- Associated Press - Monday, April 25, 2016

Star Tribune, April 22

Felon voting bans have a racist past

Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe put his executive authority to bold use Friday when he overturned his state’s Civil War-era ban on voting by felons. With one move - sure to be challenged by his state’s Republicans - McAuliffe extended the right to vote to 200,000 Virginians through at least the end of his term in 2018.

Announcing his executive order, McAuliffe acknowledged the racist rationale that has underpinned state laws disenfranchising felons after their release from prison. Such laws were aimed at denying political power to African-Americans, he said. The voting ban has worked together with racially skewed criminal justice practices to deny the right to vote to 1 of 5 African-American men in Virginia today, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization.

McAuliffe’s words should prick consciences at the Minnesota Legislature. While Minnesota’s voting bar is not as far-reaching as Virginia’s was before McAuliffe’s move, it still stands to prevent 47,000 citizens from voting this year. That’s the number of felons who live in the community either on probation or on supervised release and who are barred from voting until that status ends.

While a majority of those 47,000 felons are white, their ranks include a larger proportion of people of color than the Minnesota population as a whole. That’s one of the reasons that restoration of voting rights after completion of incarceration is a top item on the United Black Legislative Agenda assembled by a new coalition of civil rights advocates this year.

Bipartisan bills to restore voting rights when prison doors swing open have been introduced at the Legislature; one has been awaiting floor action in the DFL-controlled Senate since last year. But in the GOP-controlled House, a pair of bills has been denied hearings both last year and this year.

That suggests that in Minnesota as elsewhere, the felon voting question is becoming a partisan one. That’s lamentable in a state with a proud bipartisan history of support for civil rights and participatory democracy. Minnesota should be a leader among the states in discarding voting laws that have a racist past and that are producing a racially disparate result. With four full weeks remaining in the 2016 session, the Legislature has ample time to follow the Virginia governor’s bold lead.


St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 21

A case for grants to short-line railroads in Minnesota

Advocates for Minnesota’s “short-line” freight railroads base their case for public funding of infrastructure repairs where it counts: on jobs.

Without needed repairs, they’re concerned that lines - several hundred miles of track that branch from major routes, connecting manufacturers and other businesses enterprises, as well as towns in Greater Minnesota - would be abandoned and jobs lost.

Around the state, they’re “tracks less traveled,” says Rep. Matt Dean, a Republican from Dellwood and author of a measure that would create a $4.5 million fund for grants for repairs.

The big rail companies take care of their major connections but “lease out these ‘orphan’ links to small, independent operators,” Dean explains.

The conundrum: The small rail companies don’t own the land, so they can’t borrow against it to improve the tracks.

An example in the east metro is the 6.5-mile line from White Bear Lake to Hugo for which $1.1 million is being asked from state lawmakers for new ties and the “ballast” on which they’re laid.

The line is cited as a critical component of the regional economy, important for the continued viability of three major employers and nearly 500 jobs.

Advocates highlight perspective from Hugo business representatives. It matters in a state that relies on business retention and jobs to keep its competitive edge:

“If the permanent repairs necessary to keep the line safe and reliable are not made soon, that fact will certainly weigh heavily on our decision whether to expand in our Hugo location or relocate to another state where we can be assured of dependable freight rail service,” says James Paboucek, president of Loadmaster Lubricants Inc.

“Although moving the operations would be difficult and a major disruption to our businesses, we would have no choice but to look for an alternative location that can assure permanent access to reliable rail,” says John Schwieters, president of the building products firm J.L. Schwieters.

St. Paul-based Minnesota Commercial Railway Co., which leases the line from BNSF Railway, faces several challenges, company officials told the editorial board.

They explain that there’s typically not enough revenue to be earned on such lines for the major carriers, so they give them up to others to run. Meanwhile, lease restrictions deter financing of repairs in the private marketplace.

The result in such situations: “It is not always clear who owns the physical assets being used and which entity has the responsibility for their maintenance,” Frederick Zimmerman, an emeritus professor at the University of St. Thomas, says in a message to lawmakers supporting attention to the matter.

Advocates - including chambers of commerce, commodity groups and government entities - argue that no other good alternatives exist: “Without access to affordable capital needed to repair, replace and update our rail systems, there is really only one alternative: abandoning these troubled lines, in whole or in part, and ending service to the communities with which they provide vital economic connections.”

As lawmakers deliberate, the public good, industry economics and private ownership all come into play.

When it comes to transportation infrastructure, our waterways and roads are supported by taxpayer dollars.

In Wisconsin and Iowa, many short-line rail miles are under state ownership, advocates say, noting that our state’s system of rail lines is all privately financed and maintained.

Minnesota’s short-line railroads - small businesses, most of them family owned -have put everything they have on the table, they argue. Grants are usually set at 80 percent of the total cost of a maintenance or capital project. Railroads and their shipper-customers must provide the remaining 20 percent.

They cite an efficiency argument, as well: One modern rail car holds the equivalent of four-and-a-half to five truckloads, keeping traffic off roads and helping reduce wear and tear.

Transportation investments need to cover all modes, including railroads, St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer told us. “When we devalue their access, we by default drive that traffic elsewhere and, in many cases, tacitly encourage those manufacturers to look elsewhere for their growth opportunities. We cannot afford to be driving jobs out of the Twin Cities.”

To many small towns beyond, Dean told us, addressing short-line rail infrastructure is a matter of economic survival.

His bill, Dean said, is “a practical solution to a practical problem.”


The Free Press of Mankato, April 24

Prince: ‘Minneapolis Sound’ will ring; message will live on

Like bells on Christmas morning, Prince songs were blasting through boomboxes, nightclubs and cafe patios in Minnesota Thursday night and Friday morning. And that’s just the start of what will likely be our decades-long tribute to the coolest Minnesotan.

The Prince “glam” sometimes overshadowed the solid person, loyal friend and dedicated musician and artist behind the 5-foot-2, mixed-race kid with a pompadour from Minneapolis.

But Prince energized the youth of his time with a musical style we could call the “Minneapolis Sound” - a mix of rock, funk, rhythm and blues unique in the music world where everything was starting to sound the same. And the youth liked the music even better when they weren’t young anymore.

Prince had an energy on stage that showed he not only loved his music but believed in it. Add to that a musical talent with guitar playing that rivaled Clapton, and Minnesota had never been so lucky. Prince helped us define a music culture like no one had before.

Prince came from humble beginnings. His parents, who divorced when he was young, were singers and musicians. He attended public high school, and sometimes stayed with friends because his home life was not so like home.

But he played and sang from a very young age. He was not only a talented musician and arranger, but a songwriter who could capture the crazy world of youth. While his lyrics had a dark edge about “getting through life” in the “dearly beloved” introduction to “Let’s Go Crazy,” they left fans more energized than depressed.

He brought recognition to the state like no modern artist, with his Paisley Park recording studio in Chanhassen and the film “Purple Rain” made in Minneapolis. His “Minneapolis Sound” won him Grammys and an Oscar. He didn’t treat his Minnesota roots like a footnote when he became famous. Rather, he celebrated Minneapolis and its struggle to eventually embrace these multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-sexual themes brought up in his music.

Unassuming, yet fiercely independent, Prince reflected the neighborhood from which he came. He was not in need of the spotlight or the megaphone. He let his music speak for him. But he also saw the absurd inequality in the music industry. And for that he let his symbol, guitar and facepaint speak.

Prince. The coolest Minnesotan who made a difference. We’ll miss him.

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