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Cycling in the cities: Seven Minnesota inventions for bike enthusiasts here and around the globe

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 3:47pm
CC/Flickr/Tony WebsterIt’s great to be a cyclist in the Twin Cities. 

As everyone knows by now, it’s great to be a cyclist in the Twin Cities. From folks ditching their cars for bikes, to Minneapolis and St. Paul creating nation-leading bikeway plans, pedal power has a lot of momentum here. As transit-oriented developmenthits its stride along the Green Line and other key corridors, the bicycle looks to figure even more prominently into our local transit mix.

The Twin Cities isn’t only a leader in bicycle use, however, but also a major innovator in bicycle design and technology. The seven inventions profiled below have, or will have, an impact on the local and global cycling industry. And the pace of innovation shows no sign of slowing down.

Bicycle maintenance Park Tool: Bike repair stands

Two generations ago, repairing a bike meant getting on your hands and knees. No more. In 1963, cycling-crazy St. Paulites Howard Hawkins and Art Engstrom invented the world’s first bicycle repair stand, Model PRS-1. Suddenly, accessing bike chains, spokes, gears and especially tubes was a snap. The duo formed a company, Park Tool, and began marketing their innovation to bike shops and riders around the Twin Cities and Upper Midwest. Schwinn Bicycle Company was an early customer.

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PRS-1 was a simple design: The device’s clamps lock on to the seat tube and raise the bike off the floor, allowing arm-level access. “The original version actually held the bike upside down,” says Paul Schoening, Park Tool’s marketing director. The next version, PRS-2, flipped the bike right side up for the first time.

Though Park Tool has long stopped making the PRS-1, the company wouldn’t be where it is today without that original stand. The company distributes repair stands, tire pumps, tool boxes and a huge range of bike parts in more than 70 countries, with more in the pipeline. Park Tool’s constantly growing product catalog has more than 300 entries.

CC/Flickr/Will VanlueThe Park Tool stand's clamps lock on to the seat tube and raise the bike off the floor.

“We’re basically like Microsoft in the early days of the PC era,” says Schoening. “We’re the global leader in a rapidly growing industry.”

But Park Tool isn’t resting on its laurels. The company has a robust R&D division that works alongside its Twin Cities manufacturing operation, constantly refining old designs and inventing new ones.

“We use the cash flow from our catalog of legacy products to fund exciting new research,” says Schoening. Among the most promising: The PRS-33, a mobile bike repair stand with a motorized drive unit that lifts bikes into place and moves them horizontally for easy access. The PRS-33 is particularly useful for electric bikes (more on those below) and mountain bikes, both of which are increasingly popular in the Twin Cities.

“The PRS-33 saves a lot of strain on shop employees’ backs,” by eliminating the need for heavy lifting, says Schoening.

Bike Fixtation: Vending machines

Chad DeBaker founded Bike Fixtation to solve a very specific problem most cyclists experience at some point: You suffer a flat or some other mechanical issue, don’t have the right tools and can’t find an open bike shop nearby. That ends your ride, forcing you to walk a long way or call a cab.

Bike Fixtation’s first product, launched in 2011, was a high-security vending machine. Because its contents—basic gear such as spokes, tires, tubes, pads—can be valuable, the vending machine is heavier and sturdier than a typical food vending machine. The vending machine can also be stocked with accessories, like trail maps and hand warmers. You pay for what you need, install it on the spot and go.

The contents of each Bike Fixtation vending machine are slightly different depending on what the company's clients order. Currently the machines are located at the Uptown Transit Station and Lake Street Blue Line Station. The company has also installed machines in Brooklyn, the Bay Area, Miami, Canada and Australia.

Bike Fixtation: Public toolbox

Bike Fixtation just released a new product: a wall-mounted Public Toolbox that contains nine common bike repair tools, each attached to a secure base by a strong aircraft cable to prevent theft. The Public Toolbox is a complement to the company’s vending machine, offering a valuable aid to riders who don’t carry their own tools. The device features a QR code that cyclists can scan for repair tips and tricks.

Early interest in the Public Toolbox has come from “apartment building owners who are installing or enhancing a secure bike-parking room with limited space, and want to provide their tenants with some basic bicycle-repair tools,” says Andy Lambert, director of sales and marketing. Currently most Public Toolboxes are located in private apartment buildings.

Though it’s not the world’s first-ever mobile toolbox for bike repair, the Public Toolbox design is markedly different from previous versions, with tangle-proof lines and customized branding for buyers who want to put a corporate logo or name on their toolbox. It’s also suitable for use in cold and wet weather, a necessity in Minnesota.

Commuting and convenienceVelolet

Minneapolis-based Velolet bills itself as “the global bike rental hub.” Founded in 2010, the company connects bike-less people with bicycle rentals in all 50 U.S. states, several Canadian provinces and an assortment of overseas territories.

Velolet partners with Freewheel Midtown Bike Center and Penn Cycle to provide riders with a variety of bike styles, not just the sturdy, practical bicycles available through Nice Ride and other bikesharing programs. The company shares daily and weekly rates up front. So users just specify rental dates and location, hit search and voila! A list of available bikes appears with shops and rates spelled out clearly.

Though Velolet is great if you’re traveling somewhere by plane and can’t bring your bike, it’s also useful here at home. If you want to take a longer ride on a rented bike and don’t want to be constrained by Nice Ride geography, you can go as far as you like on a Velolet rental. And if your bike is in the shop for an extended stay, Velolet offers access to very nice bikes at reasonable rates.

Minneapolis Electric Bike Company

When Minneapolis Electric Bike Company founder Clint Stockwell learned that a Chinese company was attaching powerful lithium-ion-phosphate batteries to bicycles and selling them to newly affluent consumers across Southeast Asia, he wondered why no one was getting rich marketing electric bikes on our side of the Pacific. The batteries could be recharged in a regular outlet and didn’t seem to degrade over time, meaning they usually didn’t need to be replaced (barring certain kinds of abuse).

Bike-friendly Minneapolis seemed like a perfect place to start an electric bike company, so Stockwell got in touch with the Chinese manufacturer and began importing its bikes. The original design placed the battery engine behind the seat for stability. Riders can pedal manually, like a normal bike, or cycle through one pedal rotation and then flick a throttle to engage the electric motor. That turns the wheels without input from the rider, and automatically adds power on upslopes to maintain speed.

But Stockwell found that the imported bikes weren’t up to American riders’ standards, so he made a lot of modifications. Virtually every part of the improved bike is adjustable, meaning it can be configured as a cruiser, road bike, racer and so on. Stockwell also limited the bike’s battery-assisted speed to 20 miles per hour, though riders can go faster than that on a downslope.

He also lobbied for a legal change that would classify electric bikes as non-motorized vehicles, allowing them on bike paths and trails. “We have 2,000 miles of trails in the Twin Cities area,” he says, “so that was really important.” A significant portion of Stockwell’s business now comes from renting bikes to tourists and bike-less locals. But he also sells them to commuters and car-less folks.

Though the electric bike miffs some traditionalists, Stockwell’s goals are closely aligned with theirs. “I want people to pedal these bikes and get a workout,” he says, “and if an electric bike can eliminate that unnecessary car trip to the corner store, it’s hard to argue against it.”

Dero ZAP System

Already known for making innovative bike racks, Minneapolis-based Dero recently released ZAP, an RFID tag that attaches directly to your bike’s frame. You can get tagged at several locations around the Twin Cities, including St. Paul Smart Trips, Recovery Bike Shop and Freewheel Midtown Bike Center. Employers that work with ZAP may also host “tagging parties” where any employees who want a tag can get one for free.

When you pass in front of a pole-mounted reader, the reader “zaps” your tag and logs your trip. You get a prize after your first 10 trips and receive one entry into a monthly drawing for additional prizes for every eight additional trips.

Dero markets ZAP to local employers that want to encourage bicycle commuting. Dero doesn’t tell employers how to use the data, but Commuter Connectionoutreach coordinator Bill Andre says the City of Minneapolis is already offering healthcare discounts for employees who regularly get “ZAPped.”

There’s no cost to riders. ZAP earns money by charging employers a few hundred dollars to place a pole on their property.

RacingHED H3/GT3

Hed, a St. Paul-based manufacturer of high-end bike components, enjoys a formidable reputation among serious cyclists. Part of the reason is the H3, a three-spoke racing wheel released back in the 1980s. The H3 has a highly aerodynamic design that reduces the bike’s profile and combats wind resistance, and is “the wheel that can’t seem to stop racking up race wins,” according to Hed.

Evolving bike designs and rider preferences finally forced Hed to release a complete revamp of the H3, called the GT3. The GT3 is 7 millimeters wider than the H3, which helps it accommodate the wider tires that most racers prefer. The rims are also less deep, about 46 millimeters compared to 54 millimeters on the old version, further reducing wind resistance.

For racing enthusiasts, the GT3’s debut is akin to the release of a long-awaited Italian supercar.

Brian Martucci is The Line’s Innovation and Jobs News Editor.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.

The sleepless symphony of parenthood

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 3:45pm

Best-laid plans are now swept away in a crescendo of diapers, fussiness and constantly-evolving sleep patterns.

Overdose trends are troubling

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 3:45pm
CC/Flickr/sharyn morrowThe overtreating of chronic pain with powerful pain killers such as OxyContin and Vicodin has created a flood of dangerous pills in society.

The following is an editorial from the Mankato Free Press.

For decades an impressive battle has been waged to reduce automobile crashes. Groups like MADD helped cut drunken driving fatalities, laws have required seat belt use and advocacy groups have been successful in forcing improved safety components be built into vehicles.

The results have been dramatic. In Minnesota the number of vehicle fatalities went from more than 600 in 2000 down to 374 last year.

The same commitment is needed to combat a growing problem that is taking more Minnesotans' lives.

507 Minnesota overdose deaths last year

The state Department of Health recently reported that for the first time the number of drug overdose deaths in the state — 507 last year — has surpassed the number of people killed in vehicles crashes. The trend mimics national data. 

Many of the drug overdose deaths came from heroin (91) but even more (200) come from prescription pain drugs.

The Mankato area has experienced the tragedy of accidental overdose deaths, including recent incidents of young people who died after taking synthetic drugs, drugs that have created a new and growing threat.

Reducing drug deaths requires a multi-faceted approach, from providing more access to drug treatment services to cracking down on synthetic drug production and reducing the flow of prescription drugs.

Put particular attention on prescription pain killers

Attacking the abuse of prescription pain killers needs particular attention. The overtreating of chronic pain with powerful pain killers such as OxyContin and Vicodin has created a flood of dangerous pills in society. Many people caught with illicit prescription drugs say they got them from friends or family. That's because patients who may only need a few pills to overcome their pain end up being prescribed several dozen of them.

The problem is beginning to be recognized and addressed. Doctors are more aware of scrutinizing those who seek pain killers and are more likely to limit the number of pain killers and refills given to patients. But more needs to be done to ensure those suffering from severe pain get the help they need and deserve while ensuring that far fewer of the potent pills are circulating. 

Better monitoring and restricting regulated prescription drugs is relatively simple compared to reducing the flow of illegal drugs, such as heroin, being freely funneled into the country by Mexican drug cartels.

One thing that has had little success is the long War on Drugs that focuses on jailing users and small-time dealers. Federal policies that help Mexico reduce its rampant drug trade and improve its security and economy, as well as more support for drug users to help them break their addictions seem the only practical routes to cut into illegal drug use.

Combating drug overdose deaths is much more complicated than reducing the number of people killed in vehicle crashes. But it's an effort that's needed to reduce the personal suffering of users and their families and the financial costs to society. 

Reprinted with permission.

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Olson purchased by D.C. tech consulting firm

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 3:43pm
CC/Flickr/Michael Hicks

Advertising agency Olson has been sold to a Washington D.C.-based IT consulting firm.

The $295 million, all-cash deal folds Minneapolis-based company—one of the nation’s largest independent ad agencies—into ICF International, a business that provides technology consulting for an international roster including government, energy, transportation and nonprofit clients.

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The Star Tribune reports the announcement surprised Olson staff. However, no job cuts or management changes are expected as part of the deal. Olson will continue to function as a standalone organization.

The move is not the traditional route for creative agencies, which are typically snapped up by one of the “big four” marketing holding companies: Interpublic, Omnicom, WPP and Publicis. But as Ad Age notes, there is a growing trend of ad companies being sold to smaller, different organizations.

Executives at Olson said they preferred this emerging model as it creates “complementary and additive” elements for both companies: Olson has a pool of consumer insight data, while ICF has an existing client base to sell to, as well as an international reach.

“Both ICF and Olson have been striving to build a completely new breed of end-to-end service organization designed to deliver powerful client solutions in the digital age,” Olson CEO John Partilla said in a statement.

Pending approval from federal regulators, the deal is expected to close in mid-November.

Olson saw 2013 revenues hit $126 million and has added a roster of big-name clients, including Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, P.F. Chang’s and Wet n Wild Beauty.

This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.

MN Blog Cabin Roundup, 10/24

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 3:41pm
Policy choices cut poverty nearly in half

from Minnesota Budget Bites by Clark Biegler

Public policies like Social Security, refundable tax credits and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cut poverty in the U.S. nearly in half in 2013.

Flexibility, focus ease strain of midlife career shifts

from The Middle Stages by Amy Gage

This so-called “hidden job market” — in which a matrix of personal and professional connections opens doors — accounts for up to 80 percent of new hires, according to Forbes magazine.

Confessions of an unaffiliated Jew

from TC Jewfolk by Galit Breen

And the third, probably most important, part of this decision-making is that our past experiences with Minnesota Nice and the Minnesota Jewish community leads us to wonder if joining a synagogue will necessarily lead us to the community we crave.

Franconia, up close: A visit to a rural Minnesota sculpture parkandTouring Franconia Sculpture Park, Part II

from Minnesota Prairie Roots

Audrey Kletscher Helbling takes you on a photographic tour of the 25-acre Franconia Sculpture Park in rural Shafer, Minnesota.

Tools of the trade: Jeremy Warden

from Stubble by Tom Johnson

Jeremy Ward is a Minneapolis-based musician whose new EP is entiteld “& Loneliness” it’s released on cassette on Suntanman Records and is available at jeremywarden.bandcamp.com and some local record stores.

If you blog and would like your work considered for Minnesota Blog Cabin, please submit our registration form.

U of M moving toward 'cost of attendance' for athletes

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 1:01pm

They’d get more if they had a union. John Shipley at the PiPress reports, “With NCAA cost-of-attendance legislation on the fast track, the University of Minnesota is gearing up to offer the extra money to as many of its athletes as will be allowed. ‘We plan to include every sport,’ deputy director of athletics Beth Goetz said Thursday. That's not an inexpensive proposition, although it should cost Minnesota less than most of its peers in the Power 5 conferences. The average gap between a Minnesota scholarship and what would cover the full cost of attending the U is $2,194 a year, according to figures compiled by the NCAA.”

The state has announced a $162 million program to fund roughly 4000 affordable housing units. James Walsh at the Strib says, “The money is the most ever awarded by Minnesota Housing, the former Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, and will go toward 78 rental and home ownership projects providing nearly 4,000 housing units. In all, projects in 33 cities, including the Twin Cities, Mahnomen, Deer River, Duluth, Winona and Grand Rapids, will receive funds. Those projects will also leverage additional financing, boosting the value of the investment to nearly $500 million, officials said.”

Beware the chicken Kiev. Jeremy Olson of the Strib says, “While the department [of Health] isn’t ordering a recall of the tainted products — Antioch Farms brand A La Kiev raw stuffed chicken breast — it is urging people to either discard them or make sure they are cooked to a temperature of at least 165 degrees. The salmonella risk was much more common until 2008, when packaging was improved to clarify that these contained raw meat, the Health Department said Thursday.”

Less may be more. Graydon Royce of the Strib says, “Saying it offers ‘a burst of culture for busy lifestyles,’ Minnesota Orchestra will launch a series of hour-long concerts in January. ‘Symphony in 60’ breaks down some of the formality of the concertgoing experience and gets audiences in and out of Orchestra Hall in the time it takes to watch an episode of ‘The Good Wife.’ ‘Opting out of starters and dessert, this is purely the main course — a one-hour performance of great works,’ said music director Osmo Vänskä in a statement.”

A market we never knew we needed. In the PiPress, Julio Ojeda-Zapata writes, “Urns for storing ashes of the deceased, intended to look classy, sometimes can be tacky — even creepy. One company hawks 3D-printed busts of the dearly departed, or famous people like Barack Obama. Then there is Foreverence, an Eden Prairie startup that is attempting to aim a bit higher. Foreverence is offering custom 3D-printed urns shaped like objects that were important to the deceased — a sportscar, say, or a guitar — and made out of a ceramic material that is intended to look and feel more appealing than the more-common 3D-printed plastic.” Is there a Wisconsin-themed Keystone Light bottle/urn?

This’ll seal it. The PiPress, 14 years removed from endorsing both Al Gore and George W. Bush, is making a choice today in the Secretary of State race. “We support [DFLer Steve] Simon, a state House member from Hopkins, with this caveat: Nothing should compromise the integrity and nonpartisanship Minnesotans expect from the state's chief elections officer. As we've maintained on these pages, access and security are not mutually exclusive goals. The secretary of state must work to assure both, providing access to elections while ensuring that only lawfully cast ballots are counted.” As though the unlawful were?

The Clean Technica website has taken notice of our plan to put solar arrays alongside highways. Leon Kaye writes, “Compared to other states in the union, Minnesota has been slower to adopt solar, but change is on the way. Regulators have made decisions more favorable to solar in recent months, and earlier this year one of the state’s largest energy companies was ordered to invest in solar as well as natural gas projects. “Made in Minnesota” laws applying to the solar industry have also kept the price of solar high as its price falls across the rest of the nation. … In one survey ranking the 50 US states, Minnesota jumped 14 spots to number 8 in just one year.”

He’s under contract. GOP Senate candidate Mike Mcfadden was up north yesterday to sign … well, here’s the Northland News Center story: “Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Mike McFadden signed a contract on Thursday in Duluth which outlines his commitment to Minnesota. In the contract, McFadden promises to be accessible and visiting each of Minnesota's 87 counties every year.” Who says there are no new ideas in politics?

If this is true, what’s the point of Christmas? The Strib’s Kavita Kumar says, “Will this be the year when Black Friday is finally dethroned from being the biggest shopping day of the day? Bill Martin thinks so. The founder of ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based firm that measures store traffic, has become a guru of sorts when it comes predicting and measuring the ebbs and flow of the holiday season. … He expects Dec. 20, the last Saturday before Christmas, often referred to as Super Saturday, to be the No. 1 shopping day this year in terms of sales.”

Some folks are celebrating today. The Reuters story says, “E-commerce services provider Digital River said on Thursday it had entered into an agreement to be acquired by an investor group led by Siris Capital Group for about $840 million. The deal, valued at $26 per share in cash, is at a premium of almost 50 percent over Digital River’s Thursday’s closing price. The agreement, approved by the board of Minnesota-based Digital River, includes a 45-day ‘go-shop’ period during which the company can solicit alternative proposals, Digital River said on Thursday.”

St. Paul wants suggestions for capital projects

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 10:53am

Figuring that the best ideas on how to improve city-owned facilities come from those who actually use them, St. Paul officials are asking for suggestions on how to spend money.

As part of the Capital Improvement Budget, officials are asking for ideas for the "acquisition, construction, redevelopment, or other improvements to land and facilities owned by the city."

Suggestions can be submitted through Jan. 16; they fall in three categories:

  • Community Facilities: This category includes a wide variety of buildings and facilities, including park trails, play facilities, rec centers, libraries, and police and fire stations.
  • Streets and Utilities: Projects in this category are often associated with Public Works and include street, bridge, lighting and stairway improvements.
  • Residential and Economic Development: This category is specifically focused on housing projects and economic development within St.

Said Mayor Chris Coleman:

"It is the people embedded in this community that spend their days walking the streets, frequenting our libraries and parks and living in Saint Paul’s neighborhoods who can often best see what needs attention and improvement."

Proposals typically involve improvements for:

  • Streets
  • Sewers
  • Bridges
  • Libraries
  • Recreation Centers
  • Playground Equipment
  • Traffic Flow
  • Housing and economic development

City departments will help groups refine their ideas, officials said. And city staff will answer questions at a City Hall meeting Nov. 3, from 4 to 6 p.m.

More information is available online, inlcuding proposal forms, instructions, and qualifications.

The crowded, predictable, mostly invisible race for attorney general

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 10:47am
Creative Commons/AlexiusHoratius

Quick quiz: How many people are running for attorney general in Minnesota this year?

Answer: Depends on who you ask.  

For example, the DFL incumbent, Lori Swanson, believes there are six candidates, and she recommends checking the full slate at the secretary of state’s office to get all the names and parties. (The secretary of state does indeed list six candidates: Swanson, Republican Scott Newman, Independence Party’s Brandan Borgos, the Green’s Andy Dawkins, Legal Marijuana Now’s Dan Vacek and Libertarian Mary O’Connor.)  

But one of those candidates, Borgos, says there are really only “four active campaigns.’’ Then, he checked himself. “Actually there are three ACTIVE campaigns. Swanson isn’t campaigning; she’s not coming out of her office.’’

And when it comes to debates there usually are two candidates, Borgos said. “Andy [Dawkins] and I debate. [Scott] Newman won’t show up unless Swanson’s there so we never see him because Swanson doesn’t come.’’

It is the Dawkins-Borgos combo that gives this AG race some small amount of inside-baseball intrigue. Both are fighting to attract at least five per cent of the vote, which would allow the IP to retain major party status for the next election cycle — and allow the Greens to attain it.

If the combo package did manage to collectively pick up around 10 per cent of the vote, could Newman become the beneficiary and become the first Republican since 1970 to hold the office? 

Swanson doesn’t seem concerned. “I’ve always been in races with multiple candidates,’’ she said. “I believe if you do your job well, if you just focus on that, everything else will take care of itself.’’

Dawkins, a former DFL state rep who is married to former DFL state senator Ellen Anderson, says he’s not concerned if he and Borgos end up costing the DFL the attorney general’s office.

“If Newman wins, there’s still going to be a check and balance,’’ Dawkins said, noting that both the state senate and likely the governor’s office and perhaps the state house still will be controlled by the DFL.  “Newman winning would be a message the DFL needs to hear.’’ 

Dawkins believes his old party needs a shot across the bow because, he says, it currently is being tuned out by young voters, who care about issues such as the environment and legalization of marijuana.

In general terms, Dawkins appears to be after DFLers who are disgruntled by the party’s lack of action on environmental issues, while Borgos seems to be after that traditional IP middle ground, those fed up with both parties. 

Dawkins and Borgos speak well of each other and earlier in the campaign briefly discussed whether one of them should throw in the towel and support the other.  They quickly decided that any discussion about a united third-party effort should be saved for after the election. Given that neither has a realistic chance at winning, the goal became to achieve major party status for both — and to go after the status quo, meaning Swanson.

On Friday afternoon, Dawkins is planning to hold a news conference in which he’ll attack Swanson’s record in her two terms as attorney general. In his view, Swanson has not been strong enough in protecting the environment, has been out-of-touch in refusing to push for gun control legislation, was not instrumental in pushing for gay marriage, and, in general, “has played politics with the law.” 

Additionally, he says, Swanson has not used the bully pulpit of the office to push for thing like getting big money out of politics.

Borgos’ big trouble with Swanson was her failure, in his mind, to be a leader in pushing for same-sex marriage, which he calls a fundamental civil rights issue. He also thinks Swanson has done little to protect privacy rights of Minnesotans and make government more transparent. (He doesn’t share Dawkins view that Swanson should have been active in the gun control issue.)

Like Dawkins, Newman attacks Swanson as “playing politics.” But his attacks are from the right. He’s said she’s not “standing up to Obamacare,” as other AGs in other states have. He attacks her for not having told Gov. Mark Dayton that he could not bless unionization by child care workers. And he’s gone after her for failing to keep a closer eye on non-profits such as Community Action of Minneapolis, the organization that apparently attempted to solve inner city problems by visiting luxury resorts. 

How’s does Swanson feel about a lineup of people saying bad things about her tenure. “People running for office say all sorts of things,” she said, dismissively. 

She counters the criticism by running off what she considers some of her office’s greatest hits.

During the recession, “people were getting clobbered,” she sais. “They were losing their homes, being overwhelmed with credit card debt. They’re told, ‘Go see an attorney.’ But during the recession, attorney’s fees went up by a third.”

Her office, she said, stepped forward on behalf of those “everyday Minnesotans” with a variety of legal strategies that helped save homes. Her office has helped get $680 million in rollback on increases sought by public utilities, she said.

And in perhaps the AG’s best-known case, Accretive — the debt-collecting service hired by Fairview Health Service — agreed settled a federal suit filed by Swanson’s office by paying a $2.5 million fine and agreeing to stop doing business in Minnesota. Her office has also taken action against Globe University for its fraudulent student recruitment practices.

Like her predecessor and mentor, Mike Hatch, Swanson knows what sells politically. Her dog, Taffy, is a regular in Swanson’s campaign photos. She is not interested in getting into the midst of the gun control debate, saying “I believe passionately in the Bill of Rights.” She notes in her campaign biography she’s the first woman to serve as attorney general, and said her office is preparing for any legal issues that might come up if ebola rears up in Minnesota. 

There you have it: She’s a female candidate who loves dogs, loves the Bill of Rights, hates ebola and, by the way, blasts clay pigeons with her shotgun.

She’s also rolled to easy victories in each of her first two campaigns. (She defeated the current GOP gubernatorial candidate, Jeff Johnson, by 13 points in 2006 and defeated Chris Darden by 11 points four years ago.)

Those successes have led most DFLers to assume that Swanson will be a leading contender for the DFL endorsement for governor in four years if she pulls off a third succesive victory, though denies (sort of ) that she is entertaining gubernatorial  thoughts. 

“I didn’t think I’d ever be running for this office,’’ said Swanson. “All I can say is that I will focus on doing my job and doing it well.’’

Meantime, Borgos and Dawkins are left to debate with each other.

 

St. Paul and Minneapolis firefighters deliver new coats for low-income children

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 10:41am

Firefighters in St. Paul and Minneapolis have raised money to buy new coats for low-income children in the Twin Cities.

The Operation Warm program — which is conducted by firefighters around the country — purchases new, American-made coats, which are personalized and given to children.

Organizers say the children select their favorite color and size; a tag inside their coat has their name and says, "Made Just for You."

Last year, Minneapolis firefighters raised money to buy 500 coats. This year, they doubled their effort and bought 1,000 coats. St. Paul firefighters jumped on board this year, coming up with nearly 500 coats.

The coats are being delivered today: with help from Centerpoint Energy and Fulton Brewery, the Minneapolis firefighters brought the coats to Anderson United Community School. In St. Paul, where firefighters had a fundraiser at Flat Earth Brewery, the coats are being taken to Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary.

Justin Johnson, a Minneapolis firefighter, said in a statement:

"As firefighters, we go into homes and witness the living conditions faced by low-income kids. This is a program that strengthens communities and the overall well-being of children."

The Met Council is a great idea, but the full council shouldn't plan transit

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 10:31am
streets.mn Courtesy of Metro Transit/Eric WheelerThere are limits to the areas in the metro region that can reasonably be served by transit.

Earlier this week, the Star Tribune published a dynamite survey of the transit usage of the 17 members of the Metropolitan Council. As it turns out, not many of them use transit particularly often.

The Metropolitan Council, established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1967, is charged with things like land use planning, transportation planning, and sewage treatment in the seven county metropolitan area. In 1967, seven counties was a fairly broad interpretation of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, but in 2014, the Census Bureau now counts 13 counties, stretching from the Wisconsin side of Lake Pepin to Munsinger Gardens in St. Cloud.

Notably, the Metropolitan Council is also objectively, obviously, a good idea. Transportation, land use planning, and wastewater treatment are things that should be done regionally. Controversially, they are not elected, but appointed by the governor, and this is frequently pointed out by people who belong to whatever political party the current governor does not belong to. Maybe they should be elected, but already, no one knows who their county commissioner is, and given the way everything everywhere has become face-meltingly partisan in the past decade, maybe we don’t need another election generating terrible attack ad junk mail. What Soil and Water Conservation District are you in, anyway?

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The survey and the results and subsequent analysis generated lots of debate, and I was actually kind of surprised how many smart people quickly dismissed the notion that these leaders need to take transit in order to plan and manage it. And, I mean, the 17 councilmembers aren’t really “planning” our transit, it’s much more complicated than that, but I would imagine we would get very similar results if we polled county commissioners (counties, generally, have selected routes before handing them off to the Metropolitan Council) or people who work in Public Works departments across the metro area, or really any other influential group around the Twin Cities. One time, I did see my state representative (Chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee!) on the 6 during off-peak hours, and he didn’t look like he wanted any credit for it, so that’s good. According to the StarTribune survey, many senior staff folks at Metro Transit do take transit regularly, with their General Manager Brian Lamb leading the pack with hundreds of rides this year, and they should be credited for that.

But, I dunno, it does seem like it’s sort of important to take the bus in order to understand the bus, right? I guess there are probably bald people who are great hairdressers. But transit is even more complicated than hair, and many of the longform answers in the survey betray a lack of understanding of what mass transit actually is, and how people use it on a daily basis as a way to get around in their lives. A stronger analogy: Imagine an office (totally hypothetical and not real at all) where the highly-used shared copier was an absolute nightmare, but the people in charge of buying a new copier did not regularly use the copier. They might have trouble fully grasping the situation…with the copier.

On Wednesday, I took the Route 7 bus to Minneapolis Animal Care and Control to look at a cat (I found a cat) and there are also people who use transit to do equally important things, like, for example, all of the things in their lives. Transit isn’t just something you drive to so that you can save four dollars a day on parking downtown.

Also, this is a pretty good quote:

“The nature of my two jobs is that I am all over the metro area for meetings and am often unable to include the additional time needed for transit in my schedule, which limits my usage,” Haigh said.

There’s that. Don’t wanna pick on her too much, but she sort of lives in St. Paul and those two jobs, TC Habitat for Humanity President & Chairperson of the Metropolitan Council, are sort of located…on the Green Line.

Anyway, our existing rail transit is okay enough, but the day-to-day experience on many local route buses is not very fun. These are the routes make up the vast majority of the rides in our system–the Route 5, 18, 21, 22, and so on. Every day, thousands of people move along Nicollet Mall on buses at walking speed for the amount of time it would take a person in a car to drive from Downtown Minneapolis to Wayzata, except they’re only covering about 12 blocks. And that’s fairly simple to grasp in the abstract: transit service not of very high quality, okay, got it. But it’s more personal when you experience, firsthand, a full bus running drop off only skipping you while you’re at a bus stop trying to get to class. Or waiting out by one of many thousands of sad, lonesome bus stop sign poles in the dark in the winter. Or when you see (I certainly can’t grasp the actual experience) a disabled person trying to get on a bus on Nicollet Mall during rush hour. Or many other things.

But.

What it really gets down to is land use. People don’t understand what land use is, and if you don’t understand land use, your transit and transportation in general will be forever terrible. Like even lots of really smart people with MBAs and BMWs don’t get it. Hundreds of thousands of people in our metro area sit in traffic by themselves for hours (!) listening to talk radio and don’t stop for a second to think that that is anything other than the default way that the world is, and in fact get extremely agitated and emotional over even considering that there are other options–check out the comments on the survey.

So there’s a map of all of the 16 districts (the Chair, Ms. Haigh, is a floater) and, I mean, look at that. To be honest, I sure as hell wouldn’t blow billions of dollars trying to pretend that we can ever adequately provide transit service to everyone on even just the middle 50% of that area. We can’t even do that. People and their employment aren’t just spread out (and spread out they are) but they’re spread out in the landscape in a way that’s fundamentally impossible to serve at a reasonable cost.

Minneapolis and St. Paul (and some first ring suburbs) have the land use pattern that makes transit work–gridded, walkable streets; dense, walkable employment centers; dense, walkable retail centers; and many areas with at least medium residential density. A secret: Most of Minneapolis and St. Paul are basically suburban. But they’re easily infillable and can be redeveloped into areas that support transit investments–if that’s your goal. A good goal would also be to serve the people who are already using it, but serve them better and encourage higher use of the routes that already seem to work.

The second ring suburbs and beyond aren’t really like that. These places were intentionally built for cars and cars alone. The windswept parking lots and eight lane arterials and never ending cul-de-sacs and beige vinyl siding will be hard to change. But barring some sort of catastrophe, this is the metro area we have in 2014 and will continue to have for decades. If trends (gas more expensive, people poorer, Chili’s less cool) continue, there may not be a Plymouth where Independence is in 2040, but Plymouth will still be there. And because the land use in Plymouth is so fundamentally different from the land use in even St. Louis Park, not to mention Minneapolis, it’s hard to imagine too many ways to serve people in Plymouth that make any sense, other than express buses to Downtown Minneapolis.

I, personally, am not really on team “get rid of all the cars,” but as a thought experiment that’s the direction you should be headed in when thinking about transit–are we building transit so that a small number of people in a relatively affluent area can use it for a segment of one trip at the expense of other peoples’ entire multiple trips? Are we building transit as a handout to the construction industry? Are we building transit so that we can say we built transit, throw some colored lines on a map, and show it to our friends in other cities? So maybe we shouldn’t have folks planning transit who live in areas that can’t support it in a reasonably effective way. We’d probably have to stop taking their money, of course, but the rush to get more counties in the transit sales tax tent has led to some rather dubious investments. The Metropolitan Council is a good idea and should stick around regardless, but maybe there’s a better way to arrange representation, or committee assignments, or something.

In any case, for now, everyone on the Metropolitan Council should be compelled (obligated?) to take transit, if only as an annual adventure. Go stand at Nicollet and 7th in February with a stroller, or even pretend you’re trying to get between two jobs. And not just the Metropolitan Council, everyone in the Twin Cities metro area in a position of influence over this system should probably get in on it. County commissioners, city councilmembers, state representatives, the whole gang. And not the train; take a bus somewhere. If you’re going to put anything about mass transit on your campaign literature or in your bio, you should back it up with some action.

This post was written by Nick Magrino and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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New Knight Foundation effort: $5 million in grants to improve St. Paul and other cities

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 10:15am

The Knight Foundation's latest challenge is an offer of $5 million in grants for ideas that will make St. Paul and 25 other cities around the country "more vibrant places to live."

There's a meeting Monday, 4 p.m., at the Rondo Library, 461 Dale St., St. Paul, to explain the challenge.

The Knight Foundation has recently selected winners in its Knight Arts Challenge and the Knight Green Line Challenge.

Now it is looking for what it calls "ideas that help cities attract and keep talent; opportunities that create economic prospects and break down divides; and ideas that spur connection and civic engagement."

These ideas could come from anywhere, but must be targeted for St. Paul or one of the other 25 cities where Knight once owned newspapers. Duluth and Grand Forks are also included.

They're looking for innovation from neighbors, architects, activists, city planners, entrepreneurs, students, educators, city officials, other public entities, and nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

Organizers say Monday's meeting at the Rondo Library:

"...will offer information on the goals of the challenge, tips on preparing applications, and a chance to talk to Knight staff on how to craft a great submission. Polly Talen, St. Paul Program Director for Knight Foundation will be speaking. Many potential applicants are expected to attend, and press is invited."

'Devilish Dances' coming up; 'Dear White People' opening today

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 9:34am

If you’re a new music organization launching your first season, you might as well be bold. Next week, the Minneapolis Music Company will join with the physical theater and dance troupe Live Action Set to present “Devilish Dances,” a program built around a rarely heard work by Wynton Marsalis.

The Minneapolis Music Company was begun earlier this year by Mischa Santora, a former Minnesota Orchestra associate conductor. It gave its first performance in May at a Liquid Music concert at the Amsterdam. “Devilish Dances” will feature the Twin Cities premiere of Marsalis’ “A Fiddler’s Tale,” a contemporary version of Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale.”

Stravinsky’s work tells of a Russian soldier who trades his fiddle to the devil for the promise of unlimited wealth. Marsalis moves the action to the Mississippi Delta, where Beatrice Connors, a young fiddler, is seduced by the smooth assurances of a record producer named Bubba Z. Beals.

Marsalis chose to use Stravinsky’s unconventional instrumentation – violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet (or trumpet), trombone, and percussion – and so does Santora, who describes Marsalis’ music as “an eclectic mix of Stravinsky, neoclassicism, contemporary music, blues, jazz, and bluegrass.”

The musicians include a founding member of a baroque chamber music ensemble, a studio instructor at Macalester, a member of the Copper Street Brass Quintet, an associate professor of music at St. Olaf, and three members of the Minnesota Orchestra. “One of the ideas behind the Minneapolis Music Company is to try to bring together people from different musical institutions,” Santora said.

“The Soldier’s Tale” was written as a theatrical piece “to be read, played and danced.” “A Fiddler’s Tale” will be acted and danced by Live Action Set founding member Noah Bremer and Ballet of the Dolls dancer Stephanie Fellner, both recently seen in “Crime and Punishment” at the Fringe and “KOM HIT!” at the American Swedish Institute.

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Marsalis’ work includes a narrative text by Stanley Crouch; it will be read here by actor Raye Birk (“The Sunshine Boys” at the Guthrie, “King Lear” at Park Square). “One of the things that drew me to this piece is the text,” Santora said. “As great as the music is, the text is sensational.”

Santora promises that “Devilish Dances” will be “very casual, very accessible. Part of our mission is to try to be accessible to all kinds of audiences, from seasoned concertgoers to people who have never been to a concert.” Plus “the devil is always a good Halloween topic.”

Given that Bremer is the evil genius behind the Soap Factory’s terrifying Haunted Basement, we had to ask: How dark is this new production? Santora was reassuring: “It’s not as dark as it sounds, but it’s definitely a cautionary tale. It’s probably not a kids’ show.”

We’ve been excited about this since we first heard of it in September. It walks and talks like the start of something big. See “Devilish Dances” Tuesday, Oct. 28 at the Soap Factory or Thursday, Oct. 30 at the Bedlam Lowertown. It starts at 7:30 p.m. both nights and lasts about an hour. FMI and tickets ($25). 

The Picks

Tonight at the movies: “Dear White People” opens nationwide. Nothing is black and white in this witty, provocative movie about race, filmed at the University of Minnesota. Justin Simien’s directorial debut has been winning raves and thoughtful reviews, like this from the New York Times: “You will want to see this movie, and you will want to talk about it afterward, even if the conversation feels a little awkward. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong. There is great enjoyment to be found here, and very little comfort.” Here’s the trailer.

Tonight at Studio Z: Pat O’Keefe's “Contents May Differ” CD Release. A member of Zeitgeist, Brazilian ensembles, a world music group and the improvisation ensemble AntiGravity, Pat O’Keefe can do pretty much whatever he wants on the clarinet and bass clarinet. We’ve heard him most often with other top improvisers in the cities – people like Nathan Hanson, Doan Brian Roessler, Pat Moriarty, George Cartwright and Viv Corringham – and know that if what you want is virtuosic, imaginative, creative playing, O’Keefe is your man. He’s just released his first solo CD on the Innova label, with music by David Lang, Scott Miller, Paul Cantrell and others. He’ll be joined by fellow Zeitgeist member Patti Cudd on percussion, Jane Garvin on flute, Laura Harada on violin, Cantrell on piano and Ashley Hawk on bass clarinet. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10).

Tonight through Sunday at the Cowles: James Sewell Ballet: “Ribcage.” The world premiere of a new ballet based on the poem by Minneapolis poet Anna George Meek, about a journey through the human skeleton. The music is performed live by Carrie Henneman Shaw (soprano), Jesse Langen (electric guitar) and Marc Levine (baroque violin). The live music is supported by the Schubert Club. What? How did that happen? Schubert Club director Barry Kempton filled us in. Each year, the Schubert Club provides financial support and programming help with live musicians at a James Sewell Ballet performance, a practice that began when Kathleen van Bergen was director. “As for why it has continued during my tenure,” Kempton said, “I think it’s an interesting way for the Schubert Club to put recital and chamber music in front of a mostly different audience, dance fans – and in Minneapolis, where we don’t have such an extensive presence. There’s no long-term commitment, but while there’s mutual interest and good ideas, we’ll try to follow through.” It’s such a good idea that perhaps more music organizations will want to step forward. Also on the program: “Guy Noir: The Ballet,” a murder mystery ballet inspired by Garrison Keillor’s radio private eye. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Also Oct. 31–Nov. 2. FMI and tickets ($20–$36).

Sunday at the History Center: Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). An annual family day program with music, folk dancing, puppet presentations, traditional Mexican games, art workshops, printmaking, and more. 12 p.m. – 4 p.m. $6–$11; free for kids ages 5 and under and MNHS members. FMI.

Sunday at the James J. Hill House: Victorian Ghost Stories. Dramatic readings of works by Edgar Allan Poe, Edith Wharton, the Brothers Grimm and more in the dimly-lit parlor of the Hill House, followed by a tour and hot cider. Not for children under age 8. Two time slots: 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. FMI and registration ($12, $10 MHS members).

Monday, Oct. 27 and Wednesday, Oct. 29 at the movies: National Theatre Live: “Frankenstein.” Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller swap roles as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creation in this hit production directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”). Who would you rather see with a stitched-together head? It’s Cumberbatch on Monday, Miller on Wednesday. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets (click on Buy Tickets, enter your ZIP).

Monday in the meeting room at Byerly’s St. Louis Park: Adoption Play Story Circle. Have you been affected by adoption? Led by Minnesota theater artists Leah Cooper and Alan Berks, Wonderlust Productions is creating a new play about the adoption experience. Come to a story circle, share your stories, and be part of “community-driven theater,” a way to make plays that brings together the real experiences of a community with the craft of professional artists. The result: a new play, and a transformative community experience. No story is used directly or without permission. The stories are blended together into a fictional story. Refreshments are provided. 8–9:30 p.m. Free, but reservations are appreciated. Email signup@WLproductions.org. FMI and a schedule of upcoming story circles.

Why the proposed PolyMet sulfide mine needs a formal health risk assessment

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 9:31am
Minnesota DNRThe plan for the NorthMet mine site at year 20, when extraction operations are projected to end. Sulfides in waste rock at the mine site will need to be contained and treated for an additional 200 years. Click for larger version.

A growing number of Minnesota’s health professionals and scientists are publicly expressing their concern about the potential health impacts of the proposed PolyMet sulfide mine near Hoyt Lakes.

Earlier this week, several health-related groups, including the Minnesota Public Health Association and the Minnesota Medical Association, joined others in asking Gov. Mark Dayton to require the Minnesota Department of Health to conduct a formal health risk assessment of the controversial mine project.

The health experts are particularly concerned about how the project will increase mercury in fish, contaminate drinking water with toxins such as lead and arsenic, and release pollutants — including nickel dust and asbestos-like mineral fibers — into the air.

One of the experts who signed the latest letter to the governor is Kathleen Schuler, a member of the Minnesota Public Health Association’s Policy and Advocacy Committee and director of the Healthy Kids and Families program at Conservation Minnesota. Earlier this week, MinnPost spoke with Schuler about her health concerns related to the PolyMet mine project. An edited version of that interview follows.

MinnPost: You've called the proposed PolyMet mine project a public health issue. Why?

Kathleen Schuler: There are two aspects to it — the increased effects on the general population and also the increased effects on workers who take part in this industry. As far as the general population is concerned, there’s increased potential for mercury pollution, increased potential for water pollution and an increased risk of air pollution.

MP: What is the concern with mercury?

KS: There’s a potential for mercury methylation. When mercury gets into the environment and is acted on by bacteria it can turn into methylmercury, which is a form of mercury that can build up in the food chain. Ultimately, it ends up in the fish, and we eat the fish.

The potential for methylation has not been fully assessed in [the PolyMet mine] project. There are already high levels [of methylmercury] in the St. Louis River and other water bodies in northern Minnesota. And there are already high levels of mercury in fish in northern Minnesota. [The Minnesota Department of Health] does several bio-monitoring projects, and one in particular looked at mercury in newborns. They found that one in 10 infants born in the Lake Superior region has blood levels of mercury that are higher than the [Environmental Protection Agency] safety standard.

MP: Should people in other regions of the state be concerned? 

Conservation MinnesotaKathleen Schuler

KS: Yes. Mercury is a global pollutant, so it can be deposited thousands of miles from where it’s emitted. It’s more of a concern in northern Minnesota because we have higher exposure among infants in that area of the state, [but] it can affect everyone.

MP:  What is the current source of the mercury that is getting into those infants’ bodies?

KS:  The main source is fish consumption.

MP:  And where is the mercury coming from that’s getting into the fish?

KS: The biggest source of mercury in our environment is coal-burning [power plants and other facilities]. With PolyMet, there will be an increase in fossil fuel use that would not only increase mercury but would increase air pollution. There's a link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems. And then there’s the possibility that arsenic, magnesium and lead could get into the water and pollute wells.

MP: What is the health concern regarding those three metals?

KS: They’re neurotoxins, and arsenic is linked to cancer. People in the region will be exposed [to these and other toxins] both through air, through water and through fish consumption, so there's multiple effects that need to be examined. 

MP: We have had taconite mining in northern Minnesota. How do sulfide mines differ from taconite mines in terms of releasing potentially toxic chemicals?

KS: That's another area that hasn't been assessed. We know that there's a risk of mesothelioma from asbestos-like fibers, and that was definitely a concern with taconite mining. There are going to be asbestos-like fibers generated through sulfide mining, so that would put workers at risk for mesothelioma — or could. It needs to be looked at. There’s also the potential for exposure to particulates and nickel dust. Those are all potential risks for workers working at the plant. And who knows if those pollutants are going to get out into the broader environment and expose the community.

MP: You’re particularly concerned about the risks that these chemicals might pose to infants and children.

KS: Yes, especially with mercury and water pollutants. The most at-risk is a fetus, so we're concerned about pregnant women. In Minnesota we have fish-consumption advisories. Pretty much every water body has mercury, and pretty much every type of fish has some level of mercury in it. The health department gives pregnant women advice on which fish to avoid — if you're going to eat walleye, for example, don't eat very much. The reason is the fetus' brain is developing, and because mercury is a potent neurotoxin, it can definitely affect brain development. It could turn up in subtle ways as [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] or reduced IQ. There’s no way of knowing what the effects are going to be. That's why it's more protective of the public health to avoid mercury exposure at all costs, if you can.

MP: What would you say to people who say we already have these contaminants in the environment — for example, we’re already warning pregnant women about eating fish — so the propose PolyMet mine won’t really change the health risk that much?

KS: That's just it. We need an assessment to find out if it's going to be worse, and, if so, how much, and then is it worth the cost to our health to go forward with the project?  It's not just the economic costs or the economic benefits. We also have to look at the environmental costs and the public health costs. That's why doing a health risk assessment and a health impact assessment are necessary for a big project like this.

MP: Do you find it difficult to get across the message that environmental toxins can be dangerous? After all, their effects on health may take years to develop.

KS: My work involves chemicals in consumer products. You don't want people to panic and feel as if they can't buy anything because it might have a toxic chemical in it. But that's why people need good information. The effects [of these chemicals] are so subtle, especially when some of them can act and affect your health at a very low level. Any amount of lead — and mercury as well — can affect the brain. You definitely want to avoid any exposure at all. But it’s hard because you can't see it. It's hard to picture how a tiny amount of chemical is actually going to affect your child's development. But if we look at the science, the science is definitely there. 

That’s why we need a health impact assessment before we go forward with [the PolyMet mine project]. … [Sulfide mining] is a huge new industry in Minnesota. We don't know what the public health effects are going to be. We can guess what they’re going to be, but we’d be only guessing, because we haven't really assessed them. … I think we'll be sorry if we don't do that assessment.

From legalizing pot to eliminating the corporate tax: IP candidate for governor Hannah Nicollet on the issues

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 9:24am

If Hannah Nicollet had her way, Minnesota would be the third state to legalize recreational marijuana. The Independence Party gubernatorial candidate also believes anyone charged with possession of the drug should be pardoned for the offense.

In the long tradition of Independence Party candidates in Minnesota, Nicollet is espousing ideas on the campaign trail not often uttered by candidates from the other two major parties — proposals that don’t fit squarely on any particular side of political spectrum. Nicollet, a software developer by trade, supports investing in roads and bridges, is pro-mining and wants to eliminate corporate taxes in the state. But she wouldn't try to get rid of MNsure, and says Minnesota should look beyond its borders for policy solutions that are working in other states and countries.

“As a software developer, if we have problems to solve we would look for a tool or an application that was already doing what we wanted to do, and to whatever extent we could, not try and reinvent the wheel,” she said. “If we have problems to solve and someone has already done it, why legislate in a vacuum?”

Here’s a look at where she stands on taxes, the budget and other major issues that will face Minnesota’s next governor: 

Taxes: Nicollet’s biggest complaint on the campaign trail so far has been, as she sees it, stagnant private sector growth that has led to thousands of Minnesotans who are underemployed. She has consistently pitched a dramatic solution to the problem — completely eliminate Minnesota’s corporate tax to make the state friendly for businesses to expand here.

“Right now we have the third highest corporate income tax in the nation, at 9.8 percent, and it is also the most costly to collect. Businesses spend most of the time trying to comply with it and trying to get deductions,” Nicollet said. “The total revenue that it amounts to in our state budget is only 4 percent. It’s only a small part of our budget and it makes things a lot less business friendly. I’d like to do what Ireland did in the 90s and just eliminate it.” [Note: Ireland does, in fact, have a corporate tax.]

Budget: Nicollet isn’t specific when it comes to where she would cut in the budget to make up for lost revenue from cutting taxes, though she believes eliminating the corporate tax will increase activity in the private sector. “People always look at revenue like it’s a fixed pie. Revenue is not a fixed pie, it changes all the time,” she said. “Taxes influence behavior. If you are strategic about how you make tax cuts then you can influence behavior.” 

If she’s lucky enough to have a surplus to spend as governor, Nicollet said she would put nearly all that money into the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges. She would also support increasing revenue to pay for additional infrastructure improvements, but she wouldn’t specify how she would raise the money or how much she would raise. “Every year we don’t [fix infrastructure] it it’s costing us money. I would try to get that started as quickly as possible, but within reason,” she said. “You don’t want to put your whole state under construction at one time. I would project out four years to get all of the work done.”

Education: Education spending and policies have become the centerpiece of this year’s gubernatorial campaign, particularly how to address Minnesota’s achievement gap, one of the worst in the nation. Nicollet doesn’t believe money is the problem — Minnesota dedicates the largest portion of the budget to education. “We clearly care about it and we are making it a huge priority, but we haven’t been strategic about it,” she said.

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She said she would start by giving school districts more independence to address the individual needs of their students. The achievement gap is a problem across the state, but the approach to fixing it could be different in an urban district than in a school in rural Minnesota, she said. “A lot of time we have these one-size-fits-all kind of solutions, like Common Core, and clearly one size doesn’t fit all or we wouldn’t have the achievement gap that we do,” she said.  “I would like to see more autonomy where kids can have their needs met — their local, individual, community, cultural needs — addressed right in their school district, and they haven't had the freedom to do that.”

Nicollet also isn’t eager to continue tuition freezes at the state’s public colleges and universities. Those institutions regularly get state money thrown their way, she said, but they’ve done little to cut administrative and other costs to keep tuition down over time. “Now our state institutions are building things like health clubs and we keep giving them money in our bonding bill to building more buildings,” she said. “But it looks like they haven’t been forced to innovate.” 

Sex offender treatment: Minnesota’s controversial treatment program for dangerous sex offenders will be in the spotlight in February, when a federal judge takes up a class action lawsuit alleging the program is unconstitutional. At the crux of their argument is a startling statistic — in the nearly 20-year history of the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program (MSOP), only one person has been successfully released from the prison-like facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Nearly everyone in the program has already served their prison sentences.

Reforms to deal with the constitutional issue of locking up people indefinitely in the program have stalled in the Legislature, despite warnings from U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank that he could take action if lawmakers don’t. For Nicollet, the solution isn’t in a dramatic overhaul of the program, but simply increasing accountability at the judicial level. Judges in each county review cases and recommend prisoners for treatment in the program, and Nicollet would like more public information available about these decisions and the judges who make them.

“It’s a solution that comes on the end of something that should have been solved in the beginning. We have no accountability in the judicial process,” Nicollet said. “You can’t even look anyone up who are giving out these sentences. I want to bring more transparency to our judicial branch. They have the least amount of accountability of any branch of government in the state.” 

Marijuana: On the national level, Nicollet’s views on marijuana are becoming less radical. Two states have already legalized recreational marijuana and others have decriminalized it, but Minnesota was slow to open its doors to even medical marijuana. This spring lawmakers passed the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the nation.

“Obviously I take drug abuse seriously, but marijuana in particular doesn’t make anyone violent and it doesn’t kill anyone, whereas someone dies every 19 minutes from a prescription drug,” Nicollet said. “And their kids are my other concern. I know people who are very good parents who smoke pot, and then we have kids paying the price in foster care. Being taken out of your home is very traumatic.” 

“Treating drugs as a criminal issue versus a public health issue has so many unintended consequences,” she continued. “It’s dangerous to the people who get raided, it’s dangerous to the officers, and all for what? You are terrorizing people on the state’s dime.”

MNsure: Nicollet finds herself somewhere in the middle of the debate over MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange. On one hand she wants the program to continue, unlike most Republicans, but she doesn’t want to push it on Minnesotans who aren’t interested. “We need to focus on just those who need subsidies. I don’t know if I want the government running health insurance when they haven’t been that efficient in other areas. I don’t want us to create another payment at the state that we can’t afford to pay,” Nicollet said. “I want to keep people who needs subsides on the exchange, but not push it on everyone.”

She’d also like to open up the possibility to shop for insurance from other states and move Minnesota away from employment-based insurance coverage. “Nowadays people change jobs so much, so if you lose your doctor every time you change jobs it doesn’t make sense.”

Mining: When it comes to the controversial PolyMet non-ferrous mining project on the Iron Range, which environmentalists fear could pollute the area’s pristine lakes, Nicollet finds herself on the side of the miners. “They need the jobs in outstate Minnesota,” she said. “Economically, our rural areas are the ones hurting.”

Her biggest concern is getting PolyMet to commit to covering the costs that come when the mine is used up. “It costs about $200 million to close a mine and $6 to $7 million every year after that for maintenance. And that could go on for a couple hundred years,” she said. “The problem is when mining companies declare bankruptcy at the end and the state is stuck with those costs. We want to make sure that they really have the money to do the end care.” 

KSTP-TV meteorologist Ken Barlow reflects on life with bipolar disorder

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 8:20am

Two years ago, when he made the decision to tell the world about his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, KSTP-TV meteorologist Ken Barlow could only guess what kind of reaction he would get.

“I could have lost my job,” he said. “I could have lost my friends. I had no idea what was going to happen, but I felt like I just couldn’t hold it in anymore.”

In 2007, after a lifetime of manic bursts followed by debilitating depressions, Barlow was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. For five years, fearing that the truth about his mental illness could have a negative impact on nearly every aspect his life, Barlow told only a select few people about his diagnosis. And even those people were sworn to secrecy.

Barlow’s announcement at the 2012 NAMI-MN walk in Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Park made local news; a subsequent profile in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and an interview on KTCA’s “Almanac” followed. Emails and letters soon began pouring in from around the world. Before he knew it, Barlow, 52, had redefined himself as a public figure openly living with mental illness.

“It’s not like I planned this,” Barlow said with a laugh when he recalled his sudden announcement at the NAMI-MN walk, which he’d been asked to emcee, “but it’s been the best thing I ever did. It just came out. I felt this immediate release of stress, anger, of all that stuff that I’d bottled up for all those years. And the crowd clapped. I wish I would’ve done this seven years ago. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know if this diagnosis would be held against me if I ever were looking for another job. That’s definitely a concern, but what I’m getting in return from people is so huge.”

What Barlow said he’s getting in return is an overwhelming show of support and a new perspective on life. These days, he’s become a mental health activist, sharing the story of his struggle with bipolar disorder with community groups, students and health care professionals. And his family has rallied around him, too, supporting his new policy of public honesty and openness.

This fall, Barlow and I met for coffee near his Maple Grove home. He talked candidly about a number of issues, including his heartening public support, how he works to maintain emotional equilibrium, and his new views on perfection — and humility.

MinnPost: Tell us about hiding your diagnosis.

Barlow: It turns out that for me the hardest part of this diagnosis was hiding it. When you’re a public person, everybody thinks you must be perfect. You have the perfect hair, the perfect suits. You even wear makeup on camera. You’re presented as no flaws. So when I was first diagnosed in 2007, I put up all these barriers. I was horrified, because I pictured everybody with a mental illness as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo ’s Nest” or a murderer. That’s all I ever really heard about mental illness.

I was ashamed and embarrassed. My wife helped me build up walls. It got so bad she would go to the drugstore and pick up my prescriptions because I didn’t want people to see me with my medications.

After my breakdown, I got home from the hospital, sat at the computer and typed in “famous people with bipolar” because I wanted to know what the hell I had. Ben Stiller came up, and I thought, “He’s funny. I never knew he had bipolar.” Winston Churchill came up and then Britney Spears. Two out of three ain’t bad. It made me feel better to know that all these people who were seemingly “normal” had this illness.

And then, when I finally got the nerve up to tell people about my mental illness, I hoped that maybe I could help other people realize that you can be a dad and a husband, you can have a car and a great job and you can have bipolar or some other mental illness.

One out of four people in the United States has some form of mental illness. We are people you know well and see every day.

MinnPost: Is mental illness part of your family history?

MinnPost’s 7th Anniversary party

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Barlow: I was 45 when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When I told my mom about my diagnosis, she said that Dad had had it, too, which came as a shock to me. He never talked about it. He was embarrassed, and he passed that embarrassment on to me.

My dad wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar until he was 60, and he died when he was 68, a few years before I was diagnosed with the same disease. The only indication I had about his condition was after he died, when my brothers and I cleaned out his room and I found a bottle of lithium in one of his drawers. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it must be a vitamin. We just got rid of the pills and didn’t ask my mom about them because she was so distraught. It just never crossed my mind that my dad had a mental illness, but, now looking back on his life, I can definitely see patterns in his behavior that I see in mine.

I just feel bad that he didn’t know until he was 60. I found out when I was 45. I had 15 years on him.

MinnPost: What has been the public reaction?

Barlow: Amazing. First, after I spoke at the NAMI walk, I got supportive emails from about 20 people. Then the St. Paul Pioneer Press did a big article on me, and I got hundreds of emails. Then I did an interview on “Almanac,” and I got hundreds more. Even today I’m still getting emails.

I think I’m up to 2,000 emails and letters by now. I’ve answered every one because they were all unique stories. People write things like, “My dad had it. Thank you so much,” or “Now I understand my brother.”

You’d think that in all of those emails, there’d be at least one person saying something negative about me and bipolar disorder. But there hasn’t been one negative letter. I know there are people out there who have bad stereotypes of what it means to live with a mental illness. They’re out there, but they haven’t made themselves known to me yet.

It turns out the biggest discrimination I ever experienced was my own fear. After I started talking about my diagnosis, I told myself, “My daughter’s friends’ parents are never going to let them come over to our house and have a sleepover because they think her daddy’s nuts.” That would’ve been so easy for them to do and none of them did it.

And then my wife and I talked and I asked her, “What would happen if so-and-so doesn’t ever want to be with us again?” She said, “If they are going to turn their backs on us right now after all this time, we don’t need them.” And nobody did.

MinnPost: What’s it been like going from patient to activist?

Barlow: Since I told the world about my mental illness, I’ve been busy. This fall, for instance, my whole family participated in the Stomp Out Suicide Walk in Wyoming, Minn. A few days later I went to Duluth to do a talk at a conference of community health providers. Then I came back the next day and worked at a walk in Maple Grove. So I’ve been doing a little bit more than my wife and doctors would like. But I’ve committed to taking the months of December, January and February off.

Last year, Dakota County Mental Health Services asked me to speak at an event they organized at Hosanna! Church in Lakeville. It was standing-room only. As people were leaving, the organizers handed out these little sheets of paper that said, “A note for Ken.”

Courtesy of Ken BarlowWhen Ken Barlow spoke about his experience with bipolar I disorder at a recent event held by Dakota County Mental Health Services, audience members wrote notes of support.

I didn’t know they were doing it, but after my talk, they collected the notes and put this book together. Two months later, they gave it to me. I opened it and I cried, because it’s so great. Any time I’m feeling down, I’ll open it up and read some of the notes. Just a couple of weeks ago I was feeling down, so I took out the book and I started reading it. It made me feel better.

At work, I’ve become the ad hoc guy for mental illness, so when I hear someone saying something about mental illness that just doesn’t sit well with me, like “commit suicide” instead of “death by suicide,” I’ll point it out. It sounds like a small thing, but people who have lost loved ones to suicide would say, “They didn’t commit to it. They did it. And it’s not a sin.”

Once I came out about my bipolar, I transitioned from being a person who didn’t even want one of his brothers to know about his diagnosis to being a person who talks to thousands of strangers about it. That’s a big leap. At these talks, I’m the Elvis of mental illness. It’s nice for a change not being known just for doing the weather on TV. It’s good to be known for doing something much more meaningful. I feed off of that. It makes me feel so good hearing, “Thank you.”

MinnPost: What do you do to stay healthy?

Barlow: Most people with bipolar disorder take a cocktail of medications. It’s very complicated because nobody’s the same. My cocktail is different from his or hers or my dad’s. If it were that easy, there’d be a magic pill for all of us. But there isn’t one.

Sometimes you go through these periods where you’re not feeling well so you call your doctor and he tweaks your meds. It’s very scary because you don’t know what will happen. It scares the crap out of me thinking that I could be stupidly manic again, or so depressed I can’t move. I’ve been both. I’m terrified, which keeps me on my meds.

Usually I get more manic than depressed. My wife and kids know what signs to look for because we’ve all talked about it. When I’m getting manic I don’t sleep right, I’m running around the house cleaning every room on my hands and knees. My wife knows the signs and she’ll tell me that something’s off. She can even tell by the sound of my footsteps across the floor. If I’m walking too fast, she knows I’m heading the wrong way.

Since bipolar disorder is hereditary, I’ve talked to all three of my kids about what my diagnosis means to them and what sort of symptoms they need to look out for in themselves.

MinnPost: What’s the biggest gift in all this for you?

Barlow: The biggest gift I received from this experience is empathy. I realize now that everybody’s got stuff. It just depends on what it is and how you handle it. The stuff you have makes you who you are. So bipolar is my stuff. Somebody else has heart disease. Somebody else has cancer. Someone’s marriage is falling apart.

We all have people we envy. Maybe to you a person with a yacht or a Mercedes or a giant mansion looks like they have it all. But you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. The person you envy could have some kind of mental illness. They could be dealing with tragedy in their family. Somebody they love may have been killed in a car accident. We all envy other people, but you just don’t know what other stuff they are carrying around with them. It’s the stuff we carry around with us that makes us human. Nobody’s perfect on the inside.

Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden hit Minnesota to stump for Democrats

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 5:45am

It was a busy day for visiting Democrats. While VP Joe Biden worked up north, Hillary Clinton stumped the Twin Cities. Brian Bakst’s AP story says, “Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Minnesota voters Thursday to "just look at the facts" about recent economic and social progress as they decide the re-election fates of Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken and turn back scare tactics and negative television ads. … Franken sounded a message of urgency to the student-heavy crowd, many of whom weren't old enough to vote in his last run. ‘We are going to be relentless. We are going to be in your face every day between now and Election Day. We are going to be really obnoxious if that's what it takes,’ Franken said with a mischievous grin.” Hey Al, no jokes, remember?

For the PiPress, Bill Salisbury kicks in, “After ticking off a long list of her achievements, [Franken] said, ‘And I would add she's funny ... truly, truly funny’. He continued, ‘Another thing Hillary and I have in common,’ and the crowd burst into laughter. ‘I tried to slip that through,’ the former comic deadpanned.”

As for Joe Biden: Steve Karnowski of the AP says, “Biden said little about [Stewart] Mills, a wealthy businessman whose family started the Mills Fleet Farm chain of stores, but criticized Republicans at length as being out of touch. He said he doesn't question the motives of ‘the tea party guys and Rick's opponents. … They don't understand where we grew up. They don't understand that the reason we have a middle class in America is because of unions,’ he said to cheers.”

Earlier, Rachel Stassen-Berger of the Strib reported, “With questions about the state's health exchange and Republican campaign ads swirling, Gov. Mark Dayton dashed from a Thursday afternoon event about housing without taking questions from the waiting press. Dayton's decision to leave the event through a side door with his staff was unexpected. His staff had indicated he would answer questions from reporters. … On Thursday, the Star Tribune reported that the Dayton administration had sought lower rates from an insurer that signed up to provide health insurance through MNsure, the state's health exchange.” There’ll be an attack ad up on this one within 48 hours.

On the GOP side: Catharine Richert of MPR reports, “The conservative Minnesota Jobs Coalition is targeting vulnerable House DFLers in a six-figure television ad buy. It is the group’s first television campaign and it will target eight competitive districts, said Minnesota Jobs Coalition chairman Ben Golnik. Republicans need to win seven seats to take control of the Minnesota House. … Additional ads will focus on spending and tax increases in four suburban districts, including 42A, represented by Rep. Barb Yarusso, 56B, represented by Rep. Will Morgan, 42B which is represented by Rep. Jason Isaacson, and 36B represented by Rep. Melissa Hortman.”

The Dorothy Day Center will be getting a serious upgrade. Curtis Gilbert at MPR says, “The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency has announced more than $160 million in affordable housing grants to help fund almost 80 projects around the state. … The single largest grant award, for $19 million, went to Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis for a major renovation and expansion of the downtown St. Paul Dorothy Day Center homeless shelter.”

One lucky dude. Rob Olson at KMSP-TV says, “Eden Hanson remembers everything about how he landed in the Hennepin County Medical Center. He's still in rough shape, but in many ways, it's incredible that he is recovering at all. After falling nearly 60 feet, Hanson's doctors say he will walk away — albeit with a possible compression fracture in his neck, a broken arm, six broken ribs, a sternum fracture, and a lacerated liver and spleen. ‘I wore a safety helmet,’ Hanson told Fox 9 News. ‘Doctors tell me that if I wouldn't have worn that helmet, I don't know if I would have made it.’” Hanson was trimming an oak tree.

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That always popular holiday CD from Cities97 gets a preview from the PiPress’s Ross Raihala. “Ed Sheeran, Ingrid Michaelson and Neon Trees are among the acts found on this year's ‘Cities 97 Sampler,’ which will go on sale at area Target stores starting at 8 a.m. Nov. 20. A total of 35,000 copies, priced at $25.97 each, will be available. The ‘Sampler,’ now in its 26th year, typically sells out in hours. It's expected to raise more than $900,000, with proceeds benefiting numerous Minnesota charities.”

Wait a minute, I can get a minister certificate in about 90 seconds on the  internet. But Kevin Giles of the Strib reports, “A Washington County manager’s refusal to register an atheist seeking to solemnize marriages has led to a lawsuit contesting Minnesota law as unconstitutional. Atheists for Human Rights (AFHR) and Rodney Michael Rogers allege that state law and county policy deprived the organization and Rogers of ‘equal protection of laws’ guaranteed in the 14th Amendment. Their suit also said that ‘content-based discrimination’ violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

Ebola in Africa: A product of history, not a natural phenomenon

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 5:00am

Modern African history teaches, often tragically, the need to distinguish between what might be called natural phenomena from those that are essentially socio-economic-political. The droughts that ravaged many parts of the continent in the early 1970s were an example of the former. (I leave aside the issue of human actions and global warming.) As drought-stricken California presently shows, the famines and the tens of thousands of lives lost that came in their wake were not, however, inevitable. That horrific outcome was largely the product of the policies put in place by colonial governments and dutifully and sadly reproduced by post-colonial regimes. 

The same lesson is being taught, again, tragically, by the continent’s latest scourge. Human pathogens have existed in Africa ever since our species began to evolve there and they too evolve, sometimes resulting in viruses like Ebola. But there’s nothing inevitable about the Ebola epidemic that’s still unfolding. Like famines, it too is the product of history, the decisions that governments have made in the past as well as the present. The relevant question is whose interests are prioritized in those choices? How a society responds to that most natural of processes, the evolution of human pathogens, testifies to the answers it gives to that question.   

Colonial regimes, in place from about the last quarter of the nineteenth century to a decade or so after the Second World War, were, above all else, designed to extract Africa’s natural resources in the most lucrative way. Social services that might have benefited the colonial subjects, such as healthcare and education, were, to save costs, kept to a minimum—if that. This explains the profoundly undemocratic character of those regimes. The last thing the extractors wanted is for the subjects to have some say-so about how they were governed and, hence, how their natural resources should be utilized. These were the arrangements that post-colonial elites not only inherited and readily embraced but deepened to advance their own narrow class interests. In the case of Liberia, a semi-colony of the U.S.—nominally independent since 1847—its elite (the descendants of repatriated slaves from America) ensured that Firestone Rubber would reap enormous profits from its operations there. Thus, the outrageously ironic situation today where, in one of the world’s leading rubber producers, there are not enough rubber gloves to protect its citizens from the scourge. 

In recent decades, in the name of fighting wasteful government spending and corruption, international lending agencies such as the International Monetary Fund have demanded as a condition for getting new funding African governments must reduce their spending. African elites have willingly agreed to do so with resulting cuts in healthcare and education—helping to create the perfect storm for the Ebola virus. 

August H. Nimtz

Lest it be assumed that only poor or underdeveloped countries are afflicted with such tragic outcomes, consider what happened in the richest country in the world in 2005. In the wake of a natural phenomenon, Hurricane Katrina—global warming again notwithstanding—more than 1,600 people (and still counting for those of us intimately familiar with what happened) lost their lives in New Orleans and environs. Yet two months earlier a hurricane of greater intensity, Dennis, struck Cuba twice and only 15 of its citizens perished. Neither outcome was inevitable. The difference, rather, evidenced the deep going structural transformations in Cuban society after 1959—its revolution. For the first time in Cuba’s history, it toilers had a government that prioritized their interests and not those of a tiny elite. Their life chances, as measured by, for example, infant mortality rates, life expectancy, levels of education, dramatically improved, despite the fact that Cuba is still poor and underdeveloped. The starkly different aftermaths of the two hurricanes in both societies spoke volumes about what Cuba’s toilers had achieved and what their apparently better-off counterparts 400 miles to the north had not.   

Neither is it a coincidence that Cuba has stepped forward, unlike any other country, to commit healthcare personnel to fight the Ebola scourge. Four hundred and sixty-one Cubans are either on their way or already in the affected areas. They were selected from 15,000 of their 11 million citizens who volunteered to go. That’s tellingly in contrast to, as of this week, the 2,700 U.S. citizens, out of a population of 316 million, who, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, have volunteered to do the same. For Cubans there is nothing unusual about what they are doing since four thousand of their healthcare workers already serve in 38 African countries and about 45,000 in 28 countries elsewhere. Thus, the political choices a society makes have consequences not only for the life chances of its own citizens but also for those of other countries. And therein is the most important lesson. Until the toilers not only in Africa but elsewhere have governments that serve their interests they risk being once again needless victims of natural phenomena.  

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August H. Nimtz is a professor of political science and African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota.

GOP alters anti-Dayton ad after complaints by abuse victim's grandmother

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 2:41pm

The Minnesota Republican Party ad featuring an image of Eric Dean.

’Tis the season for rank exploitation Patrick Condon of the Strib says, “The grandmother of 4-year-old Eric Dean, whose death by abuse in 2013 exposed gaps in Minnesota's child protection services, said Thursday morning that the state Republican Party initially rebuffed but then acceded to her request to stop referring to the case  in a TV ad critical of Gov. Mark Dayton. … Yvonne Dean said she got two calls Thursday morning from Republican Party chairman Keith Downey about the ad, after she called the party seeking to get the ad taken down. Dean said Downey initially told her the party felt within legal rights to reference the case and include an image of Eric Dean. A short while later, she said Downey called back to say the image of Eric, and references to the case, would be removed from the ad.”

There’s a legal term for “false statement under oath,” isn’t there? MPR’s Madeleine Baran says, “Archbishop John Nienstedt gave a false statement under oath about his knowledge of a priest's criminal conviction for sexually assaulting a child, letters obtained by MPR News show. Nienstedt testified on April 2 that he first learned of the criminal conviction of the Rev. Gilbert Gustafson, an archdiocesan priest, ‘during the last six months’. He also claimed little knowledge of Gustafson. ‘I believe that he is retired,’ Nienstedt testified. ‘He's in our monitoring program, and he's living on his own.’ That statement surprised Catholic parishioner LaLonne Murphy, who had written to Nienstedt more than six years ago to inform him of Gustafson's criminal conviction and his ongoing work as a consultant for Twin Cities parishes.”

Better 30 to 60 years late than never. The AP is saying, “The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has disclosed the names of 17 additional priests who have been accused of sexually abusing minors. The list includes four names that are new to the public. Allegations were found to be substantiated in all cases. The archdiocese says most of the accusations are from the mid-1950s to mid-1980s.”

MinnPost’s 7th Anniversary party

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The Palace may actually be restored to life. Frederick Melo of the PiPress reports, “The St. Paul City Council gave the green light Wednesday to fund a downtown bicycle loop, a Grand Rounds bikeway and the remodeling of the long-vacant Palace Theatre, among a host of new projects. … The approved funds include $8 million to reopen the Palace as a downtown music venue. Through a combination of state, city and private funding, the century-old movie theater on West Seventh Place would be converted into a 3,000-person concert hall.” Cue a local columnist on what this means for his property taxes.

As we know, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is campaigning on the many economic successes he’s wrought in his first term in office, data be damned. He’s having a tougher time with the $1.8 billion deficit being projected for 2015-17. Dan Umhoefer of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writes in a PolitiFact column. “Three summers ago, Gov. Scott Walker boasted to a national cable TV audience that his 2011-’13 state budget ended the practice of pushing fiscal problems into the future. In a June 2011 appearance on CNBC, Walker said his first budget ‘wiped out’ a big shortfall and put in changes to avoid them in the future. Now, weeks before the Nov. 4, 2014 election, the governor is facing questions about his own shortfall projected for the 2015-’17 budget, caused in part by tax cuts he championed. And Walker is arguing the method behind a projected $1.8 billion shortfall is suspect.” The paper’s editorial page should be about ready to endorse Walker. For the third time.

Also in The Scott Walker Zone, Daniel Bice, columnist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel often reports on denials of wrong-doing from the Governor’s past or present staff. This one is particularly good. “When Scott Walker's county staff members needed to release a statement in 2010 saying they did not engage in campaign activity, who exactly did they ask to approve the language? Walker's top campaign aides, naturally. ‘Is this ok to send to Bice?’ wrote Fran McLaughlin, then-Walker's county spokeswoman, on May 13, 2010, to Walker and three high-level Walker campaign aides regarding a draft statement.” You gotta love the sheer nakedness of it all.

MPR’s Alex Friedrich reports that MnSCU is being told there are “flaws” in how it conducted its investigation of Minnesota State football coach Todd Hofner. “The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system should reassess how it conducts and documents investigations following its firing of Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner, state Legislative Auditor James Noble said in a report released Thursday. … The report concludes that the investigator conducted interviews that were not under oath and were not recorded. It also said she destroyed her interview notes after presenting her report to university leaders.”

Apple season to arrive earlier. Christopher Aadland of The Minnesota Daily says, “Apple lovers usually have to wait until fall to bite into the crispest and juiciest selections of the fruit. But now, a new apple created by University of Minnesota researchers promises to greet those people with a renowned taste similar to the school’s famous Honeycrisp a month earlier in the season. The team started working on the apple — temporarily named the MN55 — in the late 1990s, but it’s just now in its beginning stages of being marketed on a larger scale.” The "MN55" is kinda catchy, though.

Here’s an interesting piece on fracking, currently pumping up North Dakota’s economy and driving down gas prices. Kate Sheppard of The Huffington Post writes, “When it comes to environmental pollutants, sometimes what's legal is what's most worrying. That's the conclusion of a new report on a major loophole in the regulations governing hydraulic fracturing. The report, released Wednesday by the Environmental Integrity Project, looks at what is known as the ‘Halliburton loophole’ — an exemption from existing rules that allows companies to inject some petroleum-based chemicals into the ground without obtaining a permit. … The provision became known as the Halliburton loophole because of then-Vice President and former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney's reported involvement in crafting the law.” That Dick, he just keeps on giving.

Former Sheriff Bob Fletcher trying for political return in Vadnais Heights city council race

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 11:32am

Bob Fletcher, the former long-time Ramsey County Sheriff, is trying again to get back into politics.

He's running for the Vadnais Heights city council against incumbent Joe Murphy and two other challengers in the suburb north of St. Paul.

Fletcher, who retired last year as a St. Paul Police commander, says he's now a counter-terrorism instructor and consultant, and has also been working with Somali youth.

He says he's running because of the city's financial debacle with the Vadnais Sports Center, which hurts the city's bond rating and costs taxpayers money. Top challenges facing the city, he said, are recovering from the Sports Center legacy and working to get a Vadnais stop on the coming Rush Line Metro Transit route.

Fletcher served on the St. Paul City Council in the 1980s and ran for mayor and the Legislature back then, too. He was elected sheriff in 1994 and served 16 years, before he was defeated in 2010 by Matt Bostrom.

Two years ago, Fletcher ran unsuccessfully for a Ramsey County Board seat, coming in fourth of four in the primary.

PreferredOne customers will face rate hikes on MNsure. How much? A lot less than 63% — and a lot more than 4.5

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 11:14am

The political hot potato of MNsure rate increases keeps getting hotter.

It heated up quite a bit last week with PreferredOne’s statement that its individual market subscribers would see a 63 percent average increase next year. And though PreferredOne has pulled out of MNsure for 2015, its rate increase still carries significant implications for the debate over rates for those individuals who remain in MNsure.

In fact, since nearly 60 percent of MNsure subscribers are currently enrolled with PreferredOne — which offered the lowest rates of all the providers — those nearly 33,000 Minnesotans are now faced with three options: staying with PreferredOne; moving to another provider; or slipping back into the pool of the uninsured.

And though we currently know what the average rate increase will be if an individual chooses to stay with PreferredOne, a MinnPost analysis of 2015 MNsure rates shows that PreferredOne subscribers looking to find comparable plans through MNsure are likely to face substantial rate increases in 2015 — our sample showed increases from 13 to 44 percent — though nowhere near the increase they face if they stay with PreferredOne.

Many factors affect price

Not surprisingly, the individual rate for a Preferred One customer who decides to switch to a 2015 MNsure provider — HealthPartners, Blue Cross Blue Shield, UCare, Medica, or Blue Plus — depends on a lot of different factors. The number of price points in MNsure runs in the scores of thousands: There are 46 age markers, 9 regions, 5 providers, 5 levels (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Catastrophic). And providers can have a number of plans within each level, from HealthPartner’s 5 Bronze and 4 Silver plans to Medica’s 15 Gold plans, 10 Silver, and 10 Bronze.

To get a rough idea of what a PreferredOne customer may encounter if they change to a MNsure provider, we considered the following slice of possibilities: comparing the lowest-cost PreferredOne plan in each of the levels (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Catastrophic) to the comparably lowest-priced plan among the five MNsure providers. Furthermore, since MNsure divides the state into nine geographic price regions, we thought it useful to take a look at these comparisons in several regions.

We chose Region 8 (the Twin Cities metro), Region 4 (the southwest corner of the state) and Region 7 (which covers a diagonal swath of land going from Chisago County all the way up to Roseau) because they cover a wide range of the state and because comparable plans are offered in all three. This resulted in 15 scenarios comparing 2014 PreferredOne plans to 2015 MNsure plans. (See below for more information on our methodology.) 

Wide-range of potential rate increases

The percentage increase that PreferredOne customers would face in changing to MNsure providers varied in this sample from a low of 13.5 percent (Gold Plan, Region 4) to a high of 44 percent (Platinum Plan, Region 7). The percentage changes were consistent for the 30- and 50-year-old price points, varying by at most a few tenths of a percentage point (except for one case of 2.5 percent in the “Catastrophic Plan, Region 8” category).

Of the 15 scenarios, eight were between 13.5 percent and 21.5 percent; three were between 24.5 percent and 28.5 percent; three between 32 percent and 37 percent, and one increase of 44 percent (see chart below).

Region 4Region 7Region 8
(Metro) Bronze Level33.5%19.0%21.5% Silver Level16.0%16.5%17.5% Gold Level13.5%26.5%28.5% Platinum Level20.5%44.0%37.0% Catastrophic Level32.0%24.5%14.5%

The bottom line: Across the three regions, a PreferredOne Silver subscriber would fare best with the switch, with a 16 to 17.5 percent increase by changing to MNsure. A PreferredOne Bronze subscriber who switched would encounter a 19 percent increase in Region 7, a 21.5 percent increase in the Metro (Region 8), but a hefty 33.5 percent increase in Region 4. The greatest increases are found at the Platinum level.

Although none of these scenarios resulted in a 63 percent increase when switching from PreferredOne to another MNsure provider, that initial 4.5 percent average increase for MNsure rates touted by the Commerce Department is looking less and less relevant to what MNsure subscribers will actually be facing.

A note about methodology: All the data used for these calculations can be found on the Minnesota State Commerce Department’s website. The 15 scenarios come from the five plan levels – Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Catastrophic – looked at in each of the three regions, and points looked at were for 30- and 50-year-old non-smokers. One important caveat: there are a lot of subtle differences in the plans, so the lowest priced plans from the different providers will not have identical provisions.