- Associated Press - Thursday, April 30, 2015

Star Tribune, April 29

Minnesota House GOP takes a shortsighted shot at the U’s budget

We can’t think of a good reason for the GOP-controlled state House to send a higher-education bill to conference committee that provides no funding increase for the University of Minnesota and reduces student financial aid via the State Grant Program.

Several bad reasons leap to mind. Parochialism, for one. The House bill provides $105 million more than forecast for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system for 2016-17, and $0 for the U. Might that be because many more GOP legislative districts include one or more of the 54 MnSCU campuses than one of the university’s five campuses? We hope not. Surely legislators know that the state’s only research university is an essential economic engine for the entire state.

Similarly, we don’t like assuming that partisanship is behind the House’s decision. Yes, only two of the U’s five campuses sit in districts represented by Republicans. And only those two - in Crookston and Morris - are beneficiaries of earmarked funds in the House bill. Crookston would get $2.15 million for agricultural education; Morris would get $1.4 million for campus improvements of the sort ordinarily financed via state bonds. But surely no legislator believes that there’s a partisan tilt to the quest for knowledge at the U.



Likewise, it’s hard to fathom that legislators think the State Grant Program is too large, especially at a time when steep student loan debt is hobbling an entire generation’s advancement. Yet the House bill moves $53 million in program funds to MnSCU, where it helps pay for a partial tuition freeze and a 1 percent reduction in tuition in 2016-17 at two-year institutions. Dayton administration higher-education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller said that for 85,000 State Grant recipients, that would translate into a cut of $295 per year per full-time student.

Pogemiller spent 30 years in the Legislature. He knows well the political forces that can shrink an education funding bill. In a letter to the House and Senate higher-ed funding chairs, he said empathetically: “A low budget target has inhibited the (House) committee’s ability to make comprehensive investments.” We suspect Pogemiller is right. The House GOP’s decision to prioritize tax cuts over increased education investments as it assembled its 2016-17 budget this session narrowed the higher-ed committee’s options. Both the U and MnSCU came to the Capitol pleading for funds sufficient for continuation of the last two years’ tuition freeze. House GOP leaders evidently saw an advantage in saying a partial yes to one of them rather than no to both.

But that choice does a disservice to State Grant recipients, including those at MnSCU’s colleges, where grant reductions are projected to nearly erase the gain of a projected 1 percent tuition reduction in 2016-17. It turns a deaf ear to pleas for relief from heavy debt burdens.

And it’s an ill-timed slap at Minnesota’s educational flagship, the institution that more than any other makes this state a player in today’s knowledge-based economy. Minnesotans know better: 69 percent of respondents to a U-sponsored opinion poll in December said the university is not receiving sufficient funding. The Legislature’s higher-ed conferees need to catch up with public opinion and the public’s priorities.

___

St. Cloud Times, April 29

House builds another roadblock to budget compromise

What is the most alarming noise for Minnesota legislators?

Tick tock. Tick tock.

The clock is moving relentlessly to a May 18 adjournment deadline for the Minnesota legislative session, and ominous signs are beginning to point to a deadlock on key budget bills.

The DFL-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House passed budget bills at opposite extremes of the issue.

The best example by Wednesday morning was the House passing a health and human services budget bill with about $1 billion in cuts. The cuts include eliminating MinnesotaCare, a program created in 1992 for people who make too much money to qualify for Medical Assistance yet typically cannot afford their own insurance.

Here are the number of people enrolled in MinnesotaCare in our area: 2,373 in Stearns County, 659 in Benton, 1,371 in Sherburne, 1,965 in Wright and 698 in Morrison.

The House bill doesn’t make clear if there are subsidies or other aid to help these people transition to other health insurance plans. A chilling possibility may be having many former MinnesotaCare recipients flood emergency rooms. They also may put off preventative care, which may result in more expensive treatment from a disease or condition.

Gov. Mark Dayton and the Senate leadership have vowed to oppose the elimination of MinnesotaCare. There is no question the program can reduce its budget by finding waste and eliminating people who don’t qualify for services. But the extremist House bill is one more hurdle to reaching a budget compromise by May 18.

An Associated Press report gives a warning about a previous dispute on health care reform:

“The bill’s passage sets up a wide gulf with the Democrat-controlled Senate, where top lawmakers say going after MinnesotaCare … when the state has a hefty budget surplus is unthinkable. It has sparked memories of 2005, when a GOP-led effort to tighten MinnesotaCare enrollment was a large factor in a government shutdown.”

The House and Senate also are far apart on transportation funding, tax relief, education funding and other significant parts of a budget.

And remember this was touted as a session to benefit outstate Minnesota. It doesn’t look like that is happening. Example: More money to expand broadband access outstate? Republicans oppose it.

Could lawmakers be staking out positions for a compromise? Is all this political posturing ahead of the 2016 election?

Let’s be very clear: With the state enjoying a $1.8 billion surplus, state lawmakers had better start finding compromises. Minnesotans won’t tolerate a government shutdown and a special session.

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The Free Press of Mankato, April 30

Face facts on water quality

From farm fields to small towns, from big cities to cabin country, every Minnesotan should be alarmed at a report issued Wednesday that detailed the dismal conditions of the state’s waterways.

Half of the streams and lakes in southern Minnesota are not fishable or swimmable, according to a years long study of the state’s watersheds by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

While the state has not examined all of the watersheds in southern Minnesota, it has completed a study of the Le Sueur River watershed that includes Mankato and land to the south where drainage feeds into the Le Sueur River. Of the streams in that watershed, the MPCA study showed only between 0 and 20 percent were swimmable or useable for recreation. Only 20 to 40 percent of the lakes were swimmable.

When it comes to streams supporting aquatic life and fishing, the Le Sueur River watershed ranks low again with only 0 to 20 percent of all streams fully supporting aquatic life.

The southern part of the state was also shown to have the highest levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and suspend solids. Again, researchers point out this is due to farm field runoff and run off from urban areas.

Researchers at the MPCA say some of the water quality problems stem from agriculture runoff and tiling farm fields that has increased in the last five years. They also point out the state must slow the flow of runoff from cities that also is detrimental to water quality.

Still, numerous parts of the report show matter-of-factly that waterways in areas of the state that are heavily farmed contain the highest levels of pollutants, including nitrogen, phosphorus and suspended solids.

The MPCA tracks these pollutants through a network of 200 monitoring sites.

The report states: “Watersheds that are heavily farmed tend to have high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended solids in their waters, while watersheds that are heavily developed tend to have medium levels of these pollutants.”

The report is helpful for Minnesotans who want to take action. It provided solid scientific evidence on the problems and the sources of the water quality problems. The MPCA reporting has been recognized as a “top tier” ranking in the country by the Environmental Protection Agency, an honor only three other states have achieved.

The report also suggests common sense solutions. In areas where agricultural runoff and pollutants are the problem, it suggests stream buffers, nutrient and manure management, restoring wetlands and other forms of water storage to stabilize stream flows and channels.

Urban areas must install more runoff controls like holding ponds and better site planning, rain gardens that stop runoff and adding to wetlands.

The MPCA report also recommends a specific plan for the Le Sueur River watershed that involves targeted amounts of land to be put into each of the water quality improvement strategies.

The report has drawn criticism from farm groups who feel they’re being singled out. But if one looks deeply in the report, it makes recommendations for improving water quality in the metro areas of the state by changing urban runoff practices.

So we’re all in this together. But we must start taking it seriously. The MPCA report is a solid piece of scientific research and provides observed details on the nature of the problem.

Minnesotans have the tools and knowledge on how to improve our water, now we just have to have the will, political and moral, to do it.

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