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March 31, 2005
Catching up

I've been gone doing Midday for a few days, so it's time to cactch up. Let's start at the Capitol. One year after it was due, lawmakers say they've reached an agreement on a bonding bill. Better late than never says MPR's Laura McCallum:

The governor and legislative leaders were all smiles as they announced the deal. The package of construction projects would total nearly $945 million, with about $886 million in state borrowing. Gov. Pawlenty says negotiators met for several hours, going through the bill line by line.

"Even though there were some pointed differences at times, the tone and the attitude was one of 'let's get this done, we need it for the state of Minnesota,'" Pawlenty said.

The deal appears to have found middle ground between the House and Senate positions in many areas. The agreement contains nearly $322 million for higher education, and nearly $100 million for environmental projects.

Gov. Pawlenty got most of his key projects in the deal. The proposed Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake would receive $37 million, the amount needed to match federal money. Lawmakers agreed to renovate the Faribault prison at a cost of $85 million, and improve the Minnesota Zoo at a cost of nearly $25 million.

Now that they've found bipartisan agreement on something, how's that state casino plan doing? Uh oh. Bipartisan disagreement. DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch says a casino would require a constitutional amendment, which means a public vote. GOP Gov. Pawlenty's office is not happy. The Star Tribune has more:

The opinion comes one day after the state-tribal casino plan cleared a Republican-controlled House committee on a narrow party-line vote and is sure to give casino opponents fodder in their quest to stop the plan in the DFL-led Senate.

Pawlenty said the opinion would not prevent him from proceeding with his plan. "We disagree with the opinion," he said Wednesday. Similar issues had been litigated in several other states, he said, "and all of those states have won."

But Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said that Pawlenty's plan "was in the refrigerator yesterday. It just got put into the freezer."

If a casino at a racetrack is a racino, I guess a casino in the freezer is a cafreezo.

Could all the initial reports about the Red Lake shooting have been wrong? In the week following the tragedy Jeff Weise was portrayed as a depressed loner. Now that Louis Jourdain has been arrested and reportedly charged with conspiracy it comes out that Weise hung out with a group of friends other students called the "Darkers." The Associated Press today has horrifying look at the sequence of events during the shootings based on an e-mail sent by a sheriff's deputy:

Wounded in the leg and hip, Jeff Weise retreated to the classroom where he had done most of his killing. In this room of horror, where his victims still lay, Weise tucked his slain grandfather's shotgun under his chin and fired.

There's a lot more detail that I won't excerpt here.

Thursday the House is scheduled to debate the constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. I'll have more on that tomorrow.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:41 AM
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March 30, 2005
Ducks in a row

Mike Mulcahy is guest-hosting Midday this week. So MPR's online news editor, Bob Collins, is guest-writing the Capitol Letter

If there's one thing Tuesday's House floor debate on the House budget resolution shows, it's that an often unrecognized reason for GOP success at the Capitol is the GOP caucus is very disciplined; more disciplined than the DFL.

Key to the debate, of course, was the Dorman-Greiling amendment, which appeared to be the first call for a tax increase from a Republican (Dorman)when it was unveiled a couple of weeks ago. It also suggested a hint of bipartisanship in the debate over the funding of education.

After just a few minutes of the floor debate it was clear that this was going to be a battle to see who could keep their caucus members in line. In the end, Republicans lost only Dorman and Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina in the vote on the amendment, and only Dorman in the vote on the entire resolution.

House Minority Leader Matt Entenza was unable to keep 6 DFLers from voting with the Republican majority.

The debate (Watch it here. It starts about 13 minutes in) also showed how influential the next election is at the Capitol these days. Rep. Jim Knoblach, a candidate for Congress in the 6th District, warned lawmakers that a vote to increase state spending would be used by political opponents in November 2006. "I can see the postcards now. 'Representative blank voted to allow an increase in state taxes.' This is your chance, members. Sign up for that postcard today," he said.

From the number of voice votes (rather than recorded roll call votes) on major issues in committee these days (The definition of marriage and smoking ban bills come to mind) suggest that the "paper trail" of votes is a senstive subject to lawmakers right now.

Posted by bcollins at 10:35 AM
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March 23, 2005
Too many questions

Why? Of all the questions about the Red Lake shootings it's the biggest. And it's the question that might never be answered. The pictures of Jeff Weise on TV and the newspapers are of a young boy, innocent and almost angelic in his Batman t-shirt, blowing out his birthday candles. How do you reconcile those pictures with the image of a merciless killer, walking the halls of Red Lake High school shooting his classmates in the head? People who knew him say he was no longer a little boy. He was six feet tall and weighed 250 pounds. What happened to this young man in the span of 16 short years to bring him to this? As MPR's Bob Reha reports, his family life was difficult:

Wiese has been described as a loner. Someone who wore long black coats and was picked on by classmates. Student Ashley Morrision described Wiese as scary and weird.

Audrey Thayer, the head of the local ACLU, says the shooting is tragic. But she says people need to remember Wiese had a lot of tragedy in his life. His mother lives in a nursing home after being seriously injured in a car accident. His father committed suicide eight years ago. Thayer says people need to see Wiese beyond stereotypical descriptions.

"I know there was some discussion of media portraying that the kids were picking on this young guy in high school," says Thayer. "You always have jabs at each other. Look further back, and see what the history of this young man was."

The Star Tribune says Weise was a mystery, but that there were certainly signs of trouble:

Sondra Hegstrom, who said she had had classes with Weise, said he was quiet and "never said anything." He was teased -- "terrorized," she said -- by people who thought he was weird.

He often wore "a big old black trench coat," she said, and drew pictures of skeletons. "He talked about death all the time."

A couple of his friends had said he was suicidal, she said. They quoted him as saying once, "That would be cool if I shot up the school."

The friends dismissed it as talk, Hegstrom said.

But Willy May, 18, who knew Weise from school, said people shouldn't have been surprised.

"He fits the profile of a Columbine shooter, man," he said.

May said Weise always wore combat boots "with red shoelaces," similar to those of the shooters at Columbine High School.

He said that Weise "always had stacks of drawings, disturbed drawings." Some, he said, would show people with bullets going through their skulls.

The Pioneer Press looks at Weise's postings on neo-Nazi Web sites:

Officials investigating the country's worst school shooting since Columbine said they'll be looking into Weise's posts to neo-Nazi forums, but they didn't know if his political or racial beliefs played a role in the shootings.

"It's premature to make that speculation," said Michael Tabman, special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis office, who is heading the investigation.

Weise, writing under the pen names Todesengel German for "angel of death" or "NativeNazi," appeared to do most of his online writing at www.nazi.org, the Web site maintained by a group calling itself the Libertarian National Socialist Green Party.

On the site, the group it believes in "a resurrection of traditional values" and that it is "a think tank for environmentalist and nationalist ideals."

"Make no mistake; they're a hate group," said Molly Altorfer of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Minneapolis. "They are seductive because relative to other outwardly militant hate groups, they seem low-key. They couch their hate in this sort of new-agey social theory message."

The FBI says it took less than 10 minutes for this misguided kid to shoot up the high school. How long will it take for Red Lake and the rest of Minnesota to recover?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:46 AM
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March 22, 2005
Terror at Red Lake

The news out of Red Lake easily overshadows anything happening at the Capitol or anywhere else in the state. Minnesota's second school shooting rampage in less than two years turns out to be the deadliest in the country since Columbine.

Ten people are dead after a student went on a shooting rampage at the high school on the Red Lake Indian Reservation Monday afternoon.

"A 17 year old boy went to his grandparents' home sometime Monday afternoon and shot his grandparents," said MPR's Dan Gunderson. "His grandfather was a long time tribal police officer. He then took the tribal police squad car. He took the weapons belonging to his grandfather, and he drove to the high school. He had two handguns apparently and a shotgun."

A teacher, a school security guard and five other students were killed before the gunman took his own life. Authorities say 12 people were wounded at the high school.

More details from the Star Tribune:

Floyd Jourdain Jr., Red Lake tribal chairman, said Monday was "without doubt, the darkest day in the history of our tribe."

The killing spree was the deadliest at a school in the United States since the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in which 15 people died and 23 were wounded.

"Our community is in shock," Jourdain said. "Our thoughts and prayers go to the victims' families. We're a small town, and everybody is stunned."

Only the gunman and three of his victims have been identified. They were Weise's grandfather, Daryl Lussier, 58; Neva Rogers, 62, a teacher at the school, and Derrick Brun, 28, a school security officer.

The Pioneer Press relies on the Bemidji Pioneer for a chilling account of what happened during the shooting:

"You could hear a girl saying, 'No, Jeff, quit, quit. Leave me alone. What are you doing?' " one student, Sondra Hegstrom, told The Pioneer of Bemidji. Hegstrom described the gunman grinning and waving at a student his gun was pointed at, then swiveling the gun to shoot someone else.

"I looked him in the eye and ran in the room, and that's when I hid," Hegstrom said.

Ashley Morrison, another student, took refuge in a classroom, her mother told The Pioneer. With the shooter banging on the door, Morrison dialed her mother on her cell phone. Her mother, Wendy Morrison, said she could hear gunshots on the line.

"Mom, he's trying to get in here, and I'm scared," Ashley Morrison told her mother.

One student said the shooting continued for nearly a half-hour and that she hid in a classroom adjacent to where police say most of the bodies were found. The student said she lost a close friend in the rampage.

"You could hear people screaming and sobbing," she said.

The main questions now are likely to revolve around why the student did this and whether there were signs that should have drawn more attention. At first glance there may have been. The Pioneer Press reports the student was... :

...a sophomore who enjoyed Marilyn Manson music and had expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler on various online forums....

In a couple of postings to a nationalist forum last year, he eerily foreshadowed Monday's events. He claimed last April that authorities had questioned him about alleged plans to "shoot up the school on 4/20, Hitlers (sic) birthday."

On Internet sites Weise sometimes used the names "Todesengel'' German for "angel of death'' or "NativeNazi."

Of course as MPR's Gunderson notes, any answer to why this happened may have ended when the 17-year-old took his own life.

Red Lake is one of the bands that would be a partner with the state in a Twin Cities casino under a plan proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. a hearing on the plan scheduled at the Capitol Tuesday was cancelled. Pawlenty issued this statement about the shooting:

"With profound sorrow, the First Lady and I extend our heartfelt prayers and condolences to the families who lost loved ones in this senseless tragedy. We ask Minnesotans to help comfort the families and friends of the victims who are suffering unimaginable pain by extending prayers and expressions of support."

Sen. Norm. Coleman also issued a statement:

"Laurie and I send our heartfelt prayers and sympathies to the family and friends of those lost and injured today in Red Lake and to all those touched by this tragedy. May God's mercy and healing come to this grieving community. Know that all of Minnesota mourns with you in this time of sorrow."

Many more questions than answers as I write this Tuesday morning. Stay with MPR on the radio and Web throughout the day for more.


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:46 AM
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March 21, 2005
Cracks in the facade

You knew the good feelings would fade as time went on. As the legislative session nears the Easter break, there are signs that the bipartisan spirit is breaking down. Let's look at those signs. On Friday, the House Civil Law Committee went to Grand Rapids to debate that proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. The result? The committee voted 7-5 along party lines, with Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats opposing it.

How about the House Gaming Division meeting on Friday? The committee approved two bills. One was Gov. Pawlenty's Plan for a new Twin Cities casino. The other was the plan to put slot machines at Canterbury Park. The votes weren't recorded, but Republicans spoke in favor of the gambling plans while DFLers spoke against.

And in one of the more interesting (and potentially troubling for the GOP House majority) twists, one Republican announced he was unhappy with the majority's budget plan. Here's How the AP wrote it:

[Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea,] said he would push to add $750 million to a budget resolution developed by House GOP leaders. Dorman said it would free up more money for education.

With the House divided 68-66 in favor of Republicans, the defection of even a couple Republican legislators can shift power to Democrats. Dorman said he thinks he has five to eight Republicans willing to join him in amending the budget resolution.

The budget resolution sets the maximum amount the House will agree to spend for the 2006-07 budget cycle. As it stands, that would be $29.8 billion - anything more than that would require a tax increase.

Dorman said that while the resolution does not specify where the extra money would come from, nor does it have to, he would prefer to see a sales tax on clothing. House research, he said, indictates the tax would easily raise more than $750 million.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he won't hold a vote on the resolution if he senses it is in trouble. He said a natural growth in tax revenue is driving up the budget as it is.

"A two-billion dollar increase over last biennium ought to be enough," he said.

Sviggum can control a vote on a budget resolution, but if there really are a half dozen Republicans who are convinced the state needs to spend more, his job just got much harder.

DFLers in the Senate are expected to announce a budget fall-back plan on Monday that would do some tweaking to resolve the shortfall, but not make major changes over the next biennium if the session ends in gridlock again. At first glance it's hard to see why Gov. Pawlenty or House Republicans would be interested in that. On the other hand, if everything collapses a no-growth budget might look better to "no-new-taxes" conservatives than having to put up with a spending revolt by moderates. But of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Frederic Frommer of the AP has more on that issue of Norm Coleman's apparent move away from President Bush and toward the center:

Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., said that the votes will play well back home.

"Anybody who runs against him will have a hard time painting him as a Bush clone," Schier said. "This may help soften his image with swing voters.

Schier said Coleman is probably acting out of a combination of motives.

"There's political calculation, happenstance and serious conviction all mixed up in these things," he said.

Mike Erlandson, the chairman of the Minnesota DFL, joked that maybe Coleman will return to the Democratic Party again.

"It's hard to say whether this is Coleman remaking himself one more time," Erlandson said. "He's been very much of a Bush supporter his first two years."

There was an interesting story in the Pioneer Press over the weekend about Mike Hatch's efforts to convince largely GOP audiences that he has a plan to get a handle on health care costs. Here's some of what Bill Salisbury wrote:

The man who sued health care plans over executive perks and other issues now says the courtroom isn't where real change will be made in health care so now he's focusing on grassroots organizing including the chicken-dinner circuit. His opponents are skeptical, citing Hatch's well-known political ambitions.

But with soaring health care costs, his message is finding an audience in unlikely places like Jordan, where he launched into a biting, 20-minute critique of the U.S. health care system: The United States spends more per person on health care than any other nation. Health insurance premiums in Minnesota have doubled in seven years. Medical bills are a leading cause of personal bankruptcy. Behind every doctor and nurse treating patients there are five or six bureaucrats processing paper.

His indictment went on and on. Heads nodded in agreement as he described problems that are driving health costs and harming people who need care.

When he finished, the group of small business owners and managers hardly his natural political allies gave him a standing ovation.

Critics say anyone can lay out the problem, and that Hatch's proposed fixes won't do the whole job. But health care is definitely Hatch's issue. If he can get the 2006 gubernatorial campaign focused on it he may be running with a home court advantage.



Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:31 AM
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March 18, 2005
On the road again

It's a good thing the March snowstorm hit hardest south of the Twin Cities. Otherwise state representatives may not have made it to Grand Rapids for Friday's hearing on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. Never mind that even if the House and Senate approve the amendment the soonest voters could decide the issue would be November of 2006. That's 19 months from now for those of you keeping count. The rush to debate the amendment has some saying supporters of the amendment are politicizing the issue. In fact, MPR's Michael Khoo reports the DFLers who represent Grand Rapids are the complaining the loudest.

Democrats say the real reason the committee is traveling is to make trouble for [Rep. Loren] Solberg and another DFLer. Tom Saxhaug represents the same area in the state Senate. He says the tight margins of power in the House mean a legislative upset here or there could have a profound effect on political power in the state.

Saxhaug says Republican leaders, including House Speaker Steve Sviggum, are simply trying to stir up noise in rural districts to protect the Republican's narrow majority in the House.

"Speaker Sviggum understands that Rep. Solberg is very close to the top in the leadership, is a highly respected representative in the leadership, and that if he loses a couple of more seats the two of them could be switching places. And I think that has a lot to do with it," Saxhaug says.

Republicans deny any political motive. Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, chairs the House Civil Law Committee, which is going to Grand Rapids. He is also running for Attorney General. He says the House GOP is just trying to hear from people outside the Twin Cities, and that there's a need to act quickly because of what judges in other states are doing to laws that define marriage as between one man and one woman:

"We know Massachusetts has done it, and we just saw a judge in California do it earlier this week. So I don't think it's realistic to say there's no chance that would happen in Minnesota because I think there's a very good chance that that could happen in Minnesota. And this would prevent that from ever happening," he said.

And again, even if there were a case in front of a Minnesota judge the soonest voters could amend the constitution would be November of 2006.


Why is the Twin Cities bus system facing a $60 million budget problem?
Charles Laszewski writes in the Pioneer Press that a big reason is the funding source lawmakers devised during the Ventura administration:

About half of the problem can be laid at the feet of law changes made in 2001. That year, Gov. Jesse Ventura put forward a plan to radically alter the local property tax system, making it cheaper and more streamlined. At the same time, an expanded state sales tax was to pay for education, said Matt Smith, who was Ventura's revenue commissioner.

[Rep. Ron] Abrams, who was then chairman of the House Tax Committee, said the proposal was flawed. He and others pushed to abolish Metro Transit's property tax levy and give it some of the tax money collected from the sale of new and used vehicles. That share was supposed to cover more than 40 percent of the agency's operating budget, roughly what it had received from property taxes.

"One of the arguments at the time was we are the only metro area that supports (mass transit) with the property tax,'' Smith said. "Yeah, but others had a dedicated tax, usually the (general) sales tax. We were left with neither.''

Still, it looked like a brilliant move. First, it saved the homeowner of a $150,000 house about $90. And, in early 2003, the tax brought in $2.5 million more than projected.

However, beginning in February 2004 there have been three successive forecasts with the sales tax fund bringing in millions of dollars less than expected. Right now, that amount is $29 million less, or about half of the $60 million deficit the bus system is facing, according to Met Council figures.

Or as somebody here at MPR asked the other day, why on earth would you make funding for mass transit dependent on buying more cars? Laszewski notes that Rep. Phil Krinke, R-Shoreview, is considering using the transit shortfall as a reason to propose banning any future rail lines, but then again he's never been a fan of rail lines.

Three state senators are proposing taking a new approach to the way Minnesota sentences drug offenders. Here's part of what Conrad Defiebre wrote in the Star Tribune:

Republican Sens. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen and Tom Neuville of Northfield aired proposals Thursday to shorten prison terms and expunge criminal records for drug offenders who complete treatment.

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, offered a plan to keep more people convicted of low-level drug possession crimes out of jail and prison in the first place.

No votes followed the hearing before the Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee, but the testimony and debate signaled some shifting official attitudes over how to respond to drug crimes.

"Longer sentences don't seem to make a difference in recidivism rates," Neuville said, noting that Minnesota's prison population of drug offenders has increased tenfold, to 2,000, in the past 15 years. "Treatment is 14 times more effective than incarceration."

Several prosecutors criticized the proposals.

But former Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek, a Minneapolis police captain, expressed a different view.

"We can't arrest our way out of this problem," he said. "I'm not soft on crime, but I do believe we should be smart on crime. A year of prison costs $42,000; a year of treatment $4,100."

Finally today, what's gotten into Sen. Norm Coleman? First he opposed the president on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now in an even bigger move, he's opposing the president's proposed cuts in Medicaid. Here's how the Associated Press reported the story:

The Senate voted Thursday to strip all proposed Medicaid cuts from the $2.6 trillion budget for next year, jeopardizing the heart of the plan's deficit reduction in an embarrassing setback to President Bush and Republican leaders.

The change, whose chief sponsor was moderate Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., was approved 52-48 after days of heavy lobbying by both sides. It was widely seen as a test of the GOP-run Congress' taste for making even moderate reductions in popular benefit programs that consume two-thirds of the budget and are growing rapidly.

The Medicaid cuts could still be revived when the House and Senate try writing a compromise budget next month. The more conservative House approved a budget Thursday by 218-214 that is tougher on domestic spending than the Senate is, including up to $20 billion in Medicaid savings.

Coleman told National Public Radio's David Welna that having been a mayor and understanding the impact of Medicaid, he didn't think the GOP had thought through the consequences of the cuts, especially for the most vulnerable.


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:48 AM
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March 17, 2005
Countin' o' the green

Supporters of putting up to five slot machines in most bars in Minnesota say their plan would generate much more money than Gov. Pawlenty's proposed casino. The House Gaming Division started hearings on all the gambling bills Wednesday. They include the governor's new casino plan, the plan to put slot machines at Canterbury Park, and the slots in bars idea. MPR's Michael Khoo says it's a good bet something will come out of the committee:

The committee isn't expected to take action on the gambling initiatives until Friday evening, but opponents say the deck seems stacked in favor of new casinos.

The committee's five Republican members all voted for the racino plan when it passed the House floor in 2003. The four DFLers opposed it.

That, says John McCarthy, suggests the committee was structured to ensure an easy start out of the gates this time around. McCarthy represents the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which opposes news casino sites. MIGA argues that new gambling venues will eat into the business of existing Indian casinos,and McCarthy says the governor's endorsement of one initiative has fed the appetite for other gambling plans.

Maybe all that money from slot machines could help Minenapolis fight crime. MPR's Art Hughes had the story of Minneapolis lawmakers calling for help after the shooting deaths of two people in a north Minneapolis restaurant two weeks ago:

[Rep. Keith] Ellison says the city needs sustainable solutions rather than some short-term ideas tried previously, such as deploying state troopers to trouble spots. Restoring past levels of Local Government Aid would mean an additional $34 million for Minneapolis. Statewide, the number would reach nearly $300 million.

Sen. [Linda] Higgins appealed to other parts of the state to help shore up "the violent consequences" of the aid cuts in the last budget session.

"We in north Minneapolis are very resourceful and very resilient, but we're under attack right now," Higgins says. "And we need everyone's help in the state."

A spokesman for Gov. Pawlenty says the city should raise property taxes if it wants more money to fight crime. Does it strike anyone that the administration's response to the two killings in Minneapolis is a little different from the response to the killing of Dru Sjodin?

In other news Northwest Airlines is cutting jobs and the striking teachers' union is suing the Crosby-Ironton school board. Something tells me we've got more problems than slot machines can solve.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:48 AM
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March 16, 2005
Web slinging

Whether or not you agree with him, you've got to admit Tim Pawlenty is one cool customer. When political opponents of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak called him on the carpet for putting his picture on a piece of mail sent out at taxpayer expense, the story dragged on for a couple of weeks. By contrast, Pawlenty's response to DFL criticism he's using his taxpayer funded Web site for political purposes was a textbook example for politicians of how to react. (Admittedly the Rybak and Pawlenty situations are different in one key respect: there's a law that covers printed materials but not Web sites)

The Pawlenty story started when Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, held a press conference to draw reporters' attention to Pawlenty's Web site. As reported in the Pioneer Press, one of his complaints was that partisan sites linked to Pawlenty's official state site:

"I think it's totally inappropriate to have a political Web site punching you directly into the governor's Web site," Rukavina said at a Tuesday news conference.

"If it isn't illegal, it should be," said Rukavina. He called on Pawlenty to demand that the links from the political sites to his official governor's site be dropped.

Pawlenty's response?:

"There's nothing inappropriate about sending people to your official Web site as long as the official site is appropriate," Pawlenty said. "It would be inappropriate if you were using your official Web site to send people to campaign activities."

Rukavina also ripped Pawlenty for including a bunch of childhood pictures on the site, saying that's a purely personal use of a state funded tool. Here's where I think Pawlenty is so smooth. Not only did he remove the pictures, but he also said he never liked them in the first place!

"That was put on right after I became governor, during the transition or early on in our administration, as kind of a get-acquainted, and it's just a holdover from a few years ago. Believe me, I'd be more than happy to get rid of those pictures and take them off."

That was the sound bite that made it on TV, right after they showed all the cute kid pictures to a bigger audience than probably ever saw them on the Web. So as those who care about good government wring their hands over whether the law should changed to cover Web sites as well as printed material, Pawlenty turns the criticism into a positive for himself. They should teach that maneuver in poli sci classes.

Back to the actual stuff of government. MPR's Laura McCallum has a story on a little noted provision in the governor's supplimental budget proposal. This one would spend $300,000 to create a new position in state government to oversee faith-based initiatives:

Some lawmakers question the need for his faith-based initiative, at the same time Pawlenty is proposing budget cuts. The chair of the Senate State Government Budget Division, Sheila Kiscaden, IP-Rochester, says lawmakers will have to weigh the governor's proposal against competing needs in state government.

"It's a priority for him, but we would have to trade off existing services like the Land Management Information Center, which has had a lot of people come forward and say that that would be a loss that would be hard to replace, that local governments could not do this," Kiscaden says.

The Land Management Information Center works with local governments on high-tech mapping and other technologies. Gov. Pawlenty is recommending that the center's funding be cut by more than $800,000 a year.

And as the House begins hearings on gambling bills, MPR's Tom Robertson reports that there are some doubts about the governor's casino plan on the Red Lake Reservation:

The majority of Red Lake's tribal council supports the casino plan. They've been actively lobbying for it. But Chairman [Buck] Jourdain himself remains neutral. He says even if the plan is approved by the Legislature, it won't necessarily be a done deal for Red Lake.

"Red Lake has always held that if we choose to step out and bow out, and it's not in our interest to pursue it, then we'll do that if we have to," Jourdain said.

While the tribal council is calling for a referendum on the plan, it's unclear when that vote will take place.

Finally, two former Minnesota governors appeared before a state Senate committee Tuesday to make the case for more money for the University of Minnesota. MPR's Marisa Helms had this item:

Former DFL Gov. Wendell Anderson joined former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson to urge lawmakers to fully fund the University of Minnesota's request for $126 million in additional money.

Both spoke of the university's past glories in medical and scientific research and the importance of maintaining the U's legacy.

Carlson told the Senate Higher Education Committee the U needs state support in order to succeed and fuel the state's economic future.

"The world is not going to wait for Minnesota to catch up. What this committee and this Legislature has to decide is do we want to excel? Do we want to be the best that we can be and compete most effectively? And that's what this request is all about," he said.

Carlson called the U's request "modest," and one that could fit into any reasonable budget.


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:15 AM
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March 15, 2005
Bus to nowhere

The talk about proposed cuts to Metro Transit bus service has been going around for a couple days, but the final numbers released Monday were stark. Charles Laszewski, who first wrote about the possible cuts in the Pioneer Press last week, has the latest:

Of the 153 routes Metro Transit runs each weekday, 70 percent would be reduced or canceled outright.

That's 10 percent of the hours the buses run annually. Combined with a proposed 25-cent rate hike on nearly all fares, the bus system is taking a tremendous hit, on top of other recent fare hikes, lesser service cuts and a strike.

Entire routes would be cut in Circle Pines, Arden Hills, Mendota Heights, Woodbury and Orono. What's behind the latest proposed cutbacks? Laszewski cites Metro Transit G.M. Brian Lamb and Barbara Thoman, who advocates for mass transit:

Lamb, Thoman and Metropolitan Council members blamed the Gov. Jesse Ventura-initiated switch from financing the bus system through the relatively stable property tax to the more volatile motor vehicle sales tax. That tax is projected to bring in nearly $30 million less in the next two years than originally expected, or about half of the hole the council is trying to plug.

Lamb knocks down a theory proposed by David Strom of the Taxpayer's League that light rail transit is causing financial problems for the bus system. MPR's Dan Olson had some legislative response to the bus service's woes:

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville chairs the House Transportation Finance Committee. She said she's disappointed the governor didn't do a better job of predicting the transit funding problem. Holberg says finding $60 million with a projected $466 million state budget shortfall will not be easy. Holberg has invested some personal political capital in backing a proposed rapid bus service on interstate 35W for commuters from southern Twin Cities suburbs.

Senate Transportation committee chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, predicts lawmakers will find a way to fix most of Metro Transit's projected budget shortfall. Murphy says Gov. Pawlenty is to blame for not making transit a higher priority at a time when other cities are investing in bus and rail.

"We continue to fall behind cities like Denver and Phoenix that are making major investments. This administration once again has given transit services the brush off," he said.

The Metropolitan Council will hold a series of public hearings about the proposed cuts and likely make a final decision in May.

Gov. Pawlenty's plan for a new casio has the support of at least 20 members of the Minnesota House. That's how many signed on to the bill that was introduced Monday. In the Pioneer Press Patrick Sweeney quotes House Speaker Steve Sviggum as saying there's still not enough support in the House to pass the bill. And there's another proposal on the table:

In another gambling development, tavern owners have a news conference scheduled for today to promote a rival gambling plan: legislation that would allow bars, restaurants and bowling alleys to put up to five video lottery terminals, similar to slot machines, in any business that serves alcohol.

The slots-in-the-bars legislation would produce far more money for the state than any of the casino plans proposed so far.

You had to wonder when that one would show up. But it turns out the bar owners won't hold that news conference until Wednesday. There's also a hearing on that bill, the governor's plan and the racino in a House committee Wednesday.


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:39 AM
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March 14, 2005
Monday musings

Do you want the new casino in your city? The question may be premature. After all, Gov. Pawlenty just proposed it, and many at the Capitol think the governor's plan may merge with Canterbury Park's racino plan. But MPR's Mark Zdechlik has a story Monday looking at why there seems to be no rush to sign on as the host community to a new Mystic Lake-sized gambling operation:

Among a handful of locations mentioned as a possible site is the city of Burnsville. Burnsville City Manager Craig Ebeling says unlike other proposed developments, the casino comes with a lot of unknowns.

"Typically when we're working, trying to attract businesses we know a lot about those companies," Ebeling explains. "We're able to visit their existing sites and have them tell us about what their business is and get a good handle on what kind of facility they might be contemplating building in our community, and we have a lot of information on them. This is a little bit different situation. We're not sure what the implications would be."

University of Minnesota Extension Service economic development expert Michael Darger says he's not surprised by the reaction from Burnsville and other economic development officials.

"Casino economic development is something new for Minnesota communities other than, of course, the American Indian bands and tribes. So if there's a little caution on the part of economic developers it's not surprising to me, because this is not something that they're experienced with," Darger says. "It's not something that their analytical tools are designed to help them assess."

In the Fargo Forum, Janell Cole and Don Davis have a few anecdotes about the gambling debate including this one:

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty took the highly unusual path of criticizing a former governor and fellow Republican who doesn't like his gambling proposal.

Arne Carlson, who left office four years before Pawlenty took office, had publicly criticized Pawlenty's proposal to build a Twin Cities casino for three northern American Indian tribes. The sitting governor did not take kindly to his words.

"I wonder who signed the compacts?" Pawlenty sarcastically asked about Carlson, who had signed an agreement with tribes that allowed them to establish casinos.

Actually, Rudy Perpich did it first.

While Pawlenty may be feeling frustrated about gambling opposition, the Star Tribune over the weekend was assessing his presidential prospects:

His national name recognition probably doesn't exceed 5 percent, but in recent conversations about possible 2008 presidential candidates, Gov. Tim Pawlenty was mentioned more favorably by top conservative Republican leaders meeting in Florida than such household names as Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain. Just Friday, the New York Times named him "a popular conservative considered a rising star."

Grover Norquist, another top GOP architect who heads the group Americans for Tax Reform, said Pawlenty has caught the eye of elite conservative decision makers. "A successful governor who doesn't raise taxes, passes concealed carry, reins in spending and who comes from a blue state that's trending Republican is an attractive candidate for president or vice president."

"Of the guys in the top 12 for '08, he's right up there," Norquist said.

Top 12? Is that exactly the kind of glowing endorsement Pawlenty was hoping for? Top 12? Top five would have been nice. Oh well, the story notes that Pawlenty has plenty to worry about in '06 before he starts thinking too hard about '08.

Finally, one of the oddest rumors circulating after Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., announced he wouldn't run for re-election was that former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle might cross the border and seek the seat. Well, we can put that to rest. The Associated Press has an item about Daschle's new job. Guess what? He's going to stay in Washington:

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle plans to put his 26 years of experience in Congress to work at a Washington, D.C., law firm as a public policy adviser.

Daschle, who lost a re-election bid in November to Republican John Thune, said he won't lobby for Alston & Bird LLP, but will advise its clients on topics with which he's familiar.

"I want to continue my involvement in the public policy issues that I care a great deal about. Those issues include energy, Native Americans, health care, international trade, agriculture and technology," he said Sunday in a telephone interview from his Washington home.

One of things he'll do is counsel clients on how to work through legal and regulatory hurdles in Washington and internationally, he said.

But that's not lobbying...apparently. Among the people Daschle will be working with is Bob Dole, the former Senate Republican leader. Who says Democrats and Republicans can't work together?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:08 AM
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March 11, 2005
Less is more

Now that the state's financial condition has improved slightly, Gov. Pawlenty wants to spend a little more on education. The governor released his updated budget recommendations Thursday. They're based on the latest revenue forecast. MPR's Tom Scheck has some basics:

It's clear that Gov. Pawlenty has heard the cries from the public for more education funding. Several thousand people held a rally outside of the Capitol last month saying their schools need more money. Pawlenty hopes his supplemental budget will appease those concerns. He plans to increase the amount of money schools get for each student, boost special education funding and provide more money to programs for gifted students.

"There is no question that our public schools in Minnesota need additional funding but we also want to make sure that we make progress on increasing accountability for improved academic results as well and we believe the package that we're putting forward today accomplishes those objectives," he said.

The governor's proposal would also boost funding for schools that choose to change their pay structure for teachers. He wants to see schools go from paying teachers based on seniority to rewarding them for performance.

Pawlenty's budget also increases funding for DNA analysis in crime labs, expands tax breaks for rural startup businesses and provides money to hire a state employee to coordinate faith based initiatives with state programs. He also recommends the state keep $75 million in reserve to pay for proposed budget cuts on the federal level.

Pawlenty's recommendation for the basic education formula is now a 2.5 percent increase for each year of the biennium. That's below the projected inflation rate and below the 5 percent some lawmakers have proposed. Unlike those lawmakers, Pawlenty has to balance the entire budget. They haven't said where the money should come from to pay for their proposed increase.

If you were waiting for those smoking bans to take effect at the end of the month in Bloomington, Minneapolis and Hennepin County, don't breathe easy yet. Bar owners are taking the ban to court. MPR's Jeff Horwich has this item:

Six local establishments, including a VFW, an Eagles Club, and a bar called Stub and Herb's, plan to file a case in Hennepin County District Court alleging the local bans are unconstitutional. Attorney Ryan Pacyga says the bans conflict with a 1975 law allowing bars to set their own smoking areas.

"It's our opinion that preempted by the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act or that they conflict with the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act to the point that they are so irreconcilable that they would be found unconstitutional," he said.

The group is seeking an immediate injunction on the bans until the case can be tried. Local officials who supported the bans have said they are critical to protecting the health of patrons and employees.

The bar owners say only the state, not local governments, has the power to impose smoking bans in bars. Of course the bar owners are also fighting a statewide ban at the Capitol.

A bill backed by the state's largest anti-abortion bill cleared its first House committee Thursday and appears to be on its way to becoming law. But MPR's Laura McCallum reports the debate turned contentious:

The bill would allow nonprofit agencies to use the state money to help women with medical care, housing, child care and other services. Agencies that encourage women to carry their pregnancies to term would be eligible for the state grants. Organizations that provide abortions or mention abortion when counseling pregnant women would not.

Tina Smith of Planned Parenthood, the state's largest provider of family planning services, opposes the bill. She says taxpayer money shouldn't go to groups that don't tell pregnant women about all of their legal options.

"And when any of us seeks medical care, we expect all of the facts, not just some of them. This is the standard of care that is available every day in health care clinics and doctors' offices across Minnesota, including in Minnesota's 22 family planning clinics," according to Smith.

MPR's Steven John had an interesting conversation With Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, about a plan to join a cooperative with five other states to but lower price prescription drugs from Canada, Ireland and England. It's worth a listen if you didn't hear it the first time.

All MPR today, and I didn't even mention Tom Scheck's MinnesotaCare story. Tom gets a big head if I link to more than one of his stories per day, and we don't want that to happen. His head is big enough already.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:13 AM
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March 10, 2005
Supersize me

Will the racino morph into a megacasino to help the northern tribes? Senate Republican leader Dick Day and the owners of Canterbury Park announced their new racino plan Wednesday. It now features 3,000 slots, blackjack and a guaranteed upfront payment to the state of $100 million. the plan promises about $100 million annually to the state. In the Pioneer Press Patrick Sweeney raises the possibilty of a supersized hybrid of casino and racino:

Publicly and privately, legislative leaders said Pawlenty's casino and the Canterbury plan may be merged into one bill, and perhaps into one operation that would be built at the racetrack.

Pawlenty on Wednesday repeated the statement he made Friday that he was open to merging the two casino plans and constructing the state-Indian gambling operation at the track.

Two of Canterbury's top stockholders Curt and Randy Sampson said Wednesday they have not discussed combining the plans with the tribes. However, they said they would try to make that merger work if legislators insist on it.

"Everybody's going to have to take a little bit smaller piece of the pie," Randy Sampson said of a merger of the proposals. He is Canterbury's president. His father, Curt, is chairman of the board of Canterbury Park Holding Corp., the publicly held company that owns the track.

Of the hypothetical pie, that is. Day has four DFL co-sponsors, but that might not be enough to pass the racino in the Senate.

While the governor is trying to raise revenue from a casino he wants to make it a little harder for local governments to raise money the old fashioned way, by collecting taxes. He and Rep. Phil Krinke put a little flesh on the bones of the "turbocharged truth in taxation" plan he first announced in his State of the State speech back in January. In the Star Tribune Dane Smith explains how it would work:

Attached to the bottom of the annual notices of planned property tax changes -- the truth in taxation notices, mailed in November -- would be a simple new survey designed to determine whether taxpayers are satisfied with the city's and county's proposed tax levy.

The detachable form would ask taxpayers two questions:

"Are you satisfied with the proposed property tax levy?" for the county and for the city in which the property is located.

The proposal would not apply to school districts.

If the number of mailed-in "no" responses exceeded 20 percent of the total parcels of property in the jurisdiction, a referendum would be triggered, and voters would be able to choose between two options: the proposed levy, almost always an increase, or freezing it at the prior year's level. Property owners would get a vote on the triggering mechanism for each parcel they own, meaning those with more than one parcel would get more than one vote. Renters would not vote.

Of course local governments don't like the plan. They say renters shouldn't be excluded from voting, and that most budget issues are more complicated than a simple yes or no question. Because Krinke chairs the House Tax Committee there's little doubt this issue will be debated on the House floor. Prospects in the DFL controlled-Senate are a little more murky.

Remember when Gov. Pawlenty rolled out that Web site where people could make suggestions about balancing the budget? MPR's Laura McCallum does. She went back and looked at the results.

Sixty-six percent of respondents wanted the state to spend more money on K-12 education, and just over half supported more money for higher education. While the responses are not a scientific sample, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor did consider the feedback when putting his budget together.

"Education is a priority, and we know that. The governor feels the same way. That's why he's tried to focus our resources on boosting K-12 education, that schools could have up to an 8 percent increase if they do performance pay and some other things over the next two years in this budget. Higher education is extremely important. That was an area of high priority for the governor as well," he said.

About a third of respondents wanted to spend more money on health and human services programs. But the budget exercise didn't allow respondents to raise taxes, so if they increased spending in one area, they had to cut spending in another. About 40 percent said they would cut agriculture spending, while about a third would cut local government aid.

Some Democrats say Pawlenty's budget doesn't reflect the priorities from his own Web site. Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar says Pawlenty's budget falls short in the areas citizens listed as most important.

"The third issue here is human services and the governor is making substantial cut in human services. The governor is saying he wants to put more money into education, but it's a penny when he needs a dime." he said.

Be sure to check out MPR's Budget Balancer. We tried to lay out a range of options on the spending and taxing side and give you some background on what the choices entail. Let me know what you think of it.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:22 AM
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March 9, 2005
More marriage

Yes it was the issue that brought down last year's legislative session, but supporters of a ban on same-sex marriage say they're ready to push for it again. Specifically, they want a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November of 2006 that would define marriage as being only between a man and a woman. MPR's Tom Scheck has the story:

Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, believes that momentum is on her side this year. Bachmann, who is a candidate for Congress in Minnesota's 6th District, says voters in 13 states passed ballot measures forbidding gay marriage in the past year. She says political pressure will force a Senate vote.

"We saw that the public has overwhelmingly stated their opinions at the ballot box. They want marriage to remain as one man and one woman. Because that dynamic of the people speaking, we believe that that's indicative of what the voice of the people in Minnesota is as well," she said.

If both the House and Senate approve, the amendment would go on the state ballot no sooner than November 2006.

And that prompts some to question why the Senate should consider the bill this session. DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says he'd prefer to see the Senate consider constitutional amendments next session. He says Bachmann is trying to distract the public from the state's budget problems. He says lawmakers have more important things to consider this year.

"Let's get back to the bread-and-butter issues of the budget. That's why I keep talking about 'why not the budget discussion? Why not a public education discussion?' We're on to a discussion of a social agenda," Johnson said.

Johnson suggested that Senate DFLers are willing to add other constitutional amendments if Bachmann is successful. He says voters should decide the constitutionality of state gambling and if universal health care should be provided.

Bachman says the proposed amendment would also ban civil unions. Some DFLers say she's trying to use the issue to solidify the Republican base in her run for Congress. And the House version of the bill will get its first hearing on March 18 in Grand Rapids at a special outside the Capitol (and in a DFL district) meeting of the Civil Law and Elections Committee.

It's not only gay marriage that will preoccupy lawmakers. There's more gambling too. Pat Doyle reports in the Star Tribune that Canterbury Park is ready with the latest version of a racino plan:

Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, a sponsor of the legislation, said the plan is for the casino to pump "about $100 million a year" into the state government after paying a one-time fee of perhaps $100 million or more.

[Canterbury President Randy] Sampson said that the casino, hotel and conference center proposed by Canterbury would cost $120 million and that the gambling would be on a larger scale than in Canterbury's unsuccessful racino proposal.

It would include 3,000 slot machines, compared with 2,000 in the old proposal, as well as blackjack, which wasn't included in the earlier bid. Canterbury has offered a similar game, 21, in its card room, but it is generally not as profitable as blackjack. The blackjack would be banked by the house, just as it is in tribal casinos.

The casino would be smaller than Mystic Lake in Prior Lake, which has about 4,000 slots, but have more slots than reported last year at Treasure Island in Red Wing.

The governor has proposed 4,000 slot machines at his new metro casino. Add Canterbury's 3,000 and we're up to 7,000. If the new harness racetrack in Anoka County gets in the game we could be headed to 10,000. Sounds like it could be time for a new state motto.

Finally, it's Dan Rather's last day as anchor of the CBS Evening News. Many of Rather's current and former colleagues have spent the week kicking him while he's down, as evidenced in last week's New Yorker. The AP has this:

A CBS affiliate was taking a vote among its viewers on whether to air the network's prime-time tribute to Rather, and, in his last full week on the air, Rather finished a distant third in the ratings.

Also, a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released Tuesday night said
the percentage of people who say they believe all or most of what
Rather says has declined to 23 percent, compared with 34 percent in
2002.

All we can say to Dan is "Courage!"

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:43 AM
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March 7, 2005
A good thing?

Am I the only one who really doesn't care about Martha Stewart? TV actually covered her the other day delivering hot chocolate to reporters and photographers camped outside her estate. Is that news? Anyway, there's plenty to talk about here with the governor's release of his casino plan. If you missed the roll-out of the plan Friday check out Michael Khoo's MPR story:

The governor's plan envisions a casino with 4,000 slot machines -- roughly the size of the Shakopee Mdewanketon's Mystic Lake. The new casino could also offer craps and roulette, which are currently not available in Minnesota. No site was specified -- and Pawlenty says the state and the tribes will search for a willing host community.

The plan still faces steep odds. Leaders in the House and Senate acknowledge strong resistance to expanding gambling, or to using gambling revenue to pay for basic state services. DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says the opposition is bipartisan.

"The left has joined with the right, and the right has joined with the left and all of us in the middle. And I do not see 34 votes for this" in the State Senate, says Johnson.

And everyone knows that if the left joins with the right and the right joins with the left and the middle is left right out....oh, never mind.

Assuming the Legislature were to pass a casino bill there is that question about where it would be located. Bloomington lawmakers say they don't want it at the Mall of America. Mayor Randy Kelly says St. Paul doesn't want it. In the Star Tribune Kevin Duchschere writes that the cities aren't exactly lining up to attract the casino:

Law enforcement officials worry about another kind of impact. National and statewide studies done in the last 10 years show a relationship between casinos and crime.

[Sheriff Gary] Miller, of Wright County, said gambling would stretch department resources already saddled by the demands of his growing county. The Sheriff's Office provides police service for 13 of the county's 16 cities, he said.

"I don't see that we need a casino here. Wright County is doing very well without that economic engine," Miller said.

Dakota County Sheriff Don Gudmundson was more blunt: A casino would tie up traffic, swell alcohol-related crashes and tempt profligate gamblers to break the law. He's still bitter that a drunken driver on his way to Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing in 1996 ran a stop sign and hit a squad car, killing Deputy Luther Klug.

"My opinion has always remained the same -- I view money taken as a result of gambling as blood money. I'm not going to change my mind on it," Gudmundson said.

Yikes. So why did the governor propose this thing? Bill Salisbury has an analysis in the Pioneer Press:

Pawlenty risks his political reputation with this plan, but the payoff could be large. While he alienates voters who oppose more casinos in Minnesota, if he succeeds he taps a lucrative source of new state funding without breaking his campaign promise not to raise taxes.

But the dynamics of the debate are tricky, and they affect not only Pawlenty's chances of re-election in 2004 but also his viability as a potential candidate at a national level.

The debate over the casino promises to be one of the most interesting in years.
You have the governor's fairness argument versus the Native American complaints that the state is trying to cut in on their economic development. Then there's the need for more state revenue versus the governor's no-tax pledge. And of course the gambling issue splits the Republican Party on issues of morality. At the center of it all is Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is putting his popularity on the line.

Forget Martha Stewart. We've got real action at the Capitol.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:07 AM
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March 4, 2005
Now the hard part

Polls show Gov. Pawlenty has a fairly strong public support. He's going to have to put it on the line to get his casino plan through the Legislature. He didn't run for office on a plan to open a state-run casino. In fact, just the opposite. He said many times during the 2002 campaign that he didn't think the state should be in the business of sponsoring gambling. Friday he will travel the state trying to sell a casino plan.

MPR's Michael Khoo sets up some of the challenges facing the proposal in the Legislature:

[DFL Sen. Sandy] Pappas is the chief Senate sponsor of the bill. She says once the facility is open for business, it should generate more than $100 million a year for the state, with an unspecified amount left for the tribes to divide among themselves. But Pappas says even the lure of new state revenue may not be enough to sway her fellow lawmakers to back the plan.

"It's tough going with just the tribal casino. I don't know that there's the votes to do it. But we will work hard to convince people," Pappas says.

Pappas acknowledges that her fellow Democrats are uneasy about approving a new casino -- and that Republicans prefer slot machines at the Canterbury Park race track rather than a state-tribal partnership.


In the Pioneer Press Patrick Sweeney raises another potential hurdle:

Pawlenty's proposed state-tribal gaming partnership also is likely to face a critical review from Attorney General Mike Hatch. He will advise legislators on the constitutionality of a legal strategy that calls for the casino's slot machines to be operated as an extension of the Minnesota Lottery.

"We don't have an opinion yet, but we're troubled by it," Hatch said of the Pawlenty plan.

Hatch said his staff has begun to review old legislative transcripts to determine what lawmakers intended almost two decades ago when they wrote a constitutional amendment that allowed the lottery to be created.

That amendment, approved by voters in 1988, is the legal basis for the proposed casino, which would be operated as a partnership between the Minnesota Lottery and tribes.

Translation: even if the Legislature passes a casino plan, expect a lawsuit to delay its opening. Who might file such a lawsuit? How about the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which represents eight other tribal casino operations. Patricia Lopez has this in the Star Tribune:

John McCarthy, MIGA's executive director, has said that his tribes have plowed millions back into their reservations' amenities and infrastructure, but also shared their bounty with surrounding communities.

McCarthy said Thursday that should the plan pass, the expansion will not end with the metro casino.

"Las Vegas in Minnesota, here we go," he said. "Every third commercial on TV will be gambling. That's what the governor is creating."

Legal challenges to the plan are almost certain, McCarthy said, both from tribes and nontribal interests. The legislation that enabled the state Lottery, he said, was never intended to include casinos.

McCarthy also said flatly that Pawlenty had broken an early promise to the tribes not to expand gambling.

"The governor has dishonored himself," McCarthy said. Both in private talks with tribal leaders and at a Minnesota Chippewa dinner early in his term, he said, Pawlenty vowed that he would not expand gambling during his administration. "Now we're going to have the biggest expansion of gambling in 15 years," McCarthy said.

Gov. Pawlenty has one advantage in his pursuit of the casino. Polls show a majority of Minnesotans favor the plan. But it's still going to be a tough, bruising battle at the Capitol that will likely take lots of twists and turns.

Earlier this week I noted the passing of abortion rights lobbyist Sue Rockne. I wanted to send along this e-mail I received from Maureen Keating Tsuchya:

I thought that Sue Rockne had beat that ugly scourge of cancer.

Personally, Sue taught me & several hundred others how to caucus and count at
the 1980 annual meeting of the DFL Feminist Caucus. I have since used that vital
skill in Texas, New York, and even Japan, where in 1996 I conducted the
Democrats Abroad Country Caucus. Later that year I was elected a member of the DNC from Asia and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where I re-connected with many old friends (and a few enemies) from the Minnesota delegation.

Sue was a incredibly tough, loud and fearless feminist. We will continue to
carry on in her name.

She was also an engaging and amusing source for political journalists with a real knack for getting herself quoted.


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:05 AM
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March 3, 2005
Down in flames (and smoke)

That statewide restaurant smoking ban that looked like it was on the fast track hit a brick wall in the House Commerce Comittee Wednesday. MPR's Tom Scheck was there:

Supporters of the statewide smoking ban knew that the House Commerce Committee would be the bill's toughest test. The committee regulates and considers matters concerning business. With some minor exceptions the bill would ban smoking statewide in any establishment that sells more food than liquor.

Rep. Doug Meslow, R-White Bear Lake, the chief author of the bill, told committee members that he understood their concerns regarding the ban's financial impact on restaurants. But he told them that they should also consider the health interests of restaurants employees and customers. He believes the committee erred on the side of business.

"At its root, this bill balances health concerns with business concerns. I think that members of this committee were extra concerned about the business issues," he said.

Meslow and other ban supporters hoped that the Legislature would approve a bill this year. In the past year Ramsey and Hennepin counties passed smoking bans that go into effect at the end of the month. Supporters took out full page ads in several newspapers encouraging support for the ban in the interest of public health.

In the Star Tribune Conrad Defiebre looks at what might happen next:

Rep. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, however, predicted that the measure would pass if it were to reach the House floor, perhaps as an amendment to another bill. "All options are open," added Latz, the initiative's original sponsor. "I'm not declaring this bill dead."

...A stronger smoking ban, with bars and private clubs included, is still alive in the Senate. Some proponents suggested that they would await action by the full Senate before attempting to revive the bill on the House floor.

If that occurs, members' votes would probably be recorded. And that could spell trouble for opponents of the ban, said Rep. Dan Severson of Sauk Rapids, the only outspoken Republican ban supporter on the House Commerce Committee. "You'd better have a real good reason to go against 70 to 80 percent of the voters," he said.

While members of the Commerce Comittee were protecting businesses from people who don't want to smoke, the Civil Law Committee was protecting businesses from overweight people. MPR's Laura McCallum had that item.

Rep. Dean Urdahl's bill would grant legal immunity to a company sued over someone's weight gain. No such lawsuit has been filed in Minnesota, but the parents of two overweight New York teenagers have sued the McDonald's fast-food chain.

The trial lawyers' association says the bill sets a bad precedent by protecting private, for-profit companies. But Urdahl, R-Grove City, calls it a common sense measure.

"This is a bill about personal responsibility and I don't know how much discovery it takes to know that if you eat too many cheeseburgers, you get fat," he said.

And if you smoke too many cigarettes, you die.

There's some news on Gov. Pawlenty's state-run casino plan. Patrick Sweeney has it in the Pioneer Press:

[Sen. Sandy] Pappas and [Rep. Andy] Westerberg said their bills would allow up to two new metro-area casinos, presumably the joint state-tribal operation that Pawlenty supports and a rival casino planned by the owners of Canterbury Park racetrack. Pappas said the two proposals also might be merged. In that case, the state-tribal casino would be built at the racetrack in Shakopee, just a few miles from Mystic Lake, the largest of Minnesota's Indian casinos.

Anoka County and at least other three communities are contenders to host a casino, Westerberg said. He refused to name the three.

In a new wrinkle in the long-playing casino debate, Pappas said her Senate bill would devote part of the state's gambling earnings to paying for expanded early childhood education for low-income children. In January, Pawlenty said some gaming revenue might be used to build professional sports stadiums.

Pawlenty also said in January that he wanted tribes to pay a $200 million licensing fee to the state and agree to a distribution of profits that would give the state about $114 million a year once the casino was in operation. Pappas said Wednesday she expected the proposed legislation to be announced Friday would set a lower licensing fee if the Legislature approves more than one casino.

Pappas and Westerberg said they did not know what percentage of profits the legislation would propose the state receive. Last week, Leech Lake tribal chairman George Goggleye said the negotiations called for the state to get about 24 percent of the gross revenue from slot machines. In the past, Canterbury's owners promised 40 percent of that revenue to the state.

Do you think smoking will be allowed at the new casino(s)?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:11 AM
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March 2, 2005
Inflation factor

How should the media be reporting the state's budget problems? When the latest state revenue forecast came out this week, most news organizations reported that the projected shortfall went from $700 million to $466 million. Some, including MPR, the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune, said that the shortfall had been reduced by a third in the updated projection. And that seemed to get the goat of former state Finance Commissioner John Gunyou. He fired off this e-mail to many political reporters in the state:

On behalf of all the finance professionals who have fought for years to keep the forecast nonpartisan, I'm asking you to please help your readers and listeners discern the facts from the spin.

A $234 million forecast improvement does NOT slice our $1.4 billion deficit by one-third. In fact, Finance is also now reporting that inflation is higher, so that previous $1.4 billion problem is still close to $1.3 billion. Peggy and Stinson are absolutely right when they caution folks not to get all excited. It would immeasurably help the debate if you would use the statements of the professionals in your leads - not those of the partisans.

The "Peggy and Stinson" Gunyou refers to are current state Finance Commissoner Peggy Ingison and state economist Tom Stinson. We should note that most in the media did mention the inflation factor, and that in fact it is the forecast done by the professionals that gives the $700 million and $466 million numbers. If you don't believe me, take a look.

State law actually says that inflation in spending should not be included in the forecast. The law was passed when both DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and GOP House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty were both thinking about running for governor. Now that Pawlenty actually is the governor he stands by the decision not to include inflation. And now that Roger Moe is no longer in the Legislature some top DFLers in the Senate, most notably Sen. Dick Cohen, are pushing to change the law back to including inflation in the forecasts.

It's interesting to note that the $4.5 billion shortfall of two years ago also did not include inflation.

Speaking of the budget forecast, one of the key questions raised by the budget professionals related to Minnesota's job climate. The forecast showed Minnesota lagging considerably behind the national average in terms of job creation. MPR's Jeff Horwich had new information about the job picture in the state:

On Tuesday, state economist Tom Stinson was announcing a state revenue forecast which presumes strong economic growth and 44,000 new jobs in 2005. But Stinson, a University of Minnesota professor and non-political appointee, expressed concern that state job growth last year had been weak and even declined at times.

"The question is: how do you explain what we've observed here, this decline? And that's a puzzle to us," Stinson said.

Just a day later, those jobs numbers Stinson had been working from shifted. It doesn't solve the puzzle, but it does change the picture. Minnesota added a lot more jobs than previously estimated. Instead of creating 23,400 jobs last year, it turns out the Minnesota economy added more than 38,000 jobs -- an improvement of 64 percent.

The difference comes from the way data were collected. The initial estimates are based on business surveys done month to month. Some time later, the state gets the actual numbers for how many jobs companies added. These revisions happen every year; this time, the difference was significant.

"I think we are showing a great deal more momentum," says economist Steve Hine, the top labor analyst for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. "We've built up a greater head of steam heading into 2005 than we had previously thought, which does bode well, I think, for the outlook. I think this report generally does provide reason to be more optimistic about job growth in the coming year," he said.

If all those new jobs are created in the next few months does it mean that the projected shortfall will really be one third smaller? Ask me in two years!


Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:49 AM
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March 1, 2005
A billion in the hole

Is bouncing a check for $200 better than bouncing one for $300? That's a good question to keep in mind as you try to evaluate the spin around the latest revenue forecast. The revised state projection shows some improvement in tax collections, but that the state still faces a problem creating jobs. Instead of a $700 million projected shortfall we now have a $466 million shortfall. If you add inflation to the calculations the shortfall totals about $1.1 billion. The governor's reaction? Let's check the Star Tribune:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in Washington, D.C., for a National Governors Association meeting, said by phone Monday that the improved economic outlook was welcome news and "a big deal" that might allow for additional spending.

From its nadir of a $4.5 billion projected deficit in November 2002, the state will have gone to a positive balance of $704 million in the 2008-09 budget period, Pawlenty said. "That's major progress in less than a two-year period," he said. "It's been a heavy lift, but we've almost climbed out of the hole."

Pawlenty said the improved outlook "gives us more positive options beyond what we proposed a few weeks ago." He will release a supplemental budget in the coming days, he said, to reflect the increase in finances. That could mean more money for schools or slightly reduced cutbacks for some health care programs.

Something tells me that if we had a DFL governor and Tim Pawlenty were still the House Republican Leader he might have a different reaction to the economic news. Let's see what House DFL Leader Matt Entenza told MPR:

House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul says Minnesota continues to be in deficit mode because of Republican budget policies.

"The governor and Republican leaders are in denial when they don't recognize that the billion-dollar deficit that grows into the future is being caused directly by the lack of investment in Governor Pawlenty's budget," he said.

Entenza stopped short of calling for a tax increase, but says DFLers are holding hearings around the state and will release their own budget proposal in mid-March.

Hmmm...I had a feeling he wouldn't be as happy as the governor. So what do the people think? Well, 6,000 of them rallied on the steps of the Capitol calling for more money for education. MPR's Tim Pugmire has that story:

The story is similar in school districts throughout Minnesota. School boards are cutting programs, laying off teachers and raising activity fees, all because state funding hasn't kept pace with operating costs. Phil Enke of Duluth, president of the Minnesota Parent Teacher Association, says he talks to members across the state and hears similar complaints.

"They're sick and tired of bake sales. They're sick and tired of running levy referendums. They're sick and tired of bringing catalogs to work and begging co-workers to buy wrapping paper and scented candles. "

The rally was organized by the Alliance for Student Achievement, an umbrella group that includes the Minnesota PTA and eight other statewide education organizations. Enke and other speakers called on elected officials to make public education a top funding priority.

Students are also growing frustrated by the financial problems hitting their schools. Jon Kent, a high school senior from Hopkins, challenged lawmakers to try to cope with the type of shortages found in many schools.

"I ask you senators and representatives, are you forced to squeeze a bill on tax codes onto a single page, double sided if you're lucky?"

But budget cuts mean more than paper shortages or crowded classrooms. Many students say they've also lost learning opportunities they once enjoyed. Jayna Flanders an eighth grader at Paynesville Middle School says she can no longer be in the band and the choir, because a summer science class was eliminated. She says her school also cut its marching band.

Some DFLers and Republicans called last week for spending an additional $750 million on schools over the next two years. They didn't say where the money should come from. The governor has proposed adding more than $250 million to the basic education formula. And of course if you look at the projections the state doesn't even have that much money. That's why cutbacks are required in other areas. In the next few days look for any number of groups to call for more spending based on the forecast that makes a bad situation look ever so slightly better.

In some other news, Rachel E. Stassen-Berger has this story in the Pioneer Press about a well known Minnesota activist who died over the weekend:

Sue Rockne was a fighter.

At the Minnesota state Capitol, she fought for women's rights, abortion access and safety for battered women. As a Democratic activist, she fought for and with the party and served as a 12-year Democratic National Committee member and five-time delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

And for 13 years she fought leukemia, a cancer that kills many of its victims quickly. She challenged it with the aid of a little red scooter that zoomed her around the Capitol halls and helped her travel across all seven continents in the past decade.

On Saturday, she succumbed to complications from the disease. She was 70.

"She went fast, which is a blessing for her," said her daughter, Lauri Rockne of St. Paul.



Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:56 AM
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