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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

February 4, 2019

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jan. 30

Federal contract workers deserve back pay

Workers hurt by shutdown should not be penalized because they work under contracts.

When the nation’s longest federal government shutdown ended last week, President Donald Trump immediately pledged that he would restore the lost pay of some 800,000 federal workers who either had been furloughed or forced to work without pay.

But he left something out. Even more federal contract workers — a million by some estimates — were hurt by the shutdown. Among their ranks are those unlikely to have a monthlong financial cushion: clerks, cooks, janitors, security guards, support staff. In years past, they might have been employed directly by the federal government, but since the 1990s, pressure to whittle the federal workforce meant many of these jobs were contracted out. Shamefully, these contract workers have borne the brunt of previous shutdowns, watching their federal employee counterparts get back pay while they went without.

Now U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., is leading an effort to do what should have been done after shutdowns under previous administrations: Restore the pay of those who were unable to work through no fault of their own, helpless pawns of squabbling political leaders.

This is an effort that does not yet have strong bipartisan support, but it should. The money, Smith noted, has already been appropriated to agencies as part of their regular budgets. Under the bill, workers would get an average of about $600 per missed paycheck, depending on their wage rate, and there is a cap. That may not cover all losses — and the total cost of the bill remains unknown — but it is a good-faith attempt that would help some repay emergency loans and fees incurred from missed payments and fill the hole the shutdown left in their wallets.

Smith said it’s possible that agencies could order back pay on their own, using their authority to make a contract adjustment because of changed conditions. “A monthlong shutdown should qualify as a changed condition,” she told an editorial writer.

If that is the case, Trump should seize the opportunity to order his agencies to do so, and perhaps reclaim a bit of high ground. During his inaugural address, Trump pledged that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no more. And I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never, ever let you down.”

Well, Mr. President, the hardworking Americans who help make this government work have been forgotten in the past and should be forgotten no longer. You have the chance to do differently and restore their lost wages, just as those of federal employees will be restored.

There is no reason the recent standoff should result in a windfall for the government that comes courtesy of stiffing workers.

There is another powerful reason to restore these lost wages. Not doing so minimizes the full impact of a shutdown, partly shielding leaders from the consequences of their actions. That is especially important as another deadline looms. Reopening of the federal government is on a time-clock that runs out in less than three weeks. Trump has already signaled that he is prepared to shut down government once again if he dislikes the results of congressional negotiations.

Shutdowns are failures of the political process and should be abandoned by both sides, and we applaud those lawmakers who are working on bills that would ban this harmful tactic. In the meantime, government has a moral obligation not to make these workers pay for the president’s and lawmakers’ failure to reach agreement. The janitor who cleans a senator’s office should not suffer more from the shutdown than those who engineered it.

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St. Cloud Times, Jan. 25

It’s time for Legislature to act on statewide massage industry regulation

In December of 2017, the state awarded grant money to a collaborative of local law enforcement agencies to combat sex trafficking. The Central Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force formally became operational in April, and 62 sex buyers and eight traffickers were charged in Stearns County through December.

In May, a Times investigation into illicit local massage businesses found at least seven massage parlors in the St. Cloud metro area had been regularly listed on websites known for advertisements of sex for sale.

The task force’s results and the Times’ look at illicit area massage businesses — as well as the continued hard work done by area advocacy and victim services groups — underscore that the fight against human trafficking remains important.

All those efforts show the need for the state to help fight trafficking by licensing massage businesses statewide.

A report (Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses ) by the nonprofit Polaris Project, an organization aiming to disrupt human trafficking networks, identified systems changes at the state, local, federal and cultural level that help combat trafficking through illicit massage businesses.

It suggests strong laws for states, counties and cities so traffickers can’t move to areas with lighter regulation. St. Cloud and Waite Park license massage businesses and regulate the hours they can be open, but other metro cities do not. Plus, Minnesota is one of just four states nationwide without any form of statewide licensing for massage operations.

The Central MN Sexual Assault Center, Terebinth Refuge and the Central Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force, among others, provide valuable support to victims. Law enforcement is working hard to take down buyers and traffickers within existing legal frameworks.

Now it’s time for the Legislature to step up. The state needs to get on board with licensing regulations for massage businesses.

Statewide regulations likely wouldn’t be universally popular. Concerns over license fees as a barrier to entry for newcomers and the difficulties of those with nontraditional training to obtain licensing have been mentioned by those in opposition to previous industry licensing bills.

But licensing would provide a standard statewide and further legitimize good massage businesses, the majority of which are operating professionally and legally.

We echo the Polaris report’s call for citizens to be agents of change. We ask the Legislature to join the groups in Central Minnesota already working hard to combat trafficking through illicit massage parlors and assisting victims by regulating massage therapy statewide.

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The Free Press of Mankato, Jan.31

LGA: Walz city aid plan makes up losses

Why it matters: Cities are the government closest to the people, so funding can be directed where it’s needed most.

With the federal government increasingly dysfunctional and state political parties often taking the lead from their federal counterparts, the government that works best in the future may be the city.

So Gov. Tim Walz’s plan to increase local government aid by $30 million, bringing it back to the level of 2002 is a good down payment to empower the cities delivering goods and services to the people who can hold them most accountable.

Walz confirmed he is behind the plan for making the cities whole on getting the level of aid they received 17 years ago but also urged them to use their loud “choir voices” to convince other legislators.

City leaders told the Star Tribune the amount cities have had to get from property taxpayers ever since 2002 has risen by 123 percent. Many outstate cities like Bemidji used to get nearly half of their funding from local government aid but now get about a fourth of it from the state.

The program was started back in 1971 to help reduce property tax burdens to cities and particularly cities in outstate Minnesota that don’t have large property tax bases to draw upon.

Cities don’t really have a choice when it comes to funding basic services. They have to plow roads and treat wastewater whatever their population. The $30 million increase Walz and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities are requesting would amount to about a 5.5 percent increase over last year’s $535 million.

And the proposal should have bipartisan support at the Legislature. Last year, Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, proposed raising aid to the level of 2002, but it got nowhere with Republicans in control of the Legislature.

The Local Government Aid program over the years has helped create prosperity in Minnesota big cities and small towns, giving residents a choice of reasonable and stable places to live. The quality of life has eroded since 2002 when Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut local government aid due to state budget deficits.

It’s long past time the funding was restored. Local governments are generally efficient and attuned to local needs. As Walz said: “The closer you get to the decisionmaking of the people, sometimes you get better results.”

We urge the Legislature to approve Walz’s proposal for restoring government aid.

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