- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

St. Cloud Times, Jan. 7

Keep it simple, politicians

Heading into the opening week of the 2017 Minnesota legislative session, two major (and probably contradictory) story lines were predicted. One was that Gov. Mark Dayton will seek to cement his gubernatorial legacy in this, his last budget-building session. The other was how Republicans, now holding majorities in the House and Senate, would use their power to make their own mark.

As the session enters its second week, a third theme needs to rise above political power plays. Call it KISP - Keep It Simple Politicians.

Keep It Simple Politicians. Craft the next two-year state budget as one that lives within our means. Find a reasonable balance between the taxes the state takes in and what it must spend to keep current programming operating. Be extremely wary of adding new programs. Take the same approach to any talk of big tax breaks, especially those targeted to special interests. And don’t forget there is a state surplus of about $1.4 billion.

Keep It Simple Politicians. Abide by Republican legislative leaders who recently announced they don’t want to put off the biggest decisions until the last minute - and then make those decisions behind closed doors. Transparency is a good thing. Bring more of it to the Capitol, especially for the biggest decisions.

Keep It Simple Politicians. The first challenge to be addressed is finding relief for the comparatively small number of Minnesotans using MNsure for their health insurance and having to absorb huge year-to-year price increases to do so.

Please know this does not mean finding relief for all Minnesotans whose health care costs jumped double-digit percentages since 2016. If anything, that’s a federal challenge. This relief is narrowly targeted to roughly 250,000 Minnesotans (out of 5.5 million) who must use MNsure for coverage because they are self-employed, don’t get coverage from their employer or are not eligible for a government program.

Meanwhile, also use this session to begin planning for the state to move off of MNsure and onto the federal insurance exchange. As this board noted in 2016, enough time and cash has been spent trying to make MNsure work. The state needs to step toward the federal exchange.

Keep It Simple Politicians. Craft a long-term, sustainable transportation funding package that provides $7 billion to $8 billion to begin to help Minnesota’s statewide transportation system catch up to demand, especially in fast-growing regions, as well as maintain existing services statewide.

Republicans and Democrats have agreed for the past few years that such an investment is needed. They’ve disagreed on how to fund it. Dayton and some DFLers want new money via a gas tax increase. Republicans oppose any tax hike and instead want to redirect existing revenues to transportation and look to borrow more.

A minimal, one-time gas tax hike is reasonable. The same goes for redirecting existing revenues as long as legislators clearly identify what state programs will be cut by doing so. That’s something Republicans refused to do for the past two years. Now that they are in charge, they should abide by their own call for more transparency - start with transportation.

Keep It Simple Politicians. Don’t create a massive bonding bill or push through tax breaks targeted at special interests. In short, don’t make this session about creating a legacy or cementing one because it’s your last (or first) time in power. Rather, keep it simple. Give Minnesotans a session that accomplishes the basics in a transparent and timely manner.

Given recent history, that truly would be groundbreaking.


The Free Press of Mankato, Jan. 3

Fund counties, but don’t delay buffer law

Some counties and farmers want the state to delay implementing the buffer law that requires a vegetative strip along most farm drainage ditches and all streams, rivers and lakes.

They say there is too much confusion and questions about details of the law, according to a story by Minnesota Public Radio.

There are tasks that need to be completed by the state, particularly additional funding for counties to oversee the program. But there is no need to delay the important water protection law’s implementation.

The law is not new and many details have been widely available for a long time. Gov. Mark Dayton proposed the law nearly two years ago, it was heavily debated and widely discussed and signed into law in June of 2015.

Many buffer strips have already been put in or work has started on them. Farmers have until November of this year to be in compliance.

Counties were slated to get $10 million in the tax bill so they could oversee and ensure compliance of the buffers in their counties. That tax bill wasn’t signed into law, however, and some counties say they don’t want to be responsible for local enforcement if they don’t have the funding. But the funding was agreed to in both parties and by the governor and there’s not reason to believe the Legislature won’t come through with the money.

Some want to continue debating the law that has already been debated and passed. They argue the state is “taking” land and farmers need to be better compensated for it.

But farmers can enroll the land that will be used for buffers into the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays them an annual fee for putting the land in perennial vegetation.

And the law does not constitute the legal definition of taking or eminent domain in which land is taken by the government for public use, such as building a highway. The buffers remain the property of the landowners and no one can set foot on them without permission. The landowners can get annual compensation by enrolling the land in conservation programs.

Indeed, landowners are restricted in how they can use the buffer strip land, but that is a common and necessary action of government for the public good. It’s the same type of restriction as is put on all property owners who are prevented from building a certain distance from lot lines (setbacks). And it’s similar to sidewalks and boulevards in front of homes and businesses that landowners must mow, shovel and maintain, even though the strip is a public right of way anyone can walk on.

Another issue is the lack of details explaining what “alternative water quality practices” farmers are allowed to use if they don’t want to install a buffer. Some counties say they haven’t gotten enough information on what those alternatives are. The state needs to get more information out and says it will have a list of examples for farmers by this spring.

Like many large programs, there are complications and some details of the buffer law that need to be ironed out. The state needs to provide the funding to counties and to give farmers better details on alternative practices. But there isn’t any reason to delay implementation of the law beyond the end of this year.


Post Bulletin, Jan. 4

Broadband voice needed

The fact that voters opted to replace one of the state’s leading voices for rural broadband doesn’t lessen the need for funding.

The state’s task force on rural broadband has once again pointed to the need for aggressive funding, $110 million over the next two years.

Unfortunately, these recommendations have led to political wrangling rather than being heeded as means to support economic growth in the state. In recent years, former Sen. Matt Schmit has been Southeast Minnesota’s loudest voice on the topic.

We need a local legislator to step up and take his place.

Internet service is quickly becoming as important as electrical connections for people looking to relocate. Newcomers want download speeds that meet or exceed federal standards.

While most Southeast Minnesota counties report 90 percent or more of their homes meet minimal broadband requirements, which are actually below federal definitions, the numbers decrease when looking at established statewide goals. Fewer than 50 percent of Olmsted County households have access to fixed broadband service that meets 2026 goals.

We must find ways to bring those numbers up, if the state intends to be an economic force. Not only are rural connections vital to ensure our rural-based businesses have access to technology needed to be competitive, but the connections also have the potential to spur growth elsewhere.

A 2016 Hudson Institute study noted rural broadband supported more than $100 billion in e-commerce nationally in 2015. That’s people in outlying communities doing business elsewhere. It’s giving local customers and businesses the chance to actively engage in the statewide economy on a daily basis.

The need exists, and the benefits are real. Now, we just need voices to help continue spreading the message.

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