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February 28, 2005
More money, but still not enough

The advantage to writing this letter later in the day than usual is I can give you today's news instead of yesterday's. This letter isn't a blog per se because I usually update it only once a day, first thing in the morning. If you listened to Morning Edition Monday you know that most of my time was spent on the air with Cathy Wurzer trying to convince you to become a member of MPR (you really should, you know).

Anyway, I'm writing a little later than usual and the updated numbers have just come in on the state's revenue forecast. Here's what the Associated Press has, fresh off the wire:

ST. PAUL (AP) - Improving economic conditions sliced nearly one-third off Minnesota's projected budget deficit, reducing it to $466 million over the next two years.

In December, finance officials predicted the 2006-07 deficit
would be $700 million. Since then, higher-than-anticipated tax
collections have put an extra $150 million in state coffers.

Corporate income taxes appeared to be the big gainer, but
collections of other taxes were also up, according to a report on
state revenues. Full details were to be formally released at noon
Monday.

The new deficit figure will guide budget deliberations between
now and May, when lawmakers will adopt a two-year state budget of
about $30 billion. By law, the books must be balanced by the end of
the budget cycle, which is June 2007.

Of course the latest projections still don't include inflation, so there's still a pretty big problem out there to solve. And the latest push for more spending is coming from parents and teachers, who will rally at the Capitol Monday evening. Here's what MPR's Tim Pugmire had:

Parents of children who attend public schools have been spending a lot of time lately at the state capitol. Several organizations have joined forces this session to convince state lawmakers to increase funding for K-12 education.

Mary Cecconi, executive director of the Parents United Network, says the lobbying effort was born out of a growing level of frustration among parents.

"They're very concerned about their schools," Cecconi says. "They've seen year after year after year of cuts. And where in the beginning they thought they could make up the cuts with fundraising or helping out a little bit extra at the school, they can't anymore. So, they're coming here to say we've had it. We're angry, and this is not the way to fund schools on the backs of kids."

The last few years have been tough for local school districts. State budget problems kept the basic education funding formula frozen at $4,601 per student. But operating costs continue to rise. That forced many school leaders to cut programs, layoff teachers and increase activity fees to balance their books.

Gov. Pawlenty has proposed increasing the basic per-pupil spending formula 2 percent each year of the biennium or by a total of more than $250 million. He would add another $60 million if districts agree to try a new teacher pay system.
On Friday a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed an increase of $750 million, but conveniently didn't identify where the money should come from.


Who would have though there were so many Republicans waiting to run for Congress?It took Rep. Mark Kennedy's decision to run for U.S. Senate to break the logjam and let the rush of wannabes flow. The latest in the race is former Education Commissioner Cheri Peirson Yecke. here's an item from MPR's William Wilcoxen:

Yecke was ousted from her job as state Education Commissioner when DFLers in the state Senate rejected her appointment last year. Now Yecke thinks she should thank the Senators who voted against her. She says the seat in Congress from Minnesota's sixth district may be a better place for her.

"The 6th District is the most conservative district in the state. President Bush took this district with 57 percent of the vote. And I've always been forthright with the fact that I'm a conservative. And I think the fit for me in this district is very good," she said.

The 6th District extends from the Twin Cities' eastern and northern suburbs northwest through Stearns County. Yecke is the fifth Republican to enter the race since incumbent Mark Kennedy announced he will run for the U.S. Senate next year. Yecke joins state Sen. Michelle Bachman, state Reps. Phil Krinkie and Jim Knoblach, and Republican activist Jay Esmay.

No Democrat has yet announced a campaign in the 6th. Of course Patty Wetterling, who ran last time, now says she's looking at the Senate. Here's the e-mail she sent reporters on Friday:

Since Senator Mark Dayton announced he would not seek reelection two weeks ago, a lot of people have urged me to run for the U.S. Senate.

I am extremely flattered to be considered as a potential candidate for such
an important position. Up to two weeks ago I had not given a run for Senate
much thought because it was my understanding that Senator Dayton would seek
reelection.

A United States Senator has the ability to have a profound effect on public
policy issues that affect the daily lives and futures of working families.
After discussing this development with family, friends, and supporters I
have decided to actively explore a run for the U.S. Senate.

In the upcoming weeks I will form an exploratory committee to further look
into this option. My focus, as always, is to determine where I can best
advocate for children and families, to serve the people of Minnesota most
effectively.

Remember when people actually had to say something to reporters to get their message out? It sure made it a lot easier for those of us in the radio business. E-mail gets the message out fast but allows people to avoid sometimes unpleasant tasks like, oh, answering questions.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 9:15 AM
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February 25, 2005
Entenza cleared

It was big news right after the election when Republicans objected to DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza's contributions to a 527 group. The GOP filed formal complaints with the Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board about how the money had been used. Now the news is the complaints have been dissmissed. MPR's Laura McCallum has the story:

During the campaign, Entenza gave $300,000 to Washington, D.C.-based 21st Century Democrats. The group is one of the many independent campaign groups known as a 527 organization, after the section of the tax code that regulates how they operate. 21st Century Democrats spent more than $200,000 in Minnesota on voter turnout and field workers to help House DFL candidates. House Democrats picked up 13 seats in the election and came close to gaining the majority.

Republicans questioned whether Entenza illegally earmarked his donation to help House candidates, or whether 21st Century Democrats exceeded spending limits in individual races. The state campaign finance board says it found no probable cause that either Entenza or 21st Century Democrats violated the law. Entenza says he's not surprised, because he felt the complaint was nothing but politics.

"The Republicans were reeling, they lost 14 incumbents, they wanted to blame somebody and they decided, let's smear the leader of the opposition, and now the nonpartisan campaign finance board has said everything is dismissed and it's ridiculous."

21st Century Democrats said in a statement that the organization is pleased that the Republican complaint was dismissed, and that it believed all along that the complaint was meritless.

The Republican Party was not pleased by the board ruling. Party spokesman Randy Wanke says it sets a bad precedent for the growing number of 527s, which can raise unlimited amounts of money.

"We believe that the ruling today actually kind of throws open the door to 527s to a greater degree, because what it's going to allow them to do, it's going to allow them, as the 21st Century Democrats did, is to just basically provide staff and resources directly to candidates."

The debate over 527s is far from over. The Republicans say they'll continue to pursue a complaint filed with the Federal Elections Commission. But the more likely consequence is that both parties will use 527s as much as they can in the next election cycle.

Lots more news about Gov. Tim Pawlenty's casino plan. MPR's Tom Robertson was at the White Earth Indian Reservation Thursday and here's part of what he reported:

Officials at White Earth project a Twin Cities casino would infuse between $30 and $50 million annually into the White Earth economy. The money would be targeted for economic development, jobs, housing, land acquisition and education.

Still, not all White Earth band members are comfortable with the idea.

"The people of White Earth here that I represent have a lot of questions that haven't been answered," says Tony Wadena, a member of the White Earth Tribal Council. Wadena has been the lone voice of dissent on the council.

Wadena says many of his constituents don't trust Gov. Pawlenty or the state of Minnesota. They question how a deal with the state would affect the band's sovereignty.

"There's questions about going in with the state like this and what it's going to do for Indians across the country, not just White Earth or Red Lake or Leech, but all Indian people," according to Wadena.

And there are concerns about the governor's not-yet-released plan at the Capitol. The Star Tribune reports that the troops aren't exactly lining up behind the governor:

House Republicans have voted for a racino before, and House Majority Leader Erik Paulsen, R-Eden Prairie, said many of them prefer to keep gambling at existing venues. "Possibly we'll have a melding of the racino and the governor's proposal," he said.

Canterbury has offered to pay $100 million a year to the state in return for slots. That's as much as Pawlenty initially had planned to get from a metro casino when he proposed it as part of his budget last month. Doubling the amount of money to the state available for schools, health care and other necessities might prove irresistible to legislators in the end, Sviggum said.

"These could be very lucrative investments, and the state needs to be in on them," Sviggum said.

Opposition has been much fiercer in the DFL-controlled Senate, with most DFLers opposing any gambling expansion, while Republicans have been receptive mostly to the racino.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, an impassioned advocate of the racino for the past seven years, said Thursday that he is "irritated" that Pawlenty continues to pursue a deal with the Indian bands.

"This all seems so convoluted," Day said of the Pawlenty proposal, which would have the three bands operate a casino through the Minnesota State Lottery. "Why don't we just give the Native Americans $30 [million] to $50 million a year if that's what they want?"

Day said support for a separate Indian casino in the metro area was so limited that "I can't think of more than three or four in my caucus who would support it. I think the governor is really wrong on this. Will I be talking up the governor's plan? No way."

House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, said Pawlenty keeps shifting his position on gambling. "First he said this was about a fairer deal for the state. Then he said it was about a fairer deal for the northern tribes. At the end of the day, it's really all about him. His political career here will be in jeopardy if the schools don't get more money, and his national ambitions will be in jeopardy if he breaks his [no-tax] pledge to the Taxpayers League. That's why this deal is in front of us."

Remember, when the governor announces a plan with the three northern tribes next week, that's the easy part.

And what's this about the governor hobnobbing with Hollywood stars? It's true (as Paul Harvey would say). The governor is headed to the Iron Range to visit the set of a movie being shot there. In the Star Tribune Deborah Caulfield Rybak uses the visit to look at the cut in the state program to attract film projects here:

Minnesota was once a leader in offering incentives to filmmakers through its innovative "Snowbate" program, which gave filmmakers a partial rebate on money spent in the state. But that $480,000-a-year program was cut from the state budget in 2003. Now, with more than half the states in the country offering similar or more substantial programs, Minnesota is bringing up the rear.

"We're in terrible shape," said Craig Rice, former executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board.

With Gov. Tim Pawlenty scheduled to visit the film's set today, Rice and others hope that encounter may get the ball rolling on a plan to reintroduce incentives.

To date, Pawlenty's interest in the program has been minimal. "It's a matter of priorities," spokesman Brian McClung said. "We think most taxpayers would prefer their dollars be spent on additional teachers instead of tax incentives for TV and film production companies."

Rice argues that "the Film Board is an economic-development organization, not an arts one," and that the state's past investment has been repaid many times over, both in taxes and spending in Minnesota communities.

Well, sweetheart, we'll always have Eveleth.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:01 AM
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February 24, 2005
Moss loss

Well, we won't have Randy Moss to kick around any more. You've most likely heard already that the Vikings are trading Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders. Here's what Sean Jensen has in the Pioneer Press:

Seven years ago, when he dropped into their lap in the 21st slot in the NFL draft because of concerns about his character, the Minnesota Vikings were confident they could nurture Randy Moss into an elite NFL receiver.

In six days, the Vikings officially will give up on Moss, although he has gained more receiving yardage in his first seven seasons than any other player in NFL history. The Vikings have agreed to trade the mercurial receiver to the Oakland Raiders for linebacker Napoleon Harris, plus the seventh overall selection in the coming NFL draft and a seventh-round pick in this year's draft. Neither team can announce the deal until March 2, per league rules.

Whenever there's a big sports story folks at the Capitol inevitably ask what will this mean for the stadium? I would guess it probably won't mean much, given that the Vikes are last in line anyway. More important to the stadium discussion may be the casino item in the Star Tribune. The governor has said some of the profits from a state run casino could be spent on things like stadiums. Patricia Lopez had that story:

The state of Minnesota and three northern Indian bands are closing in on an agreement to launch a metro-area casino/entertainment complex that would be operated through the Minnesota State Lottery, tribal leaders told the Star Tribune on Wednesday.

George Goggleye, chairman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said tribal attorneys were working out details with the governor's office on Wednesday and an announcement could be made next week.

Ron Valiant, executive director of the White Earth Band, said the bands and the governor's office "are getting very close to final agreement. We're down to figuring out the final details."

Dan McElroy, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's chief of staff, confirmed late Wednesday that, "yes, we're close. We're down to details and language." McElroy also said he expects an announcement next week.

If the deal happens, it would represent a breakthrough for Pawlenty, who has been pressing for more than a year to get the state's Indian-owned casinos to share revenues with the state.

It's interesting to me that it's taken the governor this long to reach a deal with the northern tribes. After all, they stand to gain millions of dollars from a metro casino. And this is just the first step. The real heavy lifting will come trying to get a casino plan through the Legislature.

The governor was on MPR's Midday program Wednesday. Among other things, he urged Bloomington officials to give a Mall of America casino another look:

We're not going to force them to have something like this if they don't want it, you know, we'll go elsewhere. There are other communities who are more than happy to host a facility. It won't be as big or as exciting, but I think in my view, it's a little premature for Bloomington to just slam the door on this, but if that's what they want to do, then we'll move on down the road and look for another location."

As the governor spoke a House committee took its first look at a proposal to require a public vote before a casino could be located in a community. MPR's Tom Scheck had that item:

Rep.Ann Lenczewski, DFL- Bloomington, says her constituents are worried they won't have a voice in the matter.

"This is not a little thing. It is not a road or something we're already doing like gas taxes or stadiums. This is something we have never done. And the costs and potential policy questions for a host city are tremendous."

The House Gaming Division did not vote on the proposal but decided to lay it over for possible inclusion in the omnibus gambling bill.

Opponents of the move argued that voters don't have veto power over other economic development projects and there's no reason they should have a say on a casino.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:08 AM
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February 23, 2005
Day of agony

The news today is dominated by the deaths of three Minnesota National Guardsmen serving in Iraq. Here's the lead from the Star Tribune story by Bob von Sternberg and Chuck Haga:

One was a freshly minted suburban police officer. Another was a beloved math teacher. And one was advancing through the sergeant ranks of the Minnesota National Guard. All three were newly married; two of them wed just days before they headed for Iraq last fall.

All three died Monday, killed when a roadside bomb was detonated where their military convoy had been brought to a stop in Baghdad. Eight others were injured.

It was Minnesota's costliest day in Iraq and apparently the deadliest day of combat for the state since May 5, 1968, when nine died in Vietnam. Nineteen Minnesotans have died in Iraq since mid-2003; 18 were military members.

Staff Sgt. David Day, 25, of St. Louis Park, First Lt. Jason Timmerman, 24, of Tracy and Sgt. Jesse Lhotka, 24, of Alexandria were killed in southwest Baghdad. All were members of the 151st Field Artillery based in Montevideo, a unit that had retrained for urban street patrol.

Timmerman, Day and Lhotka -- all of whom grew up in western Minnesota -- were among about 330 members of the 151st mobilized in the fall for a deployment that was to last a year to 18 months. The 151st includes units based in Montevideo, Marshall, Olivia, Morris, Ortonville, Appleton and Madison.

Virtually every media site in the state (including MPR) has more information about the three soldiers today. It's all worth reading. It's pretty clear all three of these young men represented the best of Minnesota. I was struck how the news contrasted with an NPR piece this morning by Cheryl Corley about the celebration around the homecoming of some Guard troops. It should be on the NPR site sometime today.

In some more mundane political news, the Minnesota House has finally taken the plunge on funding for the Northstar commuter rail line. MPR's Laura McCallum has a look at some of the politics behind the vote on the House Bonding bill:

Opponents of the project tried unsuccessfully to remove Northstar money from the bill. Northstar supporter Kathy Tinglestad, R-Andover, says getting $10 million for the project through the House is a major milestone.

"Typically, third time is the charm, but this project took a few more years," she said.

Tinglestad says the election results changed the dynamics in the House. She says two Republican legislators who opposed Northstar were defeated by DFLers.

Opponents argue that the line won't reduce congestion in the northwest corridor.
Lakeville Republican Mary Liz Holberg, who chairs the House Transportation Finance Committee, says the project is fiscally irresponsible.

"We have no plan to fund the operating costs of this particular line, but nobody wants to talk about that. The truth to this is it's irresponsible! We haven't taken care of the whole project, she said.

Holberg was one of 12 House members who voted against the bonding bill, while 121 members voted for it. It would authorize the state to borrow $781 million through bond sales for construction projects. The remaining $35 million in the bill would be financed by state colleges and universities.

There was an interesting debate in the House Health Care Finance and Policy Committee Tuesday about the proposal to raise the cigarette tax by $1 per pack and use the money to reduce some taxes on small businesses. MPR's Tom Scheck had the story:

But several members of the committee wonder if money raised from a cigarette tax increase could be better spent. Several lawmakers say they would prefer to see the money used to offset Gov. Pawlenty's proposed cuts to MinnesotaCare. About 27,000 people would lose coverage in the state-subsidized health insurance program under the governor's budget.

Rep. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, supports that alternative move. She doesn't think the state's small businesses would actually see the benefit of the HMO fee cut.

"I don't believe that the cost savings will be passed on. I think this is a nice thing for the industry but I don't think it's going to help people maintain or keep health insurance," says Goodwin.

Increasing cigarette taxes has backers among anti-smoking advocates who believe higher taxes will reduce smoking rates.

Matt Flory, with the American Cancer Society, says a dollar-a-pack cigarette tax increase would especially reduce rates among teenagers who don't have as much discretionary income as adults.

Gov Pawlenty is going to China. The trip is in November. This is from the Associated Press:

"If you look at the future, it's undeniable China will be an economic powerhouse in the world," Pawlenty said in a news conference at the Science Museum of Minnesota, currently exhibiting a set of dinosaur fossils from China. "We would be foolish not to reach out to them and build friendships that are mutually beneficial."

And finally there's another Republican candidate in the race for the 6th District Congressional seat. Here's more from the St. Cloud Times:

Republican activist Jay Esmay said he'll seek his party's nomination for the 6th District U.S. House seat, which is being vacated by Rep. Mark Kennedy who is hoping to be elected to the Senate.

Esmay, a manager at Cold Spring Granite and co-chairman of the local Republican Party, is a first-time candidate for public office.

The 43-year-old made an informal announcement Tuesday and plans
a more formal announcement later. In his letter to delegates and in a brochure, he touted his military experience and business career, and stressed that he is not a career politician.

"I think it is my duty to step forward and do this," Esmay said.

Esmay, a Coon Rapids native, spent 14 years in the U.S. Air Force and has lived in St. Cloud for six years. He and his wife, Leticia, have four children.

He said he would not run in the primary without the Republican endorsement.

Two other Republicans have also said they'd run for the 6th District seat. They are state Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, and state Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater.

At least six others are considering seeking the Republican endorsement.


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:00 AM
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February 18, 2005
Unkind Cuts

The big story out of the Capitol today involves castration. Well, not really castration, but chemical castration. And it was the big story if you watched TV last night. I'll get to it in a minute but first another story about cutting...the budget. It involved the increasingly vocal religious leaders of the state. Dane Smith of the Star Tribune has the story:

In a display of religious muscle-flexing on state budget policy, four leaders of the state's largest denominations on Thursday boldly called for income tax increases and fewer spending cuts to ease the state's budget crisis. And some of them came close to describing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty as standing on the wrong side of a moral dividing line.

"The taxes we pay allow us to meet our moral responsibility toward our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters in the family of God, who need our help to live in accordance with their God-given dignity," said Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Leaders of the Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish and Islamic faiths have taken similar positions in the past three years of budget crises. But they appear to be a bit more active and outspoken on this latest in the string of deficits.

Some have been touring poorer areas of the state to draw attention to increased social problems. But Thursday's event -- called "Faith in the Common Good" -- was the first in which they proposed a specific solution, one of the first broad budget-balancing tax solutions offered by any group.

The leaders of what are known as the mainstream faiths -- representing some 2.2 million Minnesotans -- described their solution as a "partial rollback" of several years of cuts in state income tax rates. They contend their plan would raise about $836 million toward a projected deficit of about $700 million. But it would amount to only about half of the additional revenue that the state would have had under the 1999 income tax rates, before successive years of cuts. The leaders said that most Minnesotans would still be paying less than they did in 1999, especially figuring state and federal income taxes combined.

Dane notes later in the story that DFL leaders are not proposing a tax increase. So what about that castration story? MPR's Michael Khoo had this item:

Pedophiles who commit particularly serious sex crimes could be targeted for chemical castration if some state lawmakers have their way.

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, said re-offense rates are substantially lower in men whose testosterone levels have been chemically manipulated to depress sexual urges.

Emmer's plan would apply to pedophiles whose victims are under age thirteen and who crimes meet certain aggravating circumstances. A judge could order the procedure or convicted offenders could voluntarily request it.

Emmer said the notion may sound shocking -- but he says the plan addresses a serious public safety issue.

"The question is can you balance the need to protect the most vulnerable in our society -- children -- against an individual's constitutional rights. That's the real issue. And I think that's been addressed here. I think the overwhelming research proves this is effective and is appropriate," he said.

Emmer said several states already sanction chemical castration, including Iowa and Wisconsin. The treatment is reversible and requires periodic doses of the drug to maintain its effects.

Others aren't so sure it's a good idea, and the proposal may have trouble clearing Senate committees. But Gov. Pawlenty says he's interested in looking at the idea.

Finally today maybe we didn't hear the whole story about why Sen. Mark Dayton announced he will not seek re-election. What about the rats? Don Davis had the story in the Fargo Forum:

Any time a U.S. senator admits to blowing up rats in a microwave oven, even unintentionally, it's obvious his political future is in doubt.

Mark Dayton had been a senator less than two years when he was on a telephone conference call with Minnesota reporters, talking about his impending move to a townhouse.

One problem: He had to get rid of his sons' pet boa constrictor. The good news, however, was the move meant he would not have to thaw frozen rats to feed the snake.

"You only try it once," the Minnesota Democrat said. "Take my word for this one."

When pressed, he issued a warning: "Don't try to thaw them out by putting them in the microwave; it takes a couple of days to clean the remains out of the microwave."

Hey, how much heat should Dayton have to take for this? It's not like the rat was alive when he blew it up.


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:30 AM
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February 17, 2005
Too good to be true?

Does an inaccurate biography presage any other problems with the Vikings prospective buyer? It certainly raises questions about what the PR firm handling Reggie Fowler's first meeting with the Minnesota media must have been thinking. This is, after all, the state that saw Tom Clancy first emerge then fade away as a possible Vikings owner a few years ago. Jay Weiner of the Star Tribune has the story of Fowler's shifting bio:

He had played in the Little League World Series, studied business at the University of Wyoming and played for the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL, among other things.

Upon closer examination, however, those claims and others in his official biography are not exactly true.

Wednesday, in two brief interviews before he declined further comment, Fowler said he'd never been to the world-famous Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., that his college degree is in social work, not business, and that he merely tried out for the Bengals, but didn't play in a game for them.

He also said early in the day that he had not seen the biography.

The information was distributed Monday. It was written by people in his Spiral Inc., office in Chandler, Ariz.

By day's end Wednesday, in a written statement, Fowler called the biography "a draft copy."

But that "draft copy" was distributed to all the NFL owners, including the 10 members of the league's powerful Finance Committee, which will meet March 9-10 to determine whether Fowler's $625 million offer to McCombs is in order.

"I really do not know anything about him except what I've read in that prepared press release and in the newspaper," said Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, a member of the Finance Committee. "I don't have any firsthand knowledge about him, but he certainly sounds like an accomplished person and a success story."

Asked if his opinion of Fowler's candidacy would be affected by an inaccurate biography, Hunt said: "I wouldn't speculate on that at all. I don't know whether it's accurate or not. I'm going to rely on whatever the NFL comes up with."

The key question is whether Fowler and his partners can come up with the money they say they have to actually buy the team. Tom Clancy couldn't.

No matter what you think of Gov. Tim Pawlenty you have to acknowledge he knows how to make news. In Washington, D.C. Wednesday the governor said he would look to Indian tribes to help sell discount prescription drugs. MPR's Tom Scheck had this item:

Pawlenty says he's been speaking with officials from the state's northern Indian tribes about working with them if the Food and Drug Administration shuts down the state run site. Pawlenty called it an option of last resort.

He says the tribes would use their sovereign status to buy drugs from Canada and then sell the drugs to Minnesotans. He said no deal has been reached and called the discussions preliminary.

"This would be kind of a doomsday scenario where the FDA or others try to legally shut us down and these tribal communities may be beyond the reach of the FDA and others with respect to regulatory concerns."

Pawlenty wouldn't say which tribes he's spoken with. He was in Washington D.C. urging Congress to expand Minnesota's website on a national scale.

And while the governor was away, more cooperation broke out at the Capitol. This time it was on the House version of the bonding bill. MPR's Laura McCallum had the story:

The bill sailed out of the House Capital Investment committee on a unanimous voice vote. It would authorize the state to sell bonds to borrow $781 million for construction projects across the state. The remaining $35 million would be financed by colleges and universities.

Higher education is the bill's biggest beneficiary, with nearly $90 million for the University of Minnesota and nearly $155 million for MnSCU projects. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, says the bill focuses on the state's infrastructure needs.

"Whether it's the waste improvement fund, roads and bridges, redevelopment grants, things of that nature, a lot of that in there, and of course, higher education. Our higher ed... we have every project that was on the governor's list plus we're significantly higher in many MnSCU areas," according to Dorman...

House DFL leaders say they wish the House bill was larger, but consider it a good start. The bill will need DFL votes to pass the House. State law requires a three-fifths majority for bills that authorize state borrowing, and Republicans have only a one-vote margin.

The lead Democrat on the Capital Investment Committee, Alice Hausman of St. Paul, says she thinks most DFLers will vote for the bill.


And finally, what goes around comes around. Remember the GOP Contract With America? Well, the Democrats do, and according to the Star Tribune's Greg Gordon they want Gil Gutknecht to remember it too:

In campaigning for his House seat in 1994, Minnesota Rep. Gil Gutknecht trumpeted his support for term limits in Congress and promised to serve no more than 12 years.

Now, at the start of his sixth two-year term, DFL leaders are calling on Gutknecht to honor his pledge and announce plans to retire. The controversy recalls the criticism Republicans directed at the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, when he repudiated a pledge to serve only 12 years in the Senate.

Gutknecht "still supports the idea of term limits, but you can't unilaterally enact them or it negatively impacts the district," his spokesman, Bryan Anderson, said Wednesday. If Gutknecht retired, he said, the southern Minnesota district would lose the political clout that comes with seniority -- including his chairmanship of an agriculture subcommittee.

"The reality is that in a time when agricultural districts are getting fewer in number, it's important that they have a strong voice," Anderson said.

Hmmm...I don't remember that agricultural district escape clause in the contract. On the other hand if Gutknecht were to be elected to the Senate, the term limit promise would be kept. Maybe the Dems should be careful what they wish for.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:40 AM
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February 16, 2005
Sports, casinos and cheeseburgers

I've been gone a couple days so it's time to get caught up. Sports stories have been leading the news the past few days. First there was the ouster of Flip Saunders as the coach of the Timberwolves, then the big news that the Vikings appear to have been sold to Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler for $625 million. The Vikings story of course has revived stadium talk. MPR's Michael Khoo had some of that:

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says if that's the case, someone could come to regret it.

"I just hope that somebody isn't making a market decision to buy the team for a significant amount of money based on the idea or the fact that the Legislature's going to pass a stadium funding bill. That wouldn't be a very wise market decision," House speaker Steve Sviggum said.

The Vikings, the Minnesota Twins and the University of Minnesota Gopher football team are all seeking new stadiums, arguing the Metrodome doesn't provide the amenities or revenues necessary to survive. Sviggum has said he expects a Twins bill to pass this year, and the Gopher project has fairly broad bipartisan support. But Sviggum says a Vikings deal is unlikely due to the higher costs of an NFL stadium.

Rep. Andy Westerberg, R-Blaine, who represents the leading host city for a Vikings stadium, says despite legislative reluctance, he'll introduce legislation in the House to split the facility's cost three ways between Anoka County, the team and the state. And he says it's unfortunate that some lawmakers are giving priority to the Twins and the Gophers.

"Unfortunately that's the way they're stacking up and the Vikings are put at the end because they're on the lease to 2011. But it's extremely imperative that we get them to consider all three teams at the same time and get a deal done. And we're going to be trying to do that," he said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty tried to downplay expectations for a new football stadium Tuesday. "I don't think it is a breakthrough from a stadium standpoint," he told KQAD-AM of Luverne. "The same old political concerns or challenges are going to be there."

Meanwhile the developers of the Mall of America have taken Pawlenty's casino idea and run with it. Patrick Condon of the Associated Press had this story:

The owners of the Mall of America raised the ante Tuesday on the state's casino debate, rolling out a $1 billion expansion plan they said would make the Twin Cities one of the top tourist attractions in the world.


The catch? The Phase II expansion would have to include a new casino in order to subsidize other amenities, including a concert hall, an ice skating arena, an indoor golf course, public gardens and high-end retail, according to Nader Ghermezian, president of the family business that developed and controls the mall.

The expansion on the site of the old Met Center would double the mall in size, surpassing the Ghermezians' West Edmonton Mall in Canada as the world's largest.

"When the Mall of America becomes doubled, it becomes a New York or an L.A. by itself," Ghermezian said. "You won't have to fly to Rodeo Drive or New York or Paris - it's all under one roof."

But you may not want to cancel your trip to Paris right away. The Bloomington legislative delegation remains unanimously opposed to a casino at the mall. Some local office holders say they may warm to the idea of gambling at the mall, but only if Bloomington gets most of the money. That would seem to disrupt both the Ghermezian's financing plan and the governor's idea to split gambling profits between the state and northern tribes.

Finally, given the ongoing demand for state health care programs and problems paying for them, some lawmakers took the bold step Tuesday of defending your right to chow down on junk food. (I swear, you can't make up stuff this good) Yes, when those evil food police threaten to strike, your lawmakers will stand up for truth, justice and cholesterol. This is from Conrad Defiebre's story in the Star Tribune:

"It's true that no such lawsuits have been filed yet in Minnesota," chief sponsor Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said at a news conference staged in front of tables laden with cheeseburgers, French fries and milk shakes at a St. Paul burger joint. "It's only a matter of time."

Urdahl's bill, co-sponsored by 31 Republicans and three DFLers, would prohibit legal claims against food businesses based on weight gain, obesity or related health problems. Exceptions would be allowed in cases of tainted food or false claims of health benefits, such as if fattening victuals were labeled "zero calories," he said.

The measure is one of dozens like it introduced throughout the United States at the urging of the National Restaurant Association and other food trade groups. So far, 14 states have enacted them, while Wisconsin's Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, vetoed a version passed by that state's Republican-controlled Legislature.

All this legislative activity followed the filing of about 10 suits around the nation, the most notable in New York against the McDonald's fast-food chain. None of the plaintiffs has won in court yet and some of the suits have been dismissed, but Urdahl said that even the litigation piles unfair costs on an industry that employs 12 million people nationwide.

"When this kind of lawsuit succeeds, the ultimate victim is the small-business owner who gets forced out of business by having to pay for someone else's poor decision-making," he said. "The state must send a signal to attorneys who would take on these frivolous lawsuits that they are not welcome here."

So eat up...while you still can!

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:00 AM
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February 11, 2005
Frankenly, I don't give a darn

Forgive me if I can't get too excited about Al Franken's political plans. Every newsroom in town Thursday was salivating over the possibility that the comedian-turned-left-wing-radio-talker might actually announce he would run for the U.S. Senate seat being given up by Mark Dayton. I wish I could say it was different at MPR, but it wasn't.

WCCO radio even had Franken on their air to tell their listeners that he wouldn't say yes or no until his own show started on another station. That kind of agressively embarassing self-promotion (aided and abetted by an all too willing "news" media) hasn't been seen since Jesse Ventura was still bald.

Of course you could probably logically conclude that if someone was going to announce a run for a senate seat he might want to do it in the state he was actually trying to represent. Alert journalists probably should have picked up on that. Instead we sat through three hours of Franken's program waiting for him to make the big non-announcement. And the newspapers and at least one TV station actually led with it. We put it on the air too.

Franken says he still may run against Norm Coleman in '08. Let's hope for his sake that Fox News still employs Bill O'Reilly by then, because his main gimmick seems to be poking O'Reilly with a stick. Hard to believe Katherine Lanpher left MPR for this.

This being Friday I wanted to include a few e-mail comments I've received on Gov. Pawlenty's budget. Here's one from George Seldes:

The governor's budget takes the exact wrong direction on funding democracy. We need 100 percent publically-funded elections. We must extract money from our political processes. It starts with elections and continues throughout the legislative process.

While reporting has improved in recent years for monied interests that influence
our democracy; it's still put into broad categories and it's all manual.
Where's the online reporting of lobbyists and corporations? Yes some exists,
but not usable data, only lists that are difficult to contextualize.

It's frustrating to see all this reporting, but it misses the context of how
policies are proposed and decisions are made. But thanks for your reporting,
it's the one dim light in the darkness. It doesn't take much light when it's as
dark as our process is today.

Patrick Thibault wrote this on health care:

I don't see why legislators can't fix the health care problem. It really is a simpe matter of correcting the risk-averaging method that has gone awry.

For example, if we, collectively, as a community decided that we could cover all
citizens, we could do so at only a slight increase in cost to each one of us.

Rather, what has happened, is that health care providers and insurance providers
have "tilted" the playing field over time, so that persons with higher acuity,
in terms of illness, receive less coverage and are placed on the back of
government.

This is just a feeder system by the private sector to reduce the "high risk"
clients in their coverage and put the burden on the public sector.

I don't blame the insurance companies; they're in the business of making a
profit. But, in this case, their business practices, along with the health care
industry, are leading to an unhealthy system.

Heather Martinson wrote this about the "welfare healthcare" debate:

I agree that the Minnesota Care Health Plan is an excellent program. My problem with the welfare system has always been the people who get on assistance and stay on it for years; the people who are capable of working and just do not want to!

I personally know several women who are single parents and just keep
having kids so they can stay on welfare. They think it is easier to get
assistance than to get an education and work.

I was a single mother of two children (one has bipolar and was not diagnosed properly for several years) and I never have received assistance of any kind. I sometimes did not eat so my kids could, had holes in my undergarments so my kids had new clothes, walked to work because I had no money for gas or car insurance, etc.

Now I am remarried to a wonderful man and we give to the food shelf, pick names off the "angel tree" at Christmas time, pay for other children to participate in school activites, etc. All this is done anoymously. My children know now how hard we had it before I was remarried but they never knew then.

I would really like to see the governor revamp the welfare program to force people to get an education so they can work rather than just cutting them off. We need some sort of assistance to those who are unable to work due to illness, or those who are working and just need a little help to survive.

Keep the comments coming and have a good weekend.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 10:29 AM
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February 10, 2005
Dayton's departure

Who doesn't want to run for Mark Dayton's seat? The list is much shorter than the one of those who are interested. Dayton's announcement Wednesday that he won't run for re-election next year didn't quite shock the world (as a former governor used to say), but the timing certainly caught many people by surprise. Dayton's biggest problem? Raising money, as noted by MPR's Michael Khoo:

"I do not believe that I am the best candidate to lead the DFL Party to victory next year. I cannot stand to do the constant fund-raising necessary to wage a successful campaign, and I cannot be an effective senator while also being a nearly full-time candidate," Dayton said.

Dayton has repeatedly made public his distaste for fundraising, and he's remembered for financing his last campaign almost entirely through his own personal wealth. That race cost him roughly $12 million, a sum he's said he can no longer afford.

Outgoing DFL Party Chair Mike Erlandson says he respects Dayton's decision, but he acknowledged that soliciting campaign cash is an inescapable part of modern politics.

"Fundraising for most people in this business is the least fun part of the job, but the reality is these campaigns take an awful lot of money," he said.

Dayton was widely considered to be the most vulnerable senator in the upcoming election cycle, that's in part because of a relatively meager campaign war chest. According to campaign finance reports, Dayton ended 2004 with less than $200,000 on hand. For comparison, that's about a third of what Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has -- and Coleman isn't up for re-election until 2008. And it's only about half of what Republican Congressman Gil Gutknecht has.

Dayton has long been know as an unusual politician with a style that could best be described as an anti-style. MPR's Laura McCallum takes a look at his career:

Dayton got the attention of both supporters and critics last fall, when he was the only member of Congress to close his Senate office for three weeks before the election. He cited a top-secret intelligence report...

"I take this step out of extreme, but necessary, precaution to protect the lives and safety of my Senate staff and my Minnesota constituents, who might otherwise visit my office in the next few weeks. I feel compelled to do so, because I will not be here in Washington to share in what I consider to be an unacceptably greater risk to their safety."

There was no attack on the U.S. Capitol before the election.

In the fall of 2002, Dayton was one of 23 Senators who voted against a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, and he questioned whether the Bush administration was playing politics with the timing of the invasion. Last month, he voted against the confirmation of Bush aide Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State, and on the Senate floor, he charged her with lying in private briefings on Iraq...

"I don't like to impugn anyone's integrity but I really don't like being lied to, repeatedly, flagrantly, intentionally. It's wrong, it's undemocratic, it's un-American and it's dangerous." ...

But as often as Dayton gave passionate speeches on health care or Iraq, he was also known for fumbling his words, as he did during this conference call with reporters on the situation in Iraq...

"I didn't know then what was known that I didn't know, and I may not yet know all that I don't know."

Dayton's approval rating took a hit in recent months. The latest Star Tribune Minnesota poll found Dayton's approval rating dropped 15 points in a year, from 58 to 43 percent.

Now as for that list of candidates, let's start with DFLers who aren't running. Mike Hatch and Matt Entenza. On the may run list, put everyone from Mike Ciresi and Amy Klobuchar and Mark Rotenberg (who say they're definitely interested) to Dean Johnson, Betty McCollum, Steve Kelley, Tom Rukavina (who haven't ruled it out) to Alan Page and Garrison Keillor (whose names have come up but aren't talking).

On the GOP side you have Gil Gutknecht, Mark Kennedy, Rod Grams, Brian Sullivan and possibly Mary Kiffmeyer, Michelle Bachmann...and maybe even Tim Pawlenty (although he's said before he's not interested).

The Star Tribune even lists Independence Party candidates Dean Barkley is interested; Jesse Ventura and Tim Penny say no.

Of course this will all change over the next few weeks, so don't bother printing out that list and sticking it to the fridge.

What do you think of Dayton's decision and who should replace him? Send me a note.


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:17 AM
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February 9, 2005
All St. Paul

The papers are full of the St. Paul corruption allegation story. I will fight my impulse to say wake me up when someone's indicted and give you a quick rundown. First of all Mayor Randy Kelly confirmed on Tuesday that the allegation involves one of his top staffers, Sia Lo. Lo has denied any wrongdoing. Kelly is also trying to blame his political opponents for leaking the story. Here's what the Star Tribune is saying:

Hours after St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly angrily confirmed Tuesday that his assistant Sia Lo is the target of an FBI corruption probe, ex-Police Chief William Finney urged that a federal grand jury be convened in the case.

Kelly blamed unnamed political enemies seeking to derail his reelection campaign for leaking information that Lo is under investigation. Kelly described the allegations as "of a serious and grave nature" but stressed he will consider Lo innocent "unless there is evidence to suggest otherwise."

Finney was one of the first and few city officials to know about the allegations of corruption against Lo before they were made public in a Star Tribune report Tuesday.

Two sources with knowledge of the case have told the Star Tribune that Lo allegedly demanded a bribe last year from a businessman interested in doing a real estate deal with the city. Kelly declined to discuss details of the investigation, saying he was instructed by FBI agents to stay silent.

By the way, Finney says he's not trying to smear Kelly, even though he supports Kelly's opponent Chris Coleman. Speaking of the mayor's race, Kelly picked up the endorsement of a few Democrats. Here's the story from the Pioneer Press:

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly announced Tuesday the backing of two longtime Democratic heavyweights, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, and swore his allegiance to the DFL party as he seeks a second term this fall.

Kelly was flanked at a news conference by several other members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, including past St. Paul city leaders and out-of-town legislators, as if to show he has not entirely burned his bridges with DFLers after endorsing President Bush last year.

"In spite of speculation that I might become a Republican, that I might take a position in the Bush administration, I am here," Kelly said. "I'm a Democrat, I've been a Democrat all my life, I intend to remain a Democrat."

His critics, however, pointed out that none of the state officeholders who currently represent St. Paul showed up to support Kelly. "Maybe he looks better from farther away," quipped House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul.

Also noticeably absent was Kelly's own Congresswoman, Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-St. Paul, whom the mayor said he didn't have the opportunity to invite.

Hmmm...let's see, did I invite everybody? Anybody I'm forgetting? Hmmm...can't think of anyone...

Back at the Capitol the smoking ban is ready for a few more rounds. Here's MPR's Michael Khoo:

The Senate Health and Family Security Committee gave the smoking ban its blessing and forwarded it on to the next committee stop.

The plan would ban smoking in all indoor public spaces, statewide. Supporters of the measure cite studies identifying second-hand smoke as a health hazard and carcinogen. Opponents, however, say a ban would drive smoking customers away from bars and restaurants.

Several Minnesota cities and counties have already adopted local bans that differ in the types of businesses covered. A smoking ban is also under consideration in the House, but that measure exempts bars from the state prohibition.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he supports a smoking ban, but hasn't advanced a specific proposal of his own.

And remember that sales tax increase proposal that was floating around Minneapolis City Hall? It's chances don't look good. here's Rochelle Olson's story from the Star Tribune:

Minneapolis City Council President Paul Ostrow told his colleagues Tuesday that it's time to lead by raising the city sales tax a half cent.

But the three council members at the Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting weren't inclined to follow.

Council Member Lisa Goodman said: "If you want to be the person to lead the charge for increasing taxes in the city of Minneapolis, more power to you."

She had nothing but criticism for Ostrow's proposal after hearing from city lobbyist Gene Ranieri, who said that any effort to increase the sales tax probably would result in a reduction of local government aid.

Ranieri said he has heard preliminary talk at the State Capitol that if cities seek to increase sales taxes, there will be offsetting cuts in aid.

Committee Chairman Scott Benson said: "That would eliminate any benefit from a sales tax."

Goodman said: "I don't see why we would move forward on something that our own lobbying team would see as a possible detriment."

Finally Cathy Wurzer pointed out this item from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Rumble is former Minnesota Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the former pro wrestler, is thinking about tackling the U.S. Senate. One governmental body builder is enough.

I wonder if he'll do that before or after his run for president?


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:48 AM
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February 8, 2005
Tax scratch fever

Raising taxes, which is so out of fashion on the state level, has suddenly become all the rage with local governments. Case in point: St. Paul. Twelve years without a property tax levy increase is enough says Mayor Randy Kelly. On Monday the mayor announced his run for re-election and tipped his hand on the tax plan. Tim Nelson has the story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

"To address the growing threat of gang violence, homeland security and public school security in St. Paul, we will ask for voter approval for increased funds for schools and public safety in St. Paul," Kelly told about 100 supporters gathered at Tivoli Too, a design and sculpture studio in Highland Park. Tivoli Too is the company that made the popular "Peanuts" sculptures that have decorated St. Paul for the past five summers.

The mayor declined to be specific on city needs or to offer many details about his tax proposals, but the positions represent reversals: He opposed a successful excess levy referendum for schools in 2002 and has proposed flat city levies for the last three years.

"We are likely to be engaged in a referendum for increased resources for schools, and we think it is appropriate to have a discussion on public safety at the same time," Kelly said. Although the city has the authority to raise taxes on its own, Kelly said he would consider a public safety referendum to be binding.

St. Paul school leaders were glad to hear Kelly is speaking in support of education funding. But Toni Carter, the school board's chairwoman, said the district is focused on getting a funding increase out of the current legislative session and isn't looking at a fall 2005 levy referendum.

Kelly has been an ardent supporter of the fee-based budgeting pioneered by former Mayor Norm Coleman. Even though he's making it dependent on a referendum, the move on taxes seems like a major, if somewhat perplexing shift. His announcement followed on the heels of this story by Rochelle Olson in Monday's Star Tribune.

Minneapolis is considering an additional half-cent sales tax to pay for public safety, a necessary move, some say, that bucks election-year wisdom against tax increases.

Council President Paul Ostrow has been shopping the idea to city business leaders, and Mayor R.T. Rybak isn't ruling it out. The proposal would push the Minneapolis sales tax on retail purchases to 7.5 percent. The state imposes a 6.5 percent tax.

"We're very, very serious about it," Ostrow said. Council Ways and Means Chairwoman Barbara Johnson and Council Majority Leader Scott Benson also have signed on. "We have to find additional resources for public safety," Johnson said. "That would be exclusively what I would want to do -- use it for public safety."

It goes without saying that Minneapolis and St. Paul are the darkest blue areas of blue state Minnesota. But what is behind this election-year talk of higher taxes? Is it a holdover from last year's election, or are local leaders picking up on something that the governor and legislators should be paying attention to?

In Capitol news ethanol had a good day in the Senate. Here's an item by MPR's Michael Khoo:

Currently, gas sold in Minnesota is 10 percent ethanol. That amount would double by the year 2012 under the Senate proposal. The body approved the measure on a 54-12 bipartisan vote.

Supporters say increased ethanol use will reduce dependence on imported oil and produce fewer tail-pipe emissions. DFLer Jim Vickerman of Tracy said the new standard would also prop up the struggling rural economy.

"I want to ask that you would look kind of beyond the ethanol part of this and let's just say this is one more thing that maybe we can raise farm prices up by a little bit," he said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty supports the proposal and House lawmakers are considering a similar provision. Some car manufacturers argue current engines aren't designed to burn ethanol.

If you think the lopsided Senate vote means the debate over ethanol isn't still going strong, listen to the wrestling match on the subject I refereed yesterday on Midday.

Finally, the latest in the Mark Dayton replacement run. As Republicans weigh a run for Senate against Dayton, a phalanx of potential candidates has its eye on the 6th District congressional seat. Here's the latest from the Associated Press:

Second-term state Sen. Michele Bachmann, a Republican best known for her dogged pursuit of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, has taken a concrete step toward running for Congress.

Bachmann told GOP activists in a letter last week that she was
setting up an exploratory campaign committee to weigh a bid for the
6th Congressional District seat. She is one of several Republicans
expected to get into the race if incumbent Rep. Mark Kennedy runs
for the U.S. Senate in 2006 against Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton.

In the letter, Bachmann, of Stillwater, extolls her conservative
views.

"I have been a leading proponent of defending the right to life
of the unborn, upholding our second amendment rights, including
range protection and private property rights," Bachmann wrote.
"Last year I led the effort in Minnesota to pass a constitutional
amendment protecting the sanctity of traditional marriage between
one man and one woman."

The 6th District stretches from the St. Cloud area across the
northern Twin Cities suburbs to the Stillwater area. It includes
all or most of Anoka, Benton, Sherburne, Stearns, Washington and
Wright counties.

Other Republicans exploring campaigns are: former education
commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke, Secretary of State Mary
Kiffmeyer, and state Reps. Jim Knoblach and Rep. Phil Krinkie.

On the Democratic side, Kennedy's 2004 challenger Patty
Wetterling is the most talked-about candidate for 2006.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:49 AM
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February 2, 2005
Bad air

On the one hand the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency releases an alert that says the air in the Twin Cities is "unhealthy for all." On the other hand they say people should not be alarmed. What exactly are we supposed to think?

Here's the story by Dennis Lien in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

Twin Cities air quality rose to a level deemed "unhealthy" for all people for the first time since the use of sensitive monitoring equipment for soot began six years ago.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency workers urged metro area schools to reduce children's activity levels and warned all adults to take it easy.

"I think people should certainly not be alarmed,'' said agency spokeswoman Rebecca Helgesen. "They should be concerned. They should take a couple of steps to remind themselves of the health of their families. It doesn't have to be dramatic. Just tone it down a little. Take it easier.''

Overall, Minnesota has clean air. And for as dirty as the air was this week, most people will not experience long-term effects.

The pollution control agency issued a warning late Monday when the air quality index, a standard measure of air pollution, exceeded 100, considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. Then, shortly after midnight, the index reached 156, pushing the Twin Cities into the "red" zone and deeming the air unhealthy for everyone.

Levels slowly dropped throughout Tuesday, and by 5 p.m. it was hanging at 151, just at the "unhealthy" threshold. The alert remains in effect through today.

The culprit? A temperature inversion, or layer of warm air trapping cooler air near the ground, settled over the region, holding down microscopic pollutants and creating a gray haze. To compound matters, a mass of dirty air was sitting over the northeastern third of the country, including much of Minnesota.

So is it unhealthy for everybody or not? I'm still not quite clear on that. And should the state take any extra efforts when the air gets this bad?

The other big issue of the day is Social Security. The president gives his State of the Union address tonight and Social Security is expected to be a big issue. MPR's Mark Zdechlik polled Minnesota's congressional delegation and (not surprisingly) found a big split:

Democrat Jim Oberstar, who has represented Minnesota's 8th District since the mid-'70s, accuses President Bush of trying to destroy Social Security. Oberstar notes this is not the first time Republicans have attempted crisis mode revamps of the program.

"In 1976 President Ford said there was a crisis and we have to head that crisis off by changing the benefit system -- who gets benefits, increasing the age at which you receive benefits and numerous other changes. Now another Republican president comes a long with another scare tactic saying 'Social Security is in crisis.' It wasn't in crisis in 1976. It isn't today," according to Oberstar, who opposes private accounts.

So does 5th District Congressman Martin Sabo, a DFLer. He sees President Bush's push for private accounts as a function of ideology, not concern about the solvency of Social Security.

"The conservatives never liked it when it was created in the '30s and they've been looking for the opportunity to make changes. The fact is I have no problem investing in equities, but my basic understanding for years has been that you get into equity after you take care of the basics. Social Security is a room-and-board," Sabo says.

Republicans take issue with the Democratic charge the GOP wants to dismantle Social Security.

Second District Republican Congressman John Kline says he's glad President Bush is placing such emphasis on Social Security restructuring. He thinks private accounts are a good idea and that the more open the debate, the better.

"We are not in any way trying to destroy Social Security, we are, in fact, looking for ways to save it and strengthen it," Kline says.

And the latest Minnesota Poll in the Star Tribune finds President Bush's approval rating up slightly:

As Minnesotans prepare to listen to President Bush's assessment of the state of the union tonight, a bare majority approve of the job he is doing as president, but a plurality think the country is headed down the wrong track.

By 51 to 45 percent, Minnesotans approve of Bush's job performance, according to the latest Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, conducted January 23-26, before Sunday's election in Iraq. By 49 to 39 percent, Minnesotans don't like the direction in which the country is going.

Both measures are improvements from last fall, when the close and bitter election campaign stirred up especially strong feelings. In October, approval and disapproval ratings were similar in Minnesota -- with 47 percent disapproving and 45 percent approving.

Those who felt the country was on the wrong track formed a solid 55 percent majority.

During his term, Bush's Minnesota approval rating has been as high as 87 percent in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and as low as 43 percent last July. His current rating is his highest since December 2003, when the capture of Saddam Hussein gave him a bump.

Bush's standing in Minnesota is almost exactly the same as his national numbers. The most recent Gallup poll, conducted Jan. 14-16, had nationwide approval versus disapproval at 51 to 46.

And finally, another possible opponent for DFL U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton. As Brian Bakst of the Associated Press reports, it's a familiar face:

Republican Rod Grams is pondering a political comeback with a possible challenge to Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton, who knocked him out of office in 2000.

Grams, 56, said he's going to take the next six weeks to two months to decide whether to enter the 2006 U.S. Senate race. He said he's already had a couple dozen people encourage him to take that step.

"I want to see if this pool of support is wide and if it's deep," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday evening.

Or at least wider and deeper than the pool of other potential candidates. Rep. Gil Gutknecht and Rep. Mark Kennedy are already considering a run for the Senate seat.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:14 AM
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February 1, 2005
Health care and politics

Attorney General Mike Hatch is turning his attention to the health care industry again. this time he's targeted Fairview Health Services. Specifically, a two year investigation by Hatch's office says the non-profit isn't doing enough to make sure needy patients get financial support. MPR's Tom Scheck has the story:

The audit listed dozens of people who complained of Fairview's debt collection practices. In some instances, patients were incorrectly told they had to pay a bill, even though it should have been sent to their insurers. Other patients said they were billed for procedures they didn't receive. Others were targeted by debt collectors, even when they agreed to a payment plan with a hospital.

In total, the audit says Fairview referred 77,000 patient accounts to debt collection agents for legal action since 2001. Of that total, 4,500 patients received a summons or complaint by mail, and the collection agency filed 1,700 lawsuits against patients.

Fairview CEO David Page says he hasn't read the entire audit but says the company intends to make changes as a result of the findings. Page says Fairview continues to monitor its charity care policies, but needs to be cautious that the program is used only for those who absolutely need it.

"There are some people who have care in our system who have the ability to pay the bills, and just don't pay them -- and there are others who really need our help," says Page. "Trying to make that distinction is a difficult process."

Hatch says Fairview scaled back executive perks in 2001, after another audit by the AG's office revealed similar perks at Allina. But Scheck has some interesting quotes from Hatch given the political fuss caused by Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed reductions in the MinnesotaCare program. Such as:

"You end up with this arms race, and you will see salaries escalate in health care far greater than any other sector," says Hatch.

And...

"The boards have unfortunately become more focused on the executive care than the charity care -- and that's wrong. This is industry-wide. It is clearly industry-wide."

Many people expect Hatch (and maybe a half dozen other DFLers) to launch a campaign against Pawlenty next year. The governor hasn't announced yet whether he's running for re-election, but this story from the Brian Bakst of the Associated Press makes it look like he'll be ready:

Tim Pawlenty has a half-million dollar head start on anyone who wants to challenge him for Minnesota's governorship in 2006, following a year when his campaign donations rolled in.

Pawlenty, a Republican elected governor in 2002, raised $731,520
in 2004, according to a required report filed Monday with the
Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. After subtracting
expenses, he entered 2005 with $490,000 in the bank.

By comparison, Pawlenty spent $2.2 million on his 2002 campaign,
the maximum allowed because he accepted a public subsidy payment of
$425,000. Pawlenty hasn't committed to accepting the public subsidy
in 2006. If he doesn't, he would be free to raise and spend as much
as he wants.

Pawlenty hasn't officially declared his intention to seek
another four-year term, but the fund-raising figures point to a
re-election campaign. The hefty amount he hauled in is noteworthy
in another respect: campaign law limits contributions to $500 for
gubernatorial candidates who aren't on that year's ballot. But in
2006, he'll be able to raise $2,000 a pop.

And speaking of the governor, he's got another plan to crack down on sex offenders. MPR's Laura McCallum has that story:

"Minnesota needs to do a better job as it relates to tracking down, prosecuting, convicting, incarcerating and confining and supervising sex offenders," Pawlenty says. His latest proposal is more exhaustive than the one he and others pursued in 2004, when legislative gridlock blocked the initiative.

Pawlenty says the most violent offenders should be sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. He recommends that other violent offenders get open-ended sentences with the possibility of life in prison.

There's widespread support in the Legislature for open-ended sentences for sex offenders. That's a much cheaper option than using civil commitments to keep offenders in secure psychiatric facilities at the end of their prison sentences. Civil commitment costs more than $300 a day, while keeping an offender in prison costs $76 a day.

Still, longer sentences will require more prison beds. Pawlenty wants the Legislature to approve adding 850 beds at prisons in Faribault and Stillwater.

And of course that costs money. One of the places Pawlenty finds money in his budget is the aforementioned cutback in eligiblity for the MinnesotaCare program. But opponents of that plan say they're ready to fight. Patricia Lopez had this item in the Star Tribune:

"We are about to tell the struggling waitress juggling three jobs that her efforts are not enough for us to help with her health care," said Rev. John Estrem, CEO of Catholic Charities of Minnesota and a parish priest. "Where is our conscience?"

The leaders, all part of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC), said they will start a campaign through their congregations, which could reach more than 2 million Minnesotans, aimed at rejecting Pawlenty's proposal to scale back access to MinnesotaCare, the state's subsidized health insurance program for lower-income workers. The proposal would make childless adults ineligible, along with some parents who now qualify.

Brian Rusche, executive director of the coalition, said the churches had decided to take action because "the governor's budget fails the moral standards of decency, human rights and compassion" by cutting benefits for low-income Minnesotans.

Pawlenty points out that under his plan state spending on health care programs would still rise by 15 percent over the next two years instead of the 18 percent forecast. But the religious leaders say the state has a revenue problem, not a spending problem.

All this begs the question: why are health care costs rising at double-digit rates? And what can be done to contain costs other than cutting people off programs? Let's have that debate.


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:42 AM
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