- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 27

There are hidden costs to delaying Zika funding

Congressional dithering on combating the Zika virus not only leaves Americans at risk, it’s also undermining emergency preparedness across the nation. Lawmakers shouldn’t need another reason to adequately fund the fight against this mosquito-borne disease, but it certainly heightens the urgency for them to act swiftly.

The federal government provides much of the funding relied on by state and local public health agencies to prepare for epidemics and other disasters. But the monthslong fight in Congress over the amount of Zika funding has left federal health officials scrambling to come up with the dollars needed to understand Zika’s unnerving spread and why it can cause a potentially devastating birth defect.

With funding still not forthcoming from Congress, money intended for efforts such as state and local emergency preparedness are now being redirected to the Zika response, according to Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger. So far, roughly $744,000 intended for emergency preparedness in Minnesota has gone to the Zika fight. That has affected the state’s ability to replenish an expiring stockpile of medications, update equipment and hold training exercises. Reprioritizing these funds is certainly understandable, especially when infants are at risk and warmer weather’s arrival elevates the risk of mosquito transmission in the U.S., generally in southern areas. Nevertheless, it is ridiculous that funds for one important public health mission are being siphoned off for another. This is a wealthy nation fully capable of funding both needs.

The fight in Congress also boils down to a false choice about fighting one emerging disease or another. The Obama administration has asked for months for $1.9 billion - the amount disease experts say is needed - to fight Zika. The Senate has approved $1.1 billion. The House seeks $622 million and wants to redirect money dedicated to Ebola containment to Zika. Again, there is no need to choose between the two.

Zika’s emergence also serves as a reminder of how fortunate Minnesota is to have a state Health Department that’s respected worldwide. It’s no surprise that Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, requested that Ehlinger appear with him at a National Press Club speech last week.

It’s important to note that the risk of getting Zika from a mosquito in Minnesota appears to be minimal, though travel to warmer climates remains a hazard. Although one type of mosquito that can carry the virus occasionally has been found in the state, that insect typically has been imported in shipments of such items as tires from warmer areas. It doesn’t fare well in Minnesota winters.

Still, taking personal steps to eradicate the standing water that a variety of mosquitoes breed in remains important. The mosquitoes that do regularly buzz around during a Minnesota summer can carry other serious diseases - among them, the West Nile virus and encephalitis. Zika isn’t the only reason to wear mosquito repellent and take the usual summer safeguards.

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The Free Press of Mankato, May 31

Minnesotans will benefit from new primary system

Defenders of Minnesota’s caucus system describe it as a way for average citizens to meet and not only cast a vote on their preference for who their party’s presidential candidate should be, but to take part in designing their party’s platform.

Those caucuses, run by the political parties, do offer some input on platforms. But for most attendees, their main objective is simply to voice who they support to be their party’s endorsed candidates.

This spring’s caucuses, fueled by massive turnouts, particularly on the Republican side, showed the major flaws with the caucus system. More than 110,000 people attended GOP caucuses, a record-shattering number spurred by the Trump candidacy. Unfortunately for many of those people, they never got to cast a preference vote as they left early, exasperated by lines that stretched on for hours, a lack of ballots and general confusion among those trying to run the caucuses.

The DFL turnout was not as strong, but the same problems plagued their meetings.

Thankfully, the Legislature has recognized the flaws in the caucus system and passed a bill moving the state to a primary system. The bill, signed by the governor, will kick in during the next presidential election in 2020.

A primary will have a number of benefits. People can vote for their party’s candidates at the same familiar polling locations they go to during the general election and be able to cast their vote anytime during the day or evening. And primaries open the door to same-day registration, absentee voting and other flexibility that will allow more people to more easily participate.

It will also give Minnesota voters a more visible place at the campaign table. Nationally, primaries are more effective than caucuses in terms of selecting presidential nominees.

While the caucus has been the standard in Minnesota since the 1950s, the primary system is not new to the state. Minnesota used the primary system through much of the early 20th century.

It’s nice to see it return. Come the next presidential contest, more Minnesotans will more easily be able to influence who their party’s presidential nominee is.

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St. Cloud Times, May 30

Tobacco tax change tops Capitol clunkers

From needlessly spinning wheels in a committee hearing to adding (or deleting) 11th-hour amendments, every Minnesota legislative session generates some real clunkers. The just-concluded 2016 regular session is no exception.

Tobacco tax

As the final hours of the session ticked away, the House inserted into the omnibus tax bill a measure that gives about $32 million in tax breaks to tobacco companies. It does so largely by stopping an automatic annual increase in the state’s tax on packs of cigarettes.

The move surprised many, including Gov. Mark Dayton. He must decide whether to veto the entire tax bill. Signing it will likely make cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products cheaper. Studies show cheaper tobacco can translate into more youths taking up smoking. Nice, huh?

While the proposal has been in play at the Legislature for a couple years, inserting it into one of the most important omnibus bills at the last minute is yet another example of the need to amend legislative process so such surprises can be weeded out.

Real ID mess

“Mission creep” seems an apt description of the mess legislators have made of trying to get Minnesota drivers licenses up to federal Real ID standards.

What started as a debate about whether to comply with big brother melted down in part over an immigration issue. News reports indicate the House proposal includes banning undocumented immigrants from getting driver’s licenses. No such clause is in the Senate proposal.

Both issues are important. Both deserve debate and solutions. But they should have been kept separate.

Body cameras

Body cameras hold the potential to heal the rift between law enforcement agencies and citizens who do not trust them. Unfortunately, the Legislature’s proposal on governing such footage really limits that potential.

Here’s why: The proposal, which Dayton signed on Tuesday, makes most footage private. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports the public can see footage only if an officer in it causes someone substantial bodily harm. Police also have the power to redact parts of the video that offend “common sensibilities.” What?

Still, it could have been worse. Previous drafts allowed police to review footage before writing incident reports. And anyone in a nonpublic video can watch it and choose to make it public.

For the record, half of the six members of the conference committee were veteran law enforcement officers. A fourth has served as an assistant county attorney.


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