April 2005 Archive

April 29, 2005
Getting tough

The Minnesota House took a bill that got tough on sex offenders and made it even tougher Thursday. As MPR's Laura McCallum reports the toughest provisions were proposed by a legislative newcomer:

Before the House voted 123-10 for the bill, much of the seven hour debate focused on two proposals by first-term Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano.

One would allow judges to order chemical castration of sex offenders in some cases where the victim is younger than 13. Chemical castration involves taking drugs that suppress sex drive. Emmer argued that some pedophiles can't stop themselves from hurting children.

"This is not punishment. This is rehabilitation. We're trying to help those who can't help themselves," he said.

Emmer's proposal would also allow offenders to voluntarily seek surgical castration. The House voted 80-54 for Emmer's amendment, and by a similar margin for his proposal to identify the most dangerous level three sex offenders with special license plates and markings on their drivers' licenses. Neither of the measures had been debated this session before Emmer brought them up on the floor.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said the license plate idea won't work, because sex offenders will find ways to get around the requirement.

"They're not going to drive their car with sexual predator plates to the school and park it so the cop can check on them. Members, these feel-good things, that's really all they are," he said.

Another Democrat, Ron Latz of St. Louis Park, said marking sex offenders with what amounts to a scarlet letter would set them up for failure in re-entering the community after they've served their prison time. Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, responded that the most violent sex offenders can't be rehabilitated.

"We're talking about sick, twisted, perverted minds who prey on not only the ones who are most dearest to us but the ones who are most vulnerable in our society," he said.

But again, are they really going to prey on the vulnerable before they change their license plates? And if a sex offender buys one of those DNR plates...oh, never mind. It'll be interesting to see if either of those provisions survives a conference committee.

While the House was talking about sex crimes the Senate Tax Committee has been talking about...taxes. Specifically they need to raise $1.4 billion to cover the new spending the Senate is proposing. This if from the Star Tribune:

Whether the income tax rate would be at the heart of that bill is still unknown, said Senate Taxes Chairman Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, but he said that only an income tax or sales tax increase could generate the kind of revenue needed.

The income tax bill, sponsored by Sen. John Hottinger, St. Peter, would boost taxes by an average of $8 on a single person making $25,000; by $146 for a single parent of one child making $60,000; by $456 for a married couple making $125,000, and, finally, at the top end, by $2,514 for a single person earning $350,000.

For all but the last example, the total tax would still be less than each would have paid in 1999, when tax rates were cut across the board, Hottinger said. Pogemiller said it is likely the bill will be amended to confine the rate increases to those earning more than $250,000. Hottinger said his bill would generate nearly $900 million in 2006-07. Pogemiller said the amendment would still raise close to that amount.

Of course Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he will veto a tax increase, so get ready for gridlock.

In a brief look at other news, the deal to quickly re-pass the concealed carry bill is off. Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says his caucus wants to take a closer look at the bill, although he's still saying he will bring it to the floor this session. Supporters of the bill are outraged and say Johnson is flip-flopping on an earlier promise to put the bill on the fast track. MPR's Tom Scheck has a story about that.

DFLers in St. Paul meet Saturday to choose either Chris Coleman or Rafael Ortega as the candidate to run against Mayor Randy Kelly in the DFL primary in September. Coleman and Ortega were on Midday earlier this week. Kelly, who endorsed President Bush for re-election last year, isn't seeking the DFL endorsement.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:40 AM

April 28, 2005
Gun law redux

Just weeks after the state court of appeals agreed the first version was unconstitutional, both the House and the Senate appear poised to pass a new version of the conceal and carry handgun law. The courts were upset with the way the original law passed, as an amendment to an unrelated bill. Now a new version of the bill appears to be on the fast track. MPR's Tom Scheck has the story:

[Rep Larry ]Howes says the only change in the new bill would allow business owners to either post a "no guns" sign or personally notify a permit holder that guns are not allowed in their establishment. The old law required business owners to do both. Howes says the rest of the law is appropriate, and he is confident lawmakers will pass it. "The bill we passed in 2003, with all the discussion, all the debate, all the meetings is a good bill. We're re-enacting that law with one change from 'and' to 'or.' That's what we're going to stick with... I'm not going to accept any amendments in any committee or on the floor," he said.

Howes says he didn't want to accept any amendments for fear it would reopen debate on the entire bill. Before the law was changed in 2003, county sheriffs and police chiefs had wide discretion to issue or refuse a handgun permit to any citizen. Critics said that law created a patchwork where citizens in one county could get a handgun permit while those in other counties could not.

How good are the chances that the new bill will become law? Pretty darn good according to the Star Tribune:

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson confirmed that a Senate floor vote will be held before the May 23 adjournment, but only after an ad hoc working group and a standing committee consider further changes.

"Some folks who opposed it last session are going to vote for it if a few wrinkles are worked out," Johnson said, singling out concerns of some churches over banning guns in their parking lots and rental property.

Pawlenty "signed the bill once and he'd sign it again," said his spokesman, Brian McClung.

Why will the new law pass so easily? MPR's Scheck suggests that with more than 25,000 permits granted after the first version passed, lawmakers are convinced that the doomsday scenarios proposed by both sides in the debate never came to pass. In other words, the change in the permitting process proved to be no big deal. Still, expect quite a debate before another law passes.

Along with guns, Minnesota lawmakers clearly like alcohol-- alcohol made from corn, that is, and pumped into automobile fuel tanks. The House followed the lead of the Senate Wednesday and passed a bill that would make Minnesota an island of ethanol pumpers. The bill requires gasoline sold in the state to be mixed with 20 percent ethanol by 2013, assuming the feds give their blessing. The Star Tribune gives a flavor of the debate:

During a lengthy floor debate, some suburban fiscal conservatives argued that the proposal amounted to an improper interference in the marketplace. And some urban liberals contended that environmental claims were off-base and that the bill could produce more pollution of surface water and groundwater.

But the political forces behind increasing both usage and production of ethanol in Minnesota appear to be irresistible, and the bill is likely to be signed into law soon. Corn growers and an alliance of rural interest groups support it. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made it a top priority and current gas prices give the proposal an added boost.

And the governor wants more say over how schools spend their money. This item is from MPR's Michael Khoo:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is calling on school districts to ensure that roughly two thirds of their spending makes it into classrooms.

Pawlenty cited education department data showing classroom spending varied widely by school districts, with some spending less than half of their budgets on classroom instruction.

"That is the front line of education in Minnesota. We know that besides parents the number one determining factor of how a child's going to do in school is their teacher and the classroom setting. Driving more resources, encouraging more resources into the classroom is an important part of that proposition," he said.

Pawlenty says statewide classroom spending is about 62 percent of school districts' expenditures.

Senate DFLers, however, say the move is a gimmick that merely shuffles funding around without offering new resources. Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, chairs the Senate Education Committee.

"It's another mandate," he said. "And it gives credence to the false notion that we can mandate school improvement by tinkering with accounting mechanisms."

School districts point out that the non-classroom spending includes things like buses, janitors, libraries and computers.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:31 AM

April 27, 2005
Gambling and taxes

Is the money someone would lose in a state-run casino tax money? Phil Krinkie apparently thinks so. Krinkie is a Republican state representative from Shoreview. More importantly, Krinkie is the chair of the House Taxes Committee. And Tuesday Krinkie's committee got the power to decide the fate of the gambling issue in the House. The Star Tribune reports how it happened:

But Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, who opposed earlier plans for a casino at the Mall of America, surprised casino supporters Tuesday. She moved on the House floor to have the governor's bill heard in the Taxes Committee and called for a vote. Krinkie supported the motion.

"It kind of caught me off guard," said Rep. Andy Westerberg, R-Blaine, a supporter of the governor's proposal. "It came up so fast I didn't have an opportunity to get up and speak against it."

The House voted 79 to 53 to send the bill to the Taxes Committee; 14 Republicans voted with the majority.

[House speaker Steve]Sviggum said afterward that he, too, didn't see the vote coming. "It puts another roadblock in the way of moving [the bill]," he said. "But it is what it is and you have to deal with it."

Sviggum is clearly upset by the move. He had tried to send the bill to the Ways and Means Committee, which was expected to send it to the House floor. Here's what he told MPR's Michael Khoo:

Sviggum said gambling opponents may have the strength to erect obstacles, but they don't have the cohesion to offer budget alternatives.

"They do not come together there. They separate. They're conveniently using each other in this issue of gaming. But they completely, for different reasons, separate after that," he said.

Sviggum said the House budget relies on more than $200 million in anticipated gambling revenues to fund education and health care priorities. He said without those resources, lawmakers will have to face painful decisions between raising taxes or cutting services.

And if there's one thing Phil Krinkie hates more than gambling it's raising taxes.

Speaking of painful decisions, the House and Senate appear headed for a major showdown over the health care issue. Unlike the House bill, which cuts nearly 30,000 people off state subsidized health insurance programs, the Senate bill bolsters MinnesotaCare. MPR's Tom Scheck has details:

The DFL plan actually increases coverage for adults without children. Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, said it's possible to make those changes and reach agreement with Pawlenty and House Republicans.

"It's very important and very possible to reinstate benefits to the MinnesotaCare population that lost the rationing of their health care. We can keep eligibility for everyone that has eligibility today and still compromise on the numbers," she said.

The $2.6 billion bill would fund a wide array of programs. Everything from nursing home funding to mental health treatment to grants for HIV and AIDS treatment and prevention.

Nursing home workers would receive an annual 2 percent increase.

The Senate still isn't saying how it would pay for the increased spending. One idea floating around is an increase in the cigarette tax.

And just to show how hard it can be to be governor, even a plan to clean up roadways draws a lawsuit. Here's an item from MPR's Michael Khoo:

The state's largest public employee union has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration, arguing that a highway clean-up program improperly uses prison labor to replace state workers.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 5, is asking the courts to block the program until the administration can certify that no state employees are available and able to perform the clean-up.

AFSCME director Eliot Seide said administration officials have refused to discuss the program with union leaders. He said it could end up displacing state workers with inmate labor.

"It starts with transportation workers. Then where does it go? Does it move to janitors? Does it move to people working at McDonald's? Does it move to working people in restaurants? How prison labor is going to replace permanent labor, and how much are they going to drive wages down for working Minnesotans?"

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:35 AM

April 26, 2005
Shrinking coalition

Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed a state-tribal partnership on casino gambling because he said he wanted to bring fairness to the gambling issue. Now that another tribe says it wants no part of the latest casino plan, the question is fairness to whom? First the Leech Lake Band opted out. Now it's Red Lake. This is from the Pioneer Press story:

On Monday, the tribal council of the Red Lake Chippewa voted unanimously against joining the Minnesota Lottery and the owners of Canterbury Park racetrack in Pawlenty's latest gambling plan, which calls for two casinos to be built at the track in Shakopee.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, which said April 18 that it wanted no part of a gambling deal that would allow a non-Indian business Canterbury to operate a casino, reaffirmed that decision Monday.

But the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, the third American Indian tribe that Pawlenty has been negotiating with, is willing to go forward and seek legislative approval for the two-casino gambling package at Canterbury, a tribal official said.

Pawlenty also is committed to pursuing the two-casino plan with White Earth and Canterbury, according to Brian McClung, a spokesman for the governor.

McClung and others in the administration say combining the casino plans at Canterbury builds support for the deal at the Capitol. But at some point won't people ask why the racetrack owners are more deserving of a casino windfall than two of the poorest Indian tribes in the state? Red Lake officials certainly are, according to the Star Tribune:

Red Lake Tribal Treasurer Darrell Seki Sr. said the Red Lake Tribal Council voted 9 to 0 in part because some members balked at the idea of participating in a slot machine deal in which the tribe would join a non-Indian business in competing against Mystic Lake Casino in nearby Prior Lake. In addition to council members, the meeting included about a half dozen hereditary chiefs and a couple of dozen tribal members, he said.

"That's not one of the things we want to do," Seki said. "They're an Indian nation; we wouldn't want to ... put one two miles away. That was never our intention."

He said some Tribal Council members worried that a deal with Canterbury would encourage proposals for slots in bars or felt that the tribe shouldn't be helping out the owners of Canterbury Park racetrack.

Pawlenty's spokesman McClung says the White Earth band represents about 45 percent of the state's Indians, and that the three tribes together represent 85 percent. Gambling supporters say the negotiating isn't over yet, and that it's unfair to judge the result until a final agreement is reached.

Speaking of agreements, the goveror is endorsing the Twins-Hennepin County stadium plan...sort of. MPR's Michael Khoo has that story:

Before Hennepin County can levy the proposed stadium tax, lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty will have to give permission. And a key part of the debate will turn on whether county voters are able to voice their preferences in a referendum -- or whether the county board can impose the tax at its own discretion.

The team and the county say a county-wide vote will scuttle the deal. They argue that board members, as elected representatives, should have the authority to make tax decisions with a direct citizen vote. And Pawlenty, who has rejected any new state tax increases and has championed citizen referendums, says he won't rule anything out.

"I would definitely prefer a referendum. But I want to give the Twins and Hennepin County a fair chance to sell this at the Legislature, so we're not going to slam the door shut on a scenario where the Hennepin County Board decides whether there's a referendum or not," he said.

Lawmakers must also have an image problem to consider. With lawmakers considering reductions in state health care programs, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, wonders why anyone would consider imposing a tax for professional baseball. And he rejects the argument that the tax is too minor for most consumers to notice.

"If it's hardly noticeable, why don't we use that to fund MinnesotaCare? But the point is is does raise real money, significant money, money that we could be using and should be using for meeting other needs," he said.

Of course no one, including Marty, has proposed a 0.15 percent Hennepin County sales tax to fund MinnesotaCare, but that hardly matters now. There's a stadium debate going on!

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:26 AM

April 25, 2005
It's Alive!

Just like that, the Twins and Hennepin County have a stadium plan. The official announcement is Monday afternoon, but both Twin Cities newspapers had the whole story on Sunday. Here are the basics: A 42,000 seat, open air stadium would be built in the warehouse district of Minneapolis. The $478 million stadium would be financed by a 0.15 percent sales tax on purchases in Hennepin County which adds up to 3 cents on a $20 purchase. Twins owner Carl Pohlad would pay $125 million.

The twist is that even though no state money would be required (unless everyone decides the stadium needs a roof), state lawmakers still have to give their permission for the county to raise its sales tax. That's the angle the Star Tribune focuses on:

The 2005 plan comes at a time of extraordinarily tight budgets and stretched public services.

The Minneapolis City Council has already suggested raising the city's sales tax by one-half of 1 percent to hire more police officers. That idea will go to a referendum, but county and Twins officials don't want residents to vote on the sales-tax increase for a stadium, saying a referendum would kill the deal.

"We're still in the midst of a horrible budget that will have a lot of impacts on people in the county," said Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis.

Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis, was a shade more blunt: "I don't understand why this is even being shopped."

And Ranum represents Minneapolis. What will lawmakers like Rep. Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, and Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, think of making their constituents pay higher taxes to build a stadium a long way from their districts? And of course any proposal to allow the county to raise taxes will have to go through the House taxes committee, which is chaired by long-time stadium opponent Rep. Phil Krinke, R-Shoreview.

Speaking of proposals that are showing new life, how about this plan for two casinos at Canterbury Park? It sprang to life Friday night, with lawmakers in the House going out of their way to avoid the aforementioned Rep. Krinke. The speed with which the plan was patched together left some saying it smelled less than fully baked. MPR's Michael Khoo had this:

"We think this will work, but I can't say that we have worked with our investment bankers because this is something that's just been coming together in the last week," [Canterbury Park president Randy] Sampson said.

The uncertainties make it difficult to say how revenues from the two facilities might be split between the state and the tribes or between the state and Canterbury. The financing was further complicated by an amendment that would limit any individual's losses at either of the casinos to $500 a day. That restriction has been used in other states, but it's not clear how it would affect revenues.

Democrats on the committee fumed that the plan remains half-baked and that many important questions remain unanswered. Tim Mahoney of St. Paul says the short notice, abbreviated debate and late night vote were an attempt to ram the plan through uninspected.

"It's just an indication that they don't have the votes to pass this at a floor level. They're still trying to manipulate the system, get it through the process," according to Mahoney.

And while spring is the time to celebrate new life, it's also time to say goodbye to former U.S. Sen. Rod Gram's attempted comeback. This is how the Associated Press wrote it:

Citing the potential for a divisive campaign ahead, former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams said Sunday he is ending his bid to run for Senate in 2006.

Grams told The Associated Press that while he believed he could have won the Republican nomination for the seat he lost to Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton in 2000, he knew there would be a tough fight within the party. Dayton announced in February that he would not seek re-election.

"I felt this was the time we should be united," Grams said. "So ... I said I didn't want to be part of that type of a campaign whether I won or lost, and decided to not run."

Grams said he'll support the party's nominee, likely to be U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, who announced earlier this month that he had raised $550,000 over a six-week period, though he was only actively fundraising over three weeks.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:21 AM

April 22, 2005

How tough is the Minnesota House on meth? Pretty darn tough. The House voted Thursday night not just to restict sales of over the counter medications like Sudafed and Actifed, but to ban them outright. Led by Attorney General candidate Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, the House went on a meth-busting frenzy. MPR's Michael Khoo has the story:

It started as an attempt to place certain cold remedies behind pharmacy counters, thus making it more difficult for meth manufacturers to obtain the pseudoephedrine crucial to making their drugs. It ended with a sweeping ban on many everyday medications. It passed on a 127-4 vote. Jeff Johnson is the chief House sponsor of the meth bill. The Plymouth Republican says he was surprised by how the bill evolved over two hours of debate.

"No question, this is by far the strongest meth, most comprehensive meth bill that any legislative body has passed in the United States," he said.

Yes, once they started they just couldn't stop...restricting access to so-called meth precursors, that is. The people who know these lawmakers best say they hardly recognize them any more, at least according to the Star Tribune:

Lobbyists for retailers and representatives of the pharmaceutical industry were clearly stunned by the vote and privately pledged to work against the ban, which they said could affect hundreds of products in the average drugstore.

But as House members got caught up in the uncontrollable urge to fight meth, some said they were ignoring everything else, including their job to be fiscally responsible. The Pioneer Press story has this:

The bill also increases sentences for meth makers and those who endanger children and vulnerable adults by making meth. That part of the bill sparked debate on the House floor as some members pushed to remove the enhanced sentences from the measure.

"I propose to you the problem is not getting tough on meth; the problem is getting smart on meth," said Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis. "There is no way the sentences at this time are soft on crime."

The move to delete the increased sentences was defeated 95-35.

Ahhh...that feels better. At least for now.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty Thursday ordered a security review of state Web sites. Could he have known the Star Tribune would have a front page story today about another problem with a state Web site?

A state website that takes license plate and credit card information from motorists seeking passes to drive in freeway fast lanes offered applications through an online link that was not secured against hackers.

"The link was a glitch," said Kevin Gutknecht, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), which runs the Web page. "It's been repaired."

As many as 1,500 motorists are believed to have used the MnDOT site since it began taking applications for the passes April 11, but it's unclear how many entered credit card data through the unsecured application link or through other secured links on the Web site.

There's still no hard evidence either way that anyone's personal information was actually stolen, but you can imiagine the political fallout if it turns out there were any crimes committed.

Finally, a lot of budget bills are being debated at the Capitol, and Senate DFLers say they'll come up with a tax plan in the next few weeks to pay for the new spending they're proposed. But one DFL Senator has announced her own plan. MPR's Tom Scheck has this item:

The chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee is proposing a one cent per drink increase in the state's liquor tax. The money would pay for supervision of offenders, drug treatment programs and victim's services.

Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis, said the one cent liquor tax increase is a small step in improving the state's public safety programs. She says it would raise about $50 million over the next two years.

"We're coming up with a pittance. One penny, just one penny. Out of those proposals, we said one penny, just one penny. It's the first time that you could see a penny could go a long ways. It's not pound foolish on this one," she said.

Ranum called the one cent alcohol excise tax a "user fee." A spokesperson for Gov. Pawlenty's office says he would consider it a tax which violates his "no new taxes" pledge.

So drink up in the smoke free establishment of your choice this weekend, but stay away from the Sudafed!

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:34 AM

April 21, 2005
Half a plan

Let me see if I understand this. Republicans at the Capitol have two budget plans, and DFLers have half a plan. On Wednesday the DFLers in the Senate released their plan for about $1 billion more in spending than the governor has proposed, but no tax plan explaining how they would raise that money. And in doing so they handed their Republican opponents a club which the GOP immediately used to bash the Democrats. MPR's Laura McCallum has the story:

"I believe this budget will come down to a battle for the heart and soul of Minnesota's future," Johnson says. Johnson says the budgets proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and House Republicans would lead to higher property taxes and higher fees, and would rely on gambling money. He says the Senate DFL budget will not include any of those revenue sources, but he wouldn't say what taxes would rise to pay for the new spending.

"I have direction from my caucus that my lips are sealed like a cardinal in a conclave voting for pope," Johnson, who is a Lutheran minister, said.

Johnson says options being discussed include higher taxes on cigarettes, clothing and upper-income Minnesotans. He says the Senate tax bill will take shape in the next couple of weeks.

Gov. Pawlenty says that's too late, since there's only about a month left in the session. He says the Senate plan shows a lack of leadership.

"If they're going to jack up our taxes -- or try to -- then at least have the courtesy and the courage to put it on the table before the 11th hour of the legislative session so we can have the debate," says Pawlenty. "But they're running, they're hiding, they're ducking, they're bobbing, they're weaving, and they need to be called out."

Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Senate Tax Committee, says he'll begin working on a plan today. But Pogemiller has never been one to worry too much about legislative deadlines. Meanwhile the House is proceeding with its two-track budget process, with one plan counting money from gambling and the other not. MPR's Tom Scheck has a look at debate over the House health and human services budget:

"I can't kid anybody, I don't have a magic money tree. For those who say don't do this, don't do that, give me an alternative. I don't have that," Bradley said.

Several DFLers on the committee are offering alternatives. One of their options would cut outside consulting contracts for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

DFL Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis says House Republicans are also operating under the false illusion that they can't raise taxes to meet current budget demands.

"Everybody so far has talked about that these decisions are being forced upon us, that these cuts of all of these people off of health are being forced upon us. That's not really true, and I think we need to get that out on the table. We did have other choices, we're just not allowed to talk about it," Thissen said.

There's more fallout from the security problems with the state's license tab Web site. The Legislative Audit Commission held a hearing on the issue Wednesday. The Star Tribune has that story:

Sen. Thomas Neuville, R-Northfield, asked Legislative Auditor James Nobles if he could offer assurances that the problems with the Department of Public Safety's motor vehicle website are unique among state agencies.

"I can assure you it is not the only agency with a problem," Nobles replied.

He said later that auditors over the years have noticed weaknesses in online security while conducting other reviews of agencies. "We haven't found any so bad to cause us to recommend a system be shut down," he said. "But we found a lot of problems."

Finally Howard Dean was in the Twin Cities Wednesday to speak to an ACLU gathering. One of the things he talked about was the fallout from the Terry Schiavo case. Here's the item from MPR:

The chairman of the Democratic National Committee says he believes the Terry Schiavo case will provoke a backlash against Republicans.

Howard Dean, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president last year, spoke in Minneapolis Wednesday night to an audience of about 1,000 people. Dean says people will remember how Congress and the White House intervened in the Schiavo case.

"That is really an issue that really did mesmerize America. And I know the Republicans think oh well, it's all going to be gone by 2006 and 2008. That's not going to be the case. People were really scarred by that debate because for the first time they really did come to understand how overreaching the Bush administration is and how far these fundamentalist zealots will go in taking away people's innermost privacy," he said.

Dean says Tom DeLay and other Republicans running Congress are extremists who are outside the American mainstream, and he says they are dangerous to democracy.

Listen for Dean's whole speech on Wednesday's Midday.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:32 AM

April 20, 2005
Wrong again!

Well, the Vatican pundits got it wrong. They fell for the old "Ratzinger is too obvious a choice" feint, and of course it turned out to be Ratzinger. I also heard quite a few times that the new pope would pick "John Paul III" as a name to honor the former pope. They were wrong about that one too. This is just to say it's probably a good idea not to believe everything you hear about the new pope in the next few days.

Moving from Rome to St. Paul, the budget bills are flying at the Capitol. Hidden in the inside pages of the newspapers is the health and human services funding bill proposed by the House GOP majority. A key feature of the bill is deeper cuts to the MinnesotaCare program than even those proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Sticking with our papal theme, Star Tribune reporter Patricia Lopez includes a little Catholic reaction:

Admittedly, we've made some tough choices here," [Rep. Fran]Bradley said. But even without the racino money, he said, health care spending would increase 15 percent over two years. "We really do a good job for the needy in this bill," he said, noting that Minnesota would still be spending more on health care for working adults than any other state in the region.

But not everyone saw it that way on Tuesday.

In a letter to Bradley, Kathy Tomlin, director of the office for social justice of Catholic Charities, wrote that "your intentions in this bill seem very clear: to reduce the size of the MinnesotaCare program drastically and permanently at the expense of Minnesotans who have few if any other options for securing affordable health care insurance ... The moral choice would be for you to use every tool at your disposal to prevent these cuts from happening."

Does that include approving a racino? The House budget plans go along two tracks. One is slightly more generous than the other because it includes revenue from state-run casino gambling. But the gambling plan is in trouble. Listen to Gov. Pawlenty's slightly less than enthusiastic prognosis in MPR's Michael Khoo's story:

Pawlenty says he's disappointed that Leech Lake has vetoed any cooperation with Canterbury. But Pawlenty says he's not ready to scrap his push for new gambling revenues.

"There's some prospect that it will pass the House," says Pawlenty. "In fact, I think it's plausible or likely that it will pass the House. And if that happens, then it will be in play between the House and the Senate."

Now listen to the House authors of the gambling bills:

Rep. Andy Westerberg, R-Blaine, is the chief House sponsor of the state-tribal partnership. He says the gambling debate cuts across so many interests that it's difficult to find consensus.

"The ingredients of coming up with that particular cake are still in the process of being put in the mix," says Westerberg. "And we're not really sure. And it is more complicated now, because it's not just the state of Minnesota and one sovereign nation. It's three separate sovereign nations."

Meanwhile, the state-tribal partnership is languishing in the House Taxes Committee, which has indefinitely postponed gambling hearings that were originally scheduled for last month.

The Canterbury bill is also waiting in the same committee, but the sponsor, Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, says he's optimistic he can scrape together enough votes for his bill. The "racino" plan passed the House in 2003. But Buesgens says merging the two bills, far from increasing the chances of passage, could doom both.

"I know I lose votes in that type of merger. I don't know if we gain, and if the gain more than offsets the loss," says Buesgens. "People who are proposing those kinds of ideas are probably going to have to do that kind of nose-counting."

The DFL majority in the Senate is expected to announce its big-picture budget plan today. It's a sure bet it won't include gambling.
If gambling is to pass this year, the governor will have to make it pass.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:32 AM

April 19, 2005
News roundup

A state Web site is down, gambling takes another hit, budget bills start moving and the child support system appears headed for a change. That's the news in a nutshell. Let's take a closer look. First that Web site. The Pioneer Press reports the site where you order new license tabs may not be secure:

State auditors discovered security flaws in the state's popular online license tab renewal site, and officials shut it down two weeks ago.

The Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor today will release an information systems audit report the second such report in recent years about the Driver and Vehicle Services' license tab renewal Web site. A department official acknowledged Monday that the audit was the main reason officials took the system down for unscheduled maintenance.

Patricia McCormack, director of Driver and Vehicle Services, said she was not aware of any breaches of security by outside hackers into the computer system. Nearly 360,000 Minnesotans used the online service last year and had to provide a checking account, savings account or Visa credit card number to renew their tabs.

"We are trying to do maintenance and upgrades needed on the system,'' McCormack said. "We want to make sure the system is secure. We want to make sure it's state of the art.''

Hmmm, maybe you should have made sure of that before 360,000 people used it. Oh well, I guess it beats standing in line at Sears.

In another sign the governor's push for state-sponsored casino gambling is in trouble one of his tribal partners says merging the governor's plan with a racino is a no-go. This is from the Star Tribune:

"We just didn't see a benefit to us as a tribe," Leech Lake Tribal Chairman George Goggleye said of such a partnership. "We saw the possibility the revenues would be cut in half. We looked at some numbers."

But he said Leech Lake would remain interested in pursuing a casino in partnership with only the state and the White Earth and Red Lake bands.

Of course if Leech Lake is out of a merged plan and the other two bands are still in, that's more money for them, right?. That assumes any plan can get through the House Taxes Committee. And that's a big assumption.

As for the budget sans gambling revenue, the bills are starting to emerge. MPR's Michael Khoo had this item:

The first budget bill of the year has arrived at the state Capitol.The $530 million package funds the Legislature, state agencies, and state executive offices.

The House plan is the first of several bills that form the building blocks of the state's two-year budget.

The package offers $10 million in incentives for Minnesota National Guard enlistment. It would also reshape public subsidies for political parties. Minnesotans could still voluntarily contribute to a subsidy pool, but those donations would increase their income tax payments.

The measure eliminates $390,000 in funding for Minnesota Public Radio. The bill's price tag is slightly offset by expected new revenues, mainly from increased vigilance to catch those who underpay their taxes. Overall, the bill represents a roughly $10 million increase in state government funding. The Senate has yet to introduce its alternative.

And the question isn't so much whether the Senate plan will include a tax increase, but more likely what tax and how much of an increase?

And while the budget debate is just getting underway, MPR's Laura McCallum has a look at changes to the child support system that look likely to become law:

Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield, says basing child support on the income of both parents is more fair, and would lead to fewer custody battles in the courts. "A divorce starts out and right away the father starts to contest custody, when all he really wants, is he wants a little more time, and he wants to pay a little less money," according to Neuville.

Neuville says his bill would give parents who don't have custody a reduction in their child support payments if they spend time with their kids. And by switching to a system where both parents' incomes are considered, Neuville's bill is expected to reduce child support payments for parents with one child, and increase payments for parents with two or more children.

"The bottom line is: the kids are the ones that lose," says Michele del Castillo, a co-leader of the Twin Cities chapter of ACES, the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.

It's no small debate. Officials say about 300,000 children in Minnesota would be affected.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:28 AM

April 18, 2005
Klobuchar's in

After raising nearly $600,000 over the past two months to fund her campaign for U.S. Senate Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar announced Sunday she actually wants the job. MPR's Mark Zdechlik has some details of where Klobuchar stands at the start of her campaign:

Klobuchar, 44, is in her seventh year as Hennepin County attorney. She touted her record as a prosecutor. She pledged to bring "Minnesota common sense" to Washington.

Klobuchar denounced Republican proposals to allow some Americans to invest a portion of their Social Security withholding in the stock market. She called for fair trade agreements for farmers, for protecting the environnment and for a strong military and safe communities. She said the Bush tax cuts unfairly favor wealthy Americans, and she spoke out against the growing federal budget deficit, vowing to promote a "pay-as-you-go" approach if she makes it to the Senate.

"You want to do some spending; that's fine, but you better show that you have the money to pay for it," she said. "You want to give some more tax cuts. OK, but you better show that you have the money to pay for it."

In the Pioneer Press, Bill Salisbury notes a key reason why Klobuchar made her announcement at her mother's house in Plymouth:

In a state where being a big-city liberal can be a political liability, the site of her announcement emphasized her roots in the suburbs, where voters often decide statewide elections. She also stressed her outstate ties: Her grandfather was an iron ore miner in Ely, and her husband, John Bessler, is from Mankato.

So far Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy is the only other candidate to delare officially that he's running for Senate in '06.

The budget debate at the Capitol is expected to pick up this week as Senate Democrats release their plan. In the Star Tribune Dane Smith has a profile of GOP Rep. Dan Dorman, who may become a key swing vote:

State Rep. Dan Dorman has bucked his Republican governor and House caucus on cuts in state aid to local governments and schools, made common cause with DFLers in a demand for a bigger state budget and broken with conservatives by supporting a minimum-wage increase. Lately he has hinted that he might not support Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plans to expand gambling unless there is compromise on other matters.

He thinks there are other members, especially rookie Republicans, who might eventually join him.

"But they're not ready to stand up yet. I guess they're thinking, 'Who are you gonna follow, the speaker who helped get them elected or the crazy tire dealer from Albert Lea?' "

The crazy tire dealer has evolved into a confirmed centrist and outspoken outlaw in the GOP House caucus and a member who at any time can turn the 68-66 Republican majority into a 67-67 tie. With just a little help from GOP friends, he can give the DFL minority a victory, although that hasn't really happened yet.

It certainly didn't happen last week when the House GOP majority passed its budget resolution on a party-line vote.

The biggest political story of the week in happening in Rome, and it's all behind closed doors. The politicing around the election of a new pope is absolutely fascinating. Here are some basics from the Associated Press:

Although the conclave could last for days, a pope could be chosen as early as Monday afternoon if the red-capped prelates opt to begin casting ballots after their solemn procession from the Vatican's Apostolic Palace to the chapel.

If they decide to wait a day, they will hold four rounds of voting - two in the morning, two in the afternoon - on Tuesday and every day until a candidate gets two-thirds support: 77 votes. If they remain deadlocked late in the second week of voting, they can vote to change the rules so a winner can be elected with a simple majority: 58 votes.

An election without TV ads, rallies or conventions. Wow.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:50 AM

April 15, 2005
Koering fallout

I still don't think the Paul Koering story is a very big deal. But, I'm writing about it again today. Koering is the Republican state Senator from the Brainerd area who announced the other day that he is gay. Both Twin Cities newspapers travelled to Brainerd to see what Koering's constituents think of the revelation. Bill Salisbury's story in the Pioneer Press seems to confirm my feeling about the story:

If any of Sen. Paul Koering's constituents were shocked or outraged by his public revelation that he is gay, they were hard to find Thursday in this, the largest city in his north-central Minnesota district.

"To each his own," Jennifer Castro, a stay-at-home Brainerd mom, said over lunch with her husband and two infant children at the Northland Grille.

"I was a little surprised by his announcement. But that's his personal business."

Castro voted for the Fort Ripley Republican in 2002 and expects to vote for him again in 2006.

Writing in the Star Tribune, Chuck Haga found some people more upset:

Tammy McMillion, a secretary at the First Presbyterian Church in Brainerd, said that she has known Koering "for quite a while" and suspected that he was gay. "But when I heard about this, I thought, 'What an idiot! He doesn't want to get reelected,' " she said.

Kassie Carlson, a clerk at a Baxter service station, had a similar reaction.

"His career is done," she said. "I hope not, but I think it is."

At Fort Ripley, population 74, near Koering's farm and his official place of residence, Jim Gibeau, 47, said he also believes it's unlikely the senator will win another term.

"I think he's a great guy," Gibeau said. "I grew up with him, and I think he's done a real good job so far. He goes to all the neighbors' funerals.

"But he's done. I don't care if he's gay -- everybody had an idea around the area -- but he should have kept it private."

MPR's Michael Khoo reports that no matter what the voters think of Koering's announcement, the political professionals are giving it a thumbs down:

"The vote will absolutely hurt him," says Brian Lehman, the chair of the Crow Wing County Republican Party. He says Koering should have been more upfront about his sexual orientation before he began his political career.

The district is considered competitive for both Republicans and Democrats, but Lehman says voters in the area are overwhelmingly conservative on social issues, regardless of party.

"I would guess that his base voters have been hurt and possibly would not consider voting for him. And so he's put himself in a very weak position," he says.

On to other issues. MPR's Laura McCallum takes a look at those "grow and spend" ads and whether higher taxes really mean slower growth:

The head of the Minnesota Business Partnership, Charlie Weaver, says creating jobs will boost the state's revenues without a tax increase.

"In Minnesota, over the last five years, we've had a good, strong, growing economy, the best economy in the midwest," he said. "And we think the reason is because we've kept the lid on taxes. If we change that strategy now, if we start raising taxes, we know from our experience that jobs will leave."

Weaver and other business leaders say they've talked to employers who may consider moving jobs out of state if there's a tax increase.

Groups on the other side of the tax debate say Minnesota's economy is strong not because of its tax rates, but because of the state's commitment to education and other public services.
Wayne Cox of the labor-backed Citizens for Tax Justice said economists agree on the necessary ingredients for strong growth.

"If you have a good education system, if you fund your transportation system adequately, you have good research, basically the states that do that do better than the states that don't. And it takes taxes to do that," he said.

Of course we know whose side the governor is on.

Two Ventura administration officials made political announcements Thursday. Jack Uldrich is preparing an IP run for U.S. Senate. And former MnDOT Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg says he's running for Congress in the 6th District. Tinklenberg is the first Democrat to officially announce a bid.

Finally, this item from Perry Finelli's 7:33 newscast on MPR:

Today is the last day on the job for Washington County Sheriff Jim Frank. Frank has been in law enforcement for 35 years, starting as a police officer in St. Paul.

"After I worked on patrol, I was promoted to sergeant. I worked in narcotics. On my first assignments, actually, I had long hair and a beard and did all those things. And in those days, possessing a marijuana cigarette, a joint of marijuana, was actually a felony. Now, I think if you're caught with about 50 pounds, a first-time offense is usually probation. So times have changed there," he said.

Frank served nearly a quarter-century in the St. Paul police department before running for Washington County Sheriff, a position he's held since 1995. Chief Deputy Steve Pott will fill the remainder of Frank's term, which runs through next year.

Good luck to Sheriff Frank.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:45 AM

April 14, 2005
New twist in marriage debate

Until now much of the coverage of the debate over gay marriage in the Minnesota Senate has focused on Sen. Michele Bachmann. But now one of Bachmann's GOP colleagues has announced he's gay. The Brainerd Dispatch has the story:

An emotional Sen. Paul Koering, prompted in part by last week's procedural vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, announced Wednesday he was gay.

The Fort Ripley Republican, who defeated then-Senate President Don Samuelson on the third try in 2002, said inquiries about his sexual preference were taking up an increasing amount of his time. The questions were starting to hamper his efforts to guide his teacher mentoring bill and other important legislation through the Senate. He said he wanted to put the issue to rest with an announcement.

"I've always felt like my personal life is just that -- personal," he said in an interview in the State Office Building. "I don't feel like I ever lied to anyone. I never deceived anyone."

Koering, 40, said on the rare occasion someone asked him if he was gay, he told them the truth. The first-term lawmaker said that although a certain number of people speculated he might be gay -- very few asked him directly.

The former dairy farmer, who drew headlines by using a wooden club to scare off two would-be robbers from his Brainerd liquor store in mid-February, said he planned to run for re-election to the District 12 Senate seat, even if he faces opposition from within the GOP.

"I'm going to run for re-election," Koering said. "I'm going to give it all I've got."

The Star Tribune has more details about how Koering's personal life might affect his vote on the proposed constitutional amendment:

Exactly where he stands now, and how he will vote in the future, is not clear. He supports letting voters decide, but said that any gay marriage ban should not interfere with "legal contracts that we have between people. I do support what's in statute [state law], and statute says marriage is between a man and a woman," Koering said. "I don't know that I have a right to deny people the right to vote on something, but I'm certainly going to be watching closely that the bill that comes forward is a bill that's fair to everybody."

He wouldn't say how he intends to vote as a citizen if the measure is on the 2006 ballot. "That's why there's curtains on the booth," Koering said.

The subtext to all this is a roiling behind the scenes debate on the gay marriage issue. A lot of it is happening in blogs. If you want to see what all the fuss is about start here.

While the marriage debate is going on the Legislature is still working on the budget. On Wednesday the House passed a unique two pronged budget resolution on a party line vote. MPR's Laura McCallum has details:

DFL leaders say [Republican House Speaker Steve] Sviggum is offering a false choice. Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, compared the options to a bad episode of the game show "Let's Make a Deal"

"Behind curtain number one is a real junker of a car. And behind curtain number two is a pig with lipstick on it," he said.

Sertich said the second option relies on illegal gambling. He and other Democrats cited a recent Attorney General's opinion that concluded [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty's casino plan would likely be found unconstitutional. They say even if the Legislature approved the plan, it would be tied up in the courts so long that any money from a new casino wouldn't be available for the next budget. DFL leaders also criticized the unusual two-tiered approach to the spending guidelines. But the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Republican Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud, said having a contingency plan in a bill isn't unprecedented.

"We have had bills that said, if there's additional money available, it goes to tax cuts," he said.

...DFL Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul said his members have suggested other ways to fund state priorities without raising taxes.

"We offered three different amendments in the ways and means committee, using the cash flow account and other accounts to increase spending for education and health care, and they defeated those using parliamentary maneuvers."

Now that the spending guidelines are in place, House committees will release their budget bills in the coming days.

And the Star Tribune reports that supporters of MinnesotaCare are organizing to opposes Gov. Pawlenty's proposal to cut coverage for 27,000 people:

Minnesotans for Affordable Health Care has blown the dust off its old incorporation papers, reconvened a decade-old executive committee and resumed fundraising, organizers said.

On Wednesday, the coalition announced an advertising campaign to urge Minnesotans to lobby against Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed budget cuts to MinnesotaCare.

One of their key messages: MinnesotaCare is in good financial shape and shouldn't be raided to pay for other health-care programs.

"MinnesotaCare is not in crisis," said Dr. Don Jacobs, CEO of Hennepin Faculty Associates at a news conference in Minneapolis on Wednesday. "The intentional expansion of uninsured Minnesotans is poor health policy."

Pawlenty and House leaders have argued that changes are needed to head off public health-care costs.

So, let's review. The budget is coming up $200 million short. Thousands of people face the loss of health insurance. Schools across Minnesota say they need more money. And the big story of the day marriage.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:38 AM

April 13, 2005
Shot down

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling that the 2003 gun permit law is unconstitutional. Supporters of the law seem to be running out of options. MPR's Tom Scheck has the lead:

In the opinion, Judge R.A. Randall writes that the Court of Appeals was not ruling on the gun law's merits, but rather on whether the process by which it became law is constitutional. The state constitution says lawmakers cannot combine unrelated subjects into one bill.

Legislative supporters attached the gun language onto a natural resources bill in 2003 to force a full Senate vote.

The question people have been asking me since the original court decision on this law is, won't this put a whole bunch of laws in jeopardy because the Legislature does this all the time? The answer apparently is no. This is only the fifth time courts have thrown out laws on this basis since statehood. The fact is the Legislature doesn't do this all the time. Even the huge omnibus budget bills generally contain related subjects. But still, lawmakers say they're being more careful. And as Scheck notes, there are still a few steps to go before there's a final word on this law:

Gov. Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung says the governor will lobby the Legislature to pass the bill again. He says there have been few problems with permit holders.

"The experience that we had really debunked the "Wild West" argument that had previously existed, so at this point this is something that is in the hands of the higher courts and the Legislature. If the courts don't take action then we feel the Legislature will need to react," he said.

But critics of the legislation say they don't know if permit holders have broken any laws because police aren't allowed to release that information.

Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, says he will fight any attempts to get a new law passed.

"We do know of a security guard who shot somebody in the back. We do know of a case of a man who shot at his brother because his brother drove on the grass. We do know of multiple cases like that. We don't know of the others. We don't know what other people are carrying guns and pointing them at people because it's all private data. The law that they passed says you can't reveal that," he said.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum acknowledged that it may be more difficult to get the bill passed in the Senate He says he doesn't intend to take any action on a new bill until the Minnesota Supreme Court weighs in.

In some other news from the Capitol, a state Senate committee that took the unusual action of issuing a subpoena to force the CEO of Northwest Airlines to testify before them finally got their man. They reached a deal to avoid the subpoena. And according to the Pioneer Press once they got their prey, the Senate tigers turned into pussycats:

[CEO Doug] Steenland was never flustered by any question pitched his way. He was not pressed hard on hot-button topics such as the outsourcing of aircraft maintenance work. Actually, going into the hearing, the committee agreed that he wouldn't have to answer any labor questions.

In a Q&A session after Steenland's presentation, senators asked him about matters such as the removal of pillows from Northwest planes, the prospects for in-flight cell phone use, airfares to Atlanta and Northwest's views on Twin Cities metro-area reliever airports.

Leaders of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association had hoped that Northwest would be held "accountable" by the committee for job cuts that, in the union's view, violate agreements Northwest made with the state in the 1990s.

In recent years, some 3,600 of the union's members have been laid off. And the union fears another 1,000 may lose their jobs.

"There were a lot of softball questions," Ted Ludwig, local president of Northwest's mechanics union said of the committee's interaction with Steenland. "It's nice to be treated like royalty."

And finally, the budget debate is beginning. The House Ways and Means Committee agreed on two sets of budget targets Tuesday that counts on gambling revenue and one that doesn't. And if that wasn't problematic enough for the GOP majority, it looks like the DFL is actually going to put up a fight this year. This is from MPR's Michael Khoo's story:

Committee Democrats blasted the two-pronged approach as unwieldy and irresponsible. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virgina, joked that if House leaders want to leave all options open, they should consider a third option that puts Democrats in charge of the process.

"I'm just sitting here flabbergasted," he said. "This has to be the bonehead idea of the decade. I don't know anywhere in House rules where we had a budget based on a possible passage of a bill possibly in a few weeks or maybe three weeks or who knows how many weeks."

...DFLers proposed several amendments to use $350 million in the state's cash flow account to boost spending in other areas. Tom Huntley of Duluth says the extra money could have been used to preserve state-subsidized health care for thousands who could lose coverage under the GOP proposals.

"This budget, according to the Department of Human Services, will cost 22,500 people their health insurance," he said. "And again, these are hard-working people, most of whom have never been on welfare and certainly don't want to be on welfare."

Republicans, however, argued that draining the cash flow fund would leave the state without a financial cushion as it balances daily revenues and expenses. And Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, who chairs the Health Policy and Finance Committee, argued that Huntley's amendment allowed state health care expenditures to grow unsustainably.

"This is sort of a fantasy world. I could get into all the business about how generous our taxpayers are and everything," he said, "but from a fiscal point of view, this ignores the reality of the huge inflation and the fact that we've got to do something to bring these costs into check."

Hang on tight. Things are going to get interesting from here on out.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:32 AM

April 12, 2005
Gas price blues

It's a good news, bad news situation. Minnesota's tax collections are up, but rising oil prices could hold down future growth. The information comes from a new budget update. Minnesota Public Radio's Michael Khoo has this item:

Revenues for February and March were up 3.5 percent over projections, driven in large part by higher-than-expected payments from the sales tax and the corporate income tax.

The extra revenue is already committed under the terms of the 2003 deficit reduction package. Unless that's changed, the new funds won't be available to soften the latest projected budget shortfall. That's estimated at $466 million over the next two years.

The update also notes that oil prices remain above the "comfort zone" and could act as a drag on future economic growth. Oil prices are stuck above $50 per barrel, while forecasters had thought they'd fall to $35 per barrel by the end of the year.

It just goes to show how hard it is to project the budget two years out. And it's another reminder that Minnesota is unlikely to grow out of its budget problems.

As gas prices rise the Star Tribune has an item about two lawmakers who want to repeal a measure that sets a minimum price for gas sold in Minnesota:

Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-North St. Paul, and Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, would repeal the law, saying consumers are ill-served by artificially inflated prices at the pump.

Enacted in 2001, the law requires retailers to price gasoline at cost plus applicable state and federal taxes plus 6 percent or 8 cents per gallon, whichever is less. The measure is designed to protect "mom-and-pop" service stations from being big-footed by major retailers, who, independent retailers say, can charge less for their gas in an attempt to drive the smaller operators out of business.

"You could argue that for many products. There is competition out there. It's not just one conglomerate. Competition is good," said Wiger, who had voted for the original bill creating the price floor. Peppin is in her first term.

The group representing gas station owners says the price floor protects small stations, and if it were lifted it would help big chains that undercut mom and pop operations.

The governor chose to highlight a form of mass transit as he signed the bonding bill Monday. This is from the Pioneer Press:

"Northstar commuter rail is going to provide relief to commuters who are tired of sitting in their cars and wanted other options to be able to get to work or to their other commitments in life more quickly and more safely," [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty said during a bonding-bill-signing ceremony at the site of a future Northstar station in Coon Rapids.

He called Northstar one of the marquee projects in a $945 million construction-funding bill passed by the Legislature last week. The bill provides $322 million for the University of Minnesota and other state colleges and universities, $211 million for environmental and conservation projects, $125 million for prison expansions and other public safety institutions, and $40 million for biotechnology research facilities, including a pioneering Mayo Clinic-University of Minnesota biotech lab. It also allocates $50 million for local roads and bridges, nearly $23 million for the Minnesota Zoo and $22 million for a planetarium at the new Minneapolis public library.

While the bill signing was a big step toward getting the Northstar train rolling, it was not the last step. The $37.5 million is just a down payment the state must make this year to keep the project eligible for federal funding.

So if you thought it took a long time to get that $37.5 million you ain't seen nothing yet. The feds have to kick in $132 million and the supporters will ask the state for another $50 million next year. And you thought gas prices were high!

Where can you get free money these days? Well, only at the Capitol today. And only if you're a school kid. This is from Perry Finelli's 7 a.m. newscast on MPR:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty releases Minnesota's new state quarter this afternoon at the State Capitol. School children will be able to get free quarters and everyone else can buy $10 rolls.

U.S. Mint Director Henrietta Holsman-Fore will also be there. She said the quarters are educational.

"The quarters are introduced in the order in which the states were admitted to the union. And as you know, Minnesota is the 32nd state. So we are teaching history. We are also teaching geography and financial literacy. And as you know from the Minnesota quarter, we are teaching about the scenic beauty of the states."

Minnesota's quarter features two people fishing on a tree-lined lake, a loon and the words "Land of 10,000 Lakes." TCF Bank is the host bank for the rollout of the Minnesota quarter, which is part of the U.S. Mint's 50-state commemorative quarter program.

And finally, you've probably heard about that piece of a Northwest Airlines jet that fell off the plane and landed in a field in Dakota County. I couldn't help but notice this line in the Associated Press story:

Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said Flight 97 left Saturday from Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport bound for Honolulu. The flight crew didn't notice that the cone-shaped engine part - called a thrust reverser nozzle - was missing until the DC-10 had landed, she said.

No one was injured. The thrust reverser helps to slow planes when they come in for a landing. The landing in Hawaii was routine, Isham Cory said. She referred to the engine part that fell, which is located on the tail of the aircraft, as an "extra mechanism" that wasn't being used in the flight.

"Extra mechanism?" I don't know about you, but when I'm on the plane there's no such thing as an "extra mechanism" on the engine. Please keep all of the mechanisms on the plane!

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:58 AM

April 11, 2005
Catching up

What a weekend! Nice weather, Hillary Clinton, Karl Rove and Tiger Woods. Let's catch up on some news. The Red Lake High School reopens this week. MPR's Tom Robertson has an interview with one of the teachers who was in the building during the shootings:

Chris Johnson was in his welding shop in the old section of the school. All but one of the shootings took place in a newer section, which opened just last fall. Johnson's classroom was empty, just himself and a custodian named Tom. Johnson recalls it was maybe five minutes before 3 p.m.

"All the sudden we hear these noises. And I said, well what in the hell was that? And both Tom and I looked out my welding shop window, and there is our security guy laying on the floor down the hallway, about 35 feet from our window. I swear I could have looked for a minute thinking, what in the hell am I looking at? What is this?"

MPR's Laura McCallum has an item about that visit from Sen, Hillary Rodham Clinton:

The New York Democrat spoke at the DFL's annual Hubert H. Humphrey dinner. Clinton says the Bush administration is trying to undo the progress made during the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton. She criticized the Bush administration for the growing federal deficit and the president's plan to overhaul Social Security.

Clinton also talked about the issue she may be best known for - health care - and noted that 80,000 Minnesotans have lost their health insurance in recent years.

"And I'd like to say those people - because this is probably the issue I hear more about in every corner of New York - I would like to say that the DFL and the Democrats and I will never forget you. Because we will never stop fighting for quality, affordable health care for every single American," she said.

One thing Clinton didn't mention in her speech Saturday night was her plan for 2008. I'd like to put a quote in here from Karl Rove during his visit Friday night to raise money for Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Unfortunately Rove's speech wasn't open to the press. If you were there and heard him, let me know what he said.

The Associated Press has a profile of one of Pawlenty's top DFL critics in the Legislature, Sen. Larry Pogemiller:

"I don't like his style of governance," said Pogemiller, a senator from Minneapolis. "He basically has a press conference style of governance. It's all public relations. I think it's more important to work on major issues that fundamentally affect education, fiscal policy, health care. I personally don't believe Gov. Pawlenty has done a good job on that yet."

Just don't call them personal attacks. "On a personal level, heck, he's very charming," Pogemiller said, his staccato voice jumping nearly an octave. "On a personal level we get along great. But this is business, and so far, it's a disappointment."

Meet Larry Pogemiller, 53, chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee and self-described Type-A personality. A longtime Capitol dealmaker with a well-known penchant for theatrics, Pogemiller has stepped up as one of Pawlenty's chief adversaries as Democrats try to outmaneuver the savvy governor in a session with high stakes for both parties.

Pawlenty shrugged off the comments. "I just chalk it up to Larry being Larry," he said. "He's kind of become a parody of himself."

The governor is set to sign the bonding bill Monday. With a little more than a month to go, expect to hear much more about the budget. Pogemiller and his counterpart in the House Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, couldn't be more different. We'll probably hear a lot from them in the next few weeks.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:39 AM

April 8, 2005
Amendment arguments

It's here. It's near. Get used to it--the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, that is. As thousands of people gathered to rally in support of gay rights outside the Capitol Thursday, the Minnesota Senate held a procedural debate about the amendment. For now, the Senate rejected an attempt by Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, to force a vote on the issue. MPR's Michael Khoo had some post-game analysis after the debate:

"It's not a political issue; it's a moral issue, it's a cultural issue, and it's also an issue of governance," Bachmann says. "Essentially it comes down to this: Will the people of Minnesota be able to decide the rules that they live under? Or will activist courts now decide the rules that we live under?"

Sen. Don Betzold, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Bachmann filed the bill late and only asked for a hearing last week - just as his committee was bumping up against legislative deadlines. He said he'd give the bill a hearing - but left open the possibility it could be next year instead of this session.

It should matter little, he said, since the earliest a vote could be held on the measure is in 2006.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, blasted Bachmann for trying to circumvent the committee process.

"In her pursuit of a congressional seat, she is willing to break every rule," Johnson said. "That's what this is about."

Actually the Senate does have rules that allow a bill to circumvent the committee process. The Senate followed the rules Thursday and Bachmann lost the vote to bring the bill up for immediate debate.

The Pioneer Press has details of a meeting between rally participants and Bachmann:

OutFront Minnesota officials said almost all of the Legislature's 201 members heard from constituents who are gay or lesbian or their allies Thursday.

That list includes Bachmann. She met with about a dozen members of her Senate district who came for the rally.

"She did a lot of listening, at first," said Carol Waldoch of Forest Lake, who met with Bachmann. But things got a bit heated, Waldoch said, particularly because Bachmann had invited two people who call themselves "ex-gay" to the meeting.

"She was telling us we have a choice to live as we do," Waldoch said. Bachmann told them, as she has said before, that they can get married just like anyone else but they have to marry someone of the opposite sex.

I guess I'll just leave that without a comment.

Big political doings in Minensota this weekend. Karl Rove is coming to Minneapolis Friday night to raise money for Gov. Tim Pawlenty. And Sen. Hillary Clinton is speaking to DFLers (and raising money for the party and herself) on Saturday. MPR's Mark Zdechlik looks Pawlenty's national prospects:

[Grover] Norquist said Karl Rove's fundraising visit clearly signals the Bush White House has confidence in Pawlenty and considers Minnesota important to national Republican politics. Long-time national Republican activist and strategist Paul Weyrick agreed but offered some context.

"I wouldn't read a whole lot more into it because Rove is holding fundraisers for practically everybody that you could consider to be a potential candidate for the presidency in 2008," Weyrich said. "In Gov. Pawlenty's case, assuming that he's going to run for re-election, he'll need plenty of funding, and Karl Rove is a hot item."

But Weyrich added that as Rove raises millions for Republicans around the country, he's also talent scouting.

"I expect that Rove won't stay in this White House for more than a couple of years," Weyrich said. "And at the conclusion of his service to the president, I think he's going to be looking for a client to guide into the White House in 2008. And I think this may be one way that he's looking at all potential clients for himself."

The Star Tribune takes a look at Clinton's Minnesota popularity:

While Clinton has remained mum on her presidential plans, [Sen. Mark] Dayton, who will introduce her at the dinner and attend a $1,000-per-person fundraising reception for her at the home of DFLer Vance Opperman, said her visit "shows a breadth of possible interest beyond 2006."

Dayton, who joined the Senate with Clinton in 2001, said he's ready to back her for president because "she's very experienced, very politically astute, very hard-working, very disciplined, very intelligent, and she's solid on the issues."

Clinton vs. Pawlenty in 2008? You never know.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:44 AM

April 7, 2005
Bonding breakthrough

The House and Senate finally managed to do it Wednesday night. For the first time in a year they agreed on a major piece of legislation. It was the bonding bill, a package that will fund nearly $1 billion worth of construction back in their districts. MPR's Michael Khoo has the story:

Lawmakers came to St. Paul in January pledging to take quick action the public works bill that ground to a halt in last year's legislative gridlock. Republican House Majority Leader Erik Paulsen of Eden Prairie says the 115-16 vote in favor of the bill is testament to a spirit of bipartisanship that was noticeably lacking in 2004.

"We were honest and upfront. We wanted to move the bill quick. We wanted to move it and who the people that we wanted to get things done. And I'm hoping we will continue in a bipartisan effort to deal with the budget issues as we move forward," he said.

The bill funds almost $950 million worth of projects -- the vast majority of which are financed by borrowing money through the sale of state bonds. That includes substantial investments in higher education buildings and classrooms, a down payment on the Northstar commuter rail line linking Minneapolis and Big Lake, and a prison renovation project in Faribault. Money is also channeled to the Shubert Theater in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, and a secure nursing home for sex offenders in St. Peter.

Mr. Khoo has another interesting story today about how to raise $200 million without a new state casino. One proposal that raises much more than $200 million is to partially roll back the income tax cuts the Ventura-era income tax cuts:

[DFl Sen. John]Hottinger says his bill would roughly double the governor's increase in K-12 education funding, as well as provide new money for early childhood programs and state colleges and universities. And the income tax is only one way to recoup the lost casino money. Hottinger says discussions are ongoing about boosting the cigarette tax -- another 80 cents per pack could replace the casino revenue -- or expanding the sales tax. Auto repair services alone would do the trick.

Crunching the numbers isn't hard. Overcoming political resistance is another story. Pawlenty has pledged not to consider new tax increases, and a number of his GOP allies are backing him up on that. Still, Nan Madden of the Minnesota Budget Project says the impact of tax increases are often overstated.

"When you spread the impact across all of Minnesota taxpayers so everyone's paying something, the extra amount that people are paying really isn't all that much," she says.

Using numbers provided by the non-partisan House Research Department, Madden says that a 1.5 percent surcharge on income taxes would roughly replace the struggling casino plan. For a family of four making $60,000 a year, that would amount to less than a dime a day.

The Star Tribune has a front page story about Congressional pensions. Sen. Mark Dayton says he won't take his (estimated at $16,000 annually after six years in the Senate). The National Taxpayers Union estimates Rep. James Oberstar is due at least about $120,000 when he retires and Martin Sabo is already due more than $100,000 per year at retirement:

The exact amount of members' pensions is a secret because Congress exempted its pension records from the federal Freedom of Information Act. At the Star Tribune's request, the taxpayers' union estimated pensions for the Minnesota delegation. Only half of the 10 Minnesota members are currently eligible for pensions because they've served in Congress for at least five years, the minimum required.

Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad would get a pension of $46,749 in 2007, while Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson and Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht would receive yearly pensions of $44,100 and $20,528, respectively, according to the NTU. Those not yet vested are Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, Republican Reps. Mark Kennedy and John Kline and Dayton, the only Minnesotan who has announced that he won't accept his pension.

Sabo declined to comment on his pension, while Oberstar said he has not attempted to figure out how much he'll receive.

"I have no way of disputing that number because I haven't made that calculation," said Oberstar. "So I neither accept nor reject it. ... If retirement were a daily driving force in my service in Congress, I would have this figured out to the penny. I haven't looked at it in God knows when, and I don't intend to." Oberstar called the NTU a "wing of the Republican Party" and said their work is biased.

Some estimates say 4 million people have flocked to Rome for the pope's funeral. The Associated Press says you can make it 4-million-and-one:

Minnesota Congressman Gil Gutknecht will be part of a congressional delegation to Pope John Paul's funeral in Rome.

Gutknecht is among 40 members of Congress who'll get to make the trip.

The 1st District Republican was raised Lutheran and is married to a Catholic. He says he's considered himself a practicing Catholic for the last 30 years.

Gutknecht says it's a "high honor," and he's pleased to represent millions of Minnesotans who won't be present to pay their last respects to the pope.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:34 AM

April 6, 2005
Dead or alive

The first deadline has come and gone at the Capitol. Stadiums for the Twins and Vikings didn't make it, medical marijuana did and what's alive, and what's dead is anyone's guess. On the stadium story, MPR's Laura McCallum says they're alive...unless they're dead:

[House Speaker Steve] Sviggum says he's not opposed to either stadium, as long as it doesn't use any general fund money. The Twins bill, introduced by Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, last week, doesn't specify a funding source or a location. Kelley says he wanted to introduce the placeholder bill to make sure stadiums remained on the Legislature's radar.

"They're not the most important thing on the agenda," Kelley acknowledges. "Education, health care, public safety are at the top of the agenda. But what, if anything, we can do on stadiums this year should be on the agenda somewhere."

Kelley says missing the first committee deadline isn't a major setback. He says the bill could always bypass the normal deadlines if legislative leaders support it.

As for the medical marijuana bill the Pioneer Press reports it's alive...for the moment:

The Senate panel voted to bar such arrests and passed a bill to sanction marijuana's use for those with debilitating illnesses the first committee vote on the measure in Minnesota after years of debate.

Backers say the bill probably won't pass all the legislative hurdles this year. Even if does, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he is unlikely to sign it into law."I'm not for it. I think we have enough other medicines and pain relievers available that we don't need to use that one," Pawlenty said Tuesday.

But those testifying before the Senate Health and Family Security Committee said other pain medications don't help them as much as marijuana does. And they said they came to marijuana as a last resort.

Conrad deFiebre has a fascinating story in the Star Tribune about a benefit former lawmakers receive. Most people probably don't know about it, and it's an interesting counterpoint to the debate over state health care programs like MinnesotaCare:

State Employee Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman says as many as a dozen former legislators have moved in and out of the health plan in the past six years, about five of them "with regularity."

Citing severe federal penalties for disclosing confidential health information, Ludeman has named no names. But he is asking the 2005 Legislature to tighten up the rules to curb what he says would be an abuse if it weren't completely legal.

The law, on the books for at least 30 years, allows former legislators to enroll in the plan "at will, for no particular time, and to re-enroll any number of times during their lifetime," Ludeman said. "The claim cost is paid by all other members of the group -- state agencies and employees."

Some lawmakers say the program should stay exactly as it is, no matter what the cost. And because all current lawmakers will someday be former lawmakers, don't look for any changes soon.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:40 AM

April 5, 2005
Gambling goes down

Everybody knew the governor's casino plan and the racino proposal faced a big hurdle in the Senate Agriculture, Veterans and Gambling Committee, but when both were defeated by bipartisan votes it was still a key moment in the 2005 session. Specifically, the vote was 10-4 against both bills. MPR's Michael Khoo has one of the better quotes of the year:

Pawlenty chief of staff Dan McElroy said the legislation can still be revived.

"Good bills are like bread. They have to be kneaded and patted and bounced. And they have to rise. And sometimes they fall. And then they may rise again. And so this loaf shall rise again."

No doubt. But does it have enough yeast? In the Pioneer Press, Patrick Sweeney suggests the bakers are hard at work, and that they may settle for half a loaf:

But a decision by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Republican House leaders to postpone casino votes today in the House Tax Committee was a more important sign that the move to expand gambling in Minnesota is facing significant opposition from lawmakers.

In an interview before the Senate committee voted, House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said members of Pawlenty's staff requested a delay in the Tax Committee votes because they feared the casino bills might be defeated.

"The governor's office wanted some opportunity, some time, to develop a different strategy," Sviggum said.

A merger between the two casino plans a state-tribal partnership that Pawlenty advocated, and a rival plan promoted by the owners of Canterbury Park racetrack in Shakopee could be the next step.

McElroy and Pawlenty are now saying a vote against the casino plan is tantamount to a vote to increase taxes. But Sweeney notes that argument cuts two ways.

"Our governor," Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said, "feels that he can break his promises to the tribes, but he cannot break his no-new-taxes pledge, and that's where the problem lies."

While the governor's effort to raise some money hit a roadblock, a proposal to spend more on a stadium is alive and well. The stadium in question is for outdoor football at the University of Minnesota. The state's share of the $235 million facility would be $7 million per year for 25 years. Could the bill get tangled up with other stadium proposals in the closing days of the session? The Pioneer Press' Aron Kahn suggests yes:

Indeed, lobbyists for the Twins and Vikings were in the committee room, taking note of the bill's success. Asked after the vote if those teams might encourage another legislator to try to amend the bill to include funding of professional stadiums, [Rep. Ron]Abrams said "shame on them'' if they do.

Legislative history would prove that amending the bill is entirely possible, but the university would be expected to fight such an attempt because funding three stadiums would make the measure much more controversial.

I found quite a contrast between two other items in the news today. The first, a rant from former Gov. Jesse Ventura as reported by Dane Smith in the Star Tribune:

Ventura always was a provocateur as governor, but his act since he left the governor's office has gotten ever more outrageous. At one point he told the students that it was hypocritical for people of his free-love generation to urge sexual abstinence. "Make all the love you want, just use a condom. ... If it feels good, do it; I did." His language has become considerably saltier.

Near the end of his speech, he joked that he was indeed a "sexual tyrannosaurus" and that "you could just ask the First Lady."

And he was as harsh as ever in criticizing the media. Pointing to reporters in the front row, he called them "Bozos" and reiterated his labeling of reporters as "pedophiles" because of stories written about his son's behavior at the governor's residence.

Outrageous, dude! Now the other story. It's from the Associated Press on the funeral in Rochester yesterday:

Friends and family who gathered to remember fallen Spc. Travis Bruce said he was a man who wanted to prove he could do anything - and what he wanted to do was serve his country.

More than 500 people gathered at Bethel Lutheran Church in Rochester for Bruce's funeral on Monday. The 22-year-old was killed March 23 by a rocket-propelled grenade as he stood on a rooftop guarding an Iraqi police station in Baghdad, relatives and the U.S. Army said.

"I love my son, very much. He loved his father too," said Bruce's father, Kenneth, at the funeral service. "We had such great times together and I just hope everyone here understands what it means to give the ultimate sacrifice for their country. My son did, and I'm so proud of him."

I don't know how you feel about it, but the entire Ventura era just seems so long ago, so pre-9/11, that it's just hard for me to pay much attention to our former governor.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:43 AM

April 4, 2005
Keep your eye on the ball

Events at the Capitol are being overshadowed by other news. First it was the Red Lake shootings, now it's the death of Pope John Paul II. Of course it's worth paying attention to the Legislature because they often do surprising things when no one is looking. The first committee deadline is this week, which means things are about to shift full-time to budget issues. Today a key Senate committee is going to vote on Gov. Pawlenty's casino plan. DFL Majority Leader Dean Johnson says most committee members oppose the bill, but even if the committee rejects it, he doubts the proposal is dead for the session. MPR's Mark Zdechlik has a look at the upside and downside of video slot machines:

The Minnesota Lottery estimates in a metro area casino each slot machine would clear just under $300 a day. That's about $430 million per year from the governor's casino proposal. The Canterbury park option envisions annual slot revenue of more than half that. Factoring in the costs of operations and profit sharing, the state general fund would end up with about $100 million a year from the Canterbery proposal. It would get about $120 million annually from a state-tribal metro-area casino.

Psychologist and gambling addiction counselor Bob Breen, who runs the Rhode Island Gambling Treatment Program, says all of the money comes with significant social costs. "It's a lot of money, but I don't think it's free money," insists Breen.

Breen has studied the link between compulsive gambling and slot machines. He says based on interviews with numerous addicts, he's determined the rapid pace of video slots can led to gambling addiction much more quickly than any other forms of gambling.

The Star Tribune also has a look at the downside of gambling, but points out there aren't recent numbers for lawmakers to consider:

Minnesota hasn't conducted a comprehensive study on the prevalence of problem gambling since 1994, and it hasn't evaluated state-funded programs to treat gambling addicts since 1997. The Department of Human Services is preparing to do a new analysis on the effectiveness of treatment.

J. Clark Laundergan, director of the Center for Addiction Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said another study on the prevalence of problem gambling might help determine whether there has been an increase in pathological gambling in the state since the early days of the casino boom.

And just when you thought the University of Minnesota's proposed new football stadium was the only game in town, this opening day of baseball season marks the beginning of a new push for a Twins stadium. Maybe you missed the first pitch on the editorial page of Sunday's Pioneer Press:

A ballpark-financing proposal that is taking shape in the halls of commerce and politics in St. Paul presents a workable and fair plan for building a 40,000-seat outdoor Twins stadium in downtown St. Paul. The plan would ask the Twins and owner Carl Pohlad to pay more than they have been willing to commit in the past and calls for the city and the state which would both benefit greatly from the new ballpark to put up substantial shares.

Now that state lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty have finally agreed to a bonding bill that provides much of what St. Paul and east metro communities were seeking, it's time to call the stadium question. There is political will, strong community support and an ideal location in downtown St. Paul. Let's stop talking and get a deal done.

The PiPress plan calls for a $450 million roofless stadium. The state would kick in $100 million (over 30 years), the city and the team would each pay $175 million. The city's share would come mostly from a 2 percent bar and restaurant tax. Do you think bar owners will get on board now that many of their establishments remain havens for smokers? And how long before Minneapolis gets its bid in?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:45 AM

April 1, 2005
Tough votes and happy hour

It was the issue that led to gridlock last year, but the House has pressed ahead. By a vote of 77-56 the House approved a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. The vote was to put the proposed amendment on the statewide ballot in November of 2006. MPR's Michael Khoo noted there was just as vigorous a debate outside the House chamber as inside:

Outside the House chamber, several demonstrators on both sides of the issue gathered to watch the debate unfold. Cathy Max of Minneapolis says she supports the amendment. She says societies have the right to curb behavior that they find objectionable.

"To redefine who and what we are so that someone else can have a similar -- what they consider -- "right" is not giving a freedom, it's trying to change who and what we are," Max said.

Doug Benson of Robbinsdale says he and his same-sex partner have a marriage license from Ontario, Canada, and would like to see it recognized in Minnesota. He argues that the state has no to deny couples certain privileges based solely on sexual orientation.

"It's a civil contract; it has nothing to do with religion whatsoever. And it should be available to all couples that want to get married," he said.

Benson says he'd like to see the current state law barring same-sex marriages thrown out or repealed, but that he doesn't have the resources to bring legal action. The possibility that a gay or lesbian couple may one day initiate a lawsuit is a prime motivator for supporters of the ban.

The big question now is will the Senate vote on the amendment this year? Last year DFL avoidance of a vote helped lead to the end-of-session meltdown. The Star Tribune notes that DFL leaders would just as soon not deal with the issue again this year:

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, warned Republicans that if they push for a Senate vote this session they will have to vote as well on politically charged constitutional amendment proposals for universal health insurance, environmental protections and a ban on state-run casinos.

Johnson called the push for a gay marriage amendment part of "the politics of distraction."

Sponsors of a statewide bar and restaurant smoking ban bill said they will keep pushing, even though the measure looks dead for the session. It's unclear whether the differing bans in Ramsey and Hennepin counties will add to or detract from their efforts. As MPR's Art Hughes reports feelings are mixed:

The Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association has launched a $5000,000 promotion to encourage residents choked out by smoke to explore different places they may not have considered previously.

Still, many bar owners in Minneapolis and the rest of Hennepin County are worried they'll lose customers to nearby Ramsey County, which has a less restrictive smoking ban, or other counties which have no ban at all. Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman expects to see some shift in the bar and restaurant customer base.

"People will make those choices. There'll be more people coming to businesses that are now smoke free closer to their homes. And for people who still want to smoke they'll still have the option of going outside of Hennepin County to other businesses and people will have that choice," she said.

Talk about a divisive issue. The Pioneer Press has a good story today:

Kevin Maguire, who was sipping a Harp lager and reading a book, said he quit smoking a month ago. When he drinks at pubs in his native Belfast, Northern Ireland, he's forced to leave the pubs where nearly everyone smokes for breaks of fresh air.

"Here, I sit in peace," he said.

Not everyone was so serene. Drew Jenkel, a smoker, was so angry about the ordinances passed in Bloomington, where he lives, and Minneapolis, where he works, that he is boycotting businesses of all kinds in those two communities.

He discovered O'Gara's Bar and Grill in St. Paul still allowed smoking after he scanned a list of more than 100 exempted Ramsey County bars that ran this week in the Pioneer Press. Jenkel, 27, carries the list with him and posted a second copy at his downtown Minneapolis workplace. He calls it the "Approved List for Happy Hour."

It kind of gives the term happy hour a whole new meaning. I guess he'd drive a mile or two for a Camel. Or maybe he could take LRT to O'Gara's. The bonding bill agreement gives a boost to transit options in the East Metro according to MPR's Dan Olson:

The bonding bill contains $5.25 million for the 11-mile-long Central Corridor project. Planners propose either a $240 million rapid bus service between St. Paul and Minneapolis on University avenue, or an $840 million light rail line.

Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega and most other interests along the corridor favor light rail. However, Ortega is aware of the political pressure on federal transportation planners.

In transportation parlance both Central Corridor and Northstar are startup projects. The new federal transportation bill before Congress includes startup money for transit projects. Competition for the dollars from cities around the country is intense.

Ortega says federal policy makers are trying to stretch the start up dollars by touting the benefits of bus rapid transit over rail. Bus system construction costs are much less than rail at least at the front end.

"You could fund more projects around the country even though the impact might be short term, but you'd satisfy political interests around the country much more easily," he said.

Finally in the "what were they thinking?" category, the Duluth News Tribune has issued an apology for an editorial cartoon after about 80 people protested outside the newpaper offices Thursday:

"The media are perpetuating stereotypes of American Indians," Duluth American Indian Commission member Evie Tanner said in a letter to the editor. At the demonstration, Tanner said she was repulsed by the cartoon.

"We want more reporting on the good that American Indian people do," she said.

Tanner and representatives of the local American Indian community met with Executive Editor Rob Karwath and Editorial Page Editor Robin Washington after the demonstration.

"I feel confident they understand where the community is coming from," Tanner said after the meeting. "They did talk about cultural-comprehension training for the staff."

"We all have our blind spots," Karwath said. "We have to make people aware of those blind spots."

The cartoon, drawn by Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, shows the Red Lake Reservation School in the background. In the foreground, a man with a headband and ponytail holds an "Indian Tracking Guide" as he walks along a path littered with guns, bullets and Nazi symbols. The man says: "I'm not recognizing these signs."

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:37 AM