Rural votes decide House control

New House GOP majority

By Charley Shaw and Don Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among crucial House races:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Chatter: Campaigns deliver urgent messages

By Don Davis

It is breathless time for political campaigns.

In what reminds one of an old-time messenger trying to catch his breath when delivering urgent news, the campaigns fit in as much drama as possible during this time of a campaign. The term “breaking” is used in many an email subject line, followed by a comment in all capital letters that seems to indicate the sky is falling.

Take, for instance, an email from Gov. Mark Dayton’s campaign seeking money from supporters.

With bright yellow highlighting in the background, the solicitation begins, and the last sentence underlined and in blue type: “BREAKING FINANCE UPDATE: Tea Party opponent Jeff Johnson is outraising Governor Mark Dayton! Four years of progress is at risk: Give now to save our progress with Mark Dayton!”

In the exact same format, Executive Director Corey Day of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party declares: “ACTION NEEDED: MPR reports the Minnesota Business Partnership – which includes CEOs from the state’s biggest corporations – is laser-focused on helping Republicans take control of the Minnesota House. Give right now to defend our DFL majorities, and your gift will be MATCHED dollar-for-dollar!”

Carl Kuhl of Republican Mike McFadden’s U.S. Senate campaign was a bit less dramatic: “Senator Al Franken is getting a lot of help from Washington D.C. friends like Senator Harry Reid and Senator Elizabeth Warren. In fact, it was just announced Elizabeth Warren’s Super PAC is raising money and creating a ‘firewall’ to protect her friend Al Franken. Because of this D.C. money help, Senator Franken is beating us in fundraising, but we’re closing the gap and need your help to finish this month strong.”

Like so many of the donation-seeking emails, Kuhl begs supporters to “act before it is too late.”

A closer look at Dayton’s situation leaves the Democratic governor  looking in better shape than his campaign’s email may indicate.

While Dayton emphasized that Johnson outraised Dayton in the last campaign finance reporting period, the incumbent governor still has more money than the Republican. And while a recent poll gave Dayton a 12-point lead, the fundraising letter emphasized the 20 percent of voters who apparently have not decided between Johnson and Dayton.

“With so much at stake – 162,000 new jobs, a higher minimum wage and affordable college tuition – we CANNOT fall behind now,” the Dayton email breathlessly declared. “We have to fight back.”

‘Keep off trigger’

The Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee says it wants to keep Minnesotans safe by paying for gun training classes for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.

A picture of the Democrat who serves northeast and east-central Minnesota attracted lots of social media attention because he had a finger on the trigger of a gun.

“The basic rules of firearms safety, taught to students as young as 12 in … hunter safety classes, state clearly that one’s finger should be kept off the trigger until ready to shoot,” committee Executive Director Bryan Strawser said. “Mr. Nolan’s actions are unsafe and dangerous.”

Strawser’s committee offered to pay for firearms training for Nolan at Mills Fleet Farm indoor shooting range in Baxter. Of course, Nolan’s Republican opponent in his re-election campaign is Fleet Farm official Stewart Mills.

Who gets the credit?

It is election season and every politician’s comment is closely scrutinized.

A case in point is something re-election candidate Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, said about the Lewis and Clark project that is to bring southwestern Minnesota water.

“The area’s Republican legislators gave it lip service,” Dayton said. “We gave it $72 million.”

Dayton should not be surprised the “the area’s Republican legislators” did not take kindly to the comment.

“Gov. Mark Dayton’s comments today on the Lewis and Clark project don’t hold water,” Sen. Bill Weber of Luverne and Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake said in a joint statement. “It’s outrageous he is taking credit for this project when the opposite is true.

“Everyone agreed the Lewis and Clark water project was worthy of funding, but Gov. Dayton and the Democrats repeatedly used the project as leverage to get Republicans to agree to more borrowing for wasteful projects.”

Weber and Hamilton accuse Dayton of playing “political games with basic human needs like having sufficient potable water in our communities.”

GOP lawmakers were working on their colleagues at the end of the spring’s legislative session as Lewis and Clark became the major hang-up to adjourning for the year. At one point, a weary but happy Hamilton sat at his back-row House seat, relieved that House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, had just agreed to a solution those in the southwest could live with.

Tuition freeze promoted

Minnesota House Democrats have traveled the state in recent days promoting their plan to freeze college tuition until 2017.

President Eric Kaler of the University of Minnesota praised the effort, a rare comment by someone in his position about a political initiative.

“We’re pleased that leaders and members of the Minnesota House DFL support that goal and vision and we look forward to working with all members, the Senate and the governor to achieve that goal,” Kaler said.

But Kaler’s comment came with a warning: “If we do not get sufficient funding to support this freeze, the Board of Regents is prepared to raise tuition, as needed, to fill the gap.”

Looking heavenward

Well-known national political pundit Stuart Rothenberg wrote in Politico that U.S. Sen. Al Franken has a pretty good chance to be re-elected in Minnesota.

Republican challenger Mike McFadden probably needs “divine intervention to have any chance of winning,” Rothenberg wrote.

Dayton seeks rail data

Gov. Mark Dayton has asked about 300 communities near railroads that carry oil trains to tell him how increased train traffic and oil going through their towns affect budgets and quality of life.

At five meetings about railroad oil safety, with a sixth planned for Duluth, local leaders have told Dayton stories of long trains being parked in their communities for hours and that their public safety workers are not prepared if there is an oil train derailment.

“In my meetings with local leaders across the state this summer, it became clear that increased traffic on our railways is having real and costly impacts on Minnesota communities,” Dayton said. “This survey will help identify those challenges, and provide a roadmap for the state to address these problems in the 2015 legislative session.”

Broadband grants ready

Minnesota officials are accepting applications for grants to expand high-speed Internet in areas that lack speed.

The service, also known as broadband, is especially lacking in rural Minnesota, where officials say it puts them at a disadvantage to those in cities.

The Legislature and governor approved spending $20 million on broadband grants earlier this year, with up to $5 per grant.

Medical marijuana compromise brings tears of happiness

Weaver, Dibble

By Don Davis

Angie Weaver shed tears, again.

“This means the world to our family,” the Hibbing mother said between tears of joy Thursday, hoping her daughter will be able to use marijuana extracts to ease up to 50 seizures she has a day. “This is going to help thousands of Minnesotans. … My daughter is going to be able to stay in Minnesota and grow up with her cousins.”

Amelia Weaver, 8, sat next to her mother, who has showed tears several times in the past weeks, Thursday as legislators and other medical marijuana supporters announced they have reached a compromise to allow marijuana extracts to be used to treat several medical conditions.

The Weavers and Katelyn Pauling’s family of Montevideo have become regulars in the Minnesota Capitol this year supporting medical marijuana. They have faced continual ups and downs.

“It’s been like the wildest roller coaster I’ve been on…” Katelyn’s father, Jeremy, said. “It’s taking every part of me not to cry now.”

State House and Senate votes are planned today as time runs out on the 2014 legislative session. The bill is expected to pass.

“We have all heard from people who live in our districts, people who would benefit from this legislation,” House bill author Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, said.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he started out opposing medical marijuana, even though it could help his multiple sclerosis symptoms. However, after talking to Weaver and others his mind changed.

“Meeting the individuals we’re helping, that’s what it’s all about.” Hamilton said.

About 5,000 Minnesotans a month could benefit from marijuana, state officials say.

The compromise calls for two manufacturing operations with eight distributions points around the state. The bill would not allow smoking marijuana or use of the plant, although it would allow whole-plant extracts that could make users high.

Law enforcement groups are expected to remain neutral on the issue and Gov. Mark Dayton announced his support after saying for weeks that he cannot back a medical marijuana bill that lacks law enforcement and medical organizations’ support.

“I look forward to signing this bill into law,” Dayton said, pledging that his administration “will do everything possible to implement it as swiftly and successfully as is possible.”

Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, said many police officers have supported medical marijuana all along.

The Cottage Grove police officer said that the bill “is the strictest and most regulated in the country.” Twenty-one states allow medical marijuana use.

If the Minnesota bill becomes law, marijuana pills and liquids will be available to patients in mid-2015. Their health care providers, mostly doctors, would have to recommend that they be added to a registry.

Medical marijuana could be used to treat some cancer that is accompanied by severe pain, nausea or severe vomiting; glaucoma; HIV-AIDS; Tourette’s syndrome; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); severe and persistent muscle spasms such as those in multiple sclerosis patients; some forms of seizures; Crohn’s disease; and terminal illnesses accompanied by some specific complications.

A major difference between bills passed by the House and Senate was that the House only allowed three places for people to buy marijuana pills and liquids in the state, while 55 were approved in the Senate measure.

One of the prime backers of medical marijuana had a mixed reaction.

“This is a big step forward for Minnesota, but it will leave a lot of Minnesotans behind,” Heather Azzi of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care said. “Some aspects of the law raise serious concerns about the extent to which many seriously ill people will be able to access medical marijuana. We hope legislators will be ready to address them next session.”

Debate gets emotional for legislators

By Don Davis

Rep. Leon Lillie set the stage for a memorable and emotional Minnesota legislative debate.

“This stuff is personal,” the North St. Paul Democrat said Friday of discussion about allowing medical marijuana use in Minnesota. “This could be us.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, rose and in a tear-filled, emotional speech made it clear the debate was about him.

For years, those around the Capitol have known Hamilton has multiple sclerosis, one of the medical conditions that compounds made from marijuana could treat under the bill representatives overwhelmingly passed.

The issue arose 10 years ago, when Hamilton was a freshman lawmaker. He gathered his children, in fourth and sixth grades then, and let them know: “I would qualify.”

His son said: “Dad, I think I could support anything that could make you feel better.”

His daughter countered: “Even if it turns dad into a pothead?”

Hamilton voted against medical marijuana then.

He recently asked his son and daughter about the issue again. His son said the same thing. His daughter, studying medicine at the University of Iowa, said more study is needed.

As a parent, however, Hamilton said that he looks at things differently than his daughter. He said that he talked to parents of children who suffer seizures that could be controlled by marijuana chemicals.

“Through the eyes of a parent, my position began to change,” he said, looking into the House gallery at those who met with him. “I want to thank you for sharing your story.”

Hamilton also told of working with a man addicted to heroin, which is similar to medicine doctors may prescribe. With that background, he said, Minnesotans should stop using the term “medical marijuana.”

“We don’t refer to it as ‘medical heroin,’” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said his son told him that he will be referred to as a flip-flopper after opposing the plan a decade ago.

“As the information is presented to you, it is the responsible thing to take that information,” Hamilton said, still holding back tears. “You know, there are some who would believe the world is flat. Only a fool or a dead man never changes his mind.”

“I’m proud to be a flip-flopper on this issue,” he said.

Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, got up in the quiet House chamber.

“I’m a flip-flopper, too,” the Cottage Grove police officer said.

A year ago, Schoen said, he thought medical marijuana was “a sham. It’s just a cover.”

Then, he added, like Hamilton he heard stories and Melin convinced him that the bill “was going to be one of the toughest and strictest in the country.”

He agreed with Hamilton that the “medical marijuana” term should be changed: “Can’t we just rename it because when you say ‘marijuana’ people get freaked?”

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, told of being on a heart transplant list at age 15, with his mother at his side in a hospital more than five months.

“The daily routine would be me throwing up and her crying,” Zerwas said.

He recently asked his mother for advice on the medical marijuana bill: “My mom said, ‘Nick how can you not help people who are so desperate for help? When you were 15 and you were that condition, I would have done anything to help you, anything, because you are my son.”

Minnesota Legislature’s end is near

By Don Davis

The Minnesota House takes up medical marijuana today in what could be a debate lasting well into the night while pieces fall into place on tax and spending bills as the Minnesota Legislature nears the end of its 2014 session.

Debate on the much-discussed proposal to allow children with seizures and adults with extreme pain to use marijuana extracts is expected to begin in the early afternoon, and could last hours. Senators overwhelmingly approved a more liberal bill earlier in the week, but it may go too far for Gov. Mark Dayton to sign it into law.

On Thursday, Dayton would not commit to backing a more restrictive marijuana bill by Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, that only allows one medical marijuana manufacturer, instead of 55 in the Senate-passed bill. Allowing 55 centers around the state “seems to be quite unworkable,” said Dayton, who has required medical and law enforcement support before signing off on any marijuana plan.

The Democratic governor said that Health Department staffers have been working the last several days to make sure any medical marijuana bill that passes is workable.

“Legislators’ hearts are in a good place,” he said. “They want to do something, but it has to be functional.”

If the House passes Melin’s bill today, House and Senate negotiators will take up the complex task of merging the two different bills into a compromise proposal. And it must be done in just a few days.

The state Constitution requires the Legislature to adjourn no later than May 19. While some legislative leaders had predicted a pre-Easter adjournment, the final day now looks to be no earlier than mid-week next week.

“The sooner we are done the better,” Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said. “I would really like to get done this week. … No one is safe until the Legislature adjourns.”

Formal and informal negotiations continue on several unresolved issues. Prime among them are how to spend a budget increase and what public works projects get state money.

Legislative leaders sent four key lawmakers into a room Thursday to negotiate a public works bill, to be funded by the state selling bonds. The hope is that the four can work out the bonding bill so it is acceptable to the House and Senate, thus avoiding after-the-fact negotiations.

“It’s good to see cooperation and coordination, even beforehand,” Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said leaders did not give orders to the four bonding negotiators about specifics that must be included in the bill. However, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said there is an understanding that all four legislative leaders expect funding for the hot-button bonding issue: southwestern Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark water project.

The project, to bring water in from South Dakota, has produced by far the most bonding discussion.

Daudt said he hopes Lewis and Clark can get the $20 million needed to bring water to Luverne and a like about to fund the next phase. However, money may not be approved for the third phase, to extend the pipeline to Worthington, the minority leader said.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he is pushing for the entire $69 million Lewis and Clark funding.

While debate continues on how to spend money, a tax bill has been negotiated. It features an average $200 property tax break for farmers, as well as cuts for renters and homeowners.

Legislative notebook: TV commercial blasts Dayton medical marijuana stand

A group supporting medical marijuana is buying television commercial time to attack Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s opposition to a bill stalled in the Legislature.

The spot features a St. Paul mother and her 5-year-old son who suffers from seizures that medical marijuana advocates say could be eased if the plant were allowed to be used.

The commercial by Minnesotans for Compassionate Care was scheduled to air during Wednesday’s “Tonight Show” and “Late Show,” then to be on some Thursday morning shows.

The organization on Thursday plans to deliver a petition to Dayton’s office signed by more than 4,900 Minnesotans calling for him to allow the medical marijuana bill to advance.

The bill by Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, stalled in a legislative committee after Dayton said he would not sign a bill allowing plant marijuana to be used to treat seizures and extreme pain, two things advocates say marijuana could ease.

Dayton said he cannot support Melin’s bill until law enforcement and medical organizations back it.

Law enforcement groups oppose the bill because it would allow the marijuana plant to be used. They say they could back the bill if it were changed only to use chemicals from the plant as medicine.

Medical groups oppose the measure because marijuana has not undergone extensive scientific tests as required by other medicines. Dayton proposed that Mayo Clinic conduct such an extensive study to see how a marijuana extract affect 200 children with seizures.

The commercial can be seen at http://youtu.be/vdn5NO2s0Nk.

 

Bill passes to protect data

Minnesota senators unanimously passed a bill to crack down on public employees who improperly use individuals’ private data, such as driver’s licenses.

“It does provide some accountability,” Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said, before the 66-0 vote.

The Senate-passed bill is slightly different than one the House passed 132-0 last year, so the House must reconsider the bill before it heads to the governor for his signature.

Dibble’s bill follows reports about various public employees with access to driver’s licenses looked at information when with no official reason. Many of those accused of improperly calling up the data were men who looked at private information of well-known women such as television news reporters.

While the Dibble bill would increase penalties for improper access, he added that “more work is going to have to be done at some point in the future.”

The measure requires that private data only is available who need it for their jobs, and they can only access it while on duty.

 

Retirement funds would get aid

Minnesota legislators are looking into ways to help two teacher retirement funds.

An overall pension bill that nears a full House vote would provide $15 million a year to ensure a successful merger of the financially troubled Duluth Teachers Retirement Fund Association and the Teachers Retirement Association, an organization serving teachers across the state. The bill also would provide $7 million annually to keep the St. Paul Teachers Retirement Fund Association fiscally sound.

The money involved with the Duluth fund would continue for 24 years. Leaders of that fund have told lawmakers that a better financial picture is doubtful because more retirees are getting benefits than there are current teachers to fund the system.

 

Disability aid part of big bill

Rep. Rod Hamilton lost a Wednesday effort to allow Minnesota representatives to vote on raising state aid to people who care for the disabled.

On a 68-59 vote, the House rejected the Mountain Lake Republican’s proposal to immediately debate and vote on the plan to increase funding 5 percent for home health care providers. That means the provision will be voted on Thursday as part of a budget bill that updates a $39 billion, two-year budget lawmakers passed a year ago.

The Thursday bill includes all budget changes, such as increasing funding for transportation, education and other programs.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said that the usual way to alter an already-passed budget, including when Republicans controlled the House, is to lump all budget changes in one big bill.

“Let’s have a clean vote,” Hamilton responded.

Republicans generally support the 5 percent increase, but could be tempted to vote against the budget bill because they oppose much of the new spending it contains.

“We are being forced to choose whether or not we can support every word in a 600-page bill simply because we support people with disabilities,” Hamilton said.

Lawmaker seeks more Minnesota railroad oil safety oversight

Hamilton

By Don Davis

Western North Dakota’s oil boom puts Minnesota in a dangerous position, a key Minnesota lawmaker says, and the state should increase its rail oil safety oversight.

Most of the highly volatile oil moves from the Bakken oilfields through Minnesota.

“We are at the geographic epicenter of this,” said Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, of the House Transportation Finance Committee.

Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation told Hornstein’s committee Wednesday that nine or 10 trains a day haul crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oilfields. Seven or eight trains of those trains go through Minnesota, most through the heart of the Twin Cities.

“That places us right on the route for problems,” Christianson said.

In the second of two meeting on the oil situation, nearly everyone talked about crude oil disasters that occurred in 2013 Quebec and North Dakota derailments.

Railroad officials say they are taking actions on their own to improve crude oil transportation safety. Hornstein said more state rail inspectors are needed and local emergency officials need the state’s financial help for training and equipment to deal with oil accidents.

After hearing from state regulators, union leaders and railroad executives Wednesday, Hornstein said that he plans to release a bill next week to improve Minnesota’s ability to prepare for and fight oil disasters. However, he said, no decision has been made about how to fund those actions.

Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to release a plan Thursday to make some budget changes and he could include funding for oil disasters from a budget surplus. Hornstein originally wanted to tax oil shipments through Minnesota to get the funds, but House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said he opposes the tax.

“It seems to me there is a significant need for legislation,” Hornstein said.

With Bakken constantly expanding its output, on its way to 1 million barrels a day, Minnesota needs to prepare, the chairman said.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, wondered how good Minnesota railroad tracks are.

Christianson said they are better than ever, but highly volatile Bakken crude oil changes things.

“We cannot afford to have a single incident…” Christianson said. “This is a different game that we are playing and the stakes are higher.”

It may be an inconvenience if a railcar of corn spills, but an explosion or spill of an oil car’s contents could be disastrous, he said.

David Brown of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers told the committee that greed by railroads and other businesses involved in the oil industry endangers the public and railroad employees because they do not spend enough on safety.

Railroad officials said they have a good safety record and work to improve it.

Vice President Brian Sweeney of BNSF Railway Co. said his railroad is spending more money on better equipment and tracks than it is paying out in profits.

He said testing cars are used to check track three or four times a year, with more tests where oil trains travel. He also said track sensors every 30 to 40 miles can detect problems early.

After a deadly oil train derailment in Quebec last year, the railroad industry began to take actions on its own to increase safety, Sweeney said. Among those actions was to lower train speeds, down to 40 miles an hour in some urban areas.

At the same time, new tank cars are being built to higher standards.

BNSF is in the process of buying 5,000 newly designed and safer tank cars, Sweeney said. Most railroads do not own tank cars.

Sweeney said that BNSF trained 830 Minnesota emergency responders in the last five years. The railroad also has emergency responders on it staff as well as equipment such as some that dispenses foam to douse fires.

While railroad officials said they do their own extensive rail inspections, three federal inspectors cover all of Minnesota and western Wisconsin. One state rail inspector is on staff.

“Without a doubt, we need more (rail) inspectors,” Hornstein said.

Bill Gandner of MnDOT said 1,138 track safety defects were found last year, with 141 of them considered serious.

House defeats bonding bill … for now

Reps. Tom Hackbarth, left, and Rod Hamilton

By Don Davis

The Minnesota House defeated a public works funding bill this afternoon, but even with a Monday adjournment deadline looming it still could come back up.

Bill author Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said today’s vote would be the only chance representatives would have to pass her $800 million bill, to be funded by the state selling bonds. In past legislative sessions, major bills such as the bonding bill have been defeated in the final days, but have come back before the midnight Monday constitutional deadline.

The House vote was 76-56, with 81 votes needed for the state to sell bonds.

Southwestern Minnesota Republicans said they were upset because aid to their area affected by storms last month was in the bonding bill, which was less likely to pass than if the bill were a stand-alone measure.

“I truly hope the Democrats aren’t going to play politics with an act of God…” Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said. “With four days left in session, there is absolutely no excuse to not hear this (disaster relief) bill, approve it and send it to the Senate.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, also worried that the disaster relief could be in danger.

“Democrats are holding this funding hostage because we did not support $800 million in additional state borrowing,” Hamilton said. “We have always helped our disaster victims during their time of crisis, and I can only hope the Democrats will do the right thing and bring this bill forward in the next few days.”

The overall bonding bill would fund projects such as state Capitol renovation work, repairs at state facilities ranging from colleges to state parks and providing funds for communities to improve sewer treatment plants. The $109 million Capitol provision is the largest in the bill.

Many Republicans said they could not support the bonding bill until the state budget is finished. Various budget bills have begun to be heard by the House and Senate, but no major spending bills have been debated.

Hausman told reporters after the vote that the bonding bill is finished, but Gov Mark Dayton and leaders of the Democratic-controlled House and Senate could order the bill to be debated again.

There has been talk this year that Republicans could accept a bonding bill that includes Capitol work and any disaster funding needed, but not other projects.

Divide remains between rural Republicans, House leaders

Murphy, Marquart

By Danielle Killey

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy and Rep. Paul Marquart stood side-by-side Tuesday introducing House Democrats’ education funding plan.

Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, praised Marquart’s work as education finance chairman: “He has done such a fantastic job.”

Indeed, politics can make unexpected allies.

Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, had challenged Murphy to lead the House Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus after last November’s elections. Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis was elected House speaker, and Marquart said he wanted to make sure rural Minnesota was represented in leadership.

Marquart lost the leadership contest, but said he was pleased to land the job as education finance chairman. His committee decides the budget for the state’s largest spending area.

Marquart said he was relieved when he saw many other rural members named to committee leadership spots as well, allaying some concerns about a lack of input from greater Minnesota that many members outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area raised as the legislative session began.

“I thought, ‘here’s where the balance is,’” Marquart said.

Some rural lawmakers still are not convinced.

“I think we’re left behind, definitely,” Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, said of rural Minnesotans under Democratic budget plans.

She said the proposals do not address real needs outside the Twin Cities area and could hurt small businesses and farmers.

“I think they need to re-examine their priorities,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said of Democrats. “I definitely have concerns.”

Many rural Republican lawmakers cited recent approval of the environment and agriculture finance bill, which included water usage fee increases, an example of plans they say will disproportionately impact greater Minnesota.

Before the legislative session began, Republican lawmakers said agriculture funding would be overshadowed by other issues when it was joined with environment and natural resources for finance talks, and they were not happy with the result.

The bill passed without any Republican votes.

“I think this is one of the first times we have had a lack of bipartisan support there,” Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said. “I just don’t think this is a common-sense approach to how things work in rural Minnesota.”

Murphy said Democrats intentionally aimed for significant rural committee leadership overall to ensure those voices would be heard and said the budget plan reflects that.

“I think Minnesota as a whole will experience the benefits,” Murphy said. “We pay a lot of attention to different areas of the state.”

“We said we’re not going to play games with the budget anymore,” Marquart said. “That leads to balancing it on the backs of rural Minnesota often.”

Marquart said those Republicans concerned about rural Minnesota should look at the difference from the past two years, when the GOP controlled the Legislature.

“Rural Minnesota took a hit,” Marquart said. “We reversed some of those things.”

“I think the overall budget is excellent for rural Minnesota,” he added, citing his education finance bill, property tax relief and a 3 percent increase in funding for nursing homes. “I would say, look at the results.”

Thissen said a possible public works borrowing bill also would include funding toward important projects in rural Minnesota.

Kiel acknowledged some rural cities might see more state funds from changes to Local Government Aid and property tax relief plans. But she said proposed alcohol and cigarette taxes, the water fee increases, education requirements and other policies would cost more than any benefit those communities might see.

“Even if we raise LGA, we’re going to turn around and spend it and charge more money,” she said.

Kiel said other Democratic proposals such as raising the minimum wage will hit rural Minnesota harder than the metro as well. “That’s going to be detrimental to businesses.”

Leaders “truly think they’re trying” to keep rural Minnesota in mind, Kiel said.

Murphy grew up around agriculture and said she has farmers in her family. She said she understands the ag industry’s strength is essential to the state’s success.

But top concerns are different from rural to metro areas, Kiel said, and it is hard to advocate for both.

“If everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority,” Hamilton said.

Marquart said he thinks Thissen and other leaders have “made a concerted effort to make sure the results are beneficial for rural Minnesota.”

“We know if greater Minnesota succeeds, we’ll all succeed,” Thissen said.

Hamilton said the final results of the session remain to be seen in the last few weeks, and Democratic leaders still will be in place next year, the second of a two-year legislative session.

More policy issues likely will come up then, Anderson said, and the impacts on the state outside the metro area might be clearer.

“There could be a lot more issues that are near and dear to rural Minnesota,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of a two-year trial here.”

 Reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.

House OKs health funding amid hospital payment questions

Hamilton

By Don Davis

Minnesota state representatives approved 70-64 a health-care spending bill late Monday without knowing how it would affect hospitals around the state.

Most Democrats favored the bill while most Republicans opposed it.

Highlighting debate was an amendment by Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, that the Democrat-controlled House put on the overall bill to change how funding would be distributed to hospitals.

Time after time when Republican lawmakers asked Morgan how his amendment would affect hospitals. His common reply was simple: “I don’t know.” He also said he only had a “rudimentary understanding” of the amendment.

“It is irresponsible to ask members to vote” without knowing an amendment’s impact, an emotional Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said.

His voice rising, he told Democrats: “This is the wrong process that you are using, and you know it.”

The Morgan amendment, approved on a voice vote, took more than three hours of debate, starting a discussion lasting more than nine hours on a health-care funding bill costing $13 billion over the next two years.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said at least 600,000 more Minnesotans would receive subsidized health care under his bill.

Huntley and Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said no individual should feel a cut in state-funded health care, but some hospitals would take a hit.

A few amendments were added to the bill, including one on a 71-62 vote that would require abortion clinics to receive licenses. Supporters said it was needed to keep patients safe.

To make up for much of a $150 million cut House leaders ordered in his bill, Huntley added to an existing surcharge on hospitals.

The surcharge on non-government hospitals would rise from 1.56 percent of patient revenues to 2.68 percent. The $105 million in new state revenue would be used to leverage federal money, Huntley said.

Surcharge revenue would be returned to hospitals, but not in the same amounts collected from each institution.

“Unfortunately, there are winners and losers,” Huntley said, but did not have a list of how much each hospital would receive.

Republicans used the lengthy Morgan amendment debate to contact hospital administrators in their areas and generally said the hospitals would be hurt by the bill and amendment or said hospital officials did not know the impact.

“If we are so unclear on the impact, I don’t think we should even vote on this legislation,” Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said.

Huntley said the Morgan amendment would not affect how much the surcharge would bring in, just how funds would be divided among hospitals. Morgan said his amendment would divide the money more fairly than the original Huntley language, but Morgan could not say why it would be better.

Nearly 90 percent of funds in Huntley’s overall bill would go to health care for the elderly and those with severe disabilities, Huntley said.

A highlight of the Huntley bill is raising nursing home payments 3 percent and other long-term care program payments 2 percent, with 75 percent of the money going to worker raises.

Rural Minnesota Republicans called on Democrats to boost funding, especially for nursing homes.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said there are some funding increases in the House bill, but “they’re crumbs, frankly.”

“We all need to pull together and properly fund this area,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, got an amendment included to gradually reduce the $2,800 per-resident surcharge nursing homes pay. The first reduction would be $440 next year.

Some of the new funding Huntley included in his bill would be used to put mental health experts in schools.

“They don’t have to be hauled away to a clinic or hospital,” Huntley said. “They can get their mental health treatment just down the hall from their classroom.”

The state-subsidized MinnesotaCare health insurance program would expand to include Minnesotans with incomes 138 percent to 200 percent of the federally assigned poverty rate next year, before its clients join a federal program.

 

Reporter Danielle Killey contributed to this story.

 

House expects long health debate

Huntley

By Don Davis and Danielle Killey

At least 600,000 more Minnesotans would get subsidized health care under a bill House Democrats expect to pass late tonight or early Tuesday.

Republicans complain that even with increased spending for nursing homes and other long-term care programs, more money is needed.

The House health and human services bill spends nearly $11 billion in the next two years, the second most in state government, only behind public school education. Most of the spending would go to fund health programs for the elderly, disabled and poor.

DFL Reps. Tom Huntley of Duluth and Tina Liebling of Rochester said no individual should see a cut in state-funded health care, but Huntley said some hospitals would take a hit.

To make up for a $150 million cut House leaders ordered in his health bill, Huntley added a surcharge on hospitals to cover much of the cut.

The surcharge would be used to match federal funds that would go to some hospitals. However, Huntley said, the federal money would not cover the surcharge at all hospitals.

“Unfortunately, there are winners and losers,” Huntley said.

Democrats said that their bill adds coverage to many Minnesotans.

“We also improved MinnesotaCare,” Huntley said.

The state-subsidized health insurance program would expand to include Minnesotans with incomes 138 percent to 200 percent of the federally assigned poverty rate.

The poor who earn more than twice the poverty rate could be eligible for federal assistance under new federal health laws.

A highlight of the Huntley bill is raising nursing home and other long-term care program payments 3 percent, allowing them to give wage increases to workers for the first time in four years. Given his budget limitations, Huntley said, that was the most he could fit in, but added that he personally would like to give workers 10 percent raises.

Rural Minnesota Republicans called on Democrats to up funding in the health and human services budget plan, especially for nursing homes.

“It’s very, very difficult to stomach what it’s going to do to the nursing home industry,” Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said of the proposal. “We have a crisis out there in rural Minnesota.”

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said nursing home advocates say current law would be better for them than the proposed budget bill.

Torkelson said there are some funding increases in the House bill, but “they’re crumbs, frankly.”

“Every area in the (state) budget got an increase except health and human services,” Torkelson said, adding Democrats need to evaluate their funding priorities.

“We all need to pull together and properly fund this area,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

The rural lawmakers said they will push for a bigger pay increase for caregivers.

Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said many facilities might have to close or could lose good employees if they face cuts or do not get more funding from the state.

“That is simply just not acceptable,” he said.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said that Republicans had the chance to increase health spending two years ago when they controlled the House and Senate.

Fee increases bother GOP in ag-outdoors bill

Corrects DNR and PCA budget figures from earlier version of story

—-

By Danielle Killey

Republican lawmakers said an environment and agriculture budget bill the House approved 69-61 Thursday is loaded with too-high fees and wasteful spending.

“This agriculture and environment finance proposal is loaded with staggering fee increases that will impact hardworking taxpayers in every income bracket,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings.

Bill author Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said the money will help manage water issues throughout the state, stem the spread of invasive species and fund agriculture programs.

“These fees are not nearly as damaging as has been indicated, and in fact are needed and they’re necessary to protect our air and water and the health and safety of the people,” said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township.

A major concern among many lawmakers was water usage fee increases. They would add up to between about 75 cents and $4 a year for a household and about $2 to $6 per acre for the average farmer, said Wagenius, the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee chairwoman. That would raise about $6.1 million a year.

“Farmers are facing substantial increases in this bill when it comes to water and fees,” said Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake.

Democrats argued that the money is needed to protect water in the state and that funding and resources have lagged in the past.

“We’ve all assumed the water in our state is an infinite resource,” Wagenius said, “but our water, particularly our water underground, has its limits, and we’re seeing those limits right now.”

Those who opposed the overall bill said it would negatively affect homeowners, businesses and especially farmers. They pointed to permitting, mining and other fee increases, saying they would add up and negatively affect Minnesotans.

“This bill really increases fees on a lot of people, a lot of businesses,” said Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck.

Some said the budget plan could push companies out of Minnesota.

“The fees in this bill give small businesses just one more reason to relocate to North Dakota,” said Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston.

Democrats said the bill should show they understand the importance of rural Minnesota.

“It confirms the priorities of the DFL majority to make strong investments in agriculture that will benefit our farmers and our entire state,” said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.

The bill would allot $67 million for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, about $478 million for the Department of Natural Resources and about $171 million for the Pollution Control Agency, among other departments.

The proposal also would create a silica sand technical assistance team to help local governments dealing with the issue.

Republicans said some proposed spending is unnecessary. For example, $300,000 is set aside for bee habitats, many noted, including $50,000 earmarked for signs and public awareness. Some acknowledged the bee population is suffering but said there are better ways to spend the money.

After brief discussion, Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, withdrew an amendment putting a five-year moratorium on wolf trapping — from when the animal came off the endangered species list last year — and a four-year moratorium on taking wolves in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

A Senate committee approved a wolf hunting and trapping ban earlier in the session, but it has not moved forward since then. The state’s first wolf hunting season ended in January.

State senators are slated to discuss their version of the budget bill today.