- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 25

U.S. Senate Republicans breathe life into health reforms that deserved to die

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell kicked off Tuesday’s debate on the Republican health reform plan by promising “We can do better than Obamacare.” It’s only fair that consumers and patients in Minnesota and elsewhere hold the Senate majority leader from Kentucky - and his party - to his word as debate barrels forward in Congress over plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Will the GOP plan lower monthly premiums for health insurance? Will it lower deductibles that force policyholders to shell out thousands of dollars before coverage kicks in? Will the plan ensure affordable coverage for those with serious medical conditions, expand the number of plans to choose from, and strengthen Medicaid for kids, the elderly and the disabled?

This is what it means to do “better than Obamacare,” and there shouldn’t be any dispute about that. Health reform ought to serve consumers, not political needs. On Tuesday, Republicans selfishly cast aside this responsibility with a vote that breathed new life into their party’s secretive, shapeshifting reforms.

Calls to improve the legislation do not change this ugly truth: GOP reforms do the opposite of McConnell’s promise. Whether it’s a pared-down “skinny repeal” or a full replacement, the main planks of the party plans remain in play - deep cuts to Medicaid, reckless regulatory rollbacks or reduced aid to pay premiums - despite damning evidence that these “solutions” are anything but.

Multiple analyses from the Congressional Budget Office have concluded that GOP reforms will generally increase premiums (especially for older people), hike deductibles, result in fewer insurers selling individual plans and pull at least $772 billion out of Medicaid by 2026. Reducing health care spending by $1 trillion over 10 years has consequences. Adding back piecemeal sums of money, such as $45 billion for opioid addiction, cannot make up for that.

It’s pure fantasy that the free market will make these painful impacts disappear. Insurers have already cited uncertainty created by the GOP reform roller coaster for steep rate hikes in 2018. A recent Senate push to remove a waiting period for those who go without coverage will further destabilize the marketplace. Insurance doesn’t work when people game the system by waiting until they are sick to buy coverage. Failing to penalize this will scare off more insurers from offering plans in the individual market.

Tuesday’s vote does not guarantee the GOP plan’s passage. A final bill likely will have to clear both congressional chambers. Minnesota’s three Republican House members - Erik Paulsen, Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis - already voted “yes” on the original House health bill despite objections from constituents and state officials worried about deep federal funding cuts to health services. Another “yes” vote would deepen the trio’s ownership of the real harm the GOP reforms would cause.

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Mankato Free Press, July 25

Increased nitrates put more demand on aquifers

In a state rich in water resources, there haven’t been a lot of worries about water supplies.

But in recent years the Department of Natural Resources, cities and others have raised alarms about the overuse of deep aquifers and about pollution dangers to surface water.

Hundreds of feet below southern Minnesota, the Mount Simon aquifer provides drinking water for more than 1 million area residents, including Mankato. As a recent MPR story noted, that aquifer has dropped by as much as 200 feet in some areas since pioneer settlement times.

While there’s no danger of the aquifer drying up, officials worry about the growing use of the aquifer to provide drinking water and water for watering lawns and crops.

Mankato has long aimed to extract a limited supply of water from Mount Simon, using about 25 percent of its total and relying on shallow wells near the Blue Earth and Minnesota rivers for the majority of its drinking water.

Those wells draw water from just a few dozen feet below the rivers.

But in recent years nitrate levels in the rivers means the water drawn from those wells contains higher amounts of nitrates. Mixing that water with the pure water from the deep aquifer has been enough to keep overall nitrate levels in drinking water at a safe level. But with those rising nitrate levels in rivers, cities such as Mankato may either have to take more aquifer water or build an expensive nitrate-filtering plant.

Fortunately the state has been paying more attention to the long-term health of deep aquifers. A 1989 law restricts the number of new Mount Simon wells that can be dug. In north-central and northern Minnesota, where some aquifers are more fragile, the DNR has been limiting new wells used to irrigate cropland. That’s a necessary move. While crops are a valuable part of the state’s economy, it is irresponsible to grow them in places and soil types that require heavy irrigation for them to survive.

But more attention needs to be paid to rising nitrate levels in rivers and lakes. That problem not only puts greater demand on water from deep aquifers but also causes algae growth in rivers and lakes that can destroy aquatic life.

Nitrates come from fertilizer that runs into the rivers and lakes, as well as from outdated individual septic systems.

City residents have a role in reducing the amount of grass clippings and fertilizer runoff from their lawns that go down storm sewers and end up in the rivers or lakes. And cities should continue their efforts to build more holding ponds that slow water runoff and allow pollutants to settle out of runoff water before it goes into rivers and lakes.

But scientific research shows a large amount of the nitrogen is caused by the increase in more efficient farmland drainage systems. The network of underground field tiles quickly sends water from millions of acres of farmland into ditches that flow into area rivers. That drainage water contains fertilizer from fields. But the increase in drainage also makes rivers rise very high, very fast. That causes dirt from river banks to erode into the river, carrying with it a lot of naturally occurring nitrogen that used to be held in the stream bank.

While increased rainfall amounts in recent years contribute to the erratic rise in rivers, scientists have found the increased precipitation has a relatively small impact on the rising rivers compared to the increased flow from farm drainage.

For the safety of drinking water, the future of aquifers and the health of rivers and lakes, the state and federal governments, city residents and farm organizations need to do more to address the nitrate problems.

Communities such as Lake Crystal have done a good job at educating residents to keep grass clippings and leaves from getting into storm drains. Other cities should do likewise. And there are farm drainage designs that do more to slow the release of water to rivers. Those systems can require more land to be used to store water on the surface and can be more expensive. Programs to provide financial assistance to farmers to improve their drainage systems as well as tighter requirements on drainage systems are in order.

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Post Bulletin, July 24

Public is right to be outraged by errors that kill

Justine Damond “didn’t have to die.”

Those words by Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau on Thursday - her first since returning to work five days after one of her officers shot and killed an unarmed woman - were outrageous. During her years as chief, Harteau frequently had a tin ear for how her words and actions were perceived, but her decision not to return immediately while the killing of Damond became an international incident apparently says it all.

Harteau resigned late Friday after Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges demanded it - the chief made no reference to that in her resignation letter, instead referring to a moment of “deep reflection” - but her departure won’t soon undo the damage done to the community’s trust and confidence that the Minneapolis police are truly there to protect and serve.

The chief made her statement five days after Damond, a 40-year-old Australia native who was to be married in about a month, was shot and killed by police on July 15. The shooting made news around the world, for many reasons, and by the time the chief returned from vaguely explained personal time off to address the crisis, the world already knew that “this should not have happened,” as Harteau went on to say.

What we don’t know are the basic facts about this latest officer-involved shooting. It took two days for authorities to release an incomplete account of what happened, and it was only when one of the officers who responded was interviewed by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that a somewhat fuller picture emerged.

It goes without saying that every officer-involved shooting is different. The setting, circumstances, people involved, media attention, the public reaction - there’s no comparing the killings of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile and Justine Damond in any meaningful way, other than to say all are tragedies, all could have been averted and that justice must be done for the victims.

Damond was simply being a good citizen. She called 911 late that night to have police check out what sounded like a possible assault in the alley behind her home, in a quiet, well-kept Minneapolis neighborhood. A half-hour later, she was dead, shot by a relatively inexperienced police officer for reasons unknown.

The officer, Mohamed Noor, hasn’t made a public statement and has declined to be interviewed by the BCA. That’s baffling to many people, and one reason we know so little about what happened, but there are others. The officer who was driving the squad car, Matthew Harrity, was interviewed and his account has been made public, but neither officer had their body cams activated, nor was the dashboard cam. Those were critical errors of judgment and reason for the city and state, as Gov. Mark Dayton has said, to review implementation of camera policies.

Ten days after the killing, we know only that Noor fired the shot that killed Damond, but not how or why. Did he panic? Was he startled by the “loud noise” that Harrity, also an inexperienced officer, said was heard just before they encountered Damond in the alley? Was it an accident?

We don’t know and perhaps won’t know for weeks or months. Noor can be fired if he doesn’t talk to police investigators, but otherwise it’s up to the Hennepin County attorney and perhaps a civil court to find out why he fired the gun.

That’s unacceptable. The officer has constitutional rights not to incriminate himself, and the police and prosecutors clearly don’t want to compromise any criminal case that may be brought. But the public has a right to know in a more timely way what happened in that alley on July 15. This incident goes to the heart of the public’s trust in police, and it’s not enough for the police chief to say, five days after the fact, that “this should not have happened.”

The chief, in her statement Thursday, claimed to know enough about the incident to say it wasn’t the result of a failure of training or of hiring. “This is about an individual officer’s actions. It is not about race or ethnicity,” she said. “We have a very robust training and hiring process. This officer completed that training very well, just like every officer. He was very suited to be on the street.”

It’s impossible to know whether any of that is true. Hopefully we’ll know eventually, but the police, prosecutors and BCA deserve all the criticism they’re getting for the limited and lagging public information that’s been released.

There are reasons why this incident became an international story, chief among them how bizarre and unexplained it is. There were no other weapons, no violence or chaos at the scene, one officer apparently could have shot the other - and the victim had a powerful, compelling personal story, with made-for-TV hooks.

This much is clear, from what authorities have said: Damond was killed by police for no reason. She’s not the first nor the last victim of whom that could be said. It’s our job, in the news media and as citizens, to say this has to stop.

More cops, more equipment, more body cams and fail-safe policies, better hiring and training, more community outreach, more aggressive management and discipline - whatever it takes, the public should demand it.

Police officers have incredibly difficult and dangerous jobs, and in potentially lethal situations an officer has to decide whether it’s better to be judged by 12 people or carried by six. It’s a tough job, but there’s no margin for error when people’s lives are at stake.

The public is right to be outraged and intolerant of errors that kill.


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