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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

March 25, 2019

Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 19

Minnesota moves one step closer to sanity on the roads

House passes common-sense bill to address increase in distracted driving.

The Minnesota House moved this state a step closer to reducing vehicular deaths Monday by passing a bill that would require motorists to keep their hands off their cellphones while driving.

Across the country, 16 states already have adopted common-sense laws that limit drivers to hands-free use of their phones. There is no excuse that will cover manually manipulating a phone while hurtling down the road at 60-plus miles per hour on the freeway or, just as bad, navigating densely trafficked city streets. Distracted driving is now a factor in one out of four crashes in Minnesota.

Will banning hands-on use eliminate all distracted driving? Sadly, no. Good driving requires keeping eyes and mind on the road, hands on the wheel. The hands-free bill tackles manual distraction, and that’s a start. Other states have shown that this simple measure, easy to understand and enforce, helps to reduce accidents.

“We know this bill saves lives,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the chief author of HF 50.

Drivers must become more aware of the danger that comes with juggling a phone and the wheel. The carnage from failed attempts at this kind of selfish multi-tasking was on full display at the Capitol earlier this week. Karin Ilg showed a picture of her late husband, whose bicycle was slammed from behind by a distracted driver. She now hands out tiny pieces of the smashed bicycle when she talks to groups. Vijay Dixit carried a portrait of his smiling, bright-eyed daughter, Shreya, to the Capitol on the day the bill was to be heard. Shreya was 19 when she was killed while driving home from college in Wisconsin.

Ilg and Dixit are among the many Minnesotans who have labored hard to build a broad coalition and bipartisan commitments that withstood last year’s legislative debacle, when the bill was felled by political agendas. Democratic and Republican supporters persevered and, despite a protracted debate, the final House vote on Monday was solidly bipartisan. In the Senate, Republican Scott Newman of Hutchinson is carrying the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he expects a vote on Monday, also with bipartisan support. Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has said he is prepared to sign the bill when it arrives. These are the elements of good lawmaking.

But for the legislation to have its intended impact, more must be done. Mike Hanson, director of the state Office of Traffic Safety, said his office is prepared to launch a massive awareness campaign after the law is enacted, fueled by $700,000 in federal funds over the next two years. The aim, Hanson said, is to help drivers retrain themselves. “We’re so addicted to our devices,” Hanson said, “what we need is a culture change.” Hanson said other states with hands-free laws have seen an average 15 percent drop in fatalities in the first year or two. “In Minnesota, that’s 53 lives saved a year,” he said.

Any time spent on Minnesota roads shows how ubiquitous cellphone use has become among drivers. It’s time to recognize there is no way to do that safely and that no call, no text, no Facebook post is worth a life.

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The Free Press of Mankato, March 18

Time to ban vaping in public spaces

Why it matters: The state Senate should follow the House lead and include vaping in the Indoor Clean Air Act.

The increase in people vaping flavored nicotine devices is leading many state lawmakers to crack down on their use in public buildings and places of employment.

Passing the legislation is a no-brainer.

The House already voted 100-25 to pass HF349, which would modify the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act to include “activated electronic delivery devices.”

If the Senate follows suit and the governor signs the bill, vaping would also be banned at public meetings, on public transportation, at health care facilities and schools and university buildings.

The bill also anticipates other technology that may arrive by limiting the indoor use of any “lighted or heated” products derived from nicotine, tobacco, marijuana, other plants and synthetics intended for inhalation.

When vaping technology arrived a few years ago, it flew under the radar for a time. It was and is touted as a way for tobacco smokers to get a nicotine dose without other harmful effects of tobacco. But the problems of vaping has grown clear and grown large since.

Vaping has become the new gateway drug to hook young people on smoking after years of seeing youth smoking rates fall. The FDA called vaping an “epidemic” last year. Vaping flavors include a host of candy and fruit flavors clearly aimed at appealing to young people. And a study last year suggests that someone who vapes is four times as likely to start smoking cigarettes.

One in five Minnesota students use e-cigarettes, and youth smoking rates have increased 50 percent since 2014, according to the sponsor of the bill. And most the young e-cigarette users have never used another tobacco product before.

Allowing adult smokers to switch from tobacco smoking to vaping may indeed expose them to less harm. But that benefit will be wiped out if many more new tobacco smokers are created by enticing kids with e-cigarettes.

Including vaping in the Clean Indoor Air Act is a first step. More will need to be done to keep e-cigarettes away from kids.

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Post Bulletin, March 25

Shopko closures part of national trend

If you’re wringing your hands about the closing of all Shopko stores in the area, you’re not alone.

The loss of these stores, which largely serve rural America and small communities (you won’t find Shopko stores in metro areas), is a blow to the retail landscape. It’s especially tough to swallow in Rochester, where several big-box retailers have closed their doors in the past year or so.

Luckily for shoppers in Rochester, there are still department stores, drug stores and supermarkets operating here. This is a major retail hub that retains a heathy outlook, despite several national chain store and restaurant closings.

But what about places like Kasson, where Shopko’s relatively new Hometown concept store was the biggest retailer in town? Or consider dozens of other small towns across the Upper Midwest, where Shopko was, if not the only game in town, at least a competitor that helped provide choices in products and pricing.

Shopko, based in Wisconsin, had 15,000 employees companywide. The store closings are also distressing news for those people and their families.

There was some hope in January when Shopko announced it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and close 250 of its 350 stores — and survive. But last week, the company announced that every single Shopko store will close.

In other words, there was nothing specific about the Rochester, Kasson, Austin or Winona markets that caused the demise of Shopko stores in those cities

The company, according to Money magazine, was saddled with debt and a struggling rural economy. And, like so many brick-and-mortar retailers, Shopko was battling the lure of shopping online — a siren song that has attracted many shoppers and helped spell the end of many local retailers.

Earlier this month, in fact, JC Penney, the Gap and Victoria’s Secret all announced they would close a total of about 300 stores. Some retail experts don’t expect Sears and Kmart to last through 2019, according to Money.

Who knows how many other retailers are on the endangered species list?

If you value stores in your hometown, then start shopping at those establishments, rather than online. Whether it’s a store that sells groceries, clothing, shoes, hardware or gifts, patronize the local retailer. Even a national chain store in your town pays taxes and wages locally.

Meanwhile, want a spot of good news on the retail front? Take a look at Eyota, where new owners are going to keep open the town’s only grocery store, which had been threatened with closure.

It’s one small store in one small town. In today’s difficult retail environment, though, we have to celebrate our victories when and where we can them.