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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

April 8, 2019

Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 5

Once again, Minnesota takes the lead on special education

Craig, Stauber rightly team up in bipartisan push to close the gap in federal funding.

It wasn’t so long ago that 1 in 5 children with special needs were kept out of public schools in this country. In many places they were shunted off to state institutions or subpar facilities, far away from others.

Not until the 1970s did Congress step in with groundbreaking legislation that required public schools to offer such children the same educational opportunities as others. By 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act went further, ensuring that such children be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning their local school. To help with this enormously costly undertaking, the federal government pledged to fund 40 percent of the local schools’ additional costs.

That never happened.

Instead, local schools ever since have struggled to meet those mandates with only a sliver of the promised federal funding and some state aid. In Minnesota, federal funding amounts to 8 percent and is projected to fall to 6.5 percent by 2020. This is in the face of special-ed costs that have doubled in the last decade and now stand at about $2.5 billion a year in Minnesota alone, ticking up about 5 percent annually.

The resulting gap has hurt everyone — special-needs students who don’t always get what they need, schools that are forced to take money from other needs, and homeowners and landowners whose property taxes go up to help make up the difference.

Hearing politicians bemoan the special-ed funding gap has become a staple of campaigns. Many politicians over the years have righteously denounced the gap, yet it remains.

That’s why it’s heartening to see two Minnesota congressional newcomers from opposite sides of the aisle take this on in a serious way nearly as soon as they hit Washington. They have a special reason. Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, of northern Minnesota’s 8th District, and Democratic Rep. Angie Craig, of southern Minnesota’s 2nd District, each are raising a special-needs child. They learned of their bond while chatting on a train bound for a freshman retreat and resolved on the spot to tackle this as a joint mission.

Stauber said he can’t imagine a time when his 16-year-old son, Isaac, who has Down syndrome, would not have been welcomed with caring teachers and appropriate help at his local school. “That’s been such a comfort,” Stauber told an editorial writer. “But I’ve seen the struggle they have affording all this.” He noted that in Bemidji schools alone, the gap costs $4.1 million a year.

“Full funding is the right thing to do, and it puts the federal government back on track to honor their commitment,” he said. Craig and Stauber’s bill would boost federal funding this year and keep ramping it up over the next decade until it hits the full 40 percent.

“If Pete and I can build support in our caucuses — if we can help them understand this isn’t about special-ed students alone; it’s about our entire communities — I’m sure we’ll get there,” Craig told an editorial writer. “We refuse to believe this isn’t a priority and value of this nation. It’s everyone’s issue.”

Third District Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips announced his support earlier this month, and each member of Minnesota’s delegation — including its senators — should follow suit. There isn’t a school district, family or homeowner in Minnesota who isn’t touched by special education in some way.

And it’s only right that this push should start here. This state was a pioneer on special ed, passing a law in 1957 that required public schools to accommodate children with disabilities. That law became the model for the federal law.

Now Minnesota should lead the way again and make the federal government live up to its decades-old promise.

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St. Cloud Times, April 5

Copycat bills demand questions from voters, transparency from legislators

For anyone who follows state government, it’s always been a question: Why are Minnesota legislators so often addressing the same issues as legislators in other states? Is it the zeitgeist, or something else?

Think marijuana, tort reform, minimum wage, gay marriage, taxes on sugary drinks, etc.

Now we know why — copycat legislation crafted and pushed by special interests.

A two-year investigation by USA Today, The Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity found that at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation were introduced in statehouses nationwide in the past eight years. More than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law.

Minnesota legislators introduced at least 247 such bills from 2012 through 2018. (The research tool has yet to examine legislation proposed this session.)

All these bills have roots in corporations, industry groups or think tanks. Those entities — essentially special interests — dream them up, tap experts to draft them and then find a legislator in targeted states to serve as chief author and lead the push to pass them.

As the USA Today report showed, sometimes legislators don’t even know these are “copy/paste/legislate” bills and often the bills are named in very misleading ways (as are original bills, to be fair).

Witness the Asbestos Transparency Act, which didn’t help people exposed to asbestos. It was written by corporations to make it harder for victims of absestos-related illnesses to recoup money. The HOPE Act, introduced in nine states, was written by a conservative advocacy group to make it more difficult for people to get food stamps.

Those examples highlight the two most important takeaways. For voters: Ask more questions. For legislators: Be more transparent.

The lack of information involving these “copy/paste/legislate” bills is astounding. Until this report — which was generated through computer-assisted reporting that will continue with every legislative session — voters and even legislators likely did not know how common this practice had become.

Of course, for those practicing it, that was great.

As the report noted, copycat bills don’t require registered lobbyists, don’t show up on expense reports or on campaign finance disclosure forms.

Now, though, voters should demand to know what bills their legislators are sponsoring, who wrote them and why they deserve passage. If those bills are promoting good ideas, they will stand up to such scrutiny.

Anyone who has read a bill, statute or law knows that legislators certainly need to tap experts in drafting the fine points of bills. It’s not surprising those experts represent constituencies they consider important.

However, there is a big difference in that approach compared to a legislator — knowingly or not — becoming the last-step rubber stamp for a special interest trying to profit off or protect itself from the will of the people.

Voters, it’s time to ask questions. It’s time to demand transparency.

It’s time to seriously reduce “copy/paste/legislate” in Minnesota and across the nation.

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The Free Press of Mankato, April 7

Being counted in the census makes a difference

Why it matters: Census information determines federal funding and helps decision-makers do solid planning.

The actual collection of information is a year away, but awareness needs to be beefed up now about how important it is for Minnesota residents to participate in the 2020 census.

The attempt to count everyone — not just U.S. citizens but anyone who lives here — is a big undertaking that should be as accurate as possible. The U.S. Supreme Court would be wise reject the Trump administration’s attempt to put a citizenship question on the survey. The Census Bureau estimates adding a citizenship question would lower response rates among noncitizens, leading to an increased cost to the government of at least $27.5 million for additional phone calls, visits to homes and other efforts to reach them.

A lot counts on an accurate number. The data, constitutionally required to be collected every 10 years, help direct priorities for federal money, guide city policy and determine how many congressional seats each state gets. And that’s just a few examples.

It was the 2010 census that determined the Greater Mankato area had enough population, at about 50,000 people, to be classified as a metropolitan statistical area. Being an MSA meant the area automatically qualified for federal funding — now about $350,000 a year — that it had competed for in the past.

Also as result of that same count, a metropolitan planning organization, or MPO, was created here, guiding short- and long-term transportation spending. Studies on how to develop the Highway 22 corridor and Riverfront Drive were among those that benefited from the new resources that came with the MPO.

The city even uses census information to determine how to divide up patrol areas of police officers so they have a similar number of people in their assigned neighborhoods. The need for housing can be determined by analyzing census numbers.

Cities and counties aren’t the only entities to benefit from good information. The data can tell planners about the size and location of upcoming assisted-living facilities and schools. The information is necessary for communities to make solid economic decisions based on projected needs. Building schools and care centers takes time.

Residents who are leery of filling out government census forms should know that under law, census information is secret. Census takers are prohibited from sharing your information with anyone, including police, immigration officials, landlords and child welfare officials. The penalties of breaking that law can include up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Census records are sealed for 72 years.

So if you are a college student, a jail inmate, a nursing home resident or a child, you should be among the counted.

Let’s make sure the April 1, 2020, Census Day kickoff isn’t a fool’s errand. Too much is at stake for Minnesota.