Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb. 5

MN Legislature should pass emergency aid plan for community health centers

The Star Tribune Editorial Board has repeatedly called for an emergency state funding plan if Congress doesn't restore devastating cuts to Minnesota's vital community health centers. State Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, merits praise for drafting a smart, temporary aid package to help these safety-net clinics and the 180,000 Minnesotans they serve.

It's still two weeks before the 2018 session kicks off. But over the weekend, Schultz, a forceful voice for public health at the Legislature, announced that she has readied a bill and is seeking bipartisan support. She reached out to state Sens. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick. Both have long been community health center champions and can — and should — help Schultz round up support. Community health centers (CHCs) provide care on a sliding-fee scale in medically underserved rural and urban communities.

Gov. Mark Dayton has also admirably stepped in to spotlight the centers' vital work and call for solutions. In a strongly worded letter released Monday, he urged the state's congressional delegation to restore federal funding as soon as possible. We'd like to see Dayton lend strong support to a state "Plan B," too.

To keep clinics operating smoothly, Schultz's bill needs to pass early in the session. Congress has failed to reauthorize CHC grants since last September. It could restore these funds this week as it faces another spending bill extension deadline. But with the bitter fight over immigration, it's hard to be optimistic.

Because of the rolling nature of federal grant disbursements, congressional inaction has already caused some Minnesota CHCs to lose funding and face layoffs and closures. If nothing is done, federal dollars will dry up by midsummer for the state network, which operates 70 locations. Dayton's letter estimated that the state's CHCs could see $27 million cut from $38 million in annual funding.

Schultz's bill would provide $5.8 million in aid this year and $29.3 million for fiscal 2019. She commendably worked with state CHCs to arrive at the sums and time frame needed to make the clinics whole. The bill also has a clause that sensibly requires the centers to repay the aid if Congress restores the federal grants in a timely fashion.

There are real consequences when Congress can't get its work done or uses vital health care programs as leverage during budget negotiations. Minnesota shouldn't let the expectant moms, sick kids, frail elderly and others relying on these clinics pay the price for political gamesmanship. State lawmakers have a moral obligation to ensure they don't.

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St. Cloud Times, Feb. 2

Recent layoffs could test St. Cloud's economy, spirit

Don't look now, but 2018 could be the start of a stiff test of strength for the St. Cloud area's economy. And its community spirit.

Witness Tuesday's news that, come 2020, Electrolux will shutter its St. Cloud facility, eliminating about 900 jobs and lining out city's fifth-largest employer.

That announcement comes in the same month Sears closed its Crossroads Center store, laying off an unknown number of people. Plus, Ciatti's Ristorante closed, shedding 70 jobs. And it was just this fall that Capital One eliminated about 135 jobs at its downtown St. Cloud offices.

Combined, that's more than 1,100 jobs either lost or set to be lost in a metro area where the unemployment rate — 2.3 percent as of October — is the lowest it's been in almost 20 years.

To be clear, there really is no bright side when a community learns any employer is closing and it will lose jobs, be those 11 or 1,100-plus.

That said, there are two big factors the St. Cloud metro area has in its favor amid this daunting news. One is the area's stellar economy. The other is the community's experience in dealing with similar mass layoffs.

Strong economy

First, the latest local economic data and input paint a bright future for the St. Cloud area.

"Steady growth continues as future outlook remains strong," was the headline on the most recent St. Cloud State University "St. Cloud Area Quarterly Business Report," issued in December.

And perhaps even more important: A panel of four economists on Friday — three days after the Electrolux announcement — told participants at St. Cloud State's Winter Institute that the area's economy, driven by a construction boom and low numbers of available qualified workers, should continue to boom.

That echoes the message from economists King Banaian and Rich MacDonald, who wrote in the quarterly report that "St. Cloud-area businesses continue to experience steady growth, and the local six-month-ahead economic outlook remains strong." Among their highlights:

— "Private sector payroll here rose by 2 percent from one year earlier. ... Compared to one year ago, 1,863 more people appeared on private sector payrolls in October. At 2.3 percent, the October unemployment rate in the St. Cloud area is the lowest recorded value since the final months of 1999! The local labor force expanded by 1,587 over the past year (a 1.4 percent increase).

— Job growth was widespread. Sectors experiencing job gains represented 64.8 percent of area employment over the past year. Job loss occurred in 35.2 percent of the area's employment sectors.

— "The future outlook of those area businesses responding to the St. Cloud Area Business Outlook Survey is strong. Forty-nine percent of surveyed firms expect an increase in business activity over the next six months, while only 9 percent expect decreased activity."

— And, in keeping with previous recent reports, the economists highlighted "the reappearance of a worker shortage the likes of which we have not seen since the late 1990s." As the report noted, "The tightness of labor supply may be the limiting factor of economic growth at present."

Perhaps these recent and pending layoffs can provide workers to address that shortage. The question, of course, is whether the skills of those who lost jobs fit with the jobs now available. And, if not, can training be made available to create such matches?

Community support

Those issues lead into the other factor that can help this area deal with these layoffs. That factor is community support — and experience.

Longtime area residents probably remember when Fingerhut closed its St. Cloud doors and put more than 2,600 people out of work in the first three months of 2002.

That scenario was a nightmare to which the community responded with a variety of ideas — formal and informal — to help those workers and their families move forward.

In addition to government-based help such as the state's Dislocated Worker Program, local efforts to help then included:

— A task force of local human resources professionals formed to generate ways to support those impacted.

— Catholic Charities offered space at a property in Saul Rapids where dislocated workers could go for resources and to talk about their situations.

— A couple of "service fairs" were held as one-stop shops for people with questions about everything from health-care assistance to financial planning.

The good news (ahem) is, regarding Electrolux, the community has close to two years to help find solutions before people layoffs are scheduled to occur.

Based on that time, the community's experiences during and after 2002, and a strong local economy, the St. Cloud metro area is positioned about as well as it could be to address some undeniably dire economic news.

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Mankato Free Press, Feb. 5

Trump, GOP should put together a real infrastructure bill

At his State of the Union address, President Trump returned to a core campaign promise when he said "we will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land."

Rebuilding crumbling roads, rails, bridges, water treatment plants and other infrastructure is an obvious need that citizens and lawmakers of any political leaning can agree on. The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2017 Infrastructure Report gives the nation a D plus for the state of its infrastructure and estimates $2 trillion in upgrades is needed to keep America safer and competitive in the global marketplace.

While it is often said infrastructure needs are one thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on, their approach to a fix is vastly different.

Trump's plan is for $1.5 trillion in construction and repairs over 10 years. But only $200 billion would come from the federal government, with the other $1.3 trillion to come from private investments and already burdened states and cities.

Using public-private partnerships to improve infrastructure should be part of the solution. Allowing private companies to invest in projects and then collect revenues from them is an idea championed by many Republicans and Democrats, including Barack Obama.

But such partnerships can only be used on some projects, such as toll roads and bridges. Most highway, rail and other infrastructure projects simply can't be monetized. And even if ways could be found to monetize them, we doubt most Americans want them. Paying taxes to fund public projects is preferable to paying every time you use something. And toll-paid projects invariably put added burdens on those with lower incomes.

And privately financed projects are invariably built in major cities where the payback is higher, leaving rural America out of luck.

Many Democrats favor a much larger federal investment in infrastructure. Some Republicans are already saying the government doesn't have the money to spend on such a major investment, which is curious on the heels of their tax cut legislation that adds $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years.

As it stands, Trump's proposal is woefully inadequate. He and the GOP majority can and should work on meaningful legislation. More money could be generated from things like increasing the federal gas tax, which hasn't been raised in 25 years. And there are proposals for reforming laws that would make it easier for private companies to build and then operate things like water treatment plants.

The need to fix the country's crumbling infrastructure is obvious to all. Now lawmakers and the president need to provide the reforms and financial backing to make it happen.