- Associated Press - Monday, April 24, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 21

Edina is on a smart track to raise smoking age to 21

Despite the health risks, expense and, yes, the smell, more than 40 million Americans still smoke cigarettes. Nine out of 10 got hooked as teens, finding out only later how insidious and tenacious nicotine addiction is.

That’s why the growing national movement to push the legal purchase age for tobacco products to 21 is so critical. In Minnesota, Edina is on the front line of that fight, with City Council members on track to make their city the first in the state to raise the legal age.

Predictably, that has also made them the target of those who bring all the usual criticisms. Edina officials should persevere and, when a final vote comes up on May 2, add the city to the list of more than 200 jurisdictions across the country that have adopted the higher standard. Among those are New York City, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City and even the states of California and Hawaii.

Does it make a difference? Take a look at Needham, Massachusetts, which adopted 21 as a limit in 2005. A decade of tracking showed that smoking among young people in that city dropped by 50 percent. High schoolers in Needham are three times less likely to start smoking than their U.S. counterparts.

The battle to change attitudes about smoking has not been easy, and this country has come a long way from the time when it was acceptable to light up in restaurants, offices, elevators and even airplanes.

The next frontier is to nip smoking before it starts - in adolescence. Smoking rates continue to decline across the country, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that every day another 3,200 Americans 18 or younger try their first cigarette. Statistics show that three out of four who smoke in high school will go on to become regular adult smokers.

Some Minnesota students have actually lobbied the Legislature, asking for the higher age limit. Hundreds of students came to the Capitol in February, seeking to raise the legal age from 18 to 21.

There are those - the tobacco industry among them - who try to cast this as a freedom-of-choice issue. It’s not. This is a health issue, pure and simple. As with any addictive substance, adolescents are more susceptible, and suffer graver effects, because the human brain continues developing through the early 20s. That gives society a strong public interest in guarding against exposure to substances that can result in costly and dangerous addictions. A report commissioned by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota this year showed that smoking kills more than 6,300 Minnesotans a year and racks up $3.19 billion in excess medical costs. The economic burden amounts to $593 for every man, woman and child in this state.

This is not a freedom issue because once their decisionmaking capabilities are developed, a 21-year-old will find no legal barriers should they chose to smoke. But research shows that most of them won’t. They’ve wised up by then.

Let’s give them that chance.


St. Cloud Times, April 22

Despite Constitution, legislators attack environment

In the past 60-plus years, Minnesotans have been asked five times through constitutional amendments if and how much they value the state’s natural resources. Every time their answer has been loud and clear and the same: Yes, a lot!

Yes, we want to establish (and financially sustain) a Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Yes, we want to guarantee our right to hunt and fish. And most recently, yes, we will even raise our own taxes for 25 years to protect water resources, enhance natural habitat and support parks and trails.

The collective message to legislators is crystal clear: Preserving and protecting Mother Nature is a - perhaps even the - top Minnesota priority.

That’s why it’s both puzzling and stunning so many legislative proposals this session are directly contrary to that priority.

Obvious attacks

Make no mistake. Proposals rooted solidly in Republican House and Senate majorities undoubtedly aim to weaken, even remove, scores of rules, regulations, public-input processes and funding put in place to uphold the very values Minnesotans have placed through the state Constitution on the state’s natural resources. Among the easy-to-see examples:

- Weaken water quality standards. A multitude of proposals eat way at measures improving water quality. They come even though at least 40 percent of the state’s waterways fail to meet water quality standards because of pollution. And, again, they stand squarely against what voters approved in the 2008 Legacy Amendment, which has allowed $759 million in public money to be spent addressing water quality.

- Use courts, not science. As MinnPost recently noted, part of the attack on water quality standards includes taking key decisions out of the hands of scientists and giving them to judges in courtrooms. Yes, judges are very smart. But they are not experts in scientific fields. Nor are most scientists’ jobs dependent on re-election.

- Repeal the buffer law. This measure - passed in 2015, amended last session and moving toward implementation - aims to protect resources by requiring natural buffer strips between farmland and water sources. Think ditches, creeks, wetlands, etc. What’s needed with this law is reasonable accommodation, not a complete repeal nor a one-size-fits-all solution.

- Mess with Legacy Amendment funds. Voters approved these sales tax funds for clean air, water and land, helping parks and trails, and cultural amenities. Legislators this session, though, don’t seem to care. Proposals seek to do everything from raid the funds for road projects to override the process used to decide how and where funds are spent.

- Put profits above protections, public input and transparency. One proposal (courtesy of Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud) allows mining and industrial permit applications to be fast tracked. Really? A majority of voters are constitutionally steadfast on a clean environment yet lawmakers want to fast-track permits for operations that don’t just take nonrenewable resources, but can scar the land and pose pollution risks for centuries?

Insiders Only

Another proposal makes it easier to double the size of a proposed feedlot before an environmental assessment is required. Yet another keeps certain parts of environmental assessments private. Plus, there’s apparent disdain for everything from protecting pollinators to acquiring more public land and public access to waterways.

Indirect attacks

The intent at the Legislature to reject voters’ constitutional mandate to protect and sustain natural resources runs much deeper than direct legislation.

Despite a $1.6 billion surplus, Republican majorities are touting budget proposals that cut funds to the Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and others.

There also is a push to curb or even eliminate the Environmental Quality Board, which for almost a half-century has served as a center point for managing water resources while ensuring the public has a voice in those issues. Could that board be reformed or made better? Probably. Should it be neutered or eliminated? No.

And then there is this: Powerful groups representing hunters and anglers are urging legislators to raise their own license fees a minimal amount so the state has the resources to ensure they have a good experience when they pursue their constitutional right to hunt and fish.

Republican leadership, apparently oblivious to those five constitutional amendments, is having none of it. Instead, they’re trying to use that grassroots push as political leverage in crafting the DNR’s budget.

What’s it going to take to show these legislators Minnesotans value - and are willing to pay for - clean air, water and land?

We’d say a constitutional amendment. But that’s already been done - five different times! - and these legislators apparently don’t think those votes matter.


Post-Bulletin, April 24

Despite winter, Minnesota can offer more for retirees

Dear Minnesota,

Don’t beat yourself up if you come across a recent story in the Kiplinger personal finance website, because - spoiler alert - you were ranked the 15th worst state for people to retire to.

We know, we know. How can you have all these lakes and still rank so low? Well, the folks at Kiplinger have a point about your finances. They cited above-average living expenses, below-average incomes, taxable Social Security benefits and taxable military, government, and private pensions. Oh yeah, and higher-than-average sales and income taxes.

You have your bright spots, too, though, Minnesota. The article says you’re good for health-focused retirees; it cites the Milken Institute, which ranked you the third-healthiest state in the union for seniors. We’re pleased to note that Rochester, with its myriad medical facilities, helped nudge that ranking.

Minnesota, you have a lot to be proud of, but there are plenty of other reasons why you may not be the very best place for aging bodies to come to rest. Here are some from a local’s perspective:

Winter: Must we elaborate? Brutal temps, frigid winds, icy roads. Shoveling, salting, falling, shivering, cursing because the plow blocked your driveway.

Mosquitoes: Your 10,000 lakes are a reason to endure winter, true. They also happen to be spawning territory for countless buzzing vampires that awaken each summer to inflict bouts of itching, scratching, bleeding and slapping.

Too-long goodbyes: These are your twilight years - why waste them on overly long Minnesota goodbyes? You should spend your time learning new things, applying mastered skills, and passing on love to the next generation, not making promises to meet again that you may not be able to keep.

Minnesota niceness: By the time you reach retirement age, you know fakeness when you see it. Why sugarcoat your words? Let them out and let disagreements resolve fully, rather than fester in whispered form for years.

Money: Kiplinger has a point. Why would anyone move to a state that taxes Social Security benefits? (Minnesota is one of 13 states that do, including North Dakota and Montana.) Wasn’t that money already taken out of a paycheck from your distant past? Sometimes, enough really is enough.

That said - family, friends and the familiarity of home win out over the fine points of pensions, taxes and weather for many of us, so Minnesota, please focus on how to make the state more attractive for people to enjoy a glorious retirement here.

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