- Associated Press - Monday, September 26, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sept. 23

Mississippi River requires agriculture’s help to stay healthy

The latest checkup for Minnesota’s premier aquatic artery - the Mississippi River - was both reassuring and alarming.

Healthier populations of fish, eagles and mussels continue to reflect the river’s gradual recovery from less enlightened eras when it was treated as a convenient garbage dump. But this world-renowned waterway faces pollution threats old and new, according to the landmark State of the River report released this week. If Minnesotans want to leave a river future generations can enjoy and tap for drinking water, greater contributions are needed from individual consumers and, in particular, a powerful state industry - agriculture.

The report is a joint project of the Friends of the Mississippi River advocacy group and the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. It’s the partnership’s second examination of the Mississippi’s run through the metro. Like the first report in 2012, this one provides a valuable public service to the state by breaking down water-quality science into metrics that inform and inspire. An accompanying teacher’s guide also merits wide use in schools.

The report pragmatically recommends everyday steps to improve the river’s health. A new type of pollution highlighted is linked to synthetic fabrics that release plastic fibers that wash down the drain. The concern is if they build up in fish tissue. Choosing natural fabrics helps avoid this.

Practices such as picking up pet waste, reducing salt use on winter sidewalks, and disposing of prescription medications by methods other than flushing them down the toilet are important individual actions, too. One jaw-dropping report datapoint: 73 percent of male smallmouth bass caught in Lake Pepin have reproductive mutations, which may be linked to human drugs in the water.

Costly but critical upgrades to municipal wastewater treatment plants after the 1972 Clean Water Act merit much of the credit for the river’s improved health today. Improvements to these plants still have a role to play in improving river health, but it is a diminishing one because of the good work already done.

Reducing the still significant amount of river pollutants will require much greater assistance from agriculture, an industry exempted from the Clean Water Act. Pollutants such as bacteria from manure spread on fields, and sediment and fertilizer swept downstream, pose serious challenges to the future of the Mississippi and its tributaries.

The conversation about agriculture too often falsely boils down to this: either farmers prosper or we have costly clean-water regulations. While stronger regulations are needed, more market-based policies, such as those that reward farmers for growing runoff-reducing cover crops and perennials, are also valuable and have a shot at passage in this political climate. Minnesota’s new “Working Lands Restoration Program” strikes this valuable middle ground. Policies that strengthen this program and build on its strategy should find ample support in our state.


St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sept. 22

Editorial: Leave dispute between Allina and nurses to Allina and nurses

We respect the nurses who help care for our communities - and we respect their employers, too. When it comes to allocating resources, there’s a necessary tension among the many constituencies of any business, including customers and employees and bosses charged with balancing a multitude of interests.

That tension is best managed and resolved by those who know the business.

Better that Allina and its nurses resolve their differences without elected officials choosing a side and getting in the way.

On Monday, some DFL elected officials, among them some of the highest ranking in state government, picked sides publicly, with a news conference and letter to Allina leadership. The DFL lawmakers included House Minority Leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis and - from St. Paul and the east metro - Reps. Peter Fischer, Sandra Masin, Deputy Minority Leader Erin Murphy and Dan Schoen and Sens. Jim Carlson, Foung Hawj, John Marty and Charles Wiger.

St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert also joined the lawmakers outside Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, saying he was speaking on behalf of “all seven” city council members and Mayor Chris Coleman, “who’ve all walked on the United picket line with these nurses.”

United in St. Paul is among five hospitals affected in the dispute over what Pioneer Press reporting has described as Allina’s desire to move the nurses’ union-only health plan to the one used by the majority of its other employees and executives, among other issues.

Tolbert told the crowd: “If a nurse in the health industry can’t get quality health care from a health care company, we’re all in trouble.”

If there’s evidence that Tolbert’s assertion is anything but hyperbole, it’s not apparent. Setting that aside, the concern we’re raising is about the implied threat in a demonstration by two dozen elected officials.

Some among them have tried before to make laws picking one side over the other during a private labor dispute. In 2010 - in an effort to mandate hospital nurse-to-patient ratios - they acted as if they knew better how to run a hospital than the people who run hospitals.

That time, as this time, the DFLers picked the side of their union supporters.

As for our concern about meddlesome lawmakers, the dispute “still needs to be resolved between the hospitals and the nurses,” Thissen told us.

Lawmakers’ point “is not to mediate the dispute,” he said, noting that the hospitals are private entities, “but they also are public institutions in a very real sense.”

Thissen believes “there is a role to bring public pressure to bear to have the principals sit down in a room and try to work this out.” The parties last met before Labor Day.

Staffing, he notes, continues to be an issue, although it hasn’t received as much notice as other matters in the dispute.

In the years since staffing ratios flared at the Capitol - and in a one-day strike by more than 10,000 nurses against 14 metro hospitals - he and many other lawmakers, Thissen said, “deferred” on the issue, under the impression that the hospitals and nurses would proceed as contractually agreed.

“That hasn’t happened, despite promises from the hospitals,” Thissen said, noting that the 2010 agreement included a provision for committees to allow nurses more input. “Those committees have not really materialized. To the extent they have, they have been kind of straw men that haven’t done anything.”

We got a different perspective from Maribeth Olson, chief nursing officer at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids. “What was outlined in the 2010 contract was that we would continue to have discussions about this. We have continued to have discussions,” she told us. “We have not come to a complete agreement, which is why we continue to talk about this.”

Olson adds that “We don’t believe a mandated, government-involved ratio system allows us to address all the needs of patients and it really becomes purely a numbers component,” which she says is not sufficient for dealing with patients’ complex needs.

Concern about the importance of the dispute in a time of rising health care costs and when “in various sectors working people are struggling” compels Murphy to add her voice, she told us. Murphy, a nurse and former executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association, the union representing those on strike, emphasizes that our hospitals are community assets the public relies on, that they’re regulated by state and federal authorities and also receive public funds.

But so do many other entities in which the long arm of government interference is counterproductive.

Of course, legislators are free to speak their minds on this or any other issue. And they can pick sides if they want. But competition in the marketplace and rule of law are community assets the public relies on, too.

Let Allina and the nurses settle the dispute between Allina and the nurses.


St. Cloud Times, Sept. 25

Dayton must give severance details

With the election only six weeks away, politics is clearly a driving force in the debate about Gov. Mark Dayton’s surprising severance payments to three high-ranking political appointees since 2011.

Politics aside, though, the governor’s decision is highly questionable simply because, as the original APM Reports coverage showed, it’s so vastly inconsistent with how he (and previous governors) have handled similar departures.

That’s why it’s troubling his response Sept. 20 to the St. Paul Pioneer Press was “I made a decision of what I though was appropriate in those three circumstances.” He also was quoted as saying “People have to decide whether they trust my judgment or not,” and when asked if the three were asked to leave, he answered: “I can’t comment legally and I wouldn’t comment morally.”

In the spirit of accountability, though, he should do more to explain what went into his decision to pay about $80,000 in combined severance to former economic development commissioners Mark Phillips and Katie Clark Sieben. He also paid severance to Shelia Wright when she left as director of the Office of Higher Education.

Not only is severance almost unprecedented for this level of appointees, but it certainly should not be awarded if poor performance is the reason for departure. Remember, these positions, while perhaps not as profitable as private-sector work, often are resume-builders and can pay off later in a career. The flip side is, yes, the political nature of the job comes with a higher risk of termination. But neither of those factors is new here.

APM Reports, which is associated with Minnesota Public Radio, provided detailed information that showed such appointees traditionally are not awarded severance upon departure. In fact, the report stated eight other commissioners who left voluntarily during Dayton’s tenure didn’t receive severance. Plus, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans told APM only these three of about 1,000 eligible workers were paid severance.

Also, as APM and the Pioneer Press noted, Dayton’s predecessor Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not do this with his appointees.

All those factors are why Dayton should more fully explain his decisions.

Short of that, the Legislature really has little choice other than to amend state laws to clarify political appointees are not entitled to severance packages.

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