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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

July 29, 2019

Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 26

A welcome but worrisome debt deal

It’s no longer fashionable to fret about debt and deficits. That is extremely unwise.

Something is happening between a divided Congress and President Donald Trump. They appear to have reached a compromise over, of all things, the debt ceiling.

Earlier this week, Trump issued a triumphant tweet stating: “I am pleased to announce that a deal has been struck with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — on a two-year Budget and Debt Ceiling, with no poison pills. This was a real compromise in order to give another big victory to our Great Military and Vets!”

In uncharacteristically speedy fashion, the Democratic House quickly followed up with bipartisan passage. The Republican Senate is due to follow suit this week. The deal raises the ceiling by $324 billion, divided between domestic programs and increased military spending, and brings to an end the threatened government shutdowns and rancorous debates that have accompanied the debt ceiling deadline for years.

There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one. The resolution further inflates a national debt that has risen at double-digit percentages through the Trump presidency and that now stands at a record $22 trillion. Meanwhile the federal deficit — the annual gap between revenue and spending — tops $1 trillion.

It appears to no longer be fashionable to talk about fusty old things like debt and deficits among the nation’s leaders. Trump never mentions it, except dismissively. Republicans by and large also appear to have abandoned resisting rises in the debt ceiling, with the exception of some murmurs of dissent from the House Freedom Caucus. But any serious objections would have surfaced during the ill-considered Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which benefited mostly corporations and the wealthy. Instead, Republicans clamored for the tax cuts, which are becoming a prime driver of the national debt and deficit and will be for years to come.

Trump’s Democratic rivals for 2020 have also spoken little of debt, preferring to propose costly new programs with few details on how to pay the tab.

The regular fights over the debt ceiling that have marked public debate since 2011 have done little to change the dynamic. In 2013 the government briefly shut down over GOP unwillingness to raise the limit for a debt that then totaled $16 trillion.

Some debt is healthy and natural. It may even be that the nation can handle more debt than once was thought advisable. But the U.S. debt has more than quadrupled since the late 1990s. At nearly $400 billion, the annual interest payment on that debt this year eclipses the hard-negotiated increases to domestic programs and the military that Democrats and Trump sought. And no one can think a debt level that now exceeds GDP is a preferred course, particularly in a country with an aging workforce and a wave of retirees living longer than ever.

This is unwise in the extreme. The national debt cannot be wished away, any more than inflation can. The U.S. is still in the midst of the longest peacetime economic expansion in its history. That, by any rational measure, is the time to pay down debts and prepare against the next economic downturn.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already begun ramping up talk of curbing “entitlements,” which includes Social Security and Medicare. Don’t be fooled. Even though they account for the lion’s share of federal spending, those programs also have dedicated sources of income and have contributed little to the debt.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board remains convinced that this country’s ever-mounting debt is a hindrance to the economy, as with any debt that takes money from more productive measures. Bipartisan solutions to bring it down must be a part of the 2020 discussion.

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The Free Press of Mankato, July 28

Water quality: River cleanup relies on agriculture’s efforts

Environmental regulators are rightly getting tougher on Minnesota River pollution, and meeting environmental standards will require residents, businesses and farmers to make difficult changes to their way of life.

A Minnesota Pollution Control Agency report released last week made a significant but perhaps not shocking conclusion that sediment in the Minnesota River and the Greater Blue Earth River must be reduced by 50 percent to meet environmental standards.

And much of that reduction must come from agriculture as it makes up 80 percent of the land in the 10 million acre Minnesota River basin. But runoff pollution from farmland is considered a “nonpoint” source of pollution, and therefore not subject to specific federal or state pollution regulation.

Thus farmer participation in reducing runoff is mostly voluntary and therefore can be problematic. While some farmers have been taking significant action to reduce runoff from their fields, their efforts are not enough. There is still far too much sediment flowing into the rivers.

The solutions are known. Runoff can be greatly reduced with more cover crops. Planting cover crops in the fall after harvest would go a long way to reducing sediment and nutrients flowing into rivers during the heavy spring melting period in Minnesota.

Cover crops also enrich the soil with nitrogen with the benefit of reducing costs. Cover crops act as a natural way to slow runoff and enhance absorption of even heavy rainfall.

The risks of using cover crops include possible soil disease and pests, but USDA experts suggest those risks can be managed by being vigilant and using the appropriate cover crop for the appropriate land type. The benefits of cover crops outweigh the risks.

Farmers say cover crops are difficult to manage in Minnesota because the short growing season makes it difficult to plant them in the fall. That sounds like a hurdle but not a roadblock.

And cost should not be a factor. In most cases cover crops can be planted for $3 to $5 per acre, and the Blue Earth County Soil and Water Conservation District will pay 50 percent to 75 percent of the cost of putting in cover crops.

Yet, less than 10 percent of farmers in Blue Earth County plant cover crops, according to estimates by the soil conservation district.

Cities, businesses and residents need to do their part. That means cities must require developers to build adequate holding ponds, and reduce surface runoff with rain gardens or other strategies. Residents need to limit their use of pesticides that can end up in rivers. Counties may need to restrict further the building of homes along rivers where erosion is sure to occur.

The recent report will be filed with the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the mandate for states to come up with water quality plans. The public will be able to comment on the plan and suggest changes.

But the facts are clear. The Minnesota River, the Blue Earth River and their tributaries are getting worse. Weather patterns have been proven to be more extreme with heavier rainfalls. That spells disaster for the Minnesota River if we don’t act with some urgency.

We urge farmers to work with their soil conservation district to plant cover crops. These are simple and relatively inexpensive steps to improve river water quality.

To do nothing is to risk the land and the water.

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St. Cloud Times, July 26

Kudos to Waite Park, St. Cloud for crackdowns on illicit massage; state, please step up

Three years ago this week, Central Minnesotans learned what local law enforcement and victim advocates had known — and been fighting against — for at least that long:

Sex trafficking was rampant in St. Cloud and Central Minnesota.

The Times’ news report “Sex trafficking: The Victims Next Door” spotlighted how this culture of exploitation and violence permeated communities big and small across Central Minnesota.

Three years later, the battle still rages.

The good news is at the local level: Amid ongoing law enforcement and prosecutorial efforts, Waite Park and St. Cloud are using their regulatory powers to flush out sex traffickers.

The bad news is at the state level: National reviews show Minnesota still ranks among the weakest states when it comes to implementing basic strategies to stop trafficking as well as help its victims.

Local victories

The latest good news locally comes courtesy of Waite Park and St. Cloud. Elected and professional leaders for both cities put the heat on illicit massage businesses.

Since June, Waite Park, which requires licenses for both massage enterprises and individual therapists, revoked licenses for two illicit massage businesses, both of which were fronts for sex trafficking.

Plus, the city is reviewing licenses of individual massage therapists, largely to make sure those individuals don’t simply leave one illicit business for another.

The St. Cloud City Council on Monday approved more stringent licensing criteria for massage businesses and therapists.

Much like Waite Park, the St. Cloud rules now require individual massage therapists to be licensed with the city. Previously, only businesses they worked in had to be licensed.

As a Times news report Tuesday noted, the city also decided it can deny or revoke a license without requiring a conviction of a crime. If officials have evidence of illegal activity, they can act immediately.

State should be embarrassed

Cities across Minnesota should consider measures similar to those in Waite Park and St. Cloud.

Why? Because Minnesota, as a state with ample regulatory powers and even more resources than cities, continues to do virtually nothing to regulate massage businesses.

Three years after “Sex Trafficking: The Victims Next Door,” Minnesota remains one of only four states without any form of statewide licensing or requirements for massage operations.

We brought that information to light more than a year ago in “Deceived, isolated and manipulated: Sex trafficking in illicit massage shops,” highlighting the work of The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization focused on helping sex trafficking victims by pursuing and disrupting traffickers.

Making this inaction worse: Minnesota’s silence at the state level comes despite yearslong efforts by credible, legitimate organizations like the American Massage Therapy Association asking states to adopt such licensing measures.

Then in March, the Polaris Project issued another report that should further embarrass state lawmakers.

Minnesota is one of only about 10 states without laws that provide survivors of any form of human trafficking with relief from criminal records.

Remember, sex trafficking victims are survivors of trauma. They are not criminals. Minnesota — like 40 other states — should adopt some form of legislation that at least seals their records as they try to move past being trafficked. Ideally, legislation would allow a victim’s record to be nullified or exonerated.

Without such measures, victims who do escape trafficking have to find housing, land jobs and essentially try to live a normal life with words like “prostitution” clouding any background check they face.

Keep fighting

Realistically, sex trafficking might never be fully eliminated. However, Central Minnesota has proven the past three years that aggressive investigations and prosecutions can make trafficking through websites and hotels more challenging.

Area cities picking up the fight through more stringent regulations is another encouraging sign, as is the work of organizations like Terebinth Refuge on behalf of survivors.

The challenges now are on two main fronts. First and most important, state lawmakers must join the fight through more regulations and resources. Second, penalties must be increased for those who buy sex.

There is no denying the supply side of sex trafficking has gotten more difficult in the past three years. Now it’s time to take the same aggressive approach with those driving the demand.

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