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Yeah, the Lynx are old. They're also ready to vie for another WNBA title

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 3:15pm
Pat Borzi

In little asides throughout the preseason, Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve let it be known she is officially tired of being reminded how old her team is.

Seven of the 11 players expected in uniform for Sunday night’s season opener, against Chicago at Xcel Energy Center, are at least 30, including every starter except Maya Moore. Last year the Lynx fielded the oldest Opening Night roster in the league. And after adding rugged 35-year-old forward Plenette Pierson as a free agent, they almost certainly will again.

So when Reeve met with reporters on Lynx media day and opened her remarks with, “The first one who says we’re old gets put out,” her smile masked nothing. The whole business irritates her. 

But why? Old isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Last year the league’s two oldest teams, the Lynx (30.88 years) and Los Angeles (29.53), met for the championship, with the Sparks prevailing in a memorable down-to-the-wire Game 5 that left the Lynx hurting and seething all winter. And this week, WNBA general managers tabbed the Lynx to win it all in their annual preseason poll, just ahead of L.A. 

Reeve constantly seeks new ways to motivate her players, hence the preoccupation with slights — real or imagined. Undoubtedly she will ignore the G.M. poll and highlight things like the Associated Press season preview, which picked L.A. But with this group, it’s probably not necessary. The Lynx fell 3.1 seconds short of winning back-to-back WNBA titles and a fourth in six years, and that ought to be incentive enough.

“If we did what we needed to do, we would be the four-time champions,” said Seimone Augustus, who begins her 10th season in Minnesota. “We know what we need to do, and we’re going to do it. That little bitter taste that we tasted last year will give us the motivation that we need.”

Those who follow the Lynx know how fiercely tight-knit and self-driven the core players are. But Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, and Rebekkah Brunson also understand their time with Moore and the Lynx is growing short, and they’ve vowed to do whatever they can to extend it.

Augustus crystalized it eloquently earlier this month: “You get tired of coming back here and hearing how old we are,” she said. “I don't think any one of us is trying to outrun Father Time. We know the time is ticking. We're just trying to dance as slowly as possible with him, and enjoy the ride until the music stops. Then we get off.” 

The ride comes with financial sacrifice. Women’s basketball players make the bulk of their money overseas in the winter. A superstar like Moore or Diana Taurasi can command up to $1 million, and a lesser name $300,000 to $500,000. That’s much more lucrative than the WNBA, where veterans salaries top out at $113,500, and most players pull in significantly less.

Whalen sat out the 2015-16 winter season to rest her aching legs and prepare for a Team USA pre-Olympic camp. Her injury-free play last summer convinced Augustus, Moore and Brunson to follow her lead and rest this winter. Brunson and Whalen trained in Minneapolis until February, when Brunson joined a team in Turkey for two months to play herself into basketball shape. All looked especially spry in the preseason, at least until Moore missed the last game in Washington with a groin strain.

“Instead of only being able to play at a high level to 35, they’re going, ‘Can I lengthen this thing and play until I’m 38, 39, 40?’” Reeve said. “They’re not going to look like they’re 25 out there. But I’ll tell you what: Give me a smart player every day of the week that takes care of their body, and they can play that long. And it means that much to them, which I think we need to have a great appreciation for.” 

Heading into the season, Reeve encouraged Whalen and Augustus to take more 3-pointers instead of driving to the hoop, saving wear and tear on their legs. That’s an especially wise strategy for Whalen. Voted the league’s toughest player by the GMs, Whalen takes a beating inside and rarely gets the calls Reeve thinks she should.

Augustus, a notorious line-drive shooter, said she’s added more arc to her 3-point attempts. “That’s the only part of my game I felt like was the weakest link if anything, my 3-point shooting,” she said. “But it’s not like she wants me to come out and shoot like Maya’s shooting. She just wants me to knock down the open shot. That’s something I feel like I can do. It’s just understanding that I can’t shoot the 3 the same way I shoot my jump shot.” 

Reeve also challenged veteran backup guard Jia Perkins to shoot 40 percent from the field, a mark she fell short of the last two seasons. Perkins and fellow backcourt reserve Renee Montgomery usually stay late after practice to shoot, assisted by a Y-shaped machine that catches basketballs and tosses them back out while counting made baskets in a man’s voice that’s a cross between James Earl Jones and Geoffrey Holder. (If you don’t know who they are, Google is your friend.) The point: If Perkins and Montgomery contribute offensively, there’s no need to wear out Whalen, 35, and Augustus, 33.

MinnPost file photo by Craig LassigLynx Coach Cheryl Reeve on media day: “The first one who says we’re old gets put out.”

And the Lynx need more aggressive offense from center Sylvia Fowles, who shot 59.5 percent last year (fourth-best in the league) while winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Last year Fowles shot 64.6 percent inside of five feet, significant bumps from 2015 (58 percent) and 2014 (58.6 percent). The more Fowles looks to shoot, the more defenses collapse on her, creating open shots for Moore, Augustus and Whalen. 

Pierson, 35, is here because the Lynx needed a bruiser to guard L.A. power forward Nneka Ogwumike, the league M.V.P. whom Brunson and Natasha Howard couldn’t handle in the WNBA finals.

Reeve was an assistant coach in Detroit in 2008 when Pierson, then with the Shock, scuffled with Candace Parker of the Sparks, setting off a free-for-all. Pierson took an elbow in the head in practice last week — occupational hazard for anyone who likes to mix it up — and Reeve kept her out of both exhibition games as a precaution.

“I’m definitely the enforcer,” Pierson said. “Any team that I’m on, that’s my role. I love to set screens. I love to hit people in the right manner, legally. I love to get my teammates open and make things easier for them. In turn, it makes it easier for me. It opens up my game… I’m looking forward to setting screens for all these young ladies.”

Moore, for one, loved that. “The first day she said, ‘I love to set screens,’ and I said, ‘You and I will get along great,’” Moore said with a big smile. 

So who besides L.A. stands in Minnesota’s way? Defensive-minded New York and Tina Charles, for one. Lynx rival Phoenix replaced its entire roster except Taurasi and Brittney Griner. And no one should discount Washington, which added Elene Della Donne and Kristi Toliver in the off-season.

Local interest in the Lynx encouraged Fox Sports North to televise 17 games this season, the most ever, up from eight last year and nine the year before. Add ESPN2’s seven national telecasts, and Lynx fans can watch 24 of the 34 regular-season games on TV. 

“It’s something we’ve been asking for, and we’re happy to finally see it,” Reeve said. “With women, you have to be overqualified for something like this. I would say our team is overqualified, and it’s due time.”

The deal is a financial risk for FSN, which hasn’t added any additional sponsors. “The hope is to show potential sponsors what a great product it is,” said FSN senior vice president Mike Dimond. 

Even if the Lynx are ol…well, never mind.

How transportation and infrastructure became political footballs at the Minnesota Capitol

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 3:15pm

Charlie Zelle graduated from Yale’s School of Management in 1983 and headed to Wall Street. He left a job at Merrill Lynch in 1986 to return to his family’s bus business, Jefferson Lines, then in distress. He thought his stay in Minnesota might be short, but it turned out to be permanent. He engineered a turnaround/reorganization of the bus company (including a stint in bankruptcy) and became involved in the civic and cultural life of the region via a robust slate of board work.

In late 2012, Gov. Mark Dayton tapped Zelle to become the state’s transportation commissioner, hoping his private sector background could bring fresh ideas and even bipartisan consensus to what had become a contentious sector of state politics, even with the I-35W bridge collapse still fresh in some minds. Instead, four years of partisan gridlock have ensued. We spoke to Commissioner Zelle, 61, in late March, midway through the legislative session, as the various constituencies began to stake out positions on this year’s transportation agenda.

What did Gov. Dayton hope your background could bring to this role?
Charlie Zelle: My sense of it was he wanted a fresh outlook. He’s a populist, which means he’s very concerned about how all Minnesotans are affected by government. MnDOT affects everybody. It has a great tradition, but needed to do a better job becoming more transparent and connecting with all our citizens. So I think the governor liked the idea of a business approach, someone who gets along with folks on a bipartisan basis, but who has a backbone of basic business principles. His approach was “Treat this like your business.” He knows this isn’t about reform and revolution, but bringing better practices to government.

Such as?
Well, such as benchmarking. That was something I’m very used to. A bus company is asset-intensive, deals with a multiplicity of constituencies, and is a multifaceted business.

What has been the most challenging aspect of bringing private sector thinking to the public sector?
Everything takes longer. [There’s] lots of review. There’s lots more public engagement because it’s the public’s money. They are our shareholders. But running a bus company, I don’t have to pass a law to raise prices. If this was a business, we would have flexibility to determine the appropriate charge for road use.

Has MnDOT used benchmarking to more efficiently deploy its capital?
MnDOT uses performance measures that we’ve developed to track the condition and quality of the system and to plan for capital investments. We track events such as number of crashes, percentage of our pavement that is poor or hours of congestion. We set goals to ensure that we stay below those measures, and invest to achieve those goals. The federal government also requires us to follow performance measures to ensure that the states invest in projects that will push the entire federal system toward national goals.  Those measures are in areas such as pavement and bridge conditions, freight performance, safety, planning, asset management and transit management.

President Trump is interested in infrastructure and using public/private partnerships (PPP) to reduce the taxpayer cost. Minnesota has a lot of decaying infrastructure in remote places where real estate development or user fees would not generate much of anything. Do you have a sense of PPP’s role here?
We’re really looking at it. When there’s that revenue, there’s the opportunity to engage the private sector. But PPPs don’t create money. It’s just a transfer of risk, a way to drive efficiency, maybe to capitalize revenue streams. Even in the best case, they may be 15 to 20 percent of the solution.

We are partnering with the private sector already via alternative contracting, when we use design-build or where, like on the Iron Range with Highway 53, we reached out to the contractor, Kiewit, to help us solve [geologic] complications and we’ll get a much more efficient project at lower cost as a result. That is a public/private.

Ports are an opportunity, such as in Duluth. Maybe airports. Transit presents some opportunity, capturing the value of stations.

New York’s new Second Avenue Subway cost more than $1 billion a mile to build and took a decade to go three miles. It’s said the U.S. spends more and takes longer to build large infrastructure projects than any country, and the federal oversight process is often blamed. Minnesota relies on federal funding for many of its projects. Is the involvement onerous?
I’m not entirely sold on that thesis. Many of those federal protections are ones local constituencies really care about, whether environmental or land use. I’m not so sure we can be China, [which lacks rigorous] environmental review, eminent domain protections.

You mentioned the proposed private sector high-speed rail link to Rochester. I was struck, as I always am, by the ferocity of the NIMBY reaction to that. Conservatives have been waiting for someone to come along and build transportation links with private capital, and one is proposed and [then] a bunch of conservative legislators initiate government roadblocks. It seems like the one philosophy everyone can coalesce around is “not in my backyard.”
I wasn’t in favor of stopping that effort while they were fact-finding. I was struck by the opposition. The reluctance to even try to investigate new ideas comes from an inherent distrust of large projects. [For example,] the [CAPX2020] power line [project] on Highway 52 really did disrupt many farmers’ lives.

It just seems like in the current era if you tried to build I-94 from St. Cloud to Moorhead, you would not get it built.
Look, I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul is 50 years old and falling apart. When we reconstruct it, are we going to replace exactly what’s there? The world is changing. We would not go back and build it where we built it to begin with. New design ideas and technology offer us new possibility. But we need to engage the users earlier, before the opposition develops. We’re trying to move away from this patriarchal approach where an engineer shows up and lectures—we come to you, we don’t expect you to come to us. . . . It [actually] saves money and time in the long run.

Transportation has become such a lightning rod. Everyone has to go somewhere every day, yet our leaders fight over capitalizing it like it is a truly contentions topic, whereas outside the political and chattering classes, it really isn’t. What’s happened?
In 2008 when Gov. Pawlenty was overridden on transit funding, we seemed to have come to a consensus, with the help of the business community. But then the legislators that crossed that line paid a big price within their party. And it became a warning.

If we’re in a recession, we can’t raise the gas tax. If we’re in a surplus we can’t raise the gas tax. . . . I find it curious that there’s 19 states and the District of Columbia that raised the gas tax in the past two years, many with Republican governors and legislatures, but here in Minnesota it’s impossible because no one can supposedly pay a gas tax. County commissioners all over the state, many of them Republicans, all want us to get something done. A [higher] gas tax doesn’t faze many of them.

The governor has signaled he’s ready for a compromise, but it has to be fiscally sustainable. It’s about funding that lasts a decade or more.

They said the I-35 bridge collapse would galvanize action. They said once we get the business community behind transportation funding, it would get done. There’s this sense of inevitability, but it never gets done.
It’s become part of the larger debate about how you raise revenue.

Supposedly Greater Minnesota is aflame with anger over rail transit investments/subsidies in the Twin Cities. Do you hear that as you travel the state?
It’s a political talking point. Like the Senate Office Building. But look who’s occupying the Senate office building now. We travel around the state to Willmar, the Iron Range, Marshall—nobody comes to us saying “Oh, what a problem that light rail is. County commissioners and mayors say, “What a great idea. I don’t like congestion when I come to the metro any more than anyone else does.” And when you start polling citizens, they don’t really care about it; it’s a manufactured issue.

So what’s the practical impact of the talking point?
Every county has transit and will need it more over the next 10 years; nonetheless, the metro has special needs given the population growth and need to stay competitive. In the future, less frequently traveled roads (mostly rural) will be in worse condition since federal guidelines favor funding for main arteries.

Fair enough. It does seem now, though, that the transit planning and funding process in the metro region has become messy, inefficient, weighed down by too many agencies and units of government. Is there a rethinking of process that needs to take place?
No question the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) was formed as a political expediency to create transit funding at the county level. And maybe out of political expediency it will be disbanded. We’ve become Balkanized. It’s all one purpose. It’s one region, one transportation system. Most of the transit systems use our highways.

Should the Legislature get out of transit funding? The DFL frittered away government control in the 2011 and 2012 sessions. Now there’s partisan gridlock. Does the state really have a productive role, given its inability to act?
Well, transit exists in every county of Minnesota. I think there’s an opportunity with CTIB restructuring for a lot of the larger projects to be funded through local option sales taxes. They are used in Denver, Atlanta, Seattle. I think the state doesn’t have a huge role, though bigger in Greater Minnesota, but it should be there.

How would you assess the overall condition of the state’s road and bridge infrastructure, and is there any data you use to base that assessment on?
The current condition of roads and bridges is in pretty good shape on average, but the shortage of future funding cannot meet the preservation needs as the bridges and roads age. Nothing new can be added without sacrificing pavement and bridge integrity.

Do trucks pay their share of road wear and tear in Minnesota?
Freight is increasing at a rate in excess of personal vehicle miles. This is going to be an increasing burden on our system. There are studies that indicate they don’t pay their fair share, other [studies] that do, but is that ever going to change? I think we have a fair system, but it’s not enough to capitalize the system.

Bakken oil train activity is vastly diminished, and with the progress on the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines it appears that oil by rail will never again have the prominence it did during the governor’s first term. Yet the governor is proposing a significant investment in rail safety to protect people from oil trains. Why?
Although the Bakken crude-unit trains will be [fewer], there are many other products, including ethanol, chlorine, etc., that will require diligent safety oversight.

We have a lot of rail infrastructure in the state that’s 100-plus years old. Much of it is operated by small “short-line” railroads that inherited decrepit infrastructure from large railroads and find themselves unable to bring it into good repair. Freight service to large business and small-town grain elevators is in jeopardy all over the state. Should the state provide aid to this part of the transportation network?
We proposed expanding the state loan program to freight rail to include the option of grants. The governor has offered a couple million dollars. It’s kind of a placeholder. The governor is interested in the role freight rail plays in economic development. I would love to see the fund be even larger, but we need to at least have the possibility of grants. Our prosperity in rural Minnesota is better than in rural Washington because we have great transportation access and we don’t want to lose that.

A priority of yours has been making MnDOT more transparent. How have you implemented this and how do you measure your success?
We provide the public with a great deal of information. We work hard to simplify some of the complexity by using plain language in what we write and communicate. And we have a system in place to track public questions and ensure they are answered in a timely fashion.

We are reaching out to the public regarding projects, processes and policies to find out what the public wants and needs. We take the feedback we gather and use it as part of deciding how we will work and what we will do in the future. Our public outreach effort for our Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan is a great example of how we reached out, gathered input and applied it to the plan. And we are striving to do reach out, develop relationships and gather input years instead of months or weeks ahead of a project. It is important that we become known as an organization that listens and acts on or responds to what it hears. It’s what the public deserves and should expect. And it is the right thing to do.

Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.

This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.

Sick of winning: Watch Rep. Tom Emmer's monologue from MinnRoast 2017

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 3:13pm
Corey Anderson

Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer offered another monologue at MinnRoast 2017, this one mentioning fellow delegation members Keith Ellison and Jason Lewis and touching on topics like Cuba and United Airlines.

Funds raised at MinnRoast 2017 were in honor of Lee Lynch and Terry Saario, whose philanthropic and creative work helped launch MinnPost ten years ago. Join the nearly 225 individuals who have already contributed to the new Lee Lynch & Terry Saario Innovation Fund with a gift to help MinnPost grow, innovate, and expand our coverage of important regional and national issues.

Disrupting climate change offers opportunities for healthier living

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 3:11pm

Make no mistake — Minnesota’s climate is changing. And that shifting climate has a significant, and underappreciated, impact on our health.

Nissa Tupper

As the amount of greenhouse gases continues to rise, nine of the top 10 warmest years for Minnesota have occurred just within the last three decades. And with a warming atmosphere, more evaporation occurs — which means Minnesota has seen a significant increase in heavy rain events.

More greenhouse gasses can lead to more air pollution. Extreme heat can cause heat stroke and heat exhaustion. More frequent and severe rain events are contributing to more floods. Warmer, wetter climate trends may encourage the spread of tick-borne diseases. In short, climate change is making us sicker.

Meanwhile, access to health care accounts for only about 10 percent of a person’s overall health. Societal, economic and physical environment factors — like whether we have healthy air to breathe, or how safe and walkable our neighborhoods are — account for about half of our healthiness.

Climate resilience

This means that while climate change is the greatest global health threat of the 21st century, it also presents an opportunity. Green communities built with resilience in mind can play significant roles in supporting human health.

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Businesses and organizations throughout the country have taken up the mantle of climate resilience — the idea that we can mitigate the negative impacts of climate change while at the same time creating opportunity for benefits and growth.

What does climate resilience look like? On May 3, I had the privilege of presenting at U.S. Green Building Council Minnesota’s IMPACT 2017 conference, the largest green building conference in the Midwest. At this conference, which brings together green leaders focused on actionable solutions, I discussed how the built environment can play a key role in climate and health resilience efforts.

Innovating while saving money

For example, Murphy Warehouse, a supply chain logistics company based in Minneapolis, has embraced environmental sustainability and resilience as a smart business strategy. By investing in a native prairie instead of a manicured lawn, they’ve saved nearly $1 million in landscaping costs. As another local example, the Science Museum of Minnesota has saved nearly $300,000 annually by undergoing an innovative advanced heat recovery retrofit of its facility.

There are many steps we can take as individuals, as well. We can drive less by switching to biking, carpooling or using public transit at least twice a week. We can switch to Energy Star light bulbs. We can reduce our consumption of foods, like meat, that require high energy input, and plant more trees. We can invest in green power, like solar or wind, for our homes.

Climate change is the greatest threat we’ve ever faced — but we have feasible, tangible opportunities to disrupt climate change and build resilience. Working together and building a community of support for resilience is critical for ensuring that all people have the opportunity to live healthy and rewarding lives.

Nissa Tupper is a Climate and Health Program planner at the Minnesota Department of Health.

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Twin Cities woman awarded $1M in child sex-trafficking case

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 12:21pm
MinnPost staff

A step towards justice. The Pioneer Press’ Sarah Horner reports: “A Laotian-American woman from the Twin Cities was awarded nearly $1 million Thursday after winning an unprecedented civil suit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis that sought to hold a former Minnesota man accountable for violating child sex tourism and trafficking laws. … A jury found Panyia Vang was entitled to $950,000 in damages. She said she was raped in Laos by Thiawachu Prataya when the Hmong-American man was visiting the country in 2006, according to Linda Miller, one of her attorneys.”

Guess whose electric bill is about to go up. The Star Tribune’s Mike Hughlett, reports: “Minnesota utility regulators Thursday approved a landmark four-year rate deal for Xcel Energy that will ultimately raise residential rates by 10.6 percent — though a big chunk of that increase is already in place. … The rate case is uncommon in two ways. It’s the first multiyear rate plan in Minnesota for investor-owned Xcel, made possible by a 2015 state law change. … Also, it resulted from a settlement between Xcel and several parties it might normally end up fighting — particularly the Minnesota Department of Commerce, one of two Minnesota agencies commissioned with looking out for the public interest in rate cases.”

Everyone loves the idea of building up infrastructure — until it comes down to specific projects. APM Reports’ Tom Scheck writes: “President Trump wants to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure and the proposals are pouring in. Some of that potential spending, however, is bound to make Minnesota leaders very unhappy. … North Dakota's governor and the mayor of Fargo, N.D., have been lobbying the White House to include funding for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project. If the president includes the $2.2 billion project in his proposal, it will set up a showdown with Minnesota, where officials here say Moorhead will get the short end of the deal. … The flood mitigation project is a major effort to prevent damage from future Red River Valley floods. It relies on a large levee south of Fargo-Moorhead. The water would then be diverted in a channel around the cities.”

Sometimes a cigar tax break is just a cigar tax break. MPR’s Bob Collins reports: “In the list of people in Minnesota who are suffering, can anyone top the smoker of premium cigars? … So it’s no wonder that House Taxes Committee chair Greg Davids succeeded in adding language to a tax bill that gives a break to Big Cigar. … Cigars are taxed at 95 percent of the wholesale price, topping out at $3.50. Davids’ provision cuts the maximum to 50 cents, the Rochester Post Bulletin says. … ‘People are still smoking premium cigars. It’s just that they aren’t getting them from Minnesota retailers,’ Davids said.”

In other news…

Huh: “Looks like Google complied with Edina cops' insanely broad search warrant” [City Pages]

Mr. Pessimistic: “Nolan: Russia scandal worse than Watergate and GOP health care bill worse than it appears” [Duluth News Tribune]

Never hurts to ask: “City leaders urge Legislature to boost aid to cities” [Echo Press]

Your Rochester flag ideas are due Monday: “What should be on new city flag?” [Rochester Post Bulletin]

The ability to pay too much for lunch shouldn’t be constrained by geography: “First food truck lane opens in north Minneapolis” [MPR]

How’s that farebox recovery for I-35 anyway? “Scrutinizing Roads To The Same Degree As Transit” [streets.mn]

Not cut out for the mean streets of St. Cloud: “JL Beers to close downtown St. Cloud location, cites 'parking, safety issues and crime'” [St. Cloud Times]

Was that so difficult? “This Washington County lake had a derogatory name. Now it’s called Keewahtin.” [Pioneer Press]

Finally, a safe place for tiny houses: “Minnesota couple opens sanctuary for tiny homes near Mille Lacs” [KMSP]

There’s a lesson here: “Father and son make a rare find: Two bull moose tangled together in death” [Inforum]

How much sway does Minnesota's business community have in the transit debate?

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 10:42am
Briana Bierschbach

Heading into the 2017 legislative session in Minnesota, Jonathan Weinhagen knew light rail transit would be a contentious issue.

Over the previous two years, the CEO of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce had watched as several deals to fund transportation projects in Minnesota blew up, largely over whether or not light rail funding should be included. Then, during the 2016 election, Republican legislators who pushed back on light rail took control of both the state House and the Senate.

But he was still surprised when he saw Republicans’ first bills to fund transportation projects this year. Not only did GOP legislators continue a push against funding light rail projects, they also put no new money into existing bus lines, which state officials said would lead to cutbacks. “That’s what really struck me,” Weinhagen said. “This is no longer a discussion about debating the merits of light rail. This is an attack on our existing bus services, which I thought we all universally agreed are a good, flexible and cost effective way to move a lot of people around to a lot of jobs.”

So members of the Minneapolis and St. Paul chambers of commerce spread out across the cities and suburbs, talking to people at park and rides and bus stops about cuts to transit in the Republican budgets. And they set up a website urging people to contact their legislators to stop transit service cuts.

Weinhagen called it a wake-up call for business leaders, from state and local chambers of commerce all the way up to the state’s top CEOs and executives, who’ve long played a critical role in the state’s transportation debate. In 2008, for example, business leaders teamed up with labor unions to help convince six Republican House members to vote with Democrats and override a vetoed gas tax increase, raising the tax for the first time in two decades. 

But the transportation debate is changing, marked today by increasingly polarized disagreements over everything from bus lines and light rail to who can serve on metro-area transportation councils. It’s a dynamic that has made it challenging for Minnesota’s business community — a group united in its support for mass transit — to assert its influence with Republican legislators.

“The question is, how do you break through?” Weinhagen said. “When you’re dealing with something that is just a fundamental disagreement about the merits of a system.”

The great transportation divide

Charlie Weaver has watched plenty of transportation debates over the years, both as a state legislator and as a staffer in former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office. Today he’s executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents more than 120 CEOs and senior executives from around the state. 

In 2008, when legislators debated raising the gas tax and metro-area sales taxes, mass transit wasn’t the source of controversy it is today. “That kind of contentiousness wasn’t there then,” Weaver said. “Back then it was all about if should we raise the gas tax.”

Charlie Weaver

But things evolved in the years that followed, for both legislators and business groups. Part-way through Dayton’s administration, the governor began pushing for another influx of transportation funding, arguing that the state needed an increase in the state’s gas tax and metro-area sales taxes to cover the costs of road and bridge projects around the state — as well as bus and transit proposals in the metro area.

In the meantime, the regional divide at the Capitol grew, with Republicans picking up seats from rural districts in the last two elections. Emboldened by their victories and the state’s budget surpluses, GOP lawmakers pushed back on the notion that the state had to raise gas taxes to put more money into transportation. They proposed to divert several hundred million dollars in existing sales taxes collected on everything from auto parts and car repairs into a fund dedicated to road and bridge projects. 

GOP lawmakers also grew increasingly agitated over one particular project: The 14-mile Southwest Light Rail Line, which would stretch from Eden Prairie to Minneapolis. Especially after the project’s price tag went up, Republicans criticized it as expensive metro-area “boondoggle” that took funding from road and bridge projects around the rest of the state.

That tension came to a head in 2016, when a deal to fund both transit and roads blew up minutes before the legislative session adjourned for the year. 

Yet even as the transportation debate was getting more heated in St. Paul, business leaders’ views on the issue were changing. For decades, executives emphasized that they needed a strong network of roads across the state to transport goods and services. But in recent years, as workers flocked to urban areas, a robust network of trains and buses became increasingly important to businesses.

“Young, talented people have crunched the numbers, and they’ve decided owning a car is too expensive,” Weaver said. “Talent is becoming more of a factor that wasn’t really there 10 years ago, the debate was more about people and goods. We want to recruit people of talent in this community and we’ve got a shortage of talent here.” 

Adding a 'different voice' to the debate

That’s not been an easy case to make to Republicans this year. The divide over transportation is now so stark that any discussion of a gas tax increase is completely off the table. Instead, Republicans have proposed diverting $300 million in auto-related sales tax revenues for transportation and about $600 million in bonding over the next two years.

Moreover, the first bills from Republicans proposed this session would have restricted any new spending on light rail lines without approval from lawmakers first. Those bills also put no money toward a more than $100 million shortfall in Metro Transit, which supports bus and transit lines through the Twin Cities.

As the session has moved along, Republicans have softened their tone on those issues, removing much of the restrictive light rail language and putting about $50 million more into Metro Transit over the next two years. “I don’t see how that can be called a cut,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, who authored the transportation bill.

Jonathan Weinhagen

Weinhagen thinks lobbying from the business community has helped move Republicans in that direction, but there are still plenty of concerns with the bill, including a remaining shortfall from Metro Transit, which could lead to service cuts. The bill also makes changes to the governance of the Metropolitan Council, a regional planning and transportation agency.

“We’ve heard some feedback from the majority caucus that, ‘We hear you loud and clear,’ but we still have a series of overly onerous policy provisions that really manifest themselves as various poison pills,” Weinhagen said. “I think we need to do a much better job of mobilizing our base.” 

Republican legislators increasingly want to hear more from constituents rather than lobbying groups or the CEOs of companies, he said, which has led business groups encouraging their members across the state to talk to their local legislator about transit and transportation.

Marie Ellis, the director of public affairs and legal counsel at the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, said it’s important for the business community to add a “different voice” to the transit debate, one Republicans might not consider. “There’s a perception that people who ride transit are just environmentalists or people who don’t like cars,” she said. “The chambers and the business communities have done a good job showing the Legislature that it’s about workforce.”

Bentley Graves, the head of transportation policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the group was frustrated when a deal to fund transportation projects didn’t pass last session. In the interim, the chamber met with members and trade unions to figure out what went wrong. They decided they needed to communicate in black-and-white terms what they wanted from a transportation deal, a list that included funding for transit in the metro area.

They’ve spent the last several months — with their one-page list of transportation priorities in hand — talking with legislative leaders about including it as part of any deal this year. “I do think that it helped move the needle,” Graves said.  “We’re trying to broaden out the conversation and broaden the appeal of the message, so the business community wasn’t just trying to pitch something to Republicans and the labor community wasn’t just trying to pitch something to Democrats.” 

See Gov. Mark Dayton star in a 'Hamilton' parody from MinnRoast 2017

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 10:23am
Corey Anderson

Local rapper DJ/FRND opened this year's MinnRoast variety show with a spoof of "Alexander Hamilton" from the hit broadway show. He got a little help with the lyrics from Gov. Dayton as well.

Funds raised at MinnRoast 2017 were in honor of Lee Lynch and Terry Saario, whose philanthropic and creative work helped launch MinnPost ten years ago. Join the nearly 225 individuals who have already contributed to the new Lee Lynch & Terry Saario Innovation Fund with a gift to help MinnPost grow, innovate, and expand our coverage of important regional and national issues.

Cotton swabs send dozens of children to ERs with ear injuries each day, study finds

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 9:50am
Susan Perry

Injuries caused by cotton swabs send dozens of children to hospital emergency rooms in the United States each day, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Using data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, researchers found that 263,338 children under the age of 18 showed up at hospital emergency rooms for cotton-swab related ear injuries between 1990 and 2010.

That’s an average of 12,500 injuries annually — or about 34 a day.

Such injuries are preventable, for, as the study’s authors make clear, physicians do not recommend using cotton swabs to clean the ear canal because of the risk of injury.

That recommendation goes for adults as well as for children. 

“The two biggest misconceptions I hear as an otolaryngologist are that the ear canals need to be cleaned in the home setting, and that cotton tip applicators should be used to clean them; both of those are incorrect,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. Kris Jatana of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, in a released statement. “The ear canals are usually self-cleaning. Using cotton tip applicators to clean the ear canal not only pushes wax closer to the ear drum, but there is a significant risk of causing minor to severe injury to the ear. 

Young children most at risk

More than two-thirds of the injuries reported in the study occurred in children under eight years old, and about 40 percent involved children under the age of three. The most common injury among young children was a tearing, or rupturing, of the tissue that separates the ear canal from the middle ear, which is known as the tympanic membrane, or eardrum.

Other common swab-related ear injuries included bleeding and having some sort of object or “foreign body” stuck in the ear.

In 73 percent of the injuries, the ears had become damaged while being cleaned with the swab. And in most of those cases, the children were using the swabs themselves to clean their ears. The rest of the injuries occurred when the children were playing with the swabs or when they fell while a swab was in their ear.

“Nearly all of the patients with [cotton swab-related] injuries were treated and released, but this does not imply that some of the injuries were not serious,” Jatana and his colleagues write.

Dangers known for decades

The cotton swab was invented in 1923 by Leo Gerstenzang, a Polish-born immigrant who was living at the time in New York City. He got the idea from watching his wife clean their baby’s ears with cotton on toothpicks. Gerstenzang called his swabs “Baby Gays,” but within a few years the brand became re-named “Q-tips.” 

The first medical concerns about the ear-injury risks associated with Q-tips and other cotton swabs were raised in the early 1970s, when reports began to emerge of the swabs leading to perforation of the eardrum, earwax buildup and blockage, and bleeding from cuts and scratches.

Since then, medical guidelines have recommended that people not use cotton swabs to clean wax out of their ears. Instead, doctors recommend using gentle irrigation (ear syringing) or wax-softening drops of mineral oil, baby oil or glycerin. (Commercial wax-softening products are also available.).

If those home treatments don’t work, doctors recommend that you make an appointment with otolaryngologist to have the wax manually removed.

FMI: You can read the study on the Journal of Pediatrics website. You can find more information about earwax and how to care for it on the website of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

Recreational shooters are carrying a lot of lead in their blood, analysis shows

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 8:53am
Ron Meador

Wherever you stand on the question of whether it’s guns that kill people or people who kill people, you might be impressed by new findings about shooting ranges as a source of serious lead poisoning among their enthusiasts.

In occupational health and workplace safety circles it has long been recognized that police officers, soldiers and others who train intensively with firearms are exposed to lots of lead dust and fumes as they make holes in targets. Same for their trainers. There are workplace rules intended to limit that exposure and to monitor blood-lead levels for dangerous conditions.

What is newer is the expanding involvement of Americans in recreational shooting, as part of our ever-deepening love affair with guns in every form, and the lead-based risks this carries.

Private ranges aren’t subject to the same kinds of safety regulation as workplaces. Also, they attract a much higher proportion of women, for whom elevated blood levels are of greater concern (the same goes for children, whether young shooters or toddlers watching the grownups fire away).

How much lead are these nonprofessional range users taking in? Well, it varies a lot and is influenced by several factors:

Indoor ranges are worse than outdoor ranges because the dust and gases are confined. Blood-lead levels go up with the intensity and duration of shooting activity, of course. And there is some variation with gun type and caliber.

But here’s the key finding from a recent paper in the journal Environmental Health:

In a review of 36 studies from around the world, every single one found blood lead levels at roughly double the overall average of 1.2 micrograms per deciliter and usually above the 5 µg established as the official level of concern by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Thirty-one of the 36 studies found BLLs above 10 µg, the level at which health professionals recommend reducing exposure (or in the case of pregnancy, impending pregnancy and certain medical conditions, halting exposure entirely).

Some very high levels

Half the studies found BLLs above 20µg, and 17 found them above 30 µg, at which point “prompt medical evaluation” is recommended. Fifteen found readings in excess of 40 µg.

The three dozen studies included both professional and recreational facilities worldwide and the new analysis did not attempt to distinguish them by BLL results. Rather, it makes the sensible and perhaps even obvious point that the health risks in both venues ought to be of equal concern and receive equal attention — but they don’t.

Drawing on industry statistics, the paper puts the number of shooting ranges in the United States at 16,000 to 18,000 as of 2013. It does not offer, and I could not find, a reliable breakdown as to how many of those are recreational, but a look at the listings maintained by the National Sport Shooting Foundation shows more than 350 in Minnesota and about 275 in Wisconsin, for two examples.

There is a breakdown of sorts for shooters, though: the paper says that about 1 million U.S. law enforcement officers train at indoor ranges, while 20 million citizens engage in target shooting as a leisure activity; as of 2011 there were about 270 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S. compared to a global total of 650 million. And the owners practice a fair amount:

The National Sport Shooting Foundation (NSSF) stated that in 2011 in the United States there were 13,049,050 handgun shooters, 13,170,417 rifle shooters, 9,713,033 shotgun shooters, and 3,730,567 muzzleloader shooters who participated in 156,790,412 handgun shooting days, 146,652,398 rifle shooting days, 113,866,661 shotgun shooting days and 29,042,237 muzzleloader shooting days.

It’s not about the bullets

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, with memorable mockery, that “guns don’t kill people — bullets do.” But when it comes to poisoning people on the range, bullets and their fragments aren’t the biggest problem.

Most bullet projectiles  are made from lead, but a large amount of lead is also present in the primer, composed of approximately 35% lead styphnate and lead peroxide (and also contains barium and antimony compounds), that ignites in a firearm barrel to provide the propulsion for the projectile.

A portion of the lead bullet disintegrates into fine fragments while passing through the gun due to misalignments of the gun barrel. The lead particles, along with dust and fumes originating from the lead primer and the bullet fragments, are ejected at high pressures from the gun barrel, a large proportion of which occurs at right angles to the direction of fire in close proximity to the shooter. The shooter can inhale fine lead particulates (mainly from the primer) which constitutes the proximal exposure pathway.

Fine and coarse particulates from both the primer and bullet fragments also attach to the shooters’ hands, clothing, and other surfaces, and can be inadvertently ingested, less a source of elevated BLLs than the gases produced by explosion of the primer compound, providing another lead exposure pathway. When changing targets at outdoor firing ranges shooters can be exposed to lead that has accumulated in soil dust. Additionally, the shooters can then bring these particulates back to their home and expose their families as with other lead occupational hazards.

This also means, by the way, that long-gun shooters are exposed to more of the gases because they are ejected  nearer the face from a shouldered firearm than from a pistol held in the extended-arm stance.

The potential health impacts of the exposures found in this study are difficult to summarize because the toxic nature of lead is so complex — no level in the bloodstream can be considered completely safe, especially in children and pregnant women. And BLLs do decline over time, but in general they do so slowly without the assistance of chelation therapy, which carries its own medical downsides.

However, the paper lists some example health risks at different BLLs, drawing on a 2012 report from the U.S. National Toxicology Program, from the low end of the exposure spectrum:

5 µg: In children, “sufficient evidence” of decreased academic achievement, lowered intelligence quotient, increased attention-related behaviors, delayed puberty. In pregnant women, “sufficient evidence” of reduced fetal growth.

10 µg: In adults, “sufficient evidence” for hypertension, cardiovascular-related mortality, decreased kidney function; “limited evidence” of psychiatric effects, decreased hearing and cognitive function, incidence of amyotrophic  lateral sclerosis, increased spontaneous abortion. In children, hearing deficits.

Can’t get the lead out

There are good substitutes for lead ammunition, although as we are seeing this spring both in Congress and the Minnesota Legislature, there can be considerable resistance to requiring their wider use. Unfortunately, good substitutes are not yet available for lead-based primers, which themselves were developed to replace another toxic product:

During the 19th century primers were composed of mercury fulminate; however, the mercury fulminate was found to be too toxic to shooters. In the early 20th century, Dynamit Nobel developed the primer SINOXID which was formulated with lead and became a universal primer.

By “… the 1960s exposure of shooters and firing range supervisors to lead reached intolerably high levels, as evidenced by the elevated blood lead values.” Dynamit Nobel developed SINTOX, a lead-free (as well as antimony- and barium-free) primer.

 However, the results of some tests of the lead-free primers have proven disappointing, with significant variations in ignition timing, peak blast pressure, higher barrel frictions, and reliability in different climate conditions, compared with their lead-based equivalents. The performance of lead-free primers is being tested by the U.S. Department of Defense and North Atlantic Treaty Organization to reduce exposure of personnel to known lead sources.

 * * *

The full paper by Mark A.S. Laidlaw, an epidemiologist from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, can be read here without charge.  

Twin Cities Jazz Fest to include Joshua Redman, Emmet Cohen

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 8:19am
Pamela Espeland

The Twin Cities Jazz Festival has announced more headliners and finalized its schedule. Not content with its usual St. Paul takeover, this year’s Jazz Fest will also present a Minneapolis preview night the week before, a teaser of what’s to come.

Saxophonist Joshua Redman will join McCoy Tyner’s quartet on the Mears Park main stage on Saturday, June 24, at 8:30 p.m. Son of the legendary Dewey Redman, Josh has become the saxophonist everyone wants to play with and record with. His latest recording (of 20 as leader or co-leader) includes “Nearness” with pianist Brad Mehldau. His last Jazz Fest appearance was in 2015 with The Bad Plus.

Young Harlem-based pianist, prodigy, B-3 organist and educator Emmet Cohen breezed through Crooners and Jazz Central in March and blew everyone away. A finalist in the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, winner of the 2014 American Jazz Pianists Competition, he has already made several recordings including his acclaimed 2011 debut “In the Element” and his latest with Miles Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb. He’ll perform with his trio on the Mears Park main stage on Thursday, June 22, at 6:30 p.m.

Previously announced headliners include the iconic pianist Tyner, Grammy-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard, clarinetist Anat Cohen, and keyboardist, organist and Minnesota native Bobby Lyle.

Also new to the lineup: Swedish flugelhornist-trumpeter Oskar Stenmark, who’ll play the Mears Park stage Thursday at 5 p.m., thanks to a partnership with the American Swedish Institute.

On June 17, the Saturday before the festival, Hennepin Ave. United Methodist Church in Minneapolis will host a Jazz Fest preview night with the Cameron Kinghorn Quartet. This will be in addition to the usual prefestival performances at St. Paul libraries that begin on June 8 with the Twin Cities Hot Club at the Highland Park Library.

The Festival officially starts Thursday, June 22, at 5 p.m. in Mears Park (with Stenmark) and continues through late Saturday, June 24, at various venues including the Black Dog, the Amsterdam and Vieux Carré. The latter is the site of the official nightly Jazz Fest jams hosted by New York pianist and Festival stalwart Jon Weber, and the place where visiting artists are most likely to show up.

View the complete schedule here.

Iowa City Jazz Festival has Twin Cities connections

Just down the road a bit – honestly, not that far – the Iowa City Jazz Festival draws a good crowd of Minnesota jazz fans each year, except when it conflicts with the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, which has happened only once. Now that the two festivals have a working relationship, it’s safe to say that won’t happen again.

Iowa City is a scenic college town, and its jazz festival, which takes place over the Fourth of July weekend and ends with fireworks, is generally excellent. We’ve seen some big names there: Randy Weston, Vijay Iyer, Fred Hersch, Poncho Sanchez, Miguel Zenón, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Esperanza Spalding and Pharoah Sanders, to name a few. The festival takes place on the lush green lawn of the Old Capitol and on the inviting streets nearby, which are full of bars, shops and restaurants. It’s all walkable and manageable. If you stay somewhere within walking distance, you can park your car and forget about it for three days.

Courtesy of the artistsThe Cookers

This year’s Iowa City headliners include The Cookers, the supergroup of hard-bop masters Billy Harper, Cecil McBee, George Cables, Eddie Henderson and Billy Hart. An appearance by the exciting saxophonist Donny McCaslin also makes this worth the drive. McCaslin was mostly known to jazz fans – as the leader of his own group, and a member of Maria Schneider’s sublime orchestra – until he led the backing combo on David Bowie’s last album, “Blackstar,” and suddenly everyone wanted to know more about him.  We haven’t yet heard pianist-composer Kris Davis, but we’ve heard a lot about her, and she’ll be there with her quintet including Mat Maneri on viola. Vocalist Stacey Kent will close out the festival Sunday night, and soon after her final notes, the first fireworks will kaboom.

Representing the Twin Cities, the exquisite pianist Laura Caviani and her trio will make us proud. And trumpeter-flugelhornist John Raymond will play a set with his Real Feels trio, just before McCaslin. Raymond is a Twin Cities native who began his jazz career here, moved to New York City in 2009, and was recently named the new professor of jazz trumpet at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Wherever he goes, he’s still one of ours.

The Iowa City Jazz Festival’s 2017 dates are Friday, June 30 through Sunday, July 2. Here’s the complete schedule.

The picks

Now at the Walker: Katharina Fritsch: Multiples. German sculptor Fritsch made the giant blue rooster that will give “Cherry and Spoon” some stiff competition when it’s unveiled in the Sculpture Garden in June. But what else has she done? Drawn from the Walker’s collection, this career-spanning retrospective includes early examples from her student years to later works. In the Burnet Gallery. Ends Oct. 15.

Friday (May 12) at CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha): Opening reception for “General Strike/Huelga General.” An art show celebrating strikes, protests and popular resistance, with work by dozens of artists and poetry from the Palabristas. More than 40 artist-activists are expected to participate; the art will include puppets, prints, paintings, posters and photography. CTUL is Minnesota’s largest workers’ center. 3715 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis. 6-10 p.m. $10 suggested donation.

Courtesy of MN OriginalErick Harcey

Sunday on your teevee: “MN Original: Kate Sutton-Johnson, Erick Harcey, Dessa.” Twin Cities PBS’ arts-and-culture series goes behind the scenes of a hip debut with the Minnesota Orchestra, a hot restaurant in Linden Hills and hit shows at local theaters. Dessa’s performances at Orchestra Hall in April won raves. For her, they were the culmination of “a year and a half of excitement, panic, enthusiasm and run-of-the-mill, pedestrian stage fright.” The first chef to be featured on “MN Original,” Harcey has made Upton 43 a success by honoring his Swedish heritage and his grandfather. “Anything can inspire you, if you let it,” he says. Sutton-Johnson designs sets for Theater Latté Da, the Ordway, Mixed Blood and more, and exhibits like “Sportsology” at the Science Museum. Sally Wingert claims that Sutton-Johnson’s sets make her a better actor. “MN Original” airs Sunday night on TPT 2 at 6 p.m. and again at 10. Watch online anytime.

Monday-Wednesday at the Dakota: Three nights of jazz. Start the week with vocalist Karrin Allyson, whose ties to the Minneapolis club are strong; she built her early career at the Bandana Square location before moving to New York City. The five-time Grammy nominee has one of those instantly recognizable voices, and she can sing anything, from Great American Songbook to bossa nova to bop. Monday at 7 and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30/40). Marcus Roberts lost his sight at age 5 and taught himself to play piano; by 21, he was touring with Wynton Marsalis. A tremendously versatile and knowledgeable artist and composer, he’s in the pantheon of greats. 7 and 9 p.m. both nights. FMI and tickets ($25-40). Roberts will perform with his acclaimed trio of Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums. Allyson will bring her own band.

Tuesday at the St. Anthony Park Library: 100 Years at the Library. What was the St. Paul Public Library like a century ago? Find out at one of the city’s Carnegie libraries celebrating a centennial this year. Greg Gaut will discuss the Carnegie Library project in Minnesota. MinnPost writer Bill Lindeke will focus on St. Paul’s four libraries celebrating centennials. And Billie Young will give us a glimpse into what the library was like in 1917. 7 p.m. Free. Part of the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library’s Untold Stories Labor History series.

Tuesday at the Fitzgerald Theater: The Thread Live with Eddie Glaude Jr. Is the United States losing its national identity? Or does diversity make us stronger? MPR’s Kerri Miller and Glaude, the author of “Democracy in Black” and a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton, will explore the concept of “national identity,” the role diversity plays, and what it means to be an American during this divisive political time. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25-50).

Naming rights and wrongs at the U

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 8:00am

The controversy over the recent announcement that the University of Minnesota is renaming its School of Journalism the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communications in honor of one of its biggest financial backers, the Hubbard family of broadcasting eminence, overlooks a question that should be addressed.

MinnPost photo by Jana FreibandMarshall H. Tanick

The dispute has centered on the propriety of extolling a family whose scion, Stanley Hubbard, Jr., has taken a number of regressive stands. Notwithstanding the inestimable contributions made to journalism in many media formats, he has been known for inhospitable treatment of employees, reflected in his disdainful remark that labor unions are “not necessary.” On top of long-held animus to workers, he has more recently joined the climate change deniers, asserting that climate change is "a scam."

Hubbard has carried out his agenda by putting his money behind his views, using his fortune to bankroll primarily Republican and right-wing candidates and causes, with a slight smattering of bipartisanship and moderation. An irony is that many of those he supports, particularly for state legislative and gubernatorial offices, would wreak havoc on the university through budget cuts, tuition increases, and other ominous overtures.

Naming for largesse

He has the right, of course, to do so, but the unaddressed issue is whether it's right for the university to bestow what amounts to academic beatification upon the family for its unquestioned generous largesse and contributions to journalism.

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That concern is not exclusive to the current contretemps at the journalism school. Similar to many institutions these days, including those in academia, names of structures, units, or programs are sold to the highest bidder, either individuals or companies. This is well accepted in the private sector, whether having to do with opera halls, museum wings, or stadiums. The economic imperative to do so is understandable and, perhaps, unavoidable.

The Hubbard family earned the sobriquet for the journalism department — located in the building known as Murphy Hall since its inception in 1939 — due to contributions of a whopping $25 million to the university over the years, including $10 million to the journalism program, leading the U to break precedent with its first family-donor naming of an academic facility in its largest unit, the College of Liberal Arts.

But it feels a little unseemly to follow this pay-for-placement pattern and practice at an institution of higher learning like the U. It may be acceptable for sports facilities, such as the school's football field named for TCF Bank or the women's complex named after another journalism doyen from St. Paul, Elizabeth Ridder. These are nonacademic structures whose names graced the buildings from their outset.

Other name changes afoot

Other such name changes are afoot. The Athletic Department, in the mist of its massive $190 million "Nothing Short of Greatness" fundraising drive, is about to sell naming rights to the hockey arena, which has been named since its construction in 1993 for John Mariucci, the legendary Gophers hockey coach and “godfather” of amateur hockey in this state.

Barely a long slap shot from the recently rechristened the McNamara Center, an administrative building with social gathering sites, the hockey rink will lose some of its charm when its new appellation denotes a big money contributor, rather than the iconic hockey legend.

With Mariucci soon to be minted for money, can other historic U of M sports sites be far behind? Williams Arena, recalling ironically the school's pioneering football coach, Dr. Henry Williams, probably can't survive with that name. Opened in 1928, and the second oldest continuous-use campus site of its kind in the country, the facility with the unique raised floor and, at one time, largest college seating capacity in the land, was originally called the Field House until its name was changed in 1950. With its current nickname of "The Barn," dating back to halcyon pre-academic-scandal Clem Haskins days of the 1990s, the title of some commercial agriculture-related giant – and there are many of them around here – will probably grace the venerable home of the men's and women's basketball teams before too long.

Likewise, the relatively new Siebert Field baseball park, named for coach Dick Siebert, who led the squad to three national championships, should get ready for a new corporate christening, along with renaming of the older Bierman Building, where the Athletic Department administration and various practice and indoor performance sites are situated in honor of the esteemed football coach Bernie Bierman, who garnered five national championships before World War II.

A break from tradition

Despite the rationale for naming new buildings for financial patrons, rebranding of existing structures or programs, particularly those with a distinctly scholarly mission, is another matter. While the financial fortunes it honors and the new contributions it might encourage from others is worthwhile, it marks a break from tradition.

Customarily, these structures and schools within them have been named after former university presidents or other academic dignitaries or public figures like the Humphrey Center, named for long-time Sen. and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, although there are some exceptions — such as the Carlson School of Business honoring the hotel magnate and financial benefactor Curt Carlson.

A break from past practice is not necessarily bad. The building names at the university tend to be those of deceased white males, which is not surprising given the socio-economic-political power structures of the past. If university buildings or units within them are to be renamed, perhaps it's time to consider women and minorities for their contributions to the institution and the community, rather than those solely from the pocketbook. Or, they could be given titles befitting the disciplines taught there — history, English, law, and the like — which would be bland but not a sell-out to big-money interests degrading the academic atmosphere of the institution. There are some of these already on the grounds of the U, like the Institute of Technology, for example, but they are few and far between and are an endangered species due to financial forces.

As for the Hubbard branding, it's not that upsetting. After all, the journalism building was named after an individual contributor, William J. Murphy, a Minneapolis newspaper publisher, and that name will remain on the structure, despite renaming the department it houses. So, the U is merely supplementing one high-profile big donor media name for another, and getting a multimillion benefit for it. That's good business, the type that many at the Carlson Center would applaud.

But the U could have done justice to the Hubbard family and shown its appreciation for its pioneering role in broadcast journalism and its financial largesse in other, less ostentatious ways. An appropriate segment of the facility could take on that name, like an enlarged broadcast-related wing similar to the way the school's library is named for former journalism student and legendary news reporter and commentator Eric Sevareid. Or, the school could sponsor scholarly seminars under the Hubbard name. How about starting with one on climate change?

The writer is a Twin Cities attorney, a graduate of the journalism school at the University of Minnesota, and a founder and former president of the school's Alumni Society.

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U regents launch leak investigation in wake of sexual harassment report

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 5:59am
Brian Lambert

Isn’t there someone else who thinks the leaks are the most important issue? ESPN reports, “The University of Minnesota's board of regents has launched an investigation into a leak of confidential information regarding the latest in a long line of sexual harassment allegations to be leveled against the school's athletic department. Regent Chairman Dean Johnson said a closed-door meeting was held on Thursday, one day after a television station reported that an official in the athletic department had violated the school's sexual harassment policy.” KSTP-TV broke the story. 

At MPR, Jon Collins and Riham Feshir report, “Attorneys for St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who killed Philando Castile last July, want the court to increase the number of jurors they can strike from the case without cause. That's one of 15 requests in the attorneys' broad pre-trial filing made public Thursday. They also want the court to hear about Castile's driving record and marijuana use, and allow the officer to reenact parts of what happened that summer night.” They really think that’s a good idea?

The conservative Washington Times knows what the real cause of this measles outbreak is. Writes Cheryl Chumley, “Minnesota is facing a bit of a measles crisis, with nearing 50 confirmed cases in the last four weeks — a level that hasn’t been seen in three decades or so. But the blame for this crisis is being wrongfully cast on anti-vaccination activists, and not on open border folk, where it more rightfully belongs. It should be noted these cases came primarily from the Somali community of Hennepin County. They also come from a state with a massive refugee acceptance rate.” So the only question now is where do you build a wall for this?

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An AP follow-up to the St.Olaf racist note hoax story says: “Sophomore Ben Parsell said he doesn't think the note will make it harder for a victim of a genuine racist threat to get help, but that the situation was concerning. ‘I think it's disturbing that it was written deliberately, just to stir up the campus,’ Parsell said. Senior Daniel Katuka said the note brought the campus together ‘in a positive way’ in the face of an apparent threat. … ‘It shows that this is a campus that stands together.’”

Who did the vetting here? For MPR, Catharine Richert says, “Megan Johnston's year running the Rochester Art Center was marked by staff turnover and financial struggles. And those struggles continue, with five staff members being laid off as interim leadership tries to right the museum's financial ship. The turmoil at the publicly-subsidized museum came as a shock to Rochester civic leaders, but not to trustees of the Georgia museum Johnston ran years before she came to Rochester. Johnston, they say, left a trail of financial and personnel problems at the LaGrange Art Museum in LaGrange, Ga., that haunted the institution for years.”

When $155 million isn’t enough. Also at MPR, Martin Moylan says, “In a landslide vote, sex abuse survivors have rejected a reorganization and compensation plan from the bankrupt Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The church was offering at least $155 million. But 94 percent of abuse victims voting endorsed a competing plan that they expect would treat them more justly and extract much more money from the church and its insurers. … The creditors' committee believes there could be more than $1 billion available from insurers. But insurers would no doubt fight claims tenaciously. They can, for instance, argue they can't be on the hook for abuse that the church knew about but failed to stop.” Have we ever seen the Archdiocese’s premium payments?

Campaign talking point alert! Says Jim Spencer in the Strib, “Minnesota's economy grew slower than the nation as a whole in 2016, as growth rates in the Upper Midwest lagged most other regions of the country. Data released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) showed that the state's gross domestic product (GDP) rose 1.3 percent in 2016, while the U.S. GDP was up 1.5 percent for the same period. Minnesota enjoyed a reasonably strong fourth quarter of growth in 2016, up 1.7 percent. While the annual growth rate was below the country, the state did boast one of the country's best growth rates for professional, scientific and technical services.” Clearly, this calls for tax relief for job creators.

Because it’s a better read after you’ve had a few? Says Kristen Leigh Painter of the Strib, “A beer with your newspaper? Why not? Minneapolis-based Fulton Brewing Co. is launching a limited-edition brew, EXTRA! EXTRA! American Pale Ale, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Star Tribune. The beverage is one of a variety of activities and items the Star Tribune Media Co. announced Thursday to commemorate the milestone, including restoring a giant globe for the Star Tribune building's lobby and lighting up the Minneapolis skyline in the newspaper's signature green.”

New cultural center on St. Paul's east side looks to create a home for growing, multicultural arts scene

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 2:00pm
Kristoffer Tigue

Lue Thao has been a professional breakdance instructor for five years. But as a longtime resident of St. Paul’s east side, Thao sometimes must travel as far as Hopkins or Hastings, where friends of his have dancing studios, to teach one of his classes. “It’s really frustrating,” he said, “especially on the east side. There’s no center or a place where we can go on a consistent basis to practice.”

That will soon change. East side artists, like Thao, will finally have a space where they can practice and showcase their art within their own community. The Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center, an initiative between Indigenous Roots, a local nonprofit, and the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council, will host its grand opening today through Saturday. By early summer, the center will begin offering classes in areas like dancing, music and pottery, officials said, and also act as a hub for the area’s growing, multicultural arts scene.

“We’re just looking for a home, for our own space,” said Mary Anne Quiroz, co-founder of Indigenous Roots and the cultural arts director for the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council. “In south Minneapolis and northeast, there’s a lot of studios, there’s a lot of large spaces where arts can be showcased, and we don’t have that on the east side.”

Mary Anne originally founded Indigenous Roots with her husband, Sergio, back in 2006 as a traditional Mexica/Aztec dancing group called Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli. But the project quickly evolved into something else, she said, when they realized how many artists in their neighborhood were also in need of a space to promote and practice their art — particularly immigrant artists and artists of color.

“It was a response to the community needs and wants,” she said. “Not just now, but for decades.”

In fact, the idea for the arts center has been so well-received by community members that more than 200 volunteers have dedicated their time over the last month to getting the space ready for its opening, said Sergio Quiroz. “It’s really been a great response,” he said.

St. Paul resident Aiyana Sol Machado works at the Science Museum teaching a youth science and social justice program, while also teaching Puerto Rican and African dancing on the side. But that hasn’t stopped her from dedicating hundreds of hours into the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center. “I work full-time and I’ve been here every day,” she said. “This is for the community.”

MinnPost photo by Kristoffer TigueAlberto Barraza works on installing lighting at the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center.

Same goes for Travis Decory, who’s lived in St. Paul’s east side for more than 25 years, and has spent nearly every night for the last month at the new center to help with construction. Decory teaches traditional Native-American singing and dancing but has long felt that his neighborhood doesn’t have a proper outlet for those kinds of artistic endeavors. “The east side definitely needs something like this,” he said. “That’s why I’m putting my personal time into this space.”

The arts center — located at 788 E. 7th Street in St. Paul — also fits the goals of the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council, said the council’s executive director Deanna Abbott-Foster. That’s why the neighborhood council decided to become an official partner of the center and also its main fiscal sponsor, she said.

Thirty years ago, Dayton’s Bluff was mostly working-class, white families, Abbott-Foster said. But today, it’s 60 percent people of color, she said, so lifting up those communities has become a priority for them. “It not only made sense for us to support business development for minority-owned businesses but also to support things that will add to the social connectedness,” she said. “And the arts do both those things.”

MinnPost photo by Kristoffer TigueEast St. Paul resident Travis Decory cuts wood trim on a circular saw behind the new arts center on East 7th Street.

Dayton’s Bluff Community Council will use about 15 percent of its $500,000 annual budget this year to support neighborhood arts, mostly along the 7th Street corridor, including subsidizing the rent for Indigenous Roots’ new space and tacking the organization onto their insurance plan, said Abbott-Foster. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be telling them how to run their new center, she said. They’ll be leaving management entirely up to the center’s collective leadership — which will be made up of several different cultural and neighborhood organizations.

That’s part of what makes the new center unique, Decory said. Not only does St. Paul’s east side get a much-needed art center, but residents will be the ones in charge of it. “For us, this is a place where we can do some of the things that we want to do without worrying about who’s in charge,” he said. “We don’t have to impress somebody above us.”

Thursday’s opening will be mainly for cultural elders and community members. Friday, the center will unveil its first solo exhibit. Saturday, they’ll open their doors to the general public, from noon until midnight. 

What happened to making child care affordable?

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 1:58pm
State Rep. Peggy Flanagan

As you read this, there are 4,997 families in Minnesota on a waiting list to access affordable child care. While they wait, often for years at a time, the very child-care facilities where they want to send their kids are hanging on by a thread as they struggle to keep their doors open.

We have an affordable-child-care crisis on our hands in Minnesota. And this was the year we were supposed to do something about it. Instead, Republicans in the state legislature are not only failing to move forward with a bipartisan plan to expand affordable child-care opportunities; they are actually making the problem even worse.

Rewind to last year, when, after a call to arms from both Republicans and Democrats, the legislature created the Legislative Task Force on Access to Affordable Child Care. We set out then to find the answer to a simple question: Why is affordable child care so difficult to find, especially in Greater Minnesota?

Months spent learning about the issues

So we talked to parents. We talked to child-care providers. We talked to state and county officials. We spent months crisscrossing the state to learn about the problems facing working families and the centers that care for our children while parents are away at work.

And we actually found some answers.

This bipartisan team of four Republicans and four Democrats came together and released a comprehensive 57-page report detailing exactly what we learned from the experts and the people on the ground and specific steps we could take to address this problem head on.

For example, we learned we needed to reform and invest in the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which helps low-income families find affordable child care. By increasing the CCAP provider reimbursement rates, changing eligibility for CCAP from six months to 12, and allowing child-care providers who are guardians of foster-care children to be eligible for CCAP reimbursement, we can make targeted changes that will allow more working parents to have access to child care and pay providers what they need to keep their doors open.

We also learned that child-care providers were often spending so much time doing paperwork that they weren’t able to give children the care they needed and deserved. So we decided the legislature should simplify regulations and standardize enforcement.

We learned that many providers, particularly those in Greater Minnesota, were not able to access the training courses they needed to complete and that the state should therefore make those trainings more regular and easier to get to from rural Minnesota.

Finally, we learned that middle-income families were often forgotten in our discussion about child care because they were ineligible for assistance and yet priced out of child-care centers without it. So we decided we needed to expand the existing child-care tax credits and consider incentives for businesses to invest in on-site child care.

A surprising bipartisan victory

After months of travel, research and public testimony, this bipartisan task force had finally landed on a set of concrete policy proposals that could solve our child-care crisis in Minnesota. It was a surprising victory, given the usual partisan gridlock at the Capitol, and I was eager to get back to St. Paul to pass these reforms into law.

And then, the 2017 legislative session started. And nothing happened.

Despite all the rhetoric from Republicans about their commitment to making child care more affordable, despite creating a brand new subcommittee specifically for Child Care Access & Affordability, and despite assurances in public and in private from House leadership that this would be the year we actually got something done, the Republican budget passed with barely a nickel more to make child care more affordable in Minnesota. In fact, they actually made the problem worse by cutting $3.7 million from the Basic Sliding Fee program and rejecting federal money set aside for affordable child care.

Was it all for show?

All of this is, in a word, infuriating. This comprehensive report for which taxpayers footed the bill went straight to recycling, and Republicans’ complete indifference to the struggling working mothers and fathers who are desperately trying to find affordable care for their children left me wondering whether this was all for show all along.

I’m passionate about this issue because it’s a struggle I know all too well. As a kid, my mother was only able to afford child care because of CCAP. And now as a mother myself, I see every day how necessary child care is for the economic security of working parents.

Parents across the state, especially in rural Minnesota, deserve to know why the Republican Party abandoned its promises to fix our broken child-care system.

Because this constant waiting game is no longer acceptable.

Rep. Peggy Flanagan represents District 46A in the Minnesota House of Representatives and is the House DFL Lead for the Subcommittee on Childcare Access & Affordability.

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It's time to raise Minneapolis' minimum wage

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 1:52pm

Raising the minimum wage is a popular issue — should we do it? Or should it remain the same?

Half of the Minneapolis City Council and Mayor Betsy Hodges seem to agree with the former, saying they would support a plan that involves raising the minimum wage to $15 over the next few years. Right now Minnesota’s minimum wage is at $9.50, which is higher than the federal minimum wage and several states’ minimum wages. However, according to MIT’s living wage calculator, in Hennepin County an adult working full-time needs to make $11.36/hour to be able to afford basic necessities (housing, food, transportation, etc).

This amount is even higher if the person has kids — $24.88 for one, $31.04 for two, you get the idea. Since 27.7 percent of minimum wage workers have kids, raising it to $15/hour would have a very positive impact on them. There is a common misconception that minimum wage workers are teens who want a little extra cash for their weekends at the mall or that these jobs are a buffer until you find a better job. However, the average age of a minimum-wage worker is 35, and the Economic Policy Institute found that 88 percent are older than 20. And for those people concerned about small businesses being hurt by a raise: It would be implemented over several years so that these businesses could absorb additional costs.

It’s time to raise the minimum wage, and I’m happy to see support starting at the city level.

MinnPost welcomes original letters from readers on current topics of general interest. Interested in joining the conversation? Submit your letter to the editor. The choice of letters for publication is at the discretion of MinnPost editors; they will not be able to respond to individual inquiries about letters.

U athletics official accused of sexual harassment

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 1:25pm
MinnPost staff Randy Handel

Another scandal for the U’s athletics department? KSTP’s Joe Augustine reports: “The University of Minnesota Board of Regents held an emergency meeting Thursday morning regarding a sexual harassment investigation of a top fundraiser in the university's athletics office who violated the school's policy. … Board chair Dean Johnson plans to address the investigation with reporters at 2:45 p.m. Thursday. … Randy Handel, the assistant athletic director of development, was investigated by the University of Minnesota's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) and was found to have sexually harassed an employee in the athletics department, according to an email sent to the Board of Regents Wednesday night.”

Didn’t they just build this thing? The AP reports (via MPR): “The Dakota Access pipeline leaked 84 gallons of oil in South Dakota early last month, which an American Indian tribe says bolsters its argument that the pipeline jeopardizes its water supply and deserves further environmental review. … The April 4 spill was relatively small and was quickly cleaned up, and it didn't threaten any waterways. The state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources posted a report in its website's searchable database, but it didn't take any other steps to announce it to the public, despite an ongoing lawsuit by four Sioux tribes seeking to shut down the pipeline.”

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Did Northern Metals get off too easily? City Pages’s Susan Du looks into it: “Northern Metals Recycling, a metal shredder located in north Minneapolis, is being forced out of town after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) discovered that it was pumping more pollutants into the air than it disclosed. … Residents, who for years complained of high asthma, heavy metal poisoning, and cancer rates, conducted their own studies. The Bottineau Neighborhood Association analyzed two decades of state health data to find that asthma-related deaths were 844 percent higher than in other parts of Minnesota.”

Very cool feature from the Strib looking at immigrants in the Twin Cities food scene. Rick Nelson reports: “That we are a nation of immigrants is clearly evident when looking at the restaurant industry. “If you were to take all the immigrants out of restaurants in Minneapolis, there wouldn’t be any functioning restaurants,” said Daniel del Prado, chef at four-star Burch Steak and Pizza Bar in Minneapolis. He would know. He’s an immigrant, from Argentina. Hardworking immigrants have been a key power source for the local dining scene since Minnesota became a state, and thank goodness for that, seeing as how they are constantly invigorating our insular, snow-covered culture by importing flavors, customs, ingredients and ingenuity from every corner of the globe.”

In other news…

State Unfair: “Ousted cheese curd stand turns up heat against Minnesota State Fair” [Star Tribune]

Do they do kickoffs in Canadian football? “Canadian firm buys majority stake in Peanuts in $345M deal” [Star Tribune]

June 1: “Minneapolis Businesses Prepare For Plastic Bag Ban ” [WCCO]

Like, maybe expanding to a state that has mountains? “Lutsen Mountains moving closer to major ski expansion” [Duluth News Tribune]

Never a good look: “New London-Spicer parents want book banned” [MPR]

He’s going to be OK: “Former U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger joins Jones Day’s Investigations & White Collar Defense Practice in Minneapolis” [Press Release]

Why you wanna treat me so bad? “Universal Demands Cancellation of $30 Million Deal With Prince Estate” [Billboard]

Good news, Lynx fans: “FOX Sports North announces expanded Minnesota Lynx TV schedule” [Fox Sports]

Does the health care bill the House passed maintain protection for people with pre-existing conditions, or not?

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 11:41am
Sam Brodey

Barely an hour after the American Health Care Act passed narrowly out of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the Democratic Party arm tasked with taking back the House — started running digital ads slamming Republicans for their vote in favor of the GOP’s proposed replacement of the Affordable Care Act.

A key line of attack? That Republicans decided to destroy protections for people with pre-existing conditions — any kind of health condition that makes someone more expensive to insure as they seek coverage.

“The Republican health care bill: no more protections for people with pre-existing conditions,” the DCCC ad declared.

Minnesota’s three Republican representatives, all of whom voted in favor of the bill, painted a much different picture: they believe the bill will expand access to affordable health coverage, and have maintained that it won’t do anything to jeopardize the coverage of those with pre-existing conditions.

Third District Rep. Erik Paulsen, who was publicly undecided until just hours before the vote, appeared to make clear that pre-existing conditions protections were essential to his support of any bill. In an April 14 letter to constituents, he said that “Any reform efforts should maintain important provisions that expand access to health care. These include protecting patients with pre-existing conditions.”

In an op-ed in the Star Tribune this week, Paulsen said the AHCA is “aimed at addressing many of the shortcomings of the ACA by stabilizing insurance markets and beginning to bring down premiums… Nothing in this bill would allow an insurance company to deny someone coverage, including to those with a pre-existing condition.”

Second District Rep. Jason Lewis, in an interview with MinnPost, said he believes the AHCA will “be beneficial for everyone, especially the sicker folks and folks with pre-existing conditions. Otherwise I wouldn’t have voted for it.”

In a statement after the vote, 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer said the AHCA “protects Americans, ensuring they cannot be denied coverage based on their gender or whether or not they have a pre-existing condition.”

It’s not uncommon for political rhetoric from opposite sides to say apparently contradictory things, but who’s right in this case? Does the AHCA protect people with pre-existing conditions, or not? As with most things having to do with health care — and to the surprise of some — the answer is complicated.

Waiving goodbye to Obamacare

If the AHCA were to move forward and become law as it is written right now, states would have a lot of flexibility and a range of options to comply with the law. That flexibility, giving more power to the states, is a big selling point for Republicans on the new law, but the choices also come with major consequences for insurance access. (The U.S. Senate is poised to make major changes to the House bill, but let’s leave that alone for now.)

The AHCA leaves some aspects of Obamacare in place — such as the provision allowing those under age 26 to remain on their parents’ plans — and totally repeals others, like the requirement to hold health coverage or else face a tax penalty, which is known as the individual mandate.

States can’t change these things. But the AHCA, as passed by the House, does give them the option to seek an exemption from two key parts of Obamacare. States may submit waivers to Washington to get out of complying with two elements of Obamacare that are preserved in the letter of the AHCA: essential health benefits, and community rating.

The essential health benefits provision, under Obamacare, requires insurers to cover 10 benefits, from prescription drugs to prenatal care, in any health care plan they offer. Community rating is a provision that prohibits insurers from charging any person more based on their individual health status — important if you have a pre-existing condition.

Under the GOP’s proposal, Washington can only approve waivers from states if their proposals meet certain conditions, such as lowering premiums, stabilizing the market, stabilizing costs for those with pre-existing conditions, and/or expanding the choices available.

Proponents argue that the criteria for waivers is strict — states must ensure “no one is left out in the cold,” writes National Review’s Rich Lowry — while critics, like Washington and Lee University health care professor Tim Jost, counter that “essentially, any state that wanted a waiver would get one.”

Why would a state apply for a waiver? The AHCA reduces significantly federal subsidies for monthly premiums — and it’s unlikely states would be able to make up the difference. With no individual mandate for coverage, healthier people would likely withdraw from the market, leaving older and sicker people remaining in the pool.

As a result, insurers would likely flee those states, so state authorities would feel compelled to cut essential health benefits and community rating in an effort to keep insurers in the market.

That’s because those waivers would, experts say, allow insurers to charge some patients significantly more for health coverage, particularly those with pre-existing conditions.

Essential health benefits

How would that happen? Consider essential health benefits: with a waiver, a state could set its own definition of what insurers are required and not required to include in their health plans.

If an insurer is losing money in a state, it either needs to charge people more or limit the amount it pays out for health care. States could entice the insurers to stay in the market by giving them room to raise patients’ cost of coverage by excluding some current essential health benefits from insurance plans.

If a state no longer makes insurers provide basic coverage for prescription drugs for someone with a chronic condition like HIV/AIDS, for example, a patient’s out-of-pocket cost would substantially rise, and reduce the insurer’s risk.

That, critics say, effectively makes any condition requiring treatment with prescription drugs a pre-existing condition that could make the cost of obtaining insurance prohibitively high.

Community rating

But the provision of the AHCA waivers with potentially more far-reaching effects is the end of the community ratings provisions in Obamacare.

Matt Fiedler, a health policy expert at the Brookings Institute, explains that “under the ACA, what [community rating] means in practice is for a person of a given age and given location, everyone has to pay the same premium,” he said.

Community rating existed before the ACA, but it did not work well because there was no individual mandate for coverage. Getting healthy people to join insurance pools that didn’t charge more for costlier patients — thus raising the healthy people’s own premiums — was a tough proposition, states found. But with everyone required to have insurance or pay a penalty under Obamacare, the problem was somewhat mitigated.

The AHCA would get rid of the individual mandate, and it would also end a lot of federal subsidies to incentivize people to purchase care. Instead of a mandate, the AHCA proposes that insurers charge a patient 30 percent more in premium payments upon entering the health care market if that patient does not have “continuous coverage,” which is defined as a lapse in insurance coverage for more than 63 days in the last year.

But the premium hikes for people with pre-existing conditions could be much higher under the proposed law. That’s because, aside from the 30 percent penalty, people who had allowed their coverage to lapse might no longer be eligible for premiums based on community rating, but instead could be assessed premiums based on “health status” — meaning insurance companies could charge sick people much higher premiums than their healthy peers in the same age group.

The effect, Brookings’ Fiedler explains in a blog post, is that “health status would replace the 30 percent premium surcharge” for people without continuous coverage.

How costly could that hike be? Significant, explains Gary Claxton, a vice president at the health care policy nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, and a former Bill Clinton administration official at the Department of Health and Human Services.

If someone doesn’t demonstrate continuous coverage, Claxton says, “there’s no limit of what they can be surcharged. They can be charged as much as the insurer wanted.” That, he says, is effectively the same as being denied coverage outright.

Does that mean, though, that as long as you maintain continuous insurance coverage, you’d be protected from dramatic premium hikes? Not necessarily.

Brookings’ Fiedler explains that in a waiver state, insurers could set two different ways to charge people in the individual market: one that is technically community-rated, designed for people who have demonstrated continuous coverage.

But the problem comes from the fact that insurers would be free to set up a separate pool that uses health status, rather than community rating, to determine premiums for people who haven’t maintained continuous coverage. As explained above, that could result in prohibitively high premiums for people with pre-existing conditions. But it also allows insurance companies to offer health plans with extremely low premiums to healthy people, based on their overall good health status.

Healthy people could save hundreds or thousands of dollars by leaving the community-rated pool and paying premiums based on their health status. Consequently, the people left in the community-rated pool would be relatively sicker, which means insurance companies would need to raise premiums for that group.

Fiedler concludes that ultimately, “premiums in the community-rated pool would have to be set at a prohibitively high level, leaving people with serious illnesses with no affordable options, whether or not they had maintained continuous coverage. Many of these people would likely be driven from the individual market entirely.”

High-risky business

Republican backers of the bill say that their critics are blowing the pre-existing condition debate out of proportion. They are quick to offer what they see as important context as to how many Americans would actually be affected by changes to insurance rules.

“I would say, number one, that the whole pre-existing issue does not apply to 93 percent of Americans,” Paulsen says, since the AHCA’s language affects the Americans who obtain insurance through the individual market. Eight percent of Minnesotans have coverage in the “non-group,” or individual market — people who don’t get insurance through an employer or through Medicare or Medicaid.

Still, the AHCA’s supporters maintain they aren’t ignorant of those who could be affected by changes: they say they have set up safeguards to prevent a worst-case scenario for those with pre-existing conditions — the most important of which are high-risk pools.

High-risk pools are insurance pools for the sickest and costliest patients in the health care market, and they exist as a way for states to offer health coverage to people with pre-existing conditions who are considered uninsurable by insurance companies.

They were a feature of the health care landscape before Obamacare, and were funded in different ways by different states. Minnesota’s high risk pool, for example, was funded by a mix of revenue from premium payments, taxes on insurance companies, and the occasional state subsidy.

Minnesota’s high-risk pool, before Obamacare took effect, was considered successful: it was affordable, and with roughly 26,000 enrollees, contained one-sixth of all high-risk pool members in the U.S. (Other states had low enrollment due to high monthly premiums.)

High-risk pools have been prominent parts of Republican ideas for replacing of Obamacare, but House Republicans moved to shore them up in the AHCA with additional funding. Michigan Rep. Fred Upton introduced an amendment to provide $8 billion over five years from the federal government specifically to shore up high-risk pools in the states.

Beyond that $8 billion, states would have $130 billion spread out over a decade to stabilize insurance markets in the states, but they can do so in seven ways, only one of which is by funding high-risk pools.

So, can high-risk pools rescue people with pre-existing conditions from the problems posed by waiving community rating?

Ultimately, it comes down to how adequate the source of funding for high-risk pools turns out to be. To many experts, the AHCA falls short here.

Even if states use that $138 billion entirely for the purpose of relieving premium costs for sicker patients — which is not a guarantee, experts say — that comes out to $13.8 billion a year over ten years.

Another complication here is that the effectiveness of the money depends on how many states get waivers. If it’s two, the $8 billion in Upton’s amendment will go a long way; if it’s 30, not so much.

Proponents of the law could not provide a concrete answer to what would happen if many states opt to share a piece of a pie that’s a set size. “My guess is this is an experiment in fiscal federalism,” Lewis said.

Paulsen told MinnPost that, if this initial source of funding proves inadequate, “additional monies can be added… in two years, when appropriations are going, if it looks like we need to shore up a risk pool here, things will balance out.”

(Fiedler was skeptical of this reassurance: “If Congress were committed to providing adequate financing,” he said, “it could have written the AHCA in a way that would automatically provide the amount of funding that actually turned out to be required, rather than just setting an arbitrary dollar amount.”)

How much money would the feds realistically need to put into an insurance market that effectively covers those with pre-existing conditions on the individual market? Health care analysts have put forth varying estimates, and $15 billion a year is essentially the floor.

“We’re talking in tens of billions of dollars a year,” Fiedler says, saying the $8 billion over five years allocated in the House plan is “a drop in the bucket.”

If the federal subsidies don’t adequately fund insurers’ cost to cover high-risk individuals, they will simply raise premiums.

Others have pointed out that even a minor reduction in premiums may not be enough for older, lower-income people — those who are widely considered the losers in this bill. Washington and Lee’s Jost writes that “the reduction in premiums that would result from the program is unlikely to be sufficient… given the fixed-dollar, age-adjusted tax credits offered by the AHCA.”

What it means for Minnesota

Would Minnesota apply for a waiver, if the AHCA in its current form were to become law? Some doubt that a Democratic governor like Mark Dayton would apply to waive Minnesota from essential health benefits requirements.

But others say it is hard to anticipate how state leaders will react, and argue that their decisions may rest more on the particulars of the insurance market in their state rather than on ideology. (Plenty of red-state governors applied for the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, after all.)

Indeed, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — no fan of Obamacare — initially suggested support for the waivers, but quickly walked that support back in an argument with a Democratic county official last week.

According to the Kaiser Foundation’s Claxton, though, the financial pressures could win out: “I think we can expect that, for affordability reasons, states will take the waivers to reduce benefits… so that people with pre-existing conditions can be segmented out for some period of time.”

Lynn Blewett, a health care and insurance expert at the University of Minnesota, says that though Minnesota’s high-risk pool worked reasonably well before the ACA, replacing the law would not simply return things to the way they were before it took effect.

If the AHCA were to go forward, in Minnesota, the “high-risk pool is likely going to have a pretty high premium,” Blewett says, adding she isn’t sure how backers of the AHCA claim that those with pre-existing conditions are protected.

For now, the AHCA is far from being law. For it to advance, it must be taken up by the Senate, where Democrats hate the bill and even Republicans have some significant reservations with it, particularly its deep cuts to Medicaid.

House Republicans don’t claim this is a perfect bill, and expect it to be tweaked and adjusted as needed after it passes — something Democrats planned to do with the ACA before losing their congressional majority.

Republicans acknowledge, though that they still have some selling to do to the general public. Recent polls find that fewer than one-third of Americans support the GOP’s bill.

Lewis bemoaned to MinnPost what he called the “partisan demagoguery” surrounding the AHCA and its critics’ claims, such as the later-debunked claim that it classifies rape as a pre-existing condition.

It’s not the sensational kinds of claims that give experts pause, though — it’s the hard math. “I think it’s fairly hard to square what’s been said about the bill,” Brookings’ Fielder says, “with the analytic reality.”

Dominique Serrand talks about 'Refugia'; Malian music at the Cedar

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 9:36am
Pamela Espeland

In “Refugia,” the Moving Company has created its most moving play to date, in every sense of that word. It tells the stories of people moving from country to country to save their lives. It aspires to move audiences to perceive the global refugee crisis more humanely. Begun in Texas, it moved to the Guthrie, where it will open in previews this Saturday, May 13.

And “I wouldn’t call it a play, by the way,” said director Dominique Serrand. What would he call it? “A journey through people’s lives – their history, events that occurred in their lives, crossing borders, leaving, arriving. The traumas. We call it an epic journey.”

Serrand founded the Moving Company in 2008 with Steven Epp, Christina Baldwin and Nathan Keepers. All four were core members of the former Theatre de la Jeune Lune, a visionary, Tony Award-winning company whose abrupt closing earlier that year shocked the local theater community and made national news. From the start, the Moving Company has been nomadic. Based in Minneapolis, it doesn’t have a permanent home. It often develops shows elsewhere, usually in partnerships with colleges and universities, and tours nationally.

“Refugia” first took shape in 2015 in the theater and dance department of the University of Texas at Austin. There’s a story behind that. Serrand shared it in conversation Wednesday, during a break from tech rehearsals.

MinnPost: What sparked “Refugia”? Where did the idea come from?

Dominique Serrand: We were on our way to work on a very different piece, a creation about Marlene Dietrich, the great German actress. That weekend, when we were on our way to Texas, 300,000 people crossed the border from Syria into Turkey, which is the largest exodus in the 21st century. We said, “We have to do a show about refugees.”

MP: So you all changed direction, just like that?

DS: Mmm-hmm. We did. Which had happened several times in the past [the Jeune Lune years]. We often did shows responding to a particular social movement. For example, I once did a production of “Tartuffe” by Molière as a response to Congress, who had decided that art equaled pornography. I said, “Now is the time to do Tartuffe.” It’s an old habit we have of responding.

We had no idea what this show would be. We arbitrarily decided that we were going to develop five chapters, five scenes. We knew that we wanted to do different stories with different sets of characters in different times and different places. So it’s not one long story, it’s a series of stories that somehow find echoes and eventually join together. I would say it’s like a piece of music, with movements.

MP: Five chapters in Texas became nine at the Guthrie.

DS: And the five chapters evolved, because events developed. The situation in Syria was very new then, and now we’ve been hearing about it for over two years, and it’s only gotten worse, as we know.

MP: A lot has changed since 2015.

DS: That’s for sure. But the show is not a documentary by any means. It’s a reflection. We use very different tools, and each chapter has its own personality. For instance, there’s a scene that’s somewhat related to the [November 2015] Paris attacks. I say “somewhat” because it’s about an adolescent in France who decides to join Isis. We updated the show, but not in the places a documentary would.

Courtesy of the Guthrie TheaterDominique Serrand

The point was not to make a piece about the latest news in terms of refugees, but a more reflective piece about what it means to cross borders. Most of the chapters are border crossings. For instance, during the Soviet era, a couple of Jews are trying to escape the Soviet Union to go to Israel. Another scene is about coming to America. Another is about going from Syria to Berlin. It’s a lot of different journeys.

People moving from place to place is certainly not new. What’s extraordinary is that in the 21st century, instead of reducing the amount of movement, we’re increasing it, for many different reasons. Economic reasons. Tyranny. Climate change, which plays a huge role, much more than anyone speaks about. The world has increased the number of reasons for leaving one country for another.

I have a lot of friends in France who are currently hosting refugee families. It’s unimaginable, the number of countries they come from. Mali, Niger, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somali, Iraq. The list is endless. Something we don’t address in the show, but I wish we had, is that it’s mostly individuals and volunteer groups who take care of these refugees. There’s very little government [involvement].

MP: What kinds of research did you do for “Refugia”?

DS: All kinds. Books, press from everywhere. We were very attentive to very different accounts coming from all sides. So international press, obviously. And a couple of my family members work for Reporters Without Borders and the Human Rights Commission. So we got real facts, accounts of events that happened and personal stories. It’s fascinating to hear those people talk because they’re on the front lines.

My sister teaches out in the streets in Paris. She teaches refugees who have just arrived the basics of French so they can get by. She brings a blackboard and writes words and tries to help them understand what they mean, so they can ask for bread and buy bread. If you speak even a few words of someone else’s language, you’re better received.

MP: “Refugia” is a response to world events. How would you like audiences to respond to “Refugia”?

DS:  When you do a theater piece, you always hope that it will open people’s eyes, and that they will change the way they look at something, the way they think about it. With this, we hope it will develop tolerance and open arms, and help [audiences] realize that these people, a lot of them, are refugees because we are bombing them. A lot of these movements of refugees come from the fact that we are at war. Wars create refugees. Every time you drop a bomb, you create refugees. That’s true not just for America but Europe, who is also involved.

The show also celebrates these people. Like the refugees from Aleppo. They keep their keys with them – the keys to their apartments and their homes – as if their homes were still standing up. The keys are a memory of their homes standing up.

A world premiere, “Refugia” will be in previews from May 13-18. Opening night is Friday, May 19. On the McGuire Proscenium Stage. FMI and tickets ($15-49 previews, then $34-67). Ends June 11. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The picks

Now at Artistry: “Wit.” Sally Wingert shaved her head for this. In Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning one-act play, Wingert is Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor of 17th-century English poetry. Dying of ovarian cancer, she reflects on her life. If you see the title written as “W;t,” with a semicolon instead of a small I, it’s because of a discussion in the play about the use of a semicolon vs. a comma in one of John Donne’s sonnets. Just the sort of detail English majors love. With Todd Hansen, Corey DiNardo, Christina Castro and Barbra Berlovitz. In Artistry’s intimate Black Box. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. FMI and tickets ($9-30). Ends May 28.

Tonight (Thursday, May 11) at the Merriam Park Library: Yaa Gyasi. Club Book wraps its Winter/Spring 2017 season with the Ghanaian-American novelist and author of “Homegoing,” an award-winning, much-lauded New York Times best-seller that follows slavery’s legacy through six generations. The Washington Post dubbed it “[Alex Haley’s] ‘Roots’ for a new generation.” It has just come out in paperback. 7 p.m. Note: All St. Paul libraries are closed today for staff training, but Merriam Park will open at 6:30 p.m. for this event.

Warner Bros.“Wait Until Dark”

Tonight at the Heights: “Wait Until Dark.” With no monsters, aliens, vampires or special effects, this is one scary movie. Audrey Hepburn is Suzy, a woman who has recently become blind. Three very bad guys led by Alan Arkin think there’s a doll stuffed with heroin in her apartment. As they terrorize her, she turns out the lights. Let’s just say it’s not over until it’s over. Technicolor noir in a super-rare 35mm screening. Bonus: You can buy food at the DQ next door and bring it into the theater. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10).

Tonight through Saturday at the Open Eye Figure Theatre: “Tender Mercies.” Storytellers Kevin Kling and Nashville’s Minton Sparks meet for an evening of storytelling inspired by the Oscar-winning film “Tender Mercies.” Many of us know Kling, but this will be Sparks’ Minneapolis debut. Huffpost described her as “akin to such great American muso-wordsmiths as Tom Waits, Mos Def, Gil Scott-Heron, and Henry Rollins.” 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($22, $18 seniors, $15 students). Ages 10 and up.

Friday and Saturday at the Ordway Concert Hall: Pekku Kuusisto: Migration Patterns. These are the closing concerts of a festival called “Where Words End,” led by SPCO Artistic Partner Pekka Kuusisto, which has been exploring themes of immigration and cultural identity. The festival began last weekend with music of Sibelius, continued Tuesday night at the American Swedish Institute with a spectacular Liquid Music concert, and ends with these two performances. The program: Grieg’s “Holberg Suite”; a new work by American composer Gabriel Kahane, “Orinoco Sketches”; a selection of traditional American folk songs featuring singer/guitarist Sam Amidon and Kuusisto; and Sibelius’s “Valse Triste.” Friday at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15-53; kids and students free).

Saturday at the Cedar: Festival au Désert – Caravan of Peace featuring the Ali Farka Touré Band and Terakaft. The annual Festival in the Desert, once held in or near Timbuktu, has been in exile since 2012, when Islamic extremists took over northern Mali and banned music. It was set to return in January of this year but was blocked at the last minute due to security fears. Two weeks earlier, suicide bombers attacked a nearby military camp, killing at least 77 people. Both the Ali Farka Touré Band, made up of musicians who traveled the world with the late Grammy winner and Malian blues master, and the Tuareg band Terakaft, which includes founding members of Tinariwen, have played previous festivals. All-ages standing show. Doors at 7, show at 8. FMI and tickets ($25 advance/$30 day of show).

Arthroscopic surgery not recommended for almost all cases of knee osteoarthritis

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 9:18am
Susan Perry

An international panel of experts announced in the BMJ on Wednesday that arthroscopic surgery should not be used in almost all patients with degenerative knee disease, a condition more commonly known as osteoarthritis.

That advice, which is part of the BMJ’s “Rapid Recommendation” initiative, includes patients whose knee pain occurs suddenly and/or is accompanied by tears of the meniscus, the cartilage that helps stabilize the knee. 

The experts came to their conclusion after reviewing all the latest evidence, including a 2016 study in BMJ that showed arthroscopic surgery was no better than exercise therapy for treating meniscus tears.

A common procedure for a common problem

Knee pain from degenerative knee disease is quite common, affecting about 1 in 4 adults aged 50 and older, according to background information in the BMJ paper. The chronic condition is managed with a variety of strategies, including “watchful waiting,” weight loss (if the patient is overweight), physical therapy, pain medication, and cortisol and other types of injections.

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As the BMJ experts point out, “knee replacement is the only definitive therapy, but it is reserved for patients with severe disease,” after other management strategies have been unsuccessful.

Arthroscopic surgery, which uses tiny (keyhole-like) incisions to remove torn pieces of cartilage from the knee and to smooth out rough areas of the remaining cartilage, is also a frequently used treatment — despite a steady string of studies over the past decade that have questioned its effectiveness.

About 750,000 arthroscopic knee surgeries are carried out in the United States each year at an annual cost of about $3 billion.

Although it’s considered minor surgery, arthroscopic surgery is not without risks, including infections and blood clots.

Studying the evidence

Current medical guidelines generally discourage the use of arthroscopic surgery for patients whose X-rays show clear evidence of knee osteoarthritis. But many guidelines still recommend the procedure for certain subgroups of patients, such as those with meniscus tears, or whose symptoms (pain and swelling) come on suddenly, or who have mild to moderate difficulties with knee movement.

The problem, say the panel of experts, is that “most people with degenerative arthritis have at least one of these characteristics.” (The experts stress that degenerative knee disease does not include people whose symptoms develop after a sudden, traumatic injury to their knee.)

BMJCharacteristics of patients and trials included in systematic review of arthroscopic knee surgery.

In their examination of the evidence, which included systematic reviews of 13 randomized clinical trials and 12 observational studies, the panel members looked for three key surgical outcomes — pain, function and quality of life. These are the outcomes patients with degenerative knee disease consider most important when deciding on whether to have surgery.

They found that arthroscopic knee surgery does not, on average, lead to any significant improvement in long-term pain or function to all — or almost all — patients with degenerative knee disease.

“Given that there is evidence of harm and no evidence of important lasting benefit in any subgroup, the panel believes that the burden of proof rests with those who suggest benefit for any other particular subgroups before arthroscopic surgery is routinely performed in any subgroup of patients,” they write.

FMI: You can read the panel’s “Rapid Recommendation” regarding arthroscopic knee surgery on the BMJ website. 

Lawmakers look to weigh in on Minnesota’s federal education accountability plan

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 8:39am
Erin Hinrichs

On Tuesday evening, members of the House cast a party-line 72-59 vote to pass the education finance omnibus bill. It includes things like a 1.5 percent funding increase to the basic education formula — a number that falls short of the 2 percent increase opponents say is needed to help schools keep up with the cost of inflation. It also earmarks dollars for school readiness funding and early learning scholarships, but doesn’t include funding for the expansion of Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature voluntary pre-K program. And it abolishes the Perpich Center for Arts Education, redirecting resources to establish an arts outreach division at the Department of Education.  

There’s another item in the bill having to do with school accountability that’s far less attention-grabbing, but still significant. In brief, state legislators want to review the state’s new federal accountability plan — the Every Student Succeeds Act, commonly known as ESSA — at least 30 days before it gets submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval this fall. Language in the bill directs the commissioner to ensure there’s alignment with the existing state school accountability system, the World’s Best Workforce, “to the extent practicable.” That’s an aim that most can agree on.

But when it comes to selecting which new indicator should be adopted to create a more holistic definition of school quality and student success, it appears that the Department of Education’s preferred frontrunner — chronic absenteeism — may be up against an unexpected hurdle.

“I just think chronic absenteeism has become trendy,” Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chair of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee, said, noting it’s included in several other draft ESSA plans from states who hit the first deadline for submission. “Why doesn’t Minnesota do something different? If absenteeism is really what we think we should do in a school quality indicator, lets look at it a little differently.”

Why chronic absenteeism?

From a technical standpoint, Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius points out, state legislators are laying out parameters that contradict federal law. As currently written in the education omnibus bill, “The school quality or student success accountability indicator required by ESSA must be an academic indicator.”

“That’s against federal law,” Cassellius said in a phone interview. “The federal law requires that the school quality or student success accountability indicator be nonacademic. It’s not that it can’t be academic. It’s just that it also has to include a nonacademic measure.”

One of ESSA’s distinguishing characteristics is that it gives states greater flexibility in setting student achievement goals and directs them to look beyond test scores to gauge school performance. This addition of a so-called “fifth indicator” — which measures things like the number of minutes students spend in physical education, parent engagement, social-emotional learning or some other factor outside of test scores and graduation rates — signals a widely hailed shift away from the more punitive, test-centric No Child Left Behind law. States can opt to add more than one of these new indicators to their accountability plan.

Brenda Cassellius

To be clear, the addition of a fifth indicator to round out how schools are evaluated doesn’t mean the hallmark school accountability data sets — proficiency in reading and math, along with high school graduation rates — go to the wayside. Rather, states must now track these measures, along with academic growth (which Minnesota already does in reading and math) and English-language proficiency, plus at least one other indicator of school quality or student success. Also, as states assign a weight to each indicator, ESSA specificities that the indicator of school quality or student success must count much less toward a school’s score than the combined weight of the other indicators.

The commissioner’s preference for using chronic absenteeism as a fifth indicator was guided by a pretty intensive community engagement process. She toured the state seeking feedback on all aspects of the new ESSA plan. And folks at the state Department of Education conducted dozens of meetings over the past year and a half with community members, education advocates, teachers, administrators, parents and data experts who served on two ESSA accountability committees.

The two groups explored the possibility of tracking postsecondary readiness, access to student support services, school climate, student engagement, social-emotional learning and more. They reached a general consensus around tracking chronic absenteeism for a couple of main reasons. First of all, it’s a data set that doesn’t require a heavy lift. Using attendance numbers that are already collected for the Minnesota Automated Reporting Student System (MARRS) reports, state department staff can simply divide each students’ number of days attended by the number of days they were enrolled.

Secondly, there’s value in paying better attention to which students are missing out on a critical portion of their education. This new use of existing data would reveal which students are missing 10 percent or more days of the school year — a threshold that puts them at greater risk of falling behind. In Minnesota last year, for instance, nearly a quarter of students enrolled in the free or reduced priced meal program were chronically absent. Rates also largely broke down along racial lines, with minority students missing more school days. The thinking is that as disparities are identified, schools can dig into the underlying causes and better direct resources to support students.

The state education omnibus bill spells out four academic options legislators would rather see the state Education Department adopt as part of its ESSA plan, all of which can be pulled from existing state accountability assessments. That list includes: reading and math growth for students performing in the bottom quartile,  third grade reading proficiency, eighth grade mathematics proficiency, and science proficiency.

This push to fall back on existing data points prompts an important question: Is Minnesota going to stick with the status quo? Or is it going to use new, innovative, data points to tackle one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation?

Time to make a decision

Erickson says the options listed out in the education bill focus on what’s most important: academic outcomes that highlight what teachers are doing in the classroom. She has concerns that focusing on chronic absenteeism will put pressure on schools to change their attendance policies and will distract from what’s going on in the classroom.

“I don’t know how we solve this chronic absenteeism other than kids have to be in school,” she said. “And usually they’re not because they don’t have a parent at home who’s making sure they get to school. We can't legislate parenting. I guess I would have to say it’s going to take the school district …. actually getting out there and visiting the homes of the children who are not showing up at school, and finding out what the reason is, and helping the parent to get more organized. Maybe social work gets involved.”

State Rep. Sondra Erickson

Erickson says she realizes the commissioner will likely move forward with adopting chronic absenteeism anyway. But she also laid out a third guideline in the bill, regarding the state’s ESSA plan, directing the commissioner to include a measure for college and career readiness. For instance, tracking student success or attainment in advanced placement or international baccalaureate examinations would be one way of looking at which students are not only accessing, but also succeeding in courses designed to prepare them for a postsecondary education.

It’s a popular indicator that’s made the cut in a number of state ESSA plans that have already been submitted for federal review. And it has quite a bit of popular support in Minnesota. The holdup, at least for now, says Cassellius, is figuring out a meaningful, reliable way to collect that data, statewide.

“We need to be digging into those numbers and finding out who has access and who doesn't have access to those classes, but we don’t have a reliable way to collect that yet. Once we’re able to get good compliance in school districts on their Minnesota course catalog, we’ll be able to see all of that information,” she says, noting less than half of schools currently report their course information. “We'll also be able to see, because of our STAR report, who’s teaching that and what tier those teachers are at, teaching those subjects, in the future. But we’re building those systems now.”

Once the Education Department is equipped to better support this data collection, she says, she can write to the U.S. Department of Education and add new indicators by simply amending the state’s ESSA accountability plan.

Madaline Edison, executive director of the Minnesota branch of Educators for Excellence, who’s been a part of the ESSA meetings held at the department of education, is hoping for a compromise that takes alignment with World’s Best Workforce and the opportunity to innovate into account.

“The spirit of the law is really about going beyond your typical graduation scores and test rates to look at other measure of the student experience in school that are deeply correlated to academic and life outcomes,” Edison said. “It’s not surprising that the legislature would like to play a role in such an important decision in our state as this. But it is troubling to me this is happening so late in the process. In hindsight, I wish the department and legislators would have been working together throughout this whole process.”