Faster broadband suggested as some rural areas remain behind

A Minnesota broadband task force recommends increasing state Internet speed guidelines even as many rural Minnesotans lack service at current, slower standards.

A governor-appointed broadband task force suggests the state Legislature increase high-speed Internet goals by 2022, which could double some speed standards, while increasing them more than four-fold by 2026. The new speeds would jive with what the Federal Communications Commission considers high-speed service.

The panel also recommended that the state up its spending to expand broadband into more rural areas to $200 million, twice what Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton recommended last month.

Most urban and suburban Minnesotans have access to high-speed Internet, but many in rural areas do not.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said that having the Internet “isn’t just nice, it’s necessary if we want Minnesota’s economy to work for everyone.”

“If we don’t do this, 244,000 Minnesotans and hundreds of communities will lack the basic infrastructure to connect to the 21st century economy, and that’s not fair,” Smith said.

About 20 percent of rural Minnesotans do not have Internet access that meets state standards of 10 to 20 megabits per second download speeds and five to 10 megabits per second for uploads.

The Legislature in 2014 appropriated $20 million to expand rural broadband and $10 million last year. Some estimates indicate that upwards of $3 billion is needed to bring high-speed service statewide, with that cost split among federal, state and local governments; telecommunications companies; and other entities..

The task force this week also recommended that Minnesota provide more telecommunications aid to schools and libraries.

Much of the report emphasized the need for high-speed Internet in today’s world.

Deputy House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said that action is needed in this year’s legislative session, set to begin March 8, after broadband funding nearly was zeroed out last year.

“Our rural hospitals, schools, businesses and residents deserve nothing less than the ability to compete in today’s global marketplace,” Marquart said.

An assistant House majority leader said he wants funds for broadband, but the amount depends on how top-tier issues such as transportation and tax cuts pan out.

“I will support the best number we can get out,” Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said, thinking about “the many, many asks we have on the table in front of us.”

He already has introduced a bill to spend $35 million.

Included in the report is a story from 2013, which state officials say happens throughout Minnesota. When the task force visited the Alexandria library, a librarian told of a student sitting outside the library one day when it opened, using the facility’s wireless Internet connection to take an online test because the student had no other broadband access.

Businesses, even in small towns, need to be connected online, the report said.

“Three years ago we started our online store; it is now half of our production,” the report quoted Marie Rivers of Sven Comfort Shoes in Chisago City as saying. “With our online presence we have been able to expand our business to $3.5 million, which is incredible for such a small town.”

School students throughout rural Minnesota can use the Internet for virtual trips, the report says, to locations such as the Minnesota Zoo, Minnesota Historical Society, Great Lakes Aquarium and the International Wolf Center, “all of which provide educational opportunities students would not normally have access to due to time constraints and transportation costs.”

While the task force suggests that the state spend $200 million for broadband expansion, private money also is helping.

The RS Fiber Cooperative in Renville and Sibley counties, for example, is a coalition of electric and farmer cooperatives with local government assistance that is expanding broadband in that area.

Telephone, cable television and similar companies also are investing in broadband, the report added, with more than $713 million expected to be spent this year.

Many of those companies offer help for the poorest Minnesotans to afford the Internet, but the report says that cost is the major reason that people do not sign up for high-speed Internet when it is available.

 

Court would release convicted rapist from treatment program

Minnesota’s second-highest court says a convicted sex offender should be released from a state hospital, but only under heavy supervision.

The Appeals Court ruled Monday that the Minnesota Department of Human Services did not make a strong enough case to keep Christopher Coker locked up in the state sex offender treatment program. However, the case could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Chief Judge Edward J. Cleary wrote for a three-judge appeals panel that Coker, convicted in Hennepin County, should be released under supervision. The ruling agreed with a Supreme Court-appointed panel that considers sex offender releases.

“I am very disappointed by the court’s decision,” Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper said. “Based on the review and recommendations of multiple experts, this client is not ready for provisional discharge into the community. I am looking at my options to appeal to the Supreme Court.”

The courts have released three patients to live in the community under close supervision. Courts have approved four other patients for provisional discharges, but they remain in a state hospital.

Another was provisionally discharged in 2000, but he was returned to the program because he did not comply with release requirements, a Human Services spokeswoman said.

Courts never have approved any patient’s full discharge in the sex offender program’s 20-year history.

More than 700 offenders are in the state hospital program under prison-like conditions.

Coker, convicted of raping three girls in different incidents in 1991 and 1992, has served in the treatment program since 2000.

His request to get out of the program has bounced around various court and Human Services panels as witnesses have disagreed about whether he should be released. No panel has decided he could be unconditionally released, but the Appeals Court ruling would allow him to move into a community-based facility under intense supervision.

A sex offender may be released from the program if a discharge plan provides a reasonable degree of public protection and he can adjust to open society. Cleary and his colleagues noted that experts say Coker could have continued emotional issues if released, but he would have stronger family support than many others in the program and his family says he would have a job awaiting him.

The Supreme Court panel had said that it was uncertain Coker could live well in society, but the only way to know is to “put him to the test” by provisionally discharging him.

Treatment program staff members said Coker has not been a problem and has done well on at least 30 trips into the community. However, expert witnesses opposed his release, predicting problems if he were let out.

Monday’s decision comes as a federal appeals court considers whether Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program provides a realistic chance for release.

A federal judge last year ruled that offenders were unconstitutionally held indefinitely and the state was doing little to release those who no longer need to be locked up. The state appealed that order.

State law allows county prosecutors to request that sex offenders be committed to a state hospital after they finish their prison terms. Offenders took Minnesota to court because the treatment program basically was no different than being in prison, and they already had served their time.

It is not known when the federal court will hand down its ruling, which still could face U.S. Supreme Court scrutiny.

While Dayton says he thinks the current law is constitutional, his administration is working toward a system that would allow release of offenders deemed safe enough to live in the community. He included money to provide appropriate living facilities in his public works proposal.

Bonding ‘like pushing boulder uphill’

Looking up to the heavens, Minnesota Gov. Gov. Mark Dayton wonders on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, what his father would have thought about his funding of arts programs. Bruce Dayton, who died last fall, was a major arts supporter. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Looking up to the heavens, Minnesota Gov. Gov. Mark Dayton wonders on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, what his father would have thought about his funding of arts programs. Bruce Dayton, who died last fall, was a major arts supporter. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

For those who took a long weekend and missed Friday’s announcement:

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton knows his $1.4 billion public works project plan cannot happen as proposed.

“It’s like pushing a boulder uphill,” he said Friday in announcing his proposal, one of the largest such requests in history and a big target for Republicans who prefer spending much less.

Knowing the opposition he faces, he began a campaign for the measure saying this is a good time to borrow money, through the state selling bonds.

“Today is the day we talk about investing in the future of Minnesota,” Dayton said.

Even though the figure is among the highest in history, it would fund just 37 percent of the funding requested by state officials and local leaders.

Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget said that if the Dayton plan were enacted, it would attract $600 million in federal matching funds.

“If we short shrift these projects and others … we are going to incapacitate Minnesota in the years ahead,” Dayton said.

He said he anticipated Republican opposition, which came moments after his announcement.

“Gov. Dayton’s historically large borrowing proposal should be cut in half before we even begin talking about statewide priorities and specific projects,” Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said.

After hearing the comment, Democrat Dayton said that was “a good line,” but the governor suggested that Hann and other Republicans look over projects that would not be funded by such a cut.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said she was disappointed that Dayton would fund few transportation projects.

“Fixing our state’s roads and bridges is a priority for Minnesotans in all parts of the state, and should be one of the first priorities in any bonding bill,” Peppin said.

Dayton said that transportation issues will come in a debate separate from  his general bonding bill.

Democratic lawmakers said the Dayton plan is a good start.

“The governor’s bill goes a long way toward helping support and revive our state’s aging infrastructure system,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, who leads the Senate’s public works committee. “Minnesota received around $3.5 billion in bonding requests, and by traveling the state for six weeks this fall it’s clear to me that there is a significant need for investments to maintain critical infrastructure systems like wastewater and safe drinking water, roads and bridges, colleges and universities and so much more.”

A bonding bill requires legislative approval, and since Republicans control the House the Dayton plan is expected to be a tough sell.

Security concerns were high on Dayton’s agenda.

The largest single project Dayton wants is $70 million to improve the St. Peter state hospital security. Staff members have been injured and Dayton said the public’s safety is threatened.

The hospital houses some of the state’s most dangerous mentally ill and sex offender patients.

Another security issue Dayton tries to address is spending $14.5 million on a St. Peter sex offender program and another $12.4 million to construct two new offender treatment centers.

A federal judge has ruled Minnesota no longer may hold sex offenders indefinitely in prison-like hospital wings. He said they need a chance to be released.

Although the judge’s ruling is under appeal, Dayton said it is right to try to move some offenders out of from behind barbed wire.

“There are a lot of things I would rather do,” Dayton said, other than building facilities for sex offenders.

He also deals with the fact that the state prison system is 500 inmates over capacity.

The governor proposes to spend $8.5 million to add room for 135 inmates in two existing facilities. He said new, shorter drug offender sentences and other measures could help fix the problem.

With North Dakota oil flowing through Minnesota on trains and in pipelines, Dayton proposes funds to improve safety in his state.

He calls for spending nearly $70 million to build overpasses or underpasses at railroad-road junctions in Moorhead, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids. He proposed them a year ago, but no agreement was reached on transportation funding.

He also wants to spend $5 million to improve warning systems where railroads cross roadways.

A $3.5 million center for training public safety personnel who may deal with oil train or pipeline incidents would be built at the National Guard’s Camp Ripley and a Minneapolis training center would get a $2.5 million expansion.

As usual, colleges and universities would receive a large part of the bonding plan. The Dayton proposal would give them $306 million in state money, mostly for fixing facilities and adding classrooms.

The Dayton administration says that about a third of the money would go to the Twin Cities, a third to greater Minnesota and a third to statewide projects.

—-

Here is a look at a sample of $1.4 billion in Minnesota public works projects proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton (they need legislative approval and Republicans want a far smaller package):

— $21 million to repair and add to Capitol-area parking facilities, repair state buildings statewide and repair Capitol-area monuments.

— $35 million in loans for farmers who cannot get the money elsewhere.

— $53.8 million for prisons, including adding 135 beds at Willow River and Lino Lakes, fixing and updating buildings and other projects.

— $14 million to finish two Red Lake school projects.

— $21 million for greater Minnesota cities’ utility and street work to support economic development.

— $90 million for improving low-income housing.

— $70 million to fix security issues at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, with another $14.5 million to renovate and add to the state sex offender facility there.

— $12.5 million to build two sex offender treatment centers as alternatives to the prison-like setting they now use.

— $20 million to construct and renovate early-childhood facilities.

— $5 million to build a chairlift at Giants Ridge ski area.

— $190 million for the Minnesota State Colleges and University system to repair facilities and renovate classroom space.

— $153 million for the University of Minnesota to repair facilities, build a chemistry building on the Duluth campus and health sciences classrooms in Minneapolis.

— $33 million to repair Department of Natural Resources facilities.

— $10.5 million for dam safety and avoiding floods.

— $3.5 million to develop a walleye fishery at Mille Lacs Lake.

— $220 million for various clean-water projects.

— $33 million to construct a new state emergency operations center, where government agencies work during emergencies such as floods.

— $78.1 million for oil train safety, including improving railroad crossings and building a training center for first responders.

— $40 million to repair transportation facilities.

— $6 million for Bemidji area dental facility.

— $5.3 million for Duluth airport runway work.

— $21 million for Duluth to change its steam heating system to hot water.

— $12.7 million to clean up the St. Louis River estuary and Duluth harbor.

— $16 million to complete Lewis and Clark water project in southwestern Minnesota.

Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget explains on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, some of $1.4 billion in public works funding requests. Gov. Mark Dayton looks on.(Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget explains on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, some of $1.4 billion in public works funding requests. Gov. Mark Dayton looks on.(Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

 

Political Chatter: Does the Legislature really need to do anything?

The temporary Minnesota Senate chambers are ready, other than erecting a wooden president's desk and secretary's table. It is shown Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in the new Minnesota Senate Building. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

The temporary Minnesota Senate chambers are ready, other than erecting a wooden president’s desk and secretary’s table. It is shown Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in the new Minnesota Senate Building. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

It’s a refrain often heard in the Minnesota Capitol complex: “There’s nothing we have to do this year.”

The two-year state budget passed last year, so anything that happens in the legislative session starting March 8 is purely optional. There certainly are issues that many people want debated, but nothing is mandatory.

Take, for instance, a tax bill that sits in a House-Senate conference committee from last year. Republicans want big tax cuts, while Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton emphasized late in the week that he wants “targeted” ones.

Or consider the matter of extending unemployment benefit for laid-off Iron Range workers. Most state leaders appear to back the cause, but there is nothing to mandate that lawmakers consider the issue.

Even funding public works projects, which there is little doubt will happen, technically is not a must-do.

Go down the list and you can find people giving impassioned pleas or one cause or another, but must-pass? No.

Then there is something Dayton has mentioned plenty of times in recent days: “Anything you do this year is going to be perceived through the prism of an election year.”

More of a realist than many politicians are in public, Dayton said that those election questions could mean his favorite programs may not get a lot of Republican love.

Republicans, of course, want to keep state spending down. That may especially hamper Dayton’s efforts to pass a $1.4 billion bonding bill, the measure funded by the state selling bonds to provide money for public works projects. GOP leaders wasted no time Friday in opposing the Dayton figure.

Dayton knew the Republican response was coming, saying that passing his plan would be like pushing a boulder uphill.

Even though Dayton likely will not get all he wants in the bonding bill, he could get more than some expect. Republicans dislike constructing new buildings, but nearly everyone this year seems to back a “fix it” bill that brings existing state facilities up to snuff and that is what Dayton emphasizes.

Bakk: No surplus

Anyone following the Minnesota Legislature may get tired of hearing about a nearly $2 billion surplus.

Actually, it is closer to $1.2 billion after state officials fulfilled a law that requires money to be put into budget reserved.

Then, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said, inflation could eat up $1.6 billion. That means there is no surplus.

State law does not allow inflation to be figured in when state officials make budget projections. But lawmakers can think about inflation when they work toward writing budgets.

If inflation is not factored in, expected pay raises and other budget increases may not happen.

When Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities officials — who want more state aid — were asked about facing a no-surplus budget, former Rep. Marty Seifert of Marshall said that cities did not get their fair share of money in last year’s budget.

“We were left stranded on the island of dysfunction,” Seifert said.

Even if there really is no surplus, as Bakk claims, Minnesotans can expect a stream of requests seeking a part of the “surplus” before lawmakers land in St. Paul March 8 for their regular session.

Minnesotan runs for president

Minneapolis resident Bill McGaughey Jr. says he knows he will not be the next president, but just running will drive home some points.

One of 28 presidential candidates in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, McGaughey is in New England to press his case.

“Not standing a chance to be elected president, I nevertheless think that my candidacy and those of other ‘minor’ candidates are more than freak shows featuring delusional characters,” he said.

McGaughey said he “plans to challenge the system” by going “on a ‘white man’s walk’ in each New Hampshire city or town I visit and invite the more courageous souls to join me.”

He said that his main issue is jobs, and by instituting a four-day, 32-hour work week would help the economy.

McGaughey ran in Louisiana’s 2004 Democratic primary, focusing on trade issues.

Special session fades

All the talk about a special state legislative session a couple of weeks ago appears a mere memory.

Blame the federal government.

Federal officials announced a bit more than a week ago that Minnesota would have two to four years to re-do driver’s licenses and state identification cards to meet new standards. State officials had expected a 120-day notice, which federal homeland security officials also told Forum News Service.

“It takes away one of the urgent reasons,” Gov. Mark Dayton said.

However, he quickly added, extending unemployment benefits to laid-off Iron Range workers remains important enough for a special session, as well as starting to fix black Minnesotans’ financial problems.

Even the new Real ID standards’ fix could be started in a special session, Dayton said. A 2009 state law forbids the public safety commissioner, who is in charge of issuing driver’s licenses, from even discussing Real ID-related issues, so a special session could remove that gag rule and allow work to begin.

“We don’t to run the clock on this,” the governor said.

No workforce center change

North Dakota earlier this month announced it would close seven of its 16 Job Service offices, and eliminate 60 jobs as federal funding dropped.

The Minnesota version of Job Service also receives less federal money, “but we’ve managed to limit the impact to our workforce center system,” Deputy Commissioner Blake Chaffee of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development said. No Minnesota offices have closed.

Dayton aims money at small, rural communities with water woes

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton looks over a map showing communities that would get clean-water assistance under a proposal he announced Thursday, Jan. 12, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton looks over a map showing communities that would get clean-water assistance under a proposal he announced Thursday, Jan. 12, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota cities, especially small rural ones, ask the state for money almost every year to improve their sewage treatment systems.

Same for their water treatment plants.

With a new law requiring farmers to separate cropland from water with vegetation, they also seek financial help.

Those and other water-quality issues equal a big problem for Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday as he proposed that the state borrow nearly $220 million to improve the state’s water.

“Minnesotans are used to clean, safe affordable, high quality water for drinking, recreational purposes, businesses for their purposes,” Dayton said. “It is no longer something we can take for granted.”

While there are water quality issues all around the state, most of the southwest’s water has been declared unsuitable for swimming and fish caught in waters there may be unsafe to eat.

“We have a challenge to act so the situation does not get worse,” Dayton said.

A Minnesota Pollution Control Agency survey indicates communities statewide need to spend $11 billion in the next two decades to fix water quality problems.

Dayton released a list of 84 projects around the state that could benefit from his proposal, which will be part of a larger bonding bill expected to be too rich for Republican tastes.

However, a key Republican did not dismiss Dayton’s mostly rural water plan.

“I am appreciative that Gov. Dayton has given us some of his initial bonding priorities today and look forward to seeing the remainder of his proposal Friday,” Rep. Chris Swedzinski of Ghent, said Thursday. “Wastewater treatment plants and drinking water infrastructure are vital to cities throughout the state, and are expensive to build, upgrade and operate. The House Capital Investment Committee will take the necessary time to properly vet these projects during upcoming legislative session.”

Swedzinski is an assistant House majority leader and vice chairman of the investment committee, which will be the key stop for the bonding plan.

“I am setting the marker high,” Dayton said. “I don’t expect it will all get funded this session.”

No matter how much money legislators agree to spend, he said, funding will need to continue for a couple of decades.

Dayton plans to reveal the rest of his public works proposal, funded by the state selling bonds, on Friday.

The Democratic governor said that his water plan is one of his top four legislative priorities, along with education, targeted tax relief and transportation funding.

While the goal of the Dayton plan is to begin a process of cleaning the state’s water, it also will save taxpayers of small, rural communities, he said.

Dayton and commissioners who joined him Thursday said that without state money, residents’ water and sewer bills could double or triple in many small communities forced to improve water and sewage treatment facilities.

The Dayton plan would provide $167 million to improve aging water and sewer infrastructure, such as replacing Chisholm’s wooden pipes, and take other steps to improve water quality.

Another $53 million would be used to control water pollution, such as helping farmers and other landowners afford vegetative buffers that in the next few years they will be required to establish between cropland and water.

Executive Director Jeff Freeman of the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority said that in some cases, federal money will be available to help stretch state funds.

“This funding is going to allow us to reach many more cities than we normally would,” Freeman said.

Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said that rural Minnesotans are especially hurt by water issues.

“People are paying in rural communities a lot more for safe water than in the metro area,” he said.

Pollution Control Commissioner John Linc Stine said that while some water and sewer infrastructure is 100 or more years old, even some put in place 30 to 40 years ago has reached the end of its designed lifetime.

“These facilities are coming to the end of their lifecycle,” he said.

The Dayton plan includes funding to clean up the largest pollution site along the Great Lakes.

Cleaning up contaminated sediment and industrial waste along the St. Louis River estuary and in Duluth harbor would get $12.7 million in the Dayton plan.

“It will restore the St. Louis River estuary to a position of prominence,” Linc Stine said.

He predicted the area “will become of the destinations for Minnesota outdoor recreationalists.”

The state’s portion of the clean-up would be 35 percent of total cost, with the federal government picking up 65 percent.

Duluth City Council members discussed the issue at a recent meeting in which they set 2016 legislative priorities.

“I think this is a really critical time to be addressing this river, and with the nearly two-to-one match coming from the federal government, we can’t afford to miss this, especially as we are looking at the city investing our time and treasure into the renewal of the whole St. Louis River corridor,” council member Gary Anderson said.

A group supporting an estuary recovery project reports that nearly one-third of the St. Louis River Estuary has been filled or dredged since the mid-1850s.

 

Dayton favors ‘multifaceted approach’ to prison overcrowding issue

Gov. Mark Dayton will not ask legislators to fix a prison overcrowding problem by borrowing state money to reopen a west-central Minnesota private prison or to expand existing state prisons like his corrections commissioner has suggested, he said Thursday.

“It will be a multifaceted approach,” he said, promising more details Friday when he reveals his proposal to fund public works projects statewide.

After announcing his proposals to fund clean-water projects, he also told reporters that his public works bill will include money for sex offender treatment centers.

The prison issue has been discussed in a prison overcrowding task force made up of legislators and people from the judicial and law enforcement communities. They have considered solutions ranging from building new prison space to giving criminals shorter sentences, but have yet to make final recommendations.

Opening a shuttered private prison in Appleton has been proposed by area government officials. The proposal is to lease the facility to the state, which would staff it with state employees.

The idea gained traction from many Republicans and some Democrats, but faces stiff opposition from other quarters, including labor unions.

The prison has sat empty since Minnesota and other governments removed prisoners from it in 2010.

Also not getting into Dayton’s plan is Correction Commissioner Tom Roy’s proposal to spend more than $40 million to expand existing prisons to provide enough space.

The excess prisoners, Dayton said, are “housed mostly in county jails and they are starting to be overloaded as well.”

He made no predictions about whether the plan he will announce Friday can pass the Legislature. “I don’t know if in an election year if we can deal with some or all of these issues, but we need to start.”

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission last month approved a plan to reduce sentences for many drug offenders, which would reduce pressure on packed prisons. The prison task force has discussed other sentence reductions, too, some of which may take legislative action.

On the sex offender issue, the problem is that hospital treatment facilities look so much like prisons that a federal judge last year ordered the state to find ways to release offenders who already had served their prison terms.

Without giving details, Dayton on Thursday said that his Friday bonding proposal will include money for “alternative treatment centers” that would be less prison-like.

The governor hinted that the sex offender treatment facilities might be expensive. “It will be a big swallow for me.”

Dayton would not say how much he plans to seek in bonding money, but estimates have ranged up to $1.5 billion.

 

Dayton schedules water summit

Gov. Mark Dayton wants a water summit he plans for next month to both produce ideas about how to improve the state’s water quality and educate Minnesotans about the problems.

One fact those attending the Feb. 27 event may discover, in his words, is that fixing water problems “is going to be like our transportation needs, whatever you do will not be enough.”

The governor’s office expects 1,000 at the summit, with Dayton saying the first issue will be to point out “the challenges we face.”

Dayton aide Molly Peterson said the summit will cover many topics, including water quality, depleted aquifers, surface water evaporating, water quality issues and aquatic invasive species. Minnesota cannot deal with one issue without considering the others, she said.

The governor said he wants participants and other Minnesotans to prioritize water problems so state leaders know what to tackle first.  

The summit will be Feb. 27 at the InterContinental St. Paul Riverfront. Any Minnesotan may register at http://tinyurl.com/MNWaterSummit, where there also is a water survey any Minnesotan may take.

 

Dayton promises to stay

Mark Dayton

Mark Dayton

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton once again has denied a persistent rumor that he will resign before his term is up in three years.

“If I am living and breathing, I will be governor of the state of Minnesotan…” Dayton told reporters Friday. “There is nothing that would cause me to leave this job prematurely except incapacity, like not breathing for an extended period of time.”

A reporter asked Dayton about resigning after a new round of the rumor surfaced, a rumor that has circulated since well before he was elected to a second term in November of 2014.

One of the variations of the rumor is that Dayton plans to resign to give Lt. Gov. Tina Smith a leg up in the governor’s race in 2018. While political observers say she is a top contender for the job, she has not publically said if she wants it.

 

Feds give states years to meet ID standards

In case you missed it late Friday afternoon:

Americans may board commercial airlines for at least two more years with state identification cards that do not meet new federal guidelines, but it was not clear after Friday’s announcement if a rush to change Minnesota law will continue.

The federal Department of Homeland Security announced it will not require Real ID-compliant cards until Jan. 22, 2018. However, states making progress to distribute the enhanced IDs could receive extensions until Oct. 1, 2020, when everyone would be required to use Real ID cards or another form of ID such as passports.

The bottom line from Friday’s announcement is if Minnesota makes enough progress in meeting Real ID requirements, its residents might not need the new IDs until Oct. 1, 2020.

In Minnesota, many state leaders have said a special legislative session is needed to comply with federal requirements. They thought the new requirements would begin later this year, but federal officials Friday said that was a misunderstanding and that never was the plan.

A Homeland Security spokeswoman told Forum News Service last month that the department would announce around the first of the year the deadline to conform with Real ID, and the department would give states like Minnesota at least 120 days to begin to make progress toward compliance.

“Right now, no individual needs to adjust travel plans, or rush out to get a new driver’s license or a passport for domestic air travel,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement. “Until Jan. 22, 2018, residents of all states will still be able to use a state-issued driver’s license or identification card for domestic air travel.”

Even after the deadlines, if a Minnesotan does not have a Real ID-compliant identification, passports and some other documents could be used to board planes.

It was not immediately clear if Minnesota officials would back off on their move to deal with Real ID in a special session or wait until the regular session begins March 8. Early reaction from Republicans tended to move it off the special session table.

“The state of Minnesota will continue its efforts to comply with the federal law, in accordance with the guidance provided today,” Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s spokesman said Friday.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said: “This is good news and means the Legislature has ample time to continue efforts to comply with Real ID during the upcoming regular session.”

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, just said that “House Republicans remain committed to finding a resolution as soon as possible.”

Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said Real ID can wait.

“We now have the necessary information from the federal government to allow making adjustments to Minnesota’s driver’s license and state ID cards in a rational manner and not by attempting to jam something through in a special legislative session,” Lueck said.

Also, as of Monday federal facilities such as military bases and nuclear power plants, as well as some other federal facilities, will not accept Minnesota driver’s licenses or ID cards for entrance. Another form of ID could be accepted.

The Monday deadline does not create a new requirement to show IDs, but applies to federal facilities that already require IDs.

To meet Real ID requirements a state identification card or driver’s license must contain improved technology over regular IDs and the state must collect more information from the applicant.

“For a license or identification card to be Real ID compliant, the state issuing it must, for example, incorporate anti-counterfeit technology into the card, verify the applicant’s identity and conduct background checks for employees involved in issuing driver’s licenses,” Johnson said. “The overall goal of the Real ID Act passed by Congress is to prevent the fraudulent issuance and use of driver’s licenses and identification cards, thereby ensuring the safety and security of the American public.”

Homeland Security officials said that even states like Minnesota that have not tried to meet Real ID requirements have improved their driver’s licenses and ID cards to be more secure.

A federal homeland security official, speaking on background to reporters, said the Real ID Act passed in 2005 does not create a national ID or a federal database. Those are two arguments opponents, including Democrats and Republicans in Minnesota, used to refuse to meet the guidelines.

In 2009, 200 of 201 Minnesota legislators and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty supported a measure that to this day forbids the Minnesota Public Safety Department from doing anything to comply with Real ID or even to make plans to implement the guidelines. Dayton on Friday said that he has asked Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman for driver’s license information, but has not discussed Real ID with her for fear of breaking state law.

Dayton said that until the gag order is lifted, Dohman’s department cannot even lay out options the state has in meeting Real ID guidelines.

Dohman’s department is responsible for state-issued IDs and driver’s licenses.

Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Washington state and American Samoa have made little progress to comply with Real ID, federal officials say.

Political chatter: Controversial Senate building opens

Rep. Jim Knoblach

Rep. Jim Knoblach

Rep. Jim Knoblach sat at the front of Room 1200 in the new Minnesota Senate Building on Thursday, co-chairman of the first legislative committee ever to meet there.

The St. Cloud Republican’s position was full of irony. He had sued to keep the state from building the facility before returning to the House last year. He failed, but his position mirrored the GOP majority that he rejoined.

Light wood and soaring ceilings dominate the new room, and an adjoining one that will fill in as the Senate chambers this year while the Capitol building is all but closed. It was a different atmosphere than in other meeting rooms for its first use, a meeting called to consider what can be done about racial economic disparities.

Not everything was smooth, with too many legislators trying to cram around a table built for a few more than 20. Many people coming through Capitol complex tunnels had a hard time finding the room, and getting out of the building.

The room was rushed into service for the possible special session-preparation meeting, at least two weeks before any meeting was scheduled there. The move into the building was planned for the weekend, with it open Monday.

Lots of Republicans stopped in for at least some of the meeting to see what has become an icon of what they call Democratic waste.

While “Minnesota Senate Building” is the official name of the facility, Republicans like to call it the State Legislative Office Building. That is SLOB in governmentese and sound a bit like the State Office Building’s common reference, SOB.

Republican senators opposed spending money on the building and refuse to move into it until after the election. They say they want to save money and will remain in the SOB until after this year’s election to spare the state of the need to move senators again when new members come on board.

Rural economy in spotlight

Most of the recent high-level discussions about rural Minnesota have centered on Iron Range problems created by a weak American steel industry, but even state leaders who live near where miners are laid off stay it is just part of a statewide rural problem.

“There is an issue of our rural economy,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook said. “You go all across these rural towns and we are going to have to discuss what we can do.”

While broadband is important, Bakk added that extending high-speed Internet service is not a cure-all for rural Minnesota.

“We still have to figure out how we can add more value to the natural resources we have,” Bakk said.

On the range, one taconite mine was supposed to also host a steel-making plant, but that never happened. A controversial copper-nickel mine using home facilities of an old taconite operation also is touted as a way to boost the economy.

Whether it is agriculture, forests or taconite, Bakk said, “you have got to work with those assets that we have.”

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, D-Grand Rapids, told a committee Thursday that better use of natural resources is what will help rural Minnesota.

GOP: ‘Talk to us’

Republican lawmakers have been vocal about what they see as a lack of communication from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton when he sought a special legislative session.

Perhaps most vocal was Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings, who was hot in a meeting that was supposed to lead up to a special session.

“They want to politicize everything,” McNamara told two of Dayton’s commissioners in the room to discuss Iron Range unemployment.

“These folks are being held pawns by this administration,” he said about miners.

McNamara complained that no one from Dayton’s office attended the meeting. However, Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben of the Department of Employment and Economic Development said that she and Commissioner Mark Phillips of the Iron Range Resources and Iron Range Rehabilitation Board represented Dayton.

Still, McNamara said that Dayton’s staff should have “reached out to us” before Thursday’s meeting. He said he had heard nothing, and gave his telephone number in case Dayton or someone from his staff wanted to communicate.

Dayton said McNamara, chairman of an environmental committee, is not a key player in unemployment issues, so there was no reason to specifically contact him.

Parking drives complaints

Republicans did not like the new Minnesota Senate Building in the first place, but complaints ramped up in recent days about a $24 million garage under the building.

Supporters of the building and garage all along said the parking structure would be funded by those who park there.

Now, Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, points to a late 2015 letter in which the Senate tells employees that it will subsidize their costs to park there. While Senate leaders say the money already is in the Senate budget, Osmek said that it still is state taxpayers’ money.

“Democrats tried and failed to hide the price tag on this completely unnecessary office building,” Osmek said.

Minnesota Senate Building

Minnesota Senate Building

Feds give states two years to meet new ID standards

Americans may board commercial airlines for two more years with state identification cards that do not meet new federal guidelines.

The federal Department of Homeland Security announced Friday it will not require Real ID-compliant cards until Jan. 22, 2018. However, states making progress to distribute the enhanced IDs could request extensions until Oct. 1, 2020, when everyone would be required to use Real ID cards or another form of ID such as passports.

In Minnesota, state leaders have said a special legislative session is needed to comply with federal requirements. They thought the new requirements would begin later this year, but federal officials Friday said that was a misunderstanding and that never was the plan.

The bottom line is if Minnesota makes enough progress in meeting Real ID requirements, it could receive extensions and its residents might not need the new IDs until Oct. 1, 2020.

It was not immediately clear if Minnesota officials would back off on their move to deal with Real ID in a special session or wait until the regular session begins March 8.

“The state of Minnesota will continue its efforts to comply with the federal law, in accordance with the guidance provided today,” Gov. Mark Dayton’s spokesman said.

Even after the deadlines, if a Minnesotan does not have a Real ID-compliant identification, passports and some other documents could be used to board planes.

Also, as of Monday, federal facilities such as military bases and nuclear power plants, as well as some other federal facilities, will not accept Minnesota driver’s licenses or ID cards for entrance. Another form of ID could be accepted.

The Monday deadline does not create a new requirement to show IDs, but applies to federal facilities that already require IDs.

 

Analysis: Dayton, Daudt not as far apart as words would indicate

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, downplayed the chances of a special legislative session this month to help unemployed miners and blacks who are economically falling behind whites, as well as meeting federal driver's license standards. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, downplayed the chances of a special legislative session this month to help unemployed miners and blacks who are economically falling behind whites, as well as meeting federal driver’s license standards. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

By Don Davis, Forum News Service

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt exchanged fireballs Wednesday over a special legislative session, or lack of one.

But stripping away the rhetoric, they actually are close on two of the three major issues being considered for a session that could come later this month.

For the issue that affects most Minnesotans, getting the state to match up with federal guidelines for driver’s licenses, there really is no difference on the main topic. Dayton, a Democrat, and Daudt, a Republican, and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk agree that a 2009 law banning key state officials from discussing the issue should be overturned.

A special session could simply vote to allow the Public Safety Department to work with federal and state authorities in drawing up a proposal, which legislators could consider later this year, to meet federal Real ID guidelines.

In 2009, legislators banned such discussions because they felt Real ID would intrude on Minnesotans’ privacy by collecting too much information.

Some lawmakers still feel that way, but Dayton and many legislators say Minnesota needs to conform to the Real ID guidelines or normal state driver’s licenses will not be accepted as identification to board airliners later this year.

The second issue with no significant disagreement is extending unemployment benefits for workers laid off because of temporary and permanent taconite mine closures in northeastern Minnesota. Dayton wants 26 additional weeks for hundreds of miners whose benefits are expiring.

Daudt said that he would be in favor of extending benefits to miners and on Wednesday did not emphasize a previous requirement that any such change include long-range job improvements, too.

Dayton suggests a special session also begin to help erase a financial disparity between blacks and whites, although he has not revealed specifics. The issue is broad and one that many say is too important to even begin making changes in a January special session.

Critical comments from Dayton and Daudt about each other Wednesday overshadowed areas where they may agree. However, the rhetoric was strong, lively and interesting for political observers.

“It is very disappointing that we are going to start the year with this total lack of real cooperation,” Dayton told reporters about Daudt’s Republican-controlled House. He said Republicans do not want a special session that could help many Minnesotans.

“Given the tense environment right now that he has created … I think it is nearly impossible to have a special session,” Daudt told Forum News Service.

Those comments are background for a Friday meeting among Dayton, Daudt and Bakk about the possibility of a special session later this month. While Dayton earlier said he wanted the three to agree by Friday, on Wednesday he said that is not a drop-dead deadline.

An item that may be discussed Friday is whether to extend unemployment benefits for Iron Range residents who do not work for mines but have been laid off because of mine closures.

Daudt suggested that a Thursday legislative meeting on the miner unemployment subject could look into help for non-miners, too.

In response to a Forum News Service question on the subject, Dayton that no one had brought up the issue of non-miner unemployment, but “I would be willing to look at it.”

While Dayton said that it appears Daudt rules out a special session, the speaker said in an interview that he is willing to work with the governor until the day before the regular legislative session begins if needed.

However, Dayton said that after he proposed in November that a special session be scheduled to help Iron Range workers, he waited 26 days for Daudt to respond. The governor said Republicans have been “dragging heels, dragging heels and then blaming us.”

Dayton offered to take Daudt and other Republicans on tours of the Iron Range and North Minneapolis next week to see how those areas could benefit from special session legislation. The governor said he has no plans for tours, but would schedule them if the GOP would go along.

“I am happy to go to either one of those,” Daudt responded. “I am willing to work with him, I absolutely am. Every one of my actions follow that.”

However, he added, “what we don’t need is a stunt.”

Daudt said it would be more helpful for Dayton to provide details about what he would like to see happen in a special session. “The governor has not given us a single specific.”

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton complains on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, that Republicans are standing in the way of helping unemployed miners, blacks who are economically falling behind whites and efforts to meet federal driver's license standards. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton complains on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, that Republicans are standing in the way of helping unemployed miners, blacks who are economically falling behind whites and efforts to meet federal driver’s license standards. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)