Political chatter: Privacy matters to be in the open

Every Minnesota legislative session seems to produce one issue no one saw coming, at least to the scale it reaches.

Perhaps that issue this year will be privacy.

When Minnesotans hear comments like from Rep. Peggy Scott, it could attract attention.

“In today’s schools, the highly sensitive and personal information … now is being uploaded up on third-party servers,” the Andover Republican said when she and Democrats joined together Wednesday in announcing a series of bills designed to protect Minnesotans’ privacy.

Most parents likely do not know that iPads, laptop computers and other devices schools provide students may come via a contract that allows businesses that provide the electronics the right to gather data on the students. It goes to private computer servers in the cloud, where the company may use it — or sell it for others to use — to target the kids with advertising.

Privacy advocates do not know how many schools’ contracts allow businesses to use student information, but Scott said her objective is to conduct a preemptive strike.

Besides contact information, Scott said, electronic devices contain information such as grades, Social Security numbers, disability status, disciplinary actions and financial information.

Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, said it is not just businesses that are looking at student information. Schools are, too.

The lawmaker said one of the half-dozen bills being proposed also bans schools from looking at private data.

“We want to make sure our students are protected from that,” he said.

Citizen-lobbyist Rich Neumeister, who has worked on privacy and open-government issues for decades, wrote about the issue on his Open Secrets blog two years ago, after St. Paul schools signed a contract to provide iPads: “Would there be a parent anywhere who would support the school district’s actions to abrogate their families and children’s privacy rights? Does the iPad initiative violate students-family privacy and liberty rights?  Does the school district have the right to install devices in the iPads that allow monitoring and surveillance of where students go and what they do? What are the choices that parents and students have?”

Many questions Neumeister raised in 2014 remain unanswered, the privacy advocates pushing legislation indicated.

Other privacy issues that could arise include how long police can keep body camera video, and who can see it, and whether drones should be regulated to protect privacy.

The wild card on privacy and most other issues this year will be how much legislators can do in a short session. They go into session March 8 and the Constitution requires them to wrap up by May 23. It is much shorter than usual, in a large part because pretty much all of the Capitol is closed due to renovation.

Parking garage woes

A $10.9 million parking garage repair request is getting attention.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s public works funding bill includes fixing the five-floor Centennial ramp after the state discovered during routine maintenance last year that some cables supporting the facility had broken.

“Although the ramp is currently safe, failure to make these repairs will render the parking ramp unsafe over time and could result in catastrophic failure,” the state Administration Department said in its request for funding.

The ramp has 1,489 parking spaces, but many now are not available as temporary braces hold up ceilings.

‘Happy birthday, new voter’

Minnesotans turning voting age may not get many printed birthday cards in this electronic age, but they can expect something in the mail from Secretary of State Steve Simon.

Simon announced he will send 100,000 letters in the next nine months to Minnesotans who recently turned 18, encouraging them to register to vote.

“I strongly believe we should be doing everything we can to get good habits started early with young Minnesotans, and this outreach effort is an important step in that direction,” Simon said. “This will not only help encourage pre-election registration and decrease wait times on Election Day, but by contacting voters on an ongoing basis, we can help ease the volume of voter registration applications received by counties in the last few weeks leading up to the election.”

Rural battle coming

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen did not want to talk about it, but he signaled that rural Minnesota again will be a battleground for control of the state House.

The Minneapolis Democrat and rural Democrats lined up at a news conference to lay out their plans for greater Minnesota, plans that were mostly like what they wanted a year ago.

Thissen said they were talking “not about November of this year, but this coming spring,” diverting attention away from the fall election and to the March 8 opening of the 2016 state Legislature.

Thissen used lines often heard before elections, such as: “Republicans talk a lot about tax cuts, they talk a lot about trickle-down economics,” policies, which he said only help big corporations.

Deputy Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, started with a comment that likely will be heard on the campaign trail: “A strong rural Minnesota means a strong Minnesota.”

Republican wins in several rural districts gave them control of the House last year, and rural Minnesota again appears to be a main focus.

DFL, GOP agree on rural goals, but not the means

Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, with Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown and other Minnesota House Democrats, discusses policies to help rural Minnesota Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, with Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown and other Minnesota House Democrats, discusses policies to help rural Minnesota Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Democratic and Republican legislators agree on many goals for rural Minnesota, but often differ on how to reach them.

House Democrats unveiled their rural legislative plan Tuesday, mostly the same as they pushed a year ago, calling for better rural schools, improved roads and more jobs.

“It’s time to level the playing field for greater Minnesota and that won’t happen unless this Legislature truly makes greater Minnesota a priority,” Deputy House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said.

Assistant Majority Leader Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, agreed with the priorities. “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. … We know rural Minnesota is important; we have been focusing on that.”

Democrats added two priorities to eight they worked on a year ago: increasing focus on community and technical colleges, as well as improving care for Minnesotans with dementia.

Their returning rural priorities are expanding broadband high-speed Internet service, funding a transportation package, providing housing for rural communities that have jobs but not enough homes, training Minnesotans for new jobs, increasing Local Government Aid and County Program Aid, making farm property taxes fairer, improving train safety and providing property tax relief for the elderly.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, Marquart and Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown emphasized the need for high-speed Internet in rural areas.

Thissen talked about Pine City, where people park near the library to get wi-fi signal “because that is the only place they can get high-speed Internet.”

“There are pockets in my district in Lake County and South St. Louis County that have nothing,” Murphy said, with some not even able to get a dial-up Internet connection.

Marquart said it is not fair that 94 percent of Twin Cities homes have access to high-speed Internet while just 61 percent enjoy it in rural Minnesota.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and House Democrats want the state to pay $100 million to expand broadband; House Republicans passed $10 million last year, which Kresha said added to a separate allocation of  $86 million of federal funds.

Train safety is another issue both parties say they want improved.

Marquart said his bill would fund many crossing safety improvements, although major changes such as adding overpasses would need to be funded by the state selling bonds. It would use $20 million a year of state property taxes.

Thissen said a $1.2 billion state surplus should be used to fund things like transportation.

The Republicans’ 2015 plan, which remains alive, takes money from other programs and the surplus to fund $7 billion in transportation needs in coming years.

Part of train safety is cutting waits at crossings. Murphy pointed to one place in her area with two busy tracks: “Those people could be cut off for as much as 40 minutes … and ambulances cannot get through in any other direction.”

Kresha said no transportation funding bill passed last year because Dayton and Senate Democrats wanted to a new gasoline tax. Dayton since has said that will not pass, and no longer supports it.

Marquart estimated the total cost of the DFL rural plan could be $400 million.

Le Sueur Mayor Robert Broeder, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, praised the DFL’s proposal to add $45.5 million to aid the state sends to cities, bringing the total back up to 2002 levels. He also said the coalition appreciates efforts for housing, training, transportation and broadband. Republicans vote to eliminate aid to Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis, leaving other cities alone.

Marquart and Kresha made similar comments about rural Minnesotans’ feelings.

“What we are hearing from rural Minnesota is, ‘Just give us a fair shake,'” Kresha said.

Thissen, whose is courting rural Minnesotans in an effort to get House control back, said the plan announced Tuesday “is not about November of this year, but this coming spring,” when lawmakers will be back in session.

He called the 2015 session a “monumental flop” for Republicans’ rural plans.

In a year when Republicans are trying to maintain control of the House, Democrats see an opportunity to regain the majority by taking a handful of rural GOP seats. However, neither side wanted to explicitly talk about how rural Minnesota could flip power in the House.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, says on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, that he is glad Democrats are focusing on many of the same rural Minneosta issues as are  Republicans. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, says on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, that he is glad Democrats are focusing on many of the same rural Minneosta issues as are Republicans. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Political chatter: Democrats seek to stop rural legislative losses

Minnesota Democrats hope the flip-flopping of state House control continues through one more election.

Democrats mostly dominated the House for years, until Republicans held control from 1999 to 2006. Since then, Democrats controlled two two-year sessions, Republicans won the House back in 2011 before Democrats took it in 2013.

Republicans control the current two-year Legislature after 10 seats flipped in last year’s election, mostly in rural areas.

Many of those rural legislators who lost in 2014 hope to be back on next year’s ballot, saying that Republicans did not fulfil their promise to help greater Minnesota in 2015.

The Hill newspaper branched out from its regular congressional and national political coverage to look at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s Minnesota Rural Initiative, which has enrolled 30 candidates in training sessions about how to run rural campaigns.

Running a rural campaign is far different than one in an urban area. An urban House district could be as small as 10 square miles, while in rural Minnesota districts can stretch to as big as 3,500 square miles, The Hill tells its heavily Washington, D.C., audience.

Writer Matt L. Barron quotes House Deputy Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, about a national Democratic report that shows the party lost more than 900 legislative seats countrywide, many in rural districts, during the President Barack Obama years.

“I saw no strategy to turn around the decline of rural America, let alone rural Minnesota,” Marquart said.

Bemidji native Mike Simpkins, who ran Secretary of State Steve Simon’s campaign, added: “(National Democrats) don’t even seem to acknowledge they have a problem.”

Good time for Franken

U.S. Sen. Al Franken was a happy man in recent days.

In an interview, he regularly tossed out the word “bipartisan” when discussing the just-passed education policy reform bill that he watched President Barack Obama sign Thursday. The Minnesota Democrat, who placed several provisions in the bill, said its passage shows that Congress can work.

“I think this means that it is very possible to get things done,” Franken said. “When I look at the provisions that I have in this, which I say are very impressive, if I do say so myself, are very bipartisan.”

He gives some credit for his provision to expand American Indian language immersion programs to his Jewish heritage.

“Hebrew was a dead language until Israel came around,” Franken said, and knowing some of the language helps him in his religion. The same could be true for Indians, he said.

The bill was a big deal to Franken.

“I think it will make it in the memoir, yes,” he said to a question about a book he plans to write, a project that has received quite a bit of national attention.

Franken also took part in a television promotion before the Minnesota-Arizona National Football League game Thursday night, “debating” the teams with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. They both succeeded at being funny, but McCain struggled a bit.

While Franken remained in character, McCain could be seen cracking a smile when he should have looked serious. Of course, Franken carried an advantage into the comedy skit, having earned his stripes as a comedian, especially known for his work on “Saturday Night Live.”

Twin Cities the difference

Minnesota officials love to compare their state to Wisconsin.

The two states used to be equal on many levels, but the Twin Cities area has given Minnesota an economic advantage, Rick Barrett of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Taking his information from a Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance report, Barrett reports that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is thriving, driving Minnesota’s economy upward.

About two-thirds of the Minnesota economy is driven by the Twin Cities, while Wisconsin’s economy is fragmented.

“Since 2000, Wisconsin has increased employment faster than Minnesota in only three years: 2004, 2007 and 2008,” Barrett reports. “During 2004-2014, Minnesota’s job growth was more than double Wisconsin’s.”

The story says that while Milwaukee has been a drag on the Wisconsin economy, Twin Cities-driven Minnesota offers a model for other states.

The report echoes comments Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget made recently after announcing a big state budget surplus: “Minnesota is a success story. We have a balanced and diverse economy.”

Minnesota’s umbrella big

The Pew Charitable Trusts praise Minnesota for having one of the country’s largest “rainy day” funds, money set aside in case state revenues fall due to a souring economy.

“Minnesota follows the most rigorous process Pew found for determining the ideal level of rainy day fund savings,” a Pew report said, encouraging other states to follow the lead.

When state officials announced Dec. 3 a projected $1.9 billion surplus for the year and a half remaining in the state budget (with a similar-sized budget reserve), a reporter asked Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget if the state had enough set aside. He said he would like more than $2 billion sitting in the bank.

“Our ability to respond to changes really is dependent upon how much we have in these reserve accounts,” Frans said shortly after warning that some experts predict an economic downturn.

Greater Minnesota officials seek apartment-building aid

Greater Minnesota leaders say that apartment houses may be the answer to their housing shortages.

The Greater Minnesota Partnership and Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities propose a state program to give grants and tax credits to companies willing to erect apartment buildings in cities without enough housing for jobs already available.

“There is not the ability of the private sector to respond,” Rick Goodemann of Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership said. “It’s a complicated problem.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, chief author of a bill designed to help fix that problem, said that greater Minnesota’s economy cannot grow unless there is more housing for workers.

“We should have done this a long time ago,” he said.

The problem is that businesses from AGCO farm equipment maker in southern Minnesota to Digi-Key in the northwest have jobs open, but struggle filling them. Even if they can find workers, there often are no homes available nearby.

It is a different problem than a shortage of homes for low-income Minnesotans, said Dan Dorman of the Greater Minnesota Partnership and a former state lawmaker. The apartments need to be for workers in decent-paying jobs, he said, which is what many manufacturers and others have available.

After the financial crisis hit in 2008, Goodemann recently told a House committee, state policy shifted to preventing foreclosures and homelessness, and preserving the state’s aging stock of existing affordable housing. That came with less emphasis on building new housing, leading to what he termed “a broken market.”

“It’s a real challenge,” City Administrator Larry Kruse of Thief River Falls said.

The city’s multifamily housing stock is old and new construction is expensive to build. The city does not want a lack of housing to limit job growth, Kruse said.

In Kruse’s community, Digi-Key employs 3,200 people and would like to hire 250 more but has expanded operations in Fargo, N.D., instead of Thief River Falls.

In many border areas, such as near Hamilton’s southwestern Minnesota district, workers are imported from nearby states. “We want them here,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton’s bill and one by Sen. Dan Sparks, D-Austin, in the Senate would:

— Provide a tax credit for all or much of the apartment construction cost for small investors.

— Allow a 30 percent tax credit for larger investors.

— Give grants for building greater Minnesota apartments, as long as the developer provides as much money as the grant.

The rural groups want $100 million in the next two-year state budget, $60 million to cover the tax credits and $40 million for grants.

The program would be limited to communities with little available rental housing and open jobs.

Nearly 2,000 apartments could be built in two years, said Chris Henjum of the partnership.

The bill requires that apartments be built where roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure already exist.

Hamilton said he thinks people would move into the new apartments, but soon would buy houses. That would leave apartments available to new employees, he added.

Backers of the Hamilton bill said that once some apartments are built, private investors will build more.

“It’s just a start,” Tim Flaherty of the cities’ coalition said of the apartment bill.

Moody’s, a company that analyzes the state’s economic health, said in a report that “Minneapolis is positioned to thrive. The rest of the state, meanwhile, has struggled with unsteadiness in manufacturing and agriculture.”

Chris Steller of the nonpartisan Minnesota House publication Session Daily contributed to this story.

Loan forgiveness could attract health professionals to rural areas

Rural Minnesota is short of medical professionals, and many health advocates are lining up behind a proposal to partially forgive student loans of graduates who practice in rural areas.

“This can bring needed resources to our rural and frontier communities,” Shauna Reitmeier of Northwestern Mental Health Center in Crookston told a Senate committee Wednesday before members unanimously approved a loan forgiveness bill.

Several other committees must consider the bill before it reaches a full Senate vote.

Dr. Sarah Eisenschenk, who grew up near Avon, Minn., said she plans to locate in rural Minnesota once she finishes her residency. She will face more than $200,000 of school debts, she said, and a loan forgiveness program “will certainly influence my decisions.”

State Sen. Greg Clausen, D-Apple Valley, is the sponsor of the Senate Democrat’s third highest priority bill, one to expand the current medical professional loan forgiveness program.

“We are not keeping pace with workforce needs,” Clausen said.

While doctors, dentists and pharmacists are among those who can get loans forgiven now, the Clausen bill adds mental health professionals, public health nurses and dental therapists to the list. The senator said the addition would provide another 60 professionals to rural Minnesota.

Existing loan forgiveness provisions would get more funding, enough for 280 other medical professionals to receive loan help.

The Clausen bill would provide $3 million a year for the loan forgiveness program.

Mark Schoenbaum of the Minnesota Health Department said that the federal government designates “almost the entire state” as underserved by mental health professionals, dentists and primary care doctors, especially in rural areas with some in the inner cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Existing loan forgiveness programs that are more limited than what Clausen proposes show that the concept “does fairly convincingly attract medical professionals to the locations they are most needed,” Schoenbaum said.

Several people testifying to the committee urged Clausen to expand his bill to include more health professionals.

Also Wednesday, a state Health Department report indicated that immigrant doctors are not being well used to serve primary medical care, especially in areas where doctors are in short supply.

A task force that studied the situation since July reported that doctors from other countries “would help with increasingly urgent policy issues, such as a physician shortage, an aging population, persistent health disparities, the needs of a diversifying population and mounting health costs.”

Up to 400 unlicensed immigrant doctors live in Minnesota, the report indicated. Most are trained as primary care physicians, but they are not allowed to practice in Minnesota.

Besides providing more doctors for Minnesotans who are underserved, the report said that immigrant doctors could lower state costs millions of dollars a year by catching health issues earlier than happens now with a doctor shortage.

The task force suggested that health leaders work on ways to get immigrant doctors licensed in the state.

“This task force has thought creatively about this problem and brought us feasible and groundbreaking strategies that could fortify our physician workforce for years to come,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said.

State of rural Minnesota: poorer and more diverse

Rural Minnesota has some striking differences with Minneapolis and St. Paul, but also some surprising similarities.

For instance, north-central Minnesota’s population is poorer than most of the state, with lower income and more school students on government-subsidized free lunch than much of the state. A few other deep rural areas joined the north-central area on those marks.

The state’s two biggest cities also had a high free-lunch rate, but median household income was far better than north-central Minnesota in demographics presented to a state House committee Thursday by Executive Director Brad Finstad of the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

Called The State of Rural Minnesota, Finstad’s presentation was a primer for the House Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee, which in the next few months is to work on improving conditions outside the Twin Cities.

In an interview, Finstad said attention being paid this year to greater Minnesota is good news.

“Without a doubt, people are paying more attention to rural issues,” he said.

He warned, however, that lawmakers need to look beyond next year’s election because solving rural Minnesota problems will take years.

The former state representative used a series of maps to show committee members the changes affecting rural Minnesota.

Finstad said that data shows north-central Minnesota is a financial sore spot. While he said “there are a thousand different factors” causing the issue, he noted that area is home to poor American Indian reservations.

In many ways, greater Minnesota is a contrast. The areas doing best generally are in a corridor from St. Cloud, through the Twin Cities to Rochester. That is where much of the population growth has occurred, but counties north of the Twin Cities and St. Cloud also are growing.

Places that he called “deep rural” generally are losing population, mostly young people. As residents there age, Finstad said, there will be fewer workers available and less money to pay property taxes. Health-care institutions will be in greater demand.

Rep. Mike Sundin, D-Esko, warned committee members that some data about some counties across rural Minnesota may be hard to analyze because so few people live there that a minor change could affect statistics. “You could have a sled dog accident and that skews how many you have in a county.”

While many people look at the state as metropolitan and rural, Finstad said that is not the case: “It is well beyond two Minnesotas in some areas.”

Rural and deep rural areas have different needs, which often are different than those in the urban and suburban areas.

Among the differences Finstad showed was that the average age in many rural counties is at least 46, compared to the national average age of nearly 38. The youngest counties generally are in the suburbs, but some rural counties also show median ages younger than 36.

While many rural counties are losing population, colleges are attracting young people to some areas, as are minorities.

Nine counties’ populations grew between 1990 and 2012 due to minority residents. While the state’s two largest counties — Hennepin and Ramsey — led the way in minority population growth, other counties scattered around the state also gained minorities: Clearwater, Fillmore, Lyon, Mower, Mahnomen, Nobles and St. Louis, Finstad’s figures show.

White Minnesotans remain the strong majority, but the percentage of people of color throughout the state has gone from 6 percent to 15 percent since 1990. Many western and southern counties attracted new Latino, Laotian, Somali, Sudanese, Hmong and other people of color.

Income is one of the major differences between the suburbs and rural Minnesota. The biggest median 2012 household income was in suburban Scott County at $86,324 while it was lowest in Wadena County, $37,577.

State of Rural Minnesota report is available at www.ruralmn.org

Minnesota senators look to Wisconsin for workforce advice

Saxhaug

Stories of Minnesota manufacturers finding it difficult to fill jobs abound around rural Minnesota, and some state senators are looking at ways to help.

It may only take a little nudge to move businesses to taking action, a Wisconsin education leader Monday told seven members of a Minnesota Senate rural task force.

“There is a renewed interest in manufacturing,” Ann Franz of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College told the group, partially crediting a state-college-private partnership.

She said that although Wisconsin appropriated $15 million for training and helping people find jobs, money to improve school facilities has come from the schools and manufacturers.

Democratic Minnesota Sen. Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids, the task force chairman, said that there already are some parts of the state doing what Franz suggests, but task force members said they may suggest at least two steps to improve trade education in the state:

— Taking an inventory of all manufacturing education programs and equipment in Minnesota high schools and colleges.

— Hiring a state coordinator for trade education to make sure it is available where needed.

“We may have to spend some money,” Saxhaug said, quickly adding that “it will be in the thousands, not millions” of dollars.

The task force also will consider a bill providing state grants to improve manufacturing education.

Manufacturing plant officials across rural Minnesota say they have jobs open, but not enough trained workers to fill them. Many of the workers need skills such as welding before they can be hired.

Even if that worker gap is closed, many communities do not have adequate housing for the new workers. Saxhaug’s task force also may look into that issue before the new legislative session begins Jan. 6.

Saxhaug said that, besides training, manufactures and schools need to deliver a message to students: “If you want to stay in rural Minnesota, we have opportunities for you.”

About 18 percent of jobs in northeast Wisconsin’s 18 counties around her Green Bay campus now are in manufacturing, about twice the national average, Franz said.

The key in her area is that training as low as in elementary school uses the latest equipment, like what students will use when they get jobs. Old equipment does little good in the classroom, she said.

“Manufacturing is different than 20 years ago,” Franz said. “It is less manual labor.”

In Wisconsin, school students sometimes operate their own manufacturing businesses and use those profits to buy more modern equipment.

Since the school, state and manufactures began working together, she said, the number of students enrolled in welding classes at area technical colleges shot up from 193 to 506. In machine-related classes, numbers since 2006 have climbed from 180 to 483.

Democrats and Republicans on the task force appeared to be on the same page on trade education. They talked about encouraging companies to collaborate like in northeastern Wisconsin, leaving the state with relatively limited involvement.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said it will be an “easy sell” to businesses to get involved in educating workers, but the state may need to first pave the way.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said Minnesota schools such as Central Lakes College already are working well with manufactures to provide training.

“We can help,” Gazelka said of state government, “but in the end it is a buy-in from the players.”

Political chatter: Some medical marijuana questions unanswered

Questions about medical marijuana remain, even as opposition to it has mellowed.

State officials are implementing a Minnesota law enacted earlier this year to allow two companies to grow, process and sell marijuana to patients with specific medical conditions.

For much of Minnesota, the big question centers on travel time. From extreme southwestern Minnesota, for instance, a one-way drive would be four hours to St. Cloud, the nearest place the medicine will be for sale.

Many greater Minnesota sales sites will not be open when selling medical marijuana becomes legal next July 1.

LeafLine Labs, which plans sales locations in Hibbing, St. Cloud, Eagan and St. Paul promises service in Eagan by next July 1, but only says the other three locations will open by July 21, 2016.

The other of two companies pledges to open all of its sales outlets next July 1. Minnesota Medical Solutions plans to make the sales in Moorhead, Maple Grove, Minneapolis and Rochester.

State law requires each company at least to open at least one sales site next year, but gives the companies another year to open other sites.

The Duluth News Tribune reported that Duluth residents will need to devote hours to getting marijuana medicine because they must drive to Hibbing.

“Any plans to one day set up shop in Duluth are on hold,” the newspaper reported. “Last month the Duluth City Council placed a six-month moratorium on any prospective medical marijuana facilities, providing time for city staff to consider how such businesses should be zoned and located in the community.”

For other parts of the state, officials did not think there would be enough patients seeking marijuana medicine to warrant sales sites there. However, they said that where patients live will be monitors and sites could be changed if needed. There also is talk about a mobile sales site, but that would require legislative action, as would adding any more permanent sites.

Another question is whether the two companies will be able to meet demand. No one knows how many Minnesotans will seek medical marijuana; estimates range from 5,000 to 15,000.

State law says: “A manufacturer of medical cannabis shall provide a reliable and ongoing supply of all medical cannabis needed for the registry program.” However, a Health Department official said that if more patients show up to buy the medicine than expected, they probably will get the product on a first-come, first-served basis.

Few appear to be asking, or answering, yet another question: Where do the two companies obtain seeds or seedlings for marijuana plants?

One state official joked that it was “immaculate conception.”

Growing marijuana is illegal in Minnesota, other in the two companies’ facilities, and it is against federal law to transport marijuana across state lines.

Rural lawmakers dominate

It probably is no surprise the new Minnesota House Republican leadership team is packed with rural lawmakers.

After all, Republicans regained control of the House in last month’s elections because of rural wins.

Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt of Crown and Majority Leader-elect Joyce Peppin of Rogers announced the leadership team, topped by Rep. Dan Fabian of Roseau as majority whip. The whip’s job is to make sure GOP members get needed information during debates in the House chamber.

Four of the six assistant majority leaders are from greater Minnesota: Dave Baker of Willmar (elected for the first time in November), Deb Kiel of Crookston, Ron Kresha of Little Falls and Chris Swedzinski of Ghent. Also assistant leaders, from suburbs, are Tim Sanders of Blaine and Kathy Lohmer of Stillwater.

Baker, a businessman, downplayed the rural orientation of the team.

“Minnesotans in all parts of the state share similar priorities such as job creation, improving access and quality of care for our seniors, and prioritizing funding for roads and bridges,” he said. “Focusing on these issues will improve life for families in the metro, the suburbs and here in Greater Minnesota.”

Klobuchar on team

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been named to the leadership team of an organization that advises Democratic Senate leaders.

The Minnesota senator joins the Democratic Policy and Communications Center’s leadership. It is led by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Seniors want tough laws

Older Minnesotans say they want tougher driving laws, even on themselves.

A AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey indicates that aging drivers generally support proposals that Minnesotans 75 and older renew driver’s licenses in person and more than 70 percent want to require seniors to pass medical screening tests to keep their licenses.

E-cigarettes banned

Minneapolis has joined several other Minnesota cities and counties to ban electronic cigarettes from all indoor public places as well as where people work.

Basically, the new ordinance applies the state tobacco cigarette ban to e-cigarettes.

State lawmakers debated the issue, but did not enact a strict ban like tobacco smokers face.

Renovation relief

The multi-year state Capitol renovation created one major problem for the few people still working there and any visitors who can get inside: where to find a restroom.

Nearly all Capitol restrooms are in construction areas and closed. So a memorandum delivered Friday is the best news yet: “Temporary heated restrooms available outside the ground floor south entrance.”

Political notebook: Dems push rural issues

By Don Davis

Minnesota House Democrats want voters to know that most rural residents should pay lower property taxes on their homes after actions they took.

“We think it is good news for Minnesotans and Minnesota homeowners,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, told a handful of greater Minnesota reporters on a Friday conference call.

After property taxes rose 84 percent in the past dozen years, he said, they now will drop 4.9 percent after actions during last year’s legislative session.

While numbers Thissen and colleagues released are overall statewide figures, Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said the overwhelming majority of rural Minnesotans’ home property taxes will fall.

That is not the case, however, with taxes on farm land.

House Property Tax Chairman Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis, said he hopes to find a way to lower farmland tax in a second tax-cut bill the House expects to debate this legislative session. Also possible are bigger homeowner and renter refunds and fixing a formula problem that cost 11 counties state aid.

But Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, says there will be no second tax-cut bill. And $500 million in tax cuts the House approved Thursday cut deeper than the Senate will, he said.

Marquart said that rural Minnesota home taxes already are down $30 million, and any homeowner who otherwise would pay more could get a big enough refund to counter higher taxes.

It is obvious around the Capitol that House Democrats are worried about losing rural Minnesota seats in the November election.

Minutes after the House approved its $500 million tax cut, most rural Democratic members sent news releases out via email.

“These tax cuts will go directly to middle class families in Minnesota, including the business owners of main street store fronts and the folks who support them” Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, said, comments typical of rural Democrats.

“Our great state is on the right track and the way to continue that progress is to grow our economy from the middle out, starting with these middle-class tax cuts,” Rep. John Ward, D-Baxter, said in in his news release.

“The way to continue building on our progress is to expand middle-class economic opportunity,” Rep. Mary Sawatzky, D-Willmar, said.

Republicans were not buying it.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie echoed other Republicans’ views by saying that Democrats cannot declare victory in the last half of the Legislature’s two-year session. Last year’s $2.3 billion tax increase is cannot be counterbalanced by a $500 million cut, he said.

Democrats lose 2 votes

A tax-cut bill the House passed in record time, less than two weeks into this legislative session, gained support of all but two representatives.

Democratic Reps. Jason Metsa of Virginia and Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley put the only two red votes on the tally board, later saying the money used to finance the $500 million in tax cuts could have been better spent.

Metsa said he supports the part of the bill that matched Minnesota tax law to federal law, which not only would save money but also make tax returns simpler.

“I think the remaining dollars would’ve been better spent on additional property tax relief, support for our nursing homes and further restoring Minnesota’s commitment to our counties, cities and townships after a decade of funding cuts,” Metsa said.

Winkler said he voted against the tax cut because they were too large.

“I support some of the individual provisions, but think that we should not pass cuts within a year of enacting the first truly balanced budget in a decade,” Winkler said. “In addition, a surplus is a good thing to re-invest in Minnesota’s economy through early childhood education, lower higher education costs, higher pay for care providers, improved transportation, etc.”

More propane transportation

Upper Midwest U.S. senators are pushing legislation to make it easier to transport propane to people affected by shortage of the fuel and its high price.

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Al Franken of Minnesota, John Hoeven of North Dakota and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin introduced a bill to extend the number of hours drivers can transport propane.

Minnesota U.S. Reps. John Kline, Erik Paulsen, Tim Walz and Rick Nolan have a similar bill.

The longer hours would be allowed through May 31.

“With winter weather still bearing down on Minnesota, we need to do everything we can to deliver relief to families who are feeling the impacts of the propane shortage,” Klobuchar said. “By letting truck drivers work longer hours for the rest of the winter, this legislation will help speed propane supplies to those who need it most and deliver some much-needed certainty to families across Minnesota.

Cash for projects?

Before Gov. Mark Dayton announced changes he wants to make in the state budget on Thursday, it appeared likely that money from a $1.2 billion surplus would be used to fund some public works projects.

However, Dayton tried to put an end to that as he opted against paying cash. He said borrowing money by selling bonds is a better way to fund public works projects such as fixing buildings and constructing new ones.

He included enough money in his revised budget to pay interest on bonds so the Legislature could approve a nearly $1 billion public works bill instead of $840 million legislative leaders want. Legislative leaders are open to paying cash for some projects.

Mute those reporters

Gov. Mark Dayton has been homebound after hip surgery, forcing him to dump news conferences in favor of conference calls with reporters.

When he announced his supplemental budget Thursday, the conference operator explained that reporters’ telephones were muted while Dayton talked.

“I kind of like these calls when all the reporters are on mute,” Dayton cracked.

Speaker’s rural initiatives feature tax cut

By Don Davis

Rural Minnesotans’ ears will be burning when state legislators return to the Capitol Feb. 25 for their 2014 session.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, promises a variety of greater Minnesota issues will be debated, especially a provision to lower ever-increasing property taxes on some farmland.

Thissen’s list ranges from removing a tax on farm implement repair that costs Minnesota farmers $2 million a month to providing more greater Minnesota economic development assistance. The speaker, in a Forum News Service interview, could not say how much the Democratic initiatives would cost, other than most would be “in the millions, not tens of millions of dollars.”

The two most expensive proposals are eliminating the implement repair tax and increasing the ag property tax credit.

Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said the ag property tax issue he is leading may not help some small farmers, but most would get property tax reductions of up to $575.

The reduction would begin this year on taxes already partially paid, he said, and only apply to homestead farmland. That generally is farmland where the farmer or a relative lives.

Actions legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton took last year lowered property taxes for many Minnesotans, but not for farmers.

“Not everyone has seen that relief,” Marquart said of the 2013 tax actions. “In fact, farmers have seen big property tax increases.”

More services funded by property taxes, such as fire and law enforcement, are not more in demand just because today’s land prices are higher, he said.

“Land value does a farmer no good until he sells it,” Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said. “It is still the same productivity. The increasing value doesn’t give me a better operation in terms of what I produce.”

If a farmer pays $15 an acre in taxes, the $2 to $3 tax break Marquart proposes is significant, said Anderson, a farmer.

Every little bit helps, he added.

Early estimates indicate that the added farmland credit would cost the state $33 million this year.

Ending the farm equipment repair tax implemented last year would be another step to help farmers, rural lawmakers said.

“I am not so sure our metro colleagues understand how big those repair bills get,” Anderson said, adding that he has seen bills of up to $30,000 to fix self-propelled farm implements.

Thissen said he is sure the Legislature will vote to overturn the tax.

Thissen said some counties were left out when the state increased County Program Aid $40 million last year.

Nearly a dozen low-population counties with lot of farms lost state money in the deal. That should be fixed, he said.

Marquart said the cost to provide money they lost should come to less than $1 million.

“The new money (approved last year) is weighted more heavily toward the metro area,” Anderson said. “That is a path I don’t like to see us going down.”

Economic development aid also is in the legislative agenda.

“We still have not seen all the economic developments they saw in the metro area,” Marquart said.

Thissen suggested that lawmakers take action to improve fast Internet access, known as broadband, in rural areas. He said grants to fund Internet infrastructure construction could be considered and local governments may be given an easier route to borrow money for internet expansion.

The speaker also proposes several low-cost programs to provide aid for small businesses, mostly in greater Minnesota.

One would add money to a loan fund for businesses. Another would provide “innovation vouchers,” basically state subsidies to help manufacturers pay for private or college consultants that can provide specific expertise the business may not have.

Thissen said he wants state officials to find more funding for training workers. In many rural areas, jobs go unfilled because they cannot fine enough workers, such as welders, within commuting distance.

A long-term solution to high propane prices caused by an Upper Midwest shortage also is on the agenda, but Thissen said he does not have a specific plan.

Anderson, however, is working on a bill to eliminate sales tax for two years on propane tanks. The bill is his answer to the need to increase propane storage in Minnesota, so the fuel may be bought in the summer, when prices are low, and used during cold winter weather.

Thissen said long-term care funding will be discussed, but could not give specifics about what nursing homes and other elderly care organizations can expect. Officials in rural areas say nursing home pay is so low that they have to turn away residents for lack of staff.

Thissen said that it is important for even Twin Cities’ legislators to support greater Minnesota issues. At some point, he said, there will be too many rural Minnesotans moving to the Twin Cities, when it would benefit everyone for them to remain home.

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.

Lawmakers look at ways to help rural Minnesota economically

Redlinger

By Danielle Killey

Rural Minnesota businesses could hire more employees and afford to stay in the state with some extra state help, some lawmakers say.

Minnesota legislators have introduced plans to create an internship program, offer special business tax credits and pay for some employee training in greater Minnesota, all aimed at strengthening the rural economy.

Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said his proposed internship program would help young professionals realize there are career opportunities in rural Minnesota.

His program would provide business tax credits helping companies pay college interns up to $4,000 each.

“We’re trying to keep more young people in our communities and help employers as well,” Eken said.

The up to $11 million requested for the program in the next two years would cover about 2,400 internships, Eken said. The students must get academic credit for their work as well as being paid.

“It’ll give them reasons to stay,” President Bruce Ahlgren said of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

Rural Minnesota cities still are recovering from the recession, said Ahlgren, also Cloquet’s mayor. He said internships were among the first things businesses dropped to keep afloat.

Another proposal is aimed at helping companies struggling to find the right applicants fill jobs, bill author Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said.

“What we’re hearing from businesses is they can’t find qualified people,” he said. “This is about creating a training program that will be nimble enough to meet the needs of the economy and employers.”

He proposes reimbursing businesses for some employee training costs. Eligible companies must pay employees at least $13 an hour by the end of their first year and be located outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Tomassoni said the measure is focused on high-skill jobs.

“I think it’s a pretty creative way of doing this,” he said.

Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, proposed a broader plan she said would not only bring in new jobs, but also will help businesses stay in greater Minnesota and retain jobs. It would replace the Job Opportunity Building Zone program.

Jensen would give rural Minnesota businesses some sales and property tax exemptions when they expand or come to the state and offer income tax credits based on pay and the number of employees, encouraging new hires.

“We need tools in greater Minnesota,” President Barry Wilfahrt of the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce said.

He said there are business incentives in neighboring North Dakota that can draw companies away.

Jensen said while there are other job and economic development programs in the state, she wants some specifically focused outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

“I’m not willing to just sit back and cross my fingers this (other) legislation will work in rural Minnesota,” Jensen said.

Outside employment, leaders of cities that border North Dakota say they are struggling just to keep businesses.

“It’s a different situation right on the border than it is in the rest of the state,” Eken said.

He proposes adding $1 million to the pot for border cities to help businesses, on top of a program first established in 1984 giving Breckenridge, Dilworth, East Grand Forks, Moorhead and Ortonville extra funding from the state to use for tax reductions.

Eken said North Dakota has unique advantages, including an influx of money from the oil industry.

“There challenges aren’t necessarily new, but they are intensified,” Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger said. “This is really about staying in the game and keeping these businesses on as level a playing field as possible.”

The program does not include all western border cities. Eken said the determination depends on the proximity to the border and size of competing city.

All the proposals are being considered for an overall tax plan.

Eken also proposes a program to set property tax rates for businesses along the North Dakota border, including rental housing, at the lowest effective tax rate in the bordering city. He said that will keep Minnesota’s property tax rates competitive.

“We have the issue with competition in North Dakota, which really is an anomaly,” Eken said, compared to other borders throughout the country.

Eken said the other bill would keep Minnesota’s property tax rates competitive with North Dakota’s.

Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes said he does not think the border cities have a special need for such programs.

“The excuse that North Dakota has oil doesn’t hold,” he said. “What’s good for the border cities, why isn’t that good for the rest of the state?”

He said the Democrat senators’ proposals make the case that business tax credits

and exemptions create jobs and said that should be applied throughout Minnesota.

Talking about the internship program, Sioux Falls, S.D., native Moriah Miles, Minnesota State University Student Association chairwoman, said she originally saw her move to attend school in Minnesota as temporary. But she was offered a job and decided to stay here, she said.

“There are many students who come here with the intent to go back” to other states, she said, but if opportunities are readily available they might stay in Minnesota.

Senate Tax Committee Chairman Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said he is considering expanding the internship program statewide.

“My main concern is we bolster economic development in greater Minnesota cities,” Eken told the committee Monday, but added he would be open to widening the program scope.

On other border cities program, 150 businesses in Moorhead alone benefitted in 2012, Redlinger said.

“It’s really a win-win for Minnesota when these businesses stay,” he said. He said many want to remain in Minnesota, but the incentives from North Dakota can be tempting.

He said Minnesota cities need even more money to compete. “The disparities between the border cities have grown for some time now.”

Jensen said program such as angel investment credits, which provide a break for those who give money to startup companies, work well in the metropolitan area. But she said more than 90 percent of that funding goes there rather than to rural Minnesota.

“Greater Minnesota needs different tools,” Ahlgren said.