is considering whether to seek the GOP endorsement, too. He said he will be in Rochester, but said he will not decide until the middle of next week about asking for convention delegates’ votes.

“My sense is it’s a wide open convention,” Zellers said.

He and Twin Cities businessman Scott Honour plan to run in the primary. Former state Rep. Mary Seifert of Marshall said this week that he likely will decide Thursday if he will seek the endorsement or just go to the primary.

While Democratic candidates have a history of running against others in their party in primary elections, it is rare for Republicans to do that.

The endorsement fight appears to be among Zellers; former state Rep. Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner; state Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville; and Seifert of Marshall. Teacher Rob Farnsworth of Hibbing and perennial candidate Ole Savior of Minneapolis are running quiet campaigns.

If elected, Zellers said, he would prioritize copper and nickel mining and processing in the northeastern part of the state.

Zellers and Simpson became friends while serving on the state House Taxes Committee. Simpson, the former ranking Republican on that committee, left office in 2009.

Zellers’ campaign raised about $91,000 in the first three months of the year, second only to investment banker Honour, who raised more than $235,000, much of which he donated himself.

Dayton raised about $189,000 over the same period and had more than $730,000 cash on hand.

Don Davis contributed to this story.

Greater Minnesota legislative issues receive mixed grades

By Don Davis

Minnesota farmers are happy that lawmakers lowered some farm property taxes, but small businesses complain that a higher minimum wage and a bill giving them more legal exposure will hurt.

Dry southwestern Minnesotans think they may get Missouri River water, but some rural residents fear they will not have the access to medical marijuana of their big-city cousins.

In short, the story greater Minnesota residents heard from the 2014 Legislature was mixed.

Among the biggest accomplishments lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed after the session ended was lowering property taxes for Minnesotans who live on their farms. It will not be enough to buy a new tractor, but supporters of the measure say the $200 farmers will save is good news.

“The recently completed Minnesota legislative session took some positive steps forward for Farm Bureau and agriculture in Minnesota,” Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said. “This included repealing taxes adopted in the 2013 session and continuing support for renewable fuels.”

The Farm Bureau leader indicated one of the organization’s top priorities was to repeal a sales tax charged on machinery and equipment repair. The Legislature also repealed a sales tax that was to be charged on warehouse storage.

The ag community also expressed appreciation for the Legislature leaving something alone: a requirement that many agriculture jobs are on a 48-hour week rather than 40 hours, which is the standard in most other jobs.

On the other hand, National Federation of Independent Business leaders were not happy.

Federation State Director Mike Hickey said small businesses, many of which are in greater Minnesota, are disappointed with “the dramatic increase in the minimum wage.”

Dayton said he would watch how the minimum wage increase affects businesses and will suggest changes if needed.

Hickey said businesses have issues with the Women’s Economic Security Act, which gives parents more rights on the job. He said the law would spur more employee lawsuits against businesses.

“We just added a big percentage of the population to a protected class status under the act, and we fear this is not workable and will likely lead to a significant number of new lawsuits against small employers,” Hickey said.

Rural Minnesota may split over two issues that blossomed late in the session: a water project and medical marijuana.

Dayton and Republicans take credit for funding water pipelines in southwestern Minnesota.

“I feel very, very good about Lewis and Clark,” Dayton told greater Minnesota reporters Wednesday. “That is one of the highlights where I can say, ‘I made this happen.’ It was not on anyone’s radar screen at the outset.”

Legislative Republicans who represent that part of the state fought for the pipeline, as did other GOP lawmakers. They devised a two-part funding solution after federal money dried up.

“I can’t say that I totally understand what the mechanism is,” Dayton admitted.

Even though local officials are happy with the money, some are concerned they may not have enough to handle their part of the funding.

If water may be easier to obtain in at least one rural area, medical marijuana may be tough to buy, said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.

“That’s going to be an issue: access for all Minnesotans,” Ingebrigtsen said. “You are going to have potentially eight different distribution centers, depending on the population. If you’re in a denser populated area, you’re probably going to have more. That’s going to be an issue. You may end up running toward the metro to get your medical marijuana, should you need that.”

Aaron Hagen contributed to this story.

Legislative session personal

House near the end

By Don Davis

Minnesota state Sen. Kent Eken fought for years to increase pay for those who care for the elderly and disabled, but as state legislators wound down their 2014 session, he made it personal.

“I had a brother who was intellectually disabled,” Eken said about Kyle, who was two years older than the Twin Valley Democratic senator.

Eken told fellow senators about the young brothers making hay forts in a barn on the family farm. “We talk a lot about numbers; I think sometimes it is important that we put faces with those numbers.”

No special education services were available in Eken’s northwestern Minnesota area, he said, so his parents helped launch one. There, Kyle was happy and made progress, the senator said, thanks to people helping others like his brother with special needs.

“We are not a state that leaves anyone behind,” said Eken, whose brother died in a drowning accident at age 12.

Eken was a leader in increasing funding 5 percent for people who serve the disabled and elderly. The effort, part of a bill that passed moments before the Legislature adjourned for the year, is especially important in his area, Eken said, because nearby North Dakota pays its workers at least $2.50 an hour more.

“We have an industry that really is on the verge of collapse,” Eken said, and the 5 percent increase will help keep it alive.

Eken’s plea was personal and emotional during a legislative session that brought out many such testimonials. The most visible came in discussions about whether marijuana extracts should be allowed as treatment for a variety of severe medical conditions, including children’s seizures.

While an estimated 5,000 Minnesotans could benefit from a medical marijuana bill that is about to become law, supporters say, some claim the bill passed leaves behind another 30,000 who also could benefit.

“Gov. (Mark) Dayton called the process that produced this bill ‘citizen government at its best,’ but it is actually politics at its worst,” Brainerd mother Shelly Olander said. “Instead of listening to parents and patients about what bill would work for our families, the governor gave law enforcement the power to decide how this medical program should operate and who should have access to it.”

Her son, 6-year-old Lincoln, has undergone 20 surgeries and she said police were not consulted, and should not have been, for those medical procedures. The boy will not be able to use marijuana extracts that she said could help his condition.

“Why should their approval be necessary if doctors think medical marijuana will help my son?” Olander asked about police. “We will keep fighting until Lincoln and the thousands of other seriously ill patients who have been left behind by this law are able to access the medicine they need.”

On the other hand, parents of children who suffer seizures, including during testimony in front of legislative committees, mixed broad smiles with tears of joy in recent days as it became apparent their children next year will have access to chemicals from the marijuana plant that they hope will ease the seizures.

“This is going to help thousands of Minnesotans …” Angie Weaver of Hibbing said after a final medical marijuana compromise was announced. “My daughter is going to be able to stay in Minnesota and grow up with her cousins.”

Personal stories were accompanied by tears when many bills were discussed this year.

For instance, victims of domestic abuse cried when telling why they felt abusers’ guns should be taken away. Lawmakers agreed and approved a bill to do that.

On the other hand, tear-filled testimony did not persuade House members to reform payday lending laws. A bill never got a House vote. Supporters of stricter regulations testified that the bill was needed because many payday lenders turn poor people into victims who are forced to take out loans every couple of weeks just to pay off earlier loans.

Overall, Democrats who control the House, Senate and governor’s office said that Minnesotans, especially in the middle class, will feel their actions this year.

“Two years ago, when I was asked what Minnesotans could expect from a DFL governor and a DFL Legislature, I said: progress,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “That is exactly what we delivered again this session.”

Dayton and other Democratic leaders point to issues they passed that affect Minnesotans personally, such as lowering taxes $550 million this year (after boosting them more than $2 billion last year), increasing the minimum wage, improving working conditions for women and protecting children from bullying.

“We did all of this to improve the lives of Minnesotans, and to build a better Minnesota,” Dayton said. “We have more work ahead to finish restoring our state to greatness; but we have made important progress.”

Republicans differ and say Minnesotans will be affected personally by Democratic economic decisions.

While saying the Legislature worked together well this year, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, complained about Democrats’ spending tendencies.

“Spending money isn’t always evidence that we have accomplished anything,” he said moments before the 2014 session ended.

Republicans like Hann said three straight months of smaller-than-expected state revenues prove that the Minnesota economy has not improved enough and Minnesotans will feel it in their wallets. Next year, Hann said, lawmakers need to do “a better job of prioritizing things that are important. … Spending money and having good intentions are not good enough.”

Democrats were not buying the GOP arguments.

“It was the most productive legislative biennium in my time here,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said seconds before he moved to adjourn the annual session at 10:13 p.m. Friday.

—-

A legislative tradition continued after the House adjourned for the year Friday night: speeches from lawmakers who are retiring.

This year, it was only representatives because senators have two years remaining on their four-year terms.

“Minnesota is losing so many great people from both parties tonight! ” Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, tweeted. “Many can’t believe we have different opinions but are friends.”

Those delivering retirement speeches were Reps. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville; Kathy Brynaert, D-Mankato; Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine; Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville; Ernie Leidiger, R-Mayer; Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury; John Benson, D-Minnetonka; Mike Benson, R-Rochester; Mike Beard, R-Shakopee; Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville; Michael Paymar, D-St. Paul; Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove; and Tom Huntley, D-Duluth.

Some are leaving the Legislature because they are running for other offices, others because political problems would make it difficult to run again, and many are just plain retiring.

 —-

The 2014 Minnesota Legislature ended late Friday with a long list of actions.

Bonding: Lawmakers approved more than $1 billion for public works projects on the last day of the session, some funded by bonding and some by a state budget surplus. The biggest single project is $126 million for state Capitol building renovation. State colleges would get $242 million for campuses around Minnesota.

Broadband: High-speed Internet expansion efforts, mostly in rural areas, will get a $20 million boost.

Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $39 billion, two-year budget. Legislators added more than $260 million this year.

Bullying: Legislative Democrats passed, with a few Republican votes, a bill that Gov. Mark Dayton signed in April to require school districts to adopt strong anti-bullying policies. If a district does not comply, it will have to follow a state policy.

Constitutional amendments: No new constitutional amendment proposals were approved, but one planned for a public vote in 2016 was altered. That proposal would establish a commission to decide lawmakers’ pay, taking it out of legislative control.

Education: Public education will receive $54 million more, including funds to increase early-childhood learning for more than 1,000 youths.

Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators and a judge said he did not have that authority. Lawmakers passed a bill to make online registration legal.

Electronic cigarettes: Provisions to limit the sale of e-cigarettes to youths passed, along with prohibitions from smoking them in government buildings, hospitals and elsewhere. However, attempts to treat them like tobacco cigarettes, which are banned in all public places, failed.

Gender equality: The Women’s Economic Security Act passed, with several provisions meant to help women get better pay and to be treated fairly in the workplace. One part of the act requires many state contractors to give equal pay to women who do the same jobs as men. It also doubles unpaid parental leave time to 12 weeks and requires more workplace accommodations for pregnant women and new parents.

Guns: Guns may be taken away from domestic abusers and some suspects after court approval.

Home health: The House and Senate passed budget bills that include increasing home health care funding 5 percent.

Legislative offices: Committees provided final approval for a new Senate office building across the street north of the Capitol, so construction can begin this summer.

Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesotans to use marijuana to relieve extreme seizures and other medical problems was passed on the Legislature’s final day. It will allow eight locations to distribute marijuana extracts, but no plant marijuana can be used and it cannot be smoked. A doctor must approve the marijuana use for a specific list of medical problems. Distribution begins July 1, 2015.

Minimum wage: Legislators approved raising the minimum wage in phases to $9.50 an hour in three years for large businesses and $7.75 for small ones, then allow it to rise automatically to stay abreast with inflation. The first step of the higher wage begins in August.

Oil: A study was approved to see how North Dakota’s oil boom affects Minnesota.

Payday loans: Religious and other groups wanted to clamp down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans. Senators passed it, but the House did not take a vote.

Propane: Soon after arriving in St. Paul, lawmakers approved increased funding to aid homeowners with problems paying for propane to heat their homes after a shortage prompted high prices. Also, a new law is designed to prevent propane price gouging and to maintain its availability to Minnesotans.

Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state’s sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. Legislators did little about the situation, although a public works project they approved will improve Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program facilities.

Smartphones: Beginning next year, smartphones will be required to have “kill switches,” software or hardware that allows the owner to disable the phones if they are lost or stolen.

Sunday sales: Efforts to allow Sunday liquor sales made little progress.

Synthetic drugs: Synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts and products sold under names like K2, will be more difficult or impossible to buy at retail stores under a new law.

Taxes: Legislators approved two tax-cut bills, totaling $550 million. They cut income taxes and property taxes as well as overturning some sales taxes enacted a year ago.

Transportation funding: A move to raise gasoline taxes failed, but some money was found for pothole repair and highway work.

Transportation safety: A series of transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted spending more than $11 million to improve response to railroad and pipeline crude oil incidents. First responders will get funds for more training and equipment, and the number of state railroad inspectors will grow from one to four or five. Some crossings along oil train routes will be improved. An existing assessment on railroads will be increased, and a new assessment on pipelines will help pay for the safety projects.

Unsession: Gov. Mark Dayton wanted this year to be the “unsession,” meaning that obsolete laws and rules would be repealed. Lawmakers obliged by sending him more than 1,000 provisions to overturn or simplify.

Water: Lawmakers approved spending nearly $70 million to bring water from South Dakota into southwestern Minnesota. While the project received widespread support, many in the Legislature warned that other water-related issues, including shortages in parts of the state, will need to be addressed soon.

Pipelines allow Legislature to flow to end

Minnesota Senate

By Don Davis

Pipe dreams expressed early in the 2014 Minnesota legislative session gave way to pipelines as it neared an end Friday night.

The House adjourned for the year at 8:59 p.m. Friday, with the Senate following at 10:13 p.m. after two pipeline issues were settled in the final day. Oil-carrying pipelines, mostly in northern Minnesota, and southwest Minnesota’s water pipeline project received funding after talks among legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton produced results that allowed for a smooth session close.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, declared the 2014 session that began Feb. 25 and the 2013 session legislative successes.

“I think we had a productive two years, this year building on the work of last year,” Thissen said.

He pointed out measures lawmakers passed throughout the session such as raising the minimum wage, a measure to prevent school bullying and approving two tax-cut bills.

Republicans could not leave the Capitol quickly enough.

“Minnesota state government has not served Minnesotans well,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said, noting that Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office.

“As a result of this (two-year) session, we have one of the highest tax increases in state history,” Daudt said. “We have the highest budget increase in state history.”

While leaders of the two parties disagreed on the outcome of the 88th Minnesota legislative session, there was relatively little partisan debate Friday as work wound down.

Lawmakers Friday approved more than $1 billion in public works projects, legalized medical marijuana, lowered some taxes and told the state lottery to get out of online scratch-off game sales.

Pipelines took the spotlight in late-session negotiations.

A budget bill that wrapped up early Friday includes $3.75 million to increase training and buy equipment for first responders such as fire departments to deal with potential oil spills from pipelines. The money would come from assessments placed on pipeline companies.

The bill already contained more than $8 million for training and equipment where oil-carrying trains travel. The rail provision also would add two or three railroad inspectors to the one the state already employs.

About 900,000 Minnesotans live near oil pipelines, and many more live near railroad tracks where oil trains travel. Most oil trains go through Moorhead, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities, but trains do travel other parts of the state.

House Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said a key part of the bill requires the state Public Safety Department to study oil transportation safety — including trains, pipelines, trucks and boats — and provide information next year to legislators about what else needs to be done.

The House wanted the pipeline safety provision, but the Senate included no funding. Budget negotiators opted to include pipeline safety after Dayton piped up and demanded it.

The bill containing the oil pipeline safety items was an overall budget bill that increases spending $262 million in a $39 billion, two-year budget. Among its other provisions:

– Home and community-based health care workers and rural nursing homes all will get more state funding.

– Public education will receive $54 million more, including funds to increase early-childhood learning for more than 1,000 youths.

– Broadband high-speed Internet expansion efforts will get a $20 million boost.

– More than $31 million will be spent on a road program known as Corridors of Commerce.

– Another $10 million will be spent to fix potholes.

Dayton told lawmakers that he wanted money for the Lewis and Clark water system to serve southwestern Minnesota. Legislators obliged by approving $22 million from the state budget reserve to build the pipeline from the South Dakota line to Luverne and giving local governments authority to borrow $45 million to extend the system through several counties, with the state paying two-thirds of the loan costs.

“It is very important to the governor, first of all,” Thissen said of Lewis and Clark. “He gets a lot of credit for this making its way through.”

Thissen said the Lewis and Clark funding deal opened the door for adjournment.

“The main thing that happened in the last 24 to 36 hours is we put our heads together and figured out a better way to fund Lewis and Clark …” Thissen said. “It broke everything loose and everything fell into place.”

Also as the session neared its end, lawmakers voted to restrict online sales of state lottery games. While lotto-type tickets would remain available, the online version of scratch-off games the lottery introduced in February would disappear if the governor opts to sign the bill into law.