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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

May 15, 2018

Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 11

Here’s a must-do list for the Minnesota Legislature

Gov. Mark Dayton has lately made a mantra of one vow when briefing State Capitol reporters: “I will not call a special session.”

Legislators would do well to take the DFL governor at his word. The 2018 session’s permissible life span ends next Monday; no votes on bills can occur after midnight Sunday. The Republican-controlled Minnesota House and Senate should not expect the governor to allow them additional time for any “do-overs” if the bills they send him this week don’t win his signature.

It’s worrisome that all of the year’s major bills remain unfinished. Still, lawmakers shouldn’t need more time — not if they recognize that the season for partisan showmanship has already expired. It’s compromise time. Here’s what belongs on lawmakers’ must-do list:

— A bonding bill should not be seen as “dessert” to be held back until the session’s final hours for use as leverage to force concessions on other disputes. That risky strategy contributed to the collapse of the bonding bill two years ago. To avoid repeating 2016′s sorry finish, legislators need to regard public works projects as the serious obligation they are — and to see that delay only adds to their eventual cost.

To their credit, the Legislature’s two able capital investment chairs, Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City and Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester, were already working overtime last week to win the DFL votes that will be needed to achieve the three-fifths supermajority a bonding bill requires. Both bodies have advanced bills that authorize $825 million in general-fund-supported debt. That’s only slightly more than half the sum Dayton recommended and too skimpy to meet genuine needs on higher ed campuses, at municipal water treatment plants, in the supply of affordable housing and more.

That said, the House bill’s design is superior. The Senate’s version attempts to spread funds further, but so thinly that some included projects would not get enough funding to proceed. For example: Completing the new visitor center at Fort Snelling in time for the fort’s 2020 bicentennial requires the House bill’s $30 million, not the Senate’s $10 million.

Dayton’s bonding preferences now matter less than those of DFL legislators, who are well led on bonding in the House by 15-term St. Paul Rep. Alice Hausman. They should drive a hard bargain. And they should insist on using general obligation bonds, not funding mechanisms that carry higher interest rates. That possibility, floated last week by House Republicans, would rely on state lottery funds rather than the general fund to service the debt. While that approach would spare the general fund, it’s not in keeping with the conservative principle of meeting the state’s needs at the lowest possible cost.

—?A federal tax conformity bill should also pass this year. Both Dayton and Republican legislators will need to rein in their ambitions to make it so. A degree of the requisite restraint was evident Friday in a proposed House-Senate bill, due for conference committee consideration Monday. It wisely omitted a Senate provision for automatic future tax cuts whenever the state experiences a surplus, a position that threatens future fiscal stability. But it also omits an increase in the Working Family Credit, which would extend the bill’s benefits to the lowest-income taxpayers. That gubernatorial priority looks like a key to winning Dayton’s signature.

—?Spending measures take a back seat in this, the midpoint of the state’s biennial budget cycle. The state’s $329 million forecast surplus is enough to cover a number of needed measures that have broad bipartisan support but that in several instances have become entangled with more controversial matters.

Legislators should move quickly to free high-priority measures from partisan encumbrances. Rather than plotting to send Dayton one supersized bill, larded with measures he deems repugnant, in the hope that he will sign the whole mess into law, legislators should take a surer route.

They should send the governor separate bills to address the state’s opioid crisis, protect frail elders from abuse at the hands of their caregivers, improve school safety, shore up state employee pension funds and beef up information technology funding, both for the sake of cybersecurity and the resolution of the motor vehicle registration software snafu Minnesotans witnessed last summer.

Two weeks ago, Dayton added one big item to his wish list — $138 million in relief for the state’s school districts, at least 59 of which are planning cuts to cope with budget deficits in 2018-19. Dayton signaled his determination to secure that aid with a two-day school tour and an open letter to Minnesotans.

We’ve advised legislators to respond to schools’ fiscal distress with a more targeted — and less costly — approach than Dayton is recommending. Meeting Dayton at least partway on schools could be key to moving past other sticking points and successfully concluding this session.

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Mankato Free Press, May 13

Court decision a victory for public information

When a major crime occurs and law enforcement agencies call a press conference, news reporters attend with the goal of getting accurate information to the public in a timely manner.

Good journalists do not take the responsibility lightly. Lives of victims and lives of the accused are forever changed when stories break about major crimes.

In the case of a murder investigation, law enforcement typically controls the flow of the information to ensure the case is not jeopardized in any way. So when they hold a news conference or release official statements, the media take that step seriously, trying to accurately report what happened and attributing those details to police.

A recent state appeals court decision emphasizes just how important it is that media organizations are protected when they report information released by law enforcement agencies. When a Cold Spring police officer was murdered in 2012, authorities announced they’d made an arrest. But that suspect was released days later without being charged and was later cleared. The man sued news outlets that had reported he’d been arrested in connection with the murder.

The appeals court dismissed the lawsuit, reinforcing that the “fair report privilege” did apply in the case.

The fair report privilege is a must for media to do their job. It protects from liability when publishing an accurate and complete report of an official action or proceeding. What good would it do to cover news conferences if none of the information could be shared with the public?

It’s difficult enough to get details about serious crimes before criminal complaints are filed in court. Without the ability to quote law enforcement officers who have access to the details of a case, the public could be kept in the dark for far too long about a deadly crime that occurred in their community.

It is, of course, unfortunate that law enforcement arrested the wrong man in the Cold Spring case. But that doesn’t indicate the media were wrong in reporting the arrest, which was public information even without a news conference announcing it. Under state law, arrest information, including age, gender, address and other such details must be released immediately by the arresting agency.

Media must strive to report as accurately as possible. That, however, doesn’t mean news stories can’t evolve as more information comes to light. The appeals court made the right decision in the Cold Spring case by supporting the fair report privilege so that journalists can do their jobs of keeping the public informed.

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Winona Daily News, May 11

Funding Minnesota State is the easiest choice the state Legislature can make

Last week, the Winona Daily News recognized nine area high school seniors for our 13th annual Above and Beyond awards. These remarkable young men and women have overcome tremendous odds to put themselves in a position to graduate high school and attend college.

These are the students who, in three to five years, become the applicants that every business wishes would walk through the door.

While tenacity, heart and character are great attributes, potential employees also need the requisite skills. And where better for the workforce of tomorrow to learn those skills than at the local college or university.

The colleges and universities of the Minnesota State system — including Winona State University and Minnesota State College Southeast — have a history of working with local employers to identify needs that can best serve a changing workforce. They have fostered partnerships that have benefited not only the business and the educational institution, but also the student, who leaves after two or four years with not just a certificate or a degree, but the confidence and skills to pursue a career. (Not to mention, they probably aren’t buried in debt, either.)

Our hope is that our elected representatives in St. Paul remember this when putting together the budget before the legislative session ends May 21.

The colleges and universities of Minnesota State say they are places of hope and opportunity for Minnesotans who want to create better futures for themselves, their families and their communities.

The numbers bear that out. Of the 375,000 students in the 30 state college and seven state universities that make up the Minnesota State system, more than 63,000 are students of color or Native students. There are 48,500 first-generation students and 84,000 from low-income families. Several of the students we honored through our Above and Beyond program fall into one or more of these categories.

A strong system benefits Minnesota. Eighty-one percent of system graduates stay in Minnesota, either by working for a Minnesota company or continuing their education at a Minnesota school.

The system needs help. The state’s budget allocation isn’t keeping up with inflation. The needs of its students are changing — education is changing — and what a college classroom looked like in 1978 isn’t what it should look like in 2018.

And some school buildings, most of which are nearing 50 years old, are falling apart. They are in need of maintenance that has been delayed so these colleges and universities can continue to meet the educational needs of students. Now they are having to find ways to meet students’ basic needs. Southeast needs a new roof. Winona State needs upgrades to its utility tunnel and HVAC systems.

In its capital request of the Legislature, Minnesota State asked for $130 million to put a dent in the $913 million needed in deferred maintenance, called Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement. It also asked for $94.5 million for building projects, including $22.5 million for a new academic learning center in Bemidji State and $22.85 million to improve learning environments at Rochester Community Technical College. The Winona State Education Village — which WSU officials hope draws future educators from across the state — was the recipient of $25 million two years ago through this type of request.

Gov. Mark Dayton provided $180 million for deferred maintenance projects — $50 million more than was asked — and fully funded Minnesota State’s project requests in his $1.5 bonding bill proposal. The Republican-controlled House and Senate didn’t see it the same way, offering $40 million (House) and $65 million (Senate) for HEAPR in bonding proposals that were half of what Dayton offered.

These schools shouldn’t have to make the choice between a new program and a new roof, or between helping students develop career skills and keeping those same students warm enough in class.

They have already made tough choices with their budgets. Positions have gone unfilled. Building needs have been ignored. Tuition — $8,000 a year for the universities and $5,000 a year for the colleges — has remained flat over the last six years, partly because the Legislature forbids the system from raising it in the second year of the biennium, but also because they want to make sure those students from low-income families still have a path to a prosperous career in the field of their choice.

The Legislature is facing tough choices before May 21. This should be an easy one. Keep the system strong for students like Lewiston-Altura’s Theresa Starks, Hope Lutheran’s Brandon Mullen and Rushford-Peterson’s Ian McNeill — Above and Beyond winners this year who will be attending Minnesota State schools next year. Keep the pipeline going for local institutions to provide local employers with a local workforce.

Keep Minnesota State as a place of hope and opportunity for students of all backgrounds and income levels.

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