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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

November 26, 2018

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 21

Minnesota needs to get serious about distracted driving

Gov.-elect Walz, Legislature can help save lives with laws, awareness push.

If the new administration of Gov.-elect Tim Walz and the reconfigured Legislature want to show Minnesotans they’re serious about ending gridlock and bickering in St. Paul, then tackling the issue of distracted driving would be a constructive and symbolic starting point. There should be no need for squabbling on this issue.

Headlines far too frequently relay the tragic consequences of distracted driving, and that includes the use of hand-held cellphones. The statistics are overwhelming. The state Department of Public Safety reports that 1 in 5 serious vehicle crashes can be attributed to what’s become a plague on the roads. From 2013 to 2017, there were 265 people killed and nearly 1,100 injured in such accidents in Minnesota.

Yet not enough has been done to address the issue. Legislation earlier this year to ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving died in the Republican-controlled House without a floor vote despite bipartisan support and positive committee votes. “Election-year politics played an ugly hand,” said Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, House sponsor of the legislation.

Just as Minnesotans agree that drinking and driving don’t mix, state residents deserve better on the matter of distracted driving. Retiring Attorney General Lori Swanson put forward an unembroidered report on the subject last month, and the recommendations proposed by her office provide a good framework to rekindle the debate when the Legislature convenes in January.

Swanson calls distracted driving “an epidemic on the roads” and says it should be “stigmatized” just as drunken driving has been. Indeed, traffic deaths from drunken driving have declined from more than 200 in 1998 to 72 in 2017.

“We need to beef up the laws, beef up the (enforcement) tools and change the culture,” Swanson told an editorial writer. “Enough is enough.”

Swanson’s proposal would prohibit the use of cellphones while driving except in the case of hands-free and Bluetooth-enabled devices. The proposal also would increase penalties for texting while driving, which is already illegal. The current texting fine of $50 is the same as that for driving under the posted speed limit.

Moreover, Swanson’s proposal calls for license suspensions for repeat offenders and more funding for public-awareness campaigns similar to the successful public-service spots on drinking and driving. Her proposal also would require knowledge of distracted-driving rules in driver’s license examinations.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, co-author of the hands-free legislation that languished in the last legislative session, says he plans on introducing similar legislation this year. “There is overwhelming data that says we can save lives and prevent injuries. We’re in a new environment now,” he said.

Minnesota would be the 17th state to prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones while driving. Support for such a change cuts a wide swath in the state, from the families of victims of distracted-driving accidents to advocacy organizations such as the Minnesota Safety Council and trade groups such as the Minnesota Trucking Association and the Insurance Federation of Minnesota.

When the Legislature convenes in January, it would send a good message to Minnesotans if this issue were near the top of its to-do list. Too many lives are being lost or forever damaged on Minnesota’s roads and highways.

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St. Cloud Times, Nov. 24

Academy’s closure highlights child care challenges — again

The roughly 3-year dance between the St. Cloud school district and Little Saints Academy to reach a deal selling the former Wilson building to Little Saints came to rough end Wednesday when the academy shut down its operations there.

Owners Amy Bonfig and Dwight Pfannenstein basically told the Times the lack of progress on a deal was pushing that operation toward losing money so they ended their lease and offered families the option to move to their St. Joseph campus.

There’s certainly room for debate about why a deal could not be reached. Really, though, there is a broader issue this outcome should highlight (again!) for Central Minnesota.

It’s the challenges posed in finding quality, affordable child care.

Whether it’s Little Saints with two campuses serving hundreds or an in-home provider helping a handful of families, this area — like much of the state — simply cannot afford to lose more child care options.

As the Times news report “Minnesota’s ‘quiet crisis’ in child care ...” noted in April, Central Minnesota is short about 13,000 child-care spots based on an August 2017 report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

Child care experts say several factors drive that shortage, including low pay for providers, regulatory challenges, increasing costs for care and providers retiring or leaving the industry for other jobs.

Child care costs

Not surprisingly, limited supply likely drives up costs for families in need of care.

Child Care Aware of America this spring released its 12th annual report on the cost of child care. Minnesota was ranked as one of the seven highest-cost states. In fact, it ranks sixth nationwide for least affordable center-based infant care.

In Central Minnesota, Child Care Aware said annual costs are as follows, along with the percentage of median income of a married couple in that county.

— Benton County: Center-based infant care costs $11,960, 14 percent of median income. Center-based care for a 4-year-old, it’s $10,348, 12.1 percent . For family-based care, infants are $7,176 (8.4 percent of median income) and 4-year-olds are $6,552, which is 7.7 percent.

— Sherburne County: Center-based infant care costs $11,596, 9.3 percent of median income. Center-based care for a 4-year-old costs 9,724, which is 7.8 percent of median income. Family-based infant care costs $7,904 (6.4 percent) and 4-year-old care is $6,968, 5.6 percent of median income.

— Stearns County: Center-based infant care costs are $12,220, 13.1 percent of median income; Center-based care for a 4-year-old costs $10,348, 11.1 percent of median income. Family-based infant care is $6,916, 7.4 percent of median income while family-based care for a 4-year-old is $6,396, which is 6.9 percent.

Complex challenges

It’s important to note providers also face their share of challenges, some of which clearly drive their costs.

Minnesota legislators last session examined several bills aimed at helping providers address regulations and other costs of doing business.

Plus, regional demographics play a big role in care options. As the Child Care Aware study noted, “two of the top three least affordable Minnesota counties for family-based infant care have smaller populations when compared to the rest of the state. Consequently, these counties have smaller supplies of family child care providers that serve infants.”

Solutions?

Much like the issue of affordable housing, resolving child care shortages and improving affordability are not simple fixes.

One popular idea is providing more public subsidies — to providers, to families or both. However, that’s a tough sell when bills for center-based care and family-based care can differ by 50 percent or more.

Not to mention median incomes of the families. Indeed, there have been proposals floated in Minnesota that would offer child-care subsidies to families with six-figure incomes. Really?

Ultimately, realistic solutions to these challenges need to encompass all the parties that benefit and impact child care.

Employers who need the work skills of the parents who need the child care should be at the top of this list.

Are their pay levels adequate compared to the cost of living in their communities? Do they offer ways to help with care, whether it’s on-site facilities, telecommuting or some other innovative option?

Also don’t overlook the education system. After all, any parent of elementary-age kid will tell you the school calendar is the biggest driver of child-care needs.

And, of course, parents themselves must be willing to search out the best care that fits within their budgets.

Again, there are no simple solutions to this challenge — a point reiterated last week locally with the closure of Little Saints Academy at the old Wilson school.

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The Free Press of Mankato, Nov. 24

Legislature: Pass opioid safety legislation

Why it matters: Bipartisan legislation would have passed last year had it not been for the refusal by House GOP leader Daudt.

Minnesota legislators appear willing to take another swing at serving opioid abuse victims and holding pharmaceutical companies accountable. We hope they hit a home run.

This new attempt is likely only possible because the DFL now has control of the Minnesota House. Last year GOP Speaker Kurt Daudt simply wouldn’t accept legislation even from his own party that would impose fees on pharmaceutical makers to fund an opioid addiction program.

Daudt’s reticence is worth expanding upon to highlight just how critical this legislation was and the damage the speaker’s obstruction did. GOP Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, sponsored the legislation in the House last year. His son died of an opioid overdose in 2011.

GOP Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, developed a bipartisan bill in the Senate. The plan initially called for charging pharmaceutical companies a penny a pill. When that idea was thwarted by the pharmaceutical lobby, the plan was changed to a fee on pharmaceutical companies. It passed 60-6 in the Senate and would have raised $20 million, compared to the current fee per company of just $235.

But Daudt refused to give the bill even a hearing in the House and it died.

Daudt reasoned later that it looked like a tax on pharmaceutical companies and he didn’t want to tax any business in an “election year.” That apparently didn’t help the GOP House in November, as it lost 18 seats.

House DFLers are expected to resurrect the plan and feel confident they will have the votes with Daudt and his caucus out of power.

But Rosen is now suggesting that because Gov.-elect Tim Walz has said he favors eventually legalizing recreational marijuana there would be some kind of disconnect. Using Walz’s support for recreational marijuana to object to an opioid bill would be off-base in our view.

There is an opioid crisis in Minnesota, as in many other states. A bipartisan group of legislators saw that last year. It’s time to act swiftly on that plan this year.

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