- Associated Press - Monday, April 16, 2018

Post Bulletin, April 14

Nice theory, but eminent domain is not an option

A lot of interesting and potentially positive ideas have been floated as ways for Albert Lea to deal with Mayo Clinic Health System’s plan to move inpatient hospital care from there to Austin.

The notion of the city and/or county using eminent domain to keep Mayo from doing it isn’t one of them.

The notion has been kicked around since last summer, not long after MCHS announced, in a ham-handed way, that it would move its roughly 20 inpatient hospital beds from the medical center in Albert Lea to Austin, while transferring other services to Albert Lea. MCHS says it remains committed to investing and growing in Albert Lea and it will keep a 24-7 emergency room.

But some patients, union members and public officials have expressed outrage for almost a year now, and what was described last June as Freeborn County’s “nuclear option” for keeping Mayo from making the change - eminent domain - has been flirted with ever since.

In February, the Save Our Hospital group hosted a Hamline University professor, David Schultz, to talk about how that would work. According to a story in the Albert Lea Tribune, Schultz said local government potentially could use eminent domain to stop Mayo dead in its tracks.

Schultz said the city and/or county “would be responsible for paying just compensation for the property and would need to have a valid public use,” according to the Tribune - and the importance of keeping inpatient hospital care in Albert Lea “is clearly a valid public use,” he was quoted as saying. “You’re not going to get a single judge in the state of Minnesota to second-guess you on that one,” he said.

That’s a bold statement, and it was red meat to Mayo opponents and elected officials. A few days later, the Freeborn County Board asked the county attorney to take a close look at the possibility, the Tribune said. Mayor Vern Rasmussen told the Post Bulletin Tuesday that the city council had a closed-door meeting on the topic Monday

How would this work? The city and/or county would invoke state law and take Mayo’s property, paying tens of millions of dollars for it, and then find a new company to operate it. Mayo has made it crystal clear that it has no interest in selling the Albert Lea medical center - it’s committed to investing millions of dollars more in Albert Lea, as it has for more than 20 years. So if the city and county were to pursue this, it would be a long, luxurious feast for attorneys.

By and large, Americans aren’t big fans of eminent domain. A government “taking” of private property for a road project or other high-priority public purpose is a last resort. It’s generally a bitter one for all concerned.

The Post Bulletin contacted Schultz, who’s a professor of political science at Hamline, and he said, “In general, I have not offered specific legal advice to the (Save Our Hospital) group. My talk to them has been to say that in general, there is broad case law that allows for the taking of private property (including a business) for a valid public use.”

He was contacted by someone from Save Our Hospital several months ago, he said, and he offered to talk about rural health care issues as well as eminent domain.

“There are, of course, many complicated issues surrounding a ‘taking’ here, including some state law issues, coming up with the just compensation for the taking, finding another entity to run the facility and staffing it. All of these points might mitigate against the eminent domain option, but still in theory, eminent domain is one factor to consider and might be a viable bargaining tool with Mayo.”

Yes, in theory, it’s possible. But we’ll go out on a limb and say there’s no way on Earth the city of Albert Lea or Freeborn County will seize Mayo’s medical center in Albert Lea. City and county taxpayers wouldn’t stand for putting tens of millions of dollars at risk, not to mention a few millions spent here and there for attorneys, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone in leadership in Albert Lea thinks eminent domain is a real option, or even an appropriate theory.

As Schultz indicated, this so-called “nuclear option” is more about having a bargaining tool. If that’s the case, it’s not a very good one.

As we’ve commented in the past, Mayo Clinic Health System badly mishandled the transition plans in Albert Lea and Austin - it wasn’t just a failure to communicate, it was a failure to involve the community in a meaningful way. As we’ve also said, we don’t see why at least a delay in the transition is impossible.

But no one’s interests are served by threatening something as absurd as the city or county “taking” Mayo’s property.


Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 13

Seniors who depend on Medicare, Social Security need protection

A heads-up to basically everybody - those with an elderly loved one depending on Medicare and Social Security or those planning to draw upon these retirement programs down the road. The code words Congress uses to debate these programs’ future has changed.

In 2011, as Congress wrangled over a so-called “Grand Bargain” to balance the nation’s budget, the preferred term was “entitlement programs.” But as a Senate Committee on the Budget hearing made clear last week, two new appellations have emerged - “mandatory spending” and “autopilot programs.” That’s unfortunate, because few people other than federal budget wonks rapidly grasp that these refer to Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, all three of which form a vital safety net to provide health care to seniors and protect them from impoverishment.

For those wanting to safeguard these programs, this is a moment to be vigilant and vocal. After a grim new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report projected substantial increases in deficit spending for at least the next decade, there are understandable concerns about the amount of red ink the nation is running. These programs’ size - Medicare’s annual spending topped $672 billion in 2016, for example - coupled with conservatives’ discomfort with social insurance, make them a tempting cost-cutting target for congressional Republican majorities.

But even a cursory read of the CBO report makes clear how disingenuous it is to cite the analysis as immediate justification for cuts like these. The report, which details the changes in the budget outlook since last summer, provides ample evidence that these programs are not the cause of the deteriorating fiscal outlook detailed by the agency.

“Of the $1.5 trillion in additional debt that the CBO thinks is coming over the next 10 years compared to its previous projections, absolutely none of it comes from growth in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid,” said Michael Linden, a federal budget expert and fellow at the nonpartisan, New York-based Roosevelt Institute. “To the extent that people are worried about deficits and debt in this CBO report, tax cuts are the primary culprit.”

The tax cuts Linden refers to are those in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in December by Congress. The package included permanent cuts in corporate rates and temporary reductions for individual taxpayers. The CBO report is the first from this respected agency since the cuts passed. The report also takes into consideration two spending bills passed this year.

The CBO’s conclusions undercut promises made last year by the Trump administration that the tax cuts would pay for themselves. Instead, the CBO projects cumulative deficit spending for 2018-2027 that is more than $1.5 trillion larger than the $10.1 trillion it projected last June. And yes, the agency’s findings take into account the economic growth the CBO says the tax cuts will spur. The additional economic activity won’t even come close to balancing the lost revenue.

The Senate Budget Committee hearing on Wednesday understandably sounded the alarm on the rising red ink, which is where the new “mandatory spending” terminology surfaced. To be fair, the CBO report also raised concerns about the growing financial pressure from these programs as the population ages.

But these concerns are nothing new. Simpson-Bowles and other debt plans debated earlier this decade put a spotlight on this. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has long supported serious efforts to build a long-term financial framework that would bring the nation’s spending and revenue into better balance. As part of that, reforms to big social insurance programs must be on the table.

The nation already faced a monumental challenge delivering on its promises to seniors. But Congress recklessly made the problem worse. Undoing this damage must come first before changes to programs seniors depend on.


Mankato Free Press, April 15

Syria: Hold Assad, Russians accountable

The targeted strike Friday at chemical weapons facilities and related locations in Syria were justified and overdue.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has for too long been allowed to inflict terror on the world and brutal violence on his own people. For too long, the United States has tried diplomacy with Russian involvement. It’s time for the U.S. to let these bad actors know we no longer have patience for diplomacy when these horrific weapons are used against innocent people, women and children.

There is no longer any reason for diplomacy with, as President Donald Trump says, “animal Assad.”

But this is not a Trump war. The U.S. generals and military brain trust are clearly behind this effort to show Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.

We must remember the context of these attacks. Russia and Assad have in the past promised to do away with their chemical weapons. Clearly, those statements were delaying tactics.

The United States and its allies must do whatever is necessary to destroy Syrian chemical weapons capability. That may involve regime change. We must send a strong message to Putin and Russia as well. The Russians have been backstopping Assad. That cannot continue.

Trump alluded to that unholy coalition, asking who could support the “animal Assad.”

That is the question we should continue to ask. And if the Russians don’t reject Assad’s brutal regime, they should pay a price in relations with this country. Let’s hope the president has realized the futility in his attempt to have friendly relations with Putin.

The U.S. and its allies should continue all efforts to eliminate Assad’s access to chemical weapons. The people of Syria deserve our help.

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