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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

April 1, 2019

Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 29

Tone is better but progress is slow at Minnesota Capitol

Walz and legislative leaders are trying to get along, but the results are mixed.

Nearly halfway through Minnesota’s legislative session is a good time to assess progress (or its lack) in the only divided state government in the country.

The report is decidedly mixed.

On the plus side, DFL Gov. Tim Walz, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman have worked at building relationships behind the scenes, where it counts. They have mostly given one another space to define their roles with one another and their constituencies and to build a different, far less rancorous dynamic than in years past. Hortman said she and Gazelka still meet weekly. Gazelka brought his daughter to a recent breakfast at the governor’s residence. All three regularly pass up opportunities to take public shots at one another.

That kind of effort and restraint is undervalued in politics these days, but is some of the hardest work leaders from opposing parties can do. Grandstanding is much easier. It grabs headlines and satisfies the extreme parts of the base. But it does little to advance the difficult task of joint governance.

That’s also not to say these leaders won’t clash. They have vastly opposite agendas, with few areas of natural agreement.

And that’s what could spell trouble for this session. Comity only goes so far, and words have not always matched actions. The GOP Senate declared most major elements of the Walz agenda dead on arrival, from his transportation package with its 20-cent gas tax increase, to his revamping of health care, his bonding bill for infrastructure, the 2050 climate change plan, and so on. Notably, not only did GOP senators decline to carry the governor’s bills — once a fairly typical courtesy — but committee chairs would not hold hearings on them, effectively shutting down the debate needed for thoughtful compromise at the end. The Senate’s continued stalling on Minnesota’s federal election security funds, making this state the last in the nation to use that money, is indefensible and should end promptly.

There are some good signs, too. After talking with Walz, Gazelka earlier this week asked his chairs to begin hearing the governor’s bills. That was the right thing to do. Senators are free to debate, amend and even defeat those proposals. But don’t ignore them. That does a disservice to Minnesotans who want to see those ideas pressure-tested. But it shouldn’t have taken nearly half the session. Walz is within his rights to wonder if the other side is simply “running out the clock,” as he put it at a news conference earlier this week.

Fortunately, there is time to work out even major differences. The elements of compromise are there, and away from the cameras and lights, will be discussed. Hortman said she remains optimistic because “we’ve all accepted the concept that everyone has to have wins out of this. This doesn’t end with the blue team winning everything or the red team winning everything.”

Coming off an election that installed a new governor and changed the House majority, Minnesotans should not settle for an incremental, turn-of-the-screw session. This state has big problems to tackle: on health care — particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s fresh attacks on the Affordable Care Act — on taxes, on roads that recently got a D grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, on gun violence, on how best to eliminate school disparities and improve the state’s problem-plagued technology, and, yes, how better to tackle waste and fraud. We’d like to see both bodies come at these crucial questions with renewed energy.

The template exists. In a notable example of bipartisanship, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, did yeoman work to push through a hands-free cellphone bill that succeeded where last year’s failed, carefully addressing concerns and working through differences. That bill now is in conference and should go to the governor soon. Both bodies are making good progress on ways to address the opioid crisis, another measure that stalled out last year.

Gazelka recently relented on gun violence bills, saying the Senate would hold hearings on universal background checks and red flag proposals that remove guns from those found to be a danger to themselves or others, once those bills pass the DFL House. It shouldn’t be necessary to place conditions on scheduling hearings, but the majority leader’s move is a positive step.

There is much work to be done between now and a scheduled adjournment of May 20. A 10-day recess that starts in mid-April will further compress the timeline. Minnesotans should use that time to put legislators on notice that they expect real progress and a timely finish.

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The Free Press of Mankato, March 28

School safety: Fund more counselors for students’ emotional health

Why it matters: A new study shows fortifying schools and lockdown drills are not enough to stem the tide of school shootings.

While there’s a renewed push to boost spending on school safety through more locks and tighter security to fortify schools, a new study of school shootings suggests that will not be enough to prevent future school shootings.

An in-depth study of 45 school shootings since the Columbine High School shooting of 20 years ago shows all the shooters were former students and were well acquainted with how to access their schools. They may have even gotten ideas from maximizing casualties based on their knowledge of where students go during lockdown drills in which they themselves participated.

Researchers Jillian Peterson, a Hamline University criminologist, and James Densley, a sociologist at Metro State University, examined school shootings and came up with conclusions on prevention that challenge the school fortification idea and other conventional wisdom.

In 20 years since Columbine, nothing has worked to prevent school shootings, Peterson told Minnesota Public Radio. The researchers suggest a very different approach to preventing school shootings.

They say teachers and staff need greater engagement with students to find the intervention points with troubled students. Their research showed that 91 percent of the shooters were current or former students, that many had a history of trauma as a risk factor for violence and 80 percent had suicidal thoughts or had expressed threats in the past.

Peterson and Densley say the threats are a critical point of intervention that can lead to prevention of violence. Schools need more counselors and social workers as much or even more than they need new security systems.

Engaging with at-risk students means schools may need to have more after school programs and more counselors on site. When students make threats they may need to be asked what they “need” before or, in place of, a turn at juvenile court.

Minnesota has made some progress providing more funding for schools to hire more counselors but the ratios of students to counselors remain far below the national averages. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students for every one counselor. The Mankato Public Schools ratio is about 475 to 1 and Minnesota statewide ratio is 700 to 1.

So far Minnesota has focused more resources on securing school facilities than funding counselors. Last year, the Legislature approved $25 million in bonding to improve the safety and security of school buildings. Another $26 million was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton who objected to controversial provisions of all manner in the large mega omnibus bills put together by the Republicans.

In 2016, the Legislature set aside just $16 million for schools to increase the number of counselors.

In light of the new research, there’s now clear evidence that attacking student emotional health problems at the front end will help prevent school violence.

While Gov. Tim Walz’s education budget boosts per pupil school funding 3 percent in the first year and 2 percent in the second year, there does not appear to be any provisions to urge schools to spend it hiring counselors.

We urge the governor and Legislature to vastly increase their investments in school counselors, psychologists and social workers to, at the very least, bring Minnesota up to national averages.

Researchers Peterson and Densley say student threats may be cries for help. Let’s do all we can to recognize and answer those cries.

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St. Cloud Times, March 31

Faster disasters: Fight the relentless pace and focus on recovery

It’s truth writ so deep on the American psyche that it goes unspoken: We may fight like cats and dogs, but when trouble comes ... we help.

The flash flood that swept through the landmark Anton’s restaurant a week ago was a crisis, if a short-lived one. Water that rose uncomfortably high — from the floor, to the chair legs, then to the knees — forced rescue by emergency crews to ensure no one struggled with the water or was hurt by what it hid.

It came in a flash. It was gone by morning. Experienced owners have the business open again already. And they are the fortunate, if only type of fortune that admittedly can’t keep a flash flood at bay.

Meanwhile, our neighbors to the west and south have seen vast tracts of their towns, cities and even states submerged for weeks. The flooding of Nebraska this spring has been of near-biblical scale, washing away bridges and dams and turning the state’s flat face into an inland sea. As the Big Sioux River overwhelmed its banks, Sioux Falls and neighboring towns were on edge and then inundated for more than a week.

As the crises pass in each of these communities, the trouble remains. Whether fire, flood, tornado or hurricane, fast-moving disasters leave yearslong recoveries. Are we paying attention?

The challenge today is in sustaining the information flow that maintains the public interest that, in turn, fuels the funds and muscle to recover and rebuild.

As the news moves ever faster and becomes increasingly disjointed (admit it — you have longed for a Walter Cronkite again — or even a Peter Jennings — to again distill the day’s events for an entire nation at once) it’s becomes harder to keep an eye on the ball:

People are in the wake of a disaster. They will need assistance for a long time to come.

As will the victims of last summer’s wildfires that crushed large swaths of the West. As will the owners of almost 300 homes destroyed by the eruptions of Mount Kilauea in Hawaii last year. Or those who were flooded out after Hurricane Florence — just some of the natural disasters that captured our attention for few days in recent months before fading into the obscurity

Is a week — maybe two — too long to maintain our attention span? Are we still a nation that can fight like cats and dogs, but help when trouble comes? Do we have the resolve to do more than cluck at the tragedy, share a sympathetic social media campaign and then forget?

Let’s hope so. Because the next disaster could be ours.