- Associated Press - Monday, September 25, 2017

Mankato Free Press, Sept. 18

‘Disrupting’ public meetings too tricky to define

The Minnesota Supreme Court last week threw out parts of a law few people knew existed.

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The statute is part of a disorderly conduct law that bars people from disturbing public meetings. The case stems from a 2013 City Council meeting in Little Falls where a woman was escorted out and charged with disorderly conduct after she refused to sit in the gallery and held a protest sign. Robin Hensel was later convicted.

Hensel is the type of person many city councils, county boards and school boards across the state deal with. A gadfly who annoys public officials over disagreements they have with local governance.

For elected officials such residents can be frustrating as they try to do their jobs.

And beyond annoyances, elected officials may be anxious about potential violence at a meeting as the level of public discourse in the country deteriorates.

But allowing officials to have someone arrested and charged with disrupting a public meeting, even though they have not threatened violence, is a violation of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court justices ruled the statute was overly broad and could be used in “countless ways” by elected officials who wanted to quiet critics.

Local officials could decide someone is disruptive if they raise their voice at a meeting during a debate or if they bring a sign or wear an offensive T-shirt. That kind of potential restriction against free speech is unacceptable.

As far as the potential for violence at a meeting, elected officials can still use other statutes to deal with people who actually threaten or commit violence or are acting in a way that makes them an imminent threat.

Elected bodies can and do use rules that try to keep meetings orderly, but democracy is often messy and public meetings can at times be raucous. That’s not a crime. Creating laws that violate people’s ability to speak and hold their officials accountable is unacceptable and unconstitutional.

Why it matters:

The state Supreme Court made the right decision in throwing out a law that bars people from disturbing public meetings.


Post Bulletin, Sept. 18

‘Restrained’ Amazon offer is right for Minnesota

At first and even second glance, Minnesota would seem like an ideal location for the headquarters campus that the online retail giant Amazon has announced it intends to build.

Seattle-based Amazon says it wants to build a “second headquarters’” in a metro area of at least 1 million people, with a strong higher education system, access to a tech-savvy workforce and a major international airport. Minnesota checks all those boxes, and a few others, as Gov. Mark Dayton has pointed out.

“We think we have a strong case to make because the first and foremost consideration is the quality of the people they would be able to hire,” Dayton said in announcing the state will submit a bid for the new Amazon complex.

If all the criteria mentioned so far were important, Minnesota would be a prime contender.

However, as we all might guess, it’s likely that Amazon will find the pull of tax breaks, offers of free land, and low- or no-cost infrastructure to be more enticing than so-called quality of life measurements. Amazon has already said financial incentives will be a major factor in its decision.

And you can’t blame Amazon. The company, which appears to have no ceiling to its growth, plans to build a twin of its Seattle headquarters that would eventually employ 50,000 people. More than a few cities and states, especially those with less-than-vibrant economies, want to get in on that kind of potential. All kinds of baubles will be thrown Amazon’s way.

Minnesota, however, plans to submit a “restrained” offer, according to Dayton, and we think that’s the right approach. As the governor pointed out, Minnesota has two home-grown retail giants, Best Buy and Target, that directly compete with Amazon. Between them, the two companies employ 34,000 people in the state. That’s not quite what Amazon is promising, but it is a workforce that is already here, already trained, already on the job - and not subject to the whim of executives seeking huge giveaways.

While Dayton is being prudent, we need look no farther than across the Mississippi River for a different approach. Wisconsin officials have been touting their agreement with Taiwanese tech firm Foxconn to build a major new complex in the Badger State. The plant could employ up to 13,000 people on a 20-million-square-foot campus. To get that plum, Wisconsin had to give Foxconn a $3-billion package of tax breaks. The nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau has determined it will take Wisconsin taxpayers at least 25 years to break even on the deal.

So, let’s welcome Amazon execs with open arms on their sightseeing tour of Minnesota. Let’s talk up our state’s strengths, emphasizing our healthy, competitive economy, well-educated workforce and high quality of life. There’s no need to give away the store.


Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sept. 22

Feds need to clarify whether they’re offering Minnesota a devil’s bargain

Greater flexibility for state health care innovation is at the heart of Republicans’ case for their latest effort at repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. That pitch simply isn’t credible until Tom Price, U.S. secretary of health and human services, clarifies whether he has fully remedied the harm his agency has threatened to inflict on funding for MinnesotaCare - a popular, innovative state-run health program for working families.

MinnesotaCare covers about 90,000 people who make too much to qualify for Medical Assistance but who would still struggle to buy private insurance. Under the Affordable Care Act, state officials tapped into newly available federal dollars to help pay for MinnesotaCare - a move that eased pressure on the state budget while modernizing the program.

But in the past week, Gov. Mark Dayton announced that he was told by Price’s agency that approval for another innovative state health program - one that could cut individual market health insurance premiums by 20 percent - could involve steep cuts to MinnesotaCare. If federal officials approved the consumer aid program and $208 million to help pay for it, the trade-off would be a cut of $369 million in federal support for MinnesotaCare. The net loss would be at least $161 million - a sum that the state can ill afford to lose.

While the connection between the two programs is complicated, the federal funding formula for MinnesotaCare involves the cost of private insurance in the individual market, which serves those who do not get coverage through employers or public programs. State Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, and state officials worked diligently with Price’s agency to ensure that there would be no changes to MinnesotaCare funding if the consumer relief program - known as “reinsurance” - received approval.

After months of assurances, Dayton’s office learned suddenly about a week ago that accepting federal dollars for the program had turned into a devil’s bargain because of the hit to MinnesotaCare. That Price’s agency changed course so suddenly when Minnesota did nothing wrong is disturbing. That’s especially true when the main argument for Graham-Cassidy, the proposed GOP replacement for the ACA, is that it would encourage innovation at the state level.

Minnesota’s reinsurance program exemplifies state innovation. It is one of two states to set up a reinsurance program and it has been lauded nationally for its quick work to keep coverage affordable. Alaska also set up a reinsurance program, and the feds approved it with minimal fuss in July. On Friday, Price’s agency sent a letter to Dayton saying that the reinsurance program proposal - known as a “waiver” - has been approved. That decision had been expected in August.

Regrettably, it is unclear from the letter and Dayton’s account of a phone conversation with Price how the waiver approval will affect MinnesotaCare funding. Our initial take is that MinnesotaCare will suffer. Federal officials referred inquiries to state officials, and state officials were still analyzing the letter late Friday.

The lack of clarity and the last-minute maneuvering by Price’s agency raises troubling questions about his leadership, the agency’s competence and whether the potential cut to MinnesotaCare is punishment because the state took advantage of an ACA opportunity. The secretary, who is embroiled in controversy over his use of private jets, is a prominent opponent of former President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Minnesota ought to be rewarded, not punished, for its pioneering program. The late letter and the agency’s nonanswer on Friday about MinnesotaCare creates the perception that it has something to hide. Price needs to make clear that MinnesotaCare funding will not be cut because the state did the right thing - aiding struggling insurance consumers. Until then, it should be assumed that the Trump administration is not a reliable partner for state health innovation.

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