- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2020

The Free Press of Mankato, Jan. 19

Nitrates: Soft solution to a serious problem

Why it matters: Cleanup of Minnesota’s polluted waterways should be a priority that goes beyond parochial interests.

While state leaders have finally addressed the serious problem of nitrates in drinking water, the solutions seem soft and include loopholes that will likely leak pollution.

After several years of debate, Minnesota’s Groundwater Protection rule will be implemented this year. It restricts farmers from applying nitrogen fertilizer in the fall where it has the biggest risk of contaminating water supplies, wells and waterways.

Nitrates are a risk to human health, can cause cancer and in infants can cause “blue baby syndrome.”

The Department of Agriculture has created a map of the state where the restriction will be in place. Most of the restricted areas are north central Minnesota and a wide swath along the state’s border with Wisconsin from the Twin Cities to the Iowa border. Restricted areas in south central Minnesota include land along the Minnesota River and significant portions of Brown County.

Those targeted areas are considered more susceptible to nitrate contamination as the soils are more prone to leaching.

Farmers initially fought the initiative but later realized that everyone needs to have clean and safe drinking water and have been more receptive to the rules and implementing best practices for nitrogen management.

But enforcement will be nearly non-existent. There will be no tracking of when farmers are applying fertilizer and the system seems dependent on farmers’ good faith to follow the rules.

Environmentalists also believe the rule is only a move in the “right direction” but falls short in many ways. The Environmental Working Group released a report this month showing one in eight Minnesotans, about 500,000 people, get water from a source contaminated with dangerous levels of nitrates.

The final rule on nitrates doesn’t include restrictions on manure application, which is often used by farmers as a source of nitrogen. The area covered by the rules is also only about 13% of the farmland in the state, and it doesn’t cover land around private wells where contamination can occur, according to Anne Weir Schechinger, senior economic analyst with the EWG.

The “voluntary” system of compliance will eventually give way to more mandates. That’s good news. We also hope enforcement mechanisms can be tightened. The Department of Agriculture should also ensure farmers get education and training on best practices.


Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jan. 17

A new plan to attack Minnesota’s unacceptable achievement gap

There are potential pitfalls, but Page and Kashkari have changed the debate with new proposal.

Could changing Minnesota’s Constitution help solve the state’s persistent achievement gap in K-12 education?

A pair of respected state leaders and a coalition of other groups think it can. It’s a well-intentioned effort that merits more discussion. The existing language on education could be stronger, but any change should preserve current rights and avoid encouraging more lawsuits and politicization of the courts.

Retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari want to change the state’s Constitution to guarantee the right to a quality public education for all. They’ve been working together in search of solutions to the state’s wide disparities in academic achievement between students of color and lower-income students and their white and higher-income peers as outlined in a recent Federal Reserve report.

In short, Page and Kashkari seek to make education an undeniable, fundamental civil right. They believe doing so would force the state and school districts to pursue effective strategies to close Minnesota’s achievement disparities.

Page and Kashkari propose replacing Minnesota’s current constitutional language on education, which was written in 1857 and calls for the state to provide a “general and uniform system of public schools.” It also says the Legislature “shall make such provision by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

Over the years in education equity cases, the state Supreme Court has interpreted the existing constitutional clause to mean that students have a fundamental right to an adequate education. But that’s not good enough, Page and Kashkari argue.

Their proposed amendment would guarantee that “all children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society, as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state. It is a paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.’’

Page and Kashkari, who met with the Star Tribune Editorial Board last week, aren’t proposing specific policy changes, and they leave “quality” to be defined by the people of Minnesota through their elected representatives. The constitutional change, they say, would be both carrot and stick. It would give all kids the right to a quality education as measured by the state. And if that’s not done, it gives families greater legal recourse.

The state’s major teachers union, Education Minnesota, opposes the change, saying it would pave the way for more lawsuits and more voucher programs. (Uniformity clauses have served as barriers against vouchers to private schools in the past). The union also argues that the change would remove the clear obligation of the Legislature to fund public education and hold schools and educators responsible for outcomes beyond their control. Academic success, they say, has always been the result of good schools, supportive families and healthy communities.

Yet at a recent forum to discuss the proposed change, political, community, business and education leaders were receptive to working together to develop a broad base of support. The Legislature would need to approve legislation putting the constitutional change on the ballot in the form of an amendment.

Page acknowledged that he’s fearful the new language could politicize the courts. He and Kashkari said they hoped instead that the new language would break “logjams” that stand in the way of reform needed to close achievement gaps.

Minnesotans should applaud Page and Kashkari for their work, and join in the discussion of how best to create equitable educational opportunity for all kids.


St. Cloud Times, Jan. 24

Bonding bill must fund critical infrastructure ahead of fun stuff

With the 2020 Minnesota legislative session set to convene Feb. 11, it’s good that Gov. Tim Walz is putting forth a detailed bonding proposal. After all, legislative tradition in even-numbered years (also known as election years … ahem) dictates the Legislature and governor draft and pass a bonding bill.

The DFL governor’s $2.03 billion proposal coupled with about $600 million worth of projects funded by other sources certainly gives legislators - and all Minnesotans - a lot to ponder until regular-session adjournment May 18.

Not surprisingly, Republican legislative leaders have quickly labeled Walz’s proposal as too expensive. While they are not necessarily wrong, they should follow up that criticism soon with their own detailed proposal.

Minnesota voters deserve that kind of transparency. Remember, though, legislative tradition also dictates a final bonding bill seldom comes fully into public view until the last days, even hours, of a session.

With that in mind, there is one guiding principle legislators and the governor should apply as they wheel-and-deal their way to a final proposal: Focus on critical infrastructure.

Things like sewer pipes and railroad crossings certainly are not as sexy as community centers and ice arenas, but the truth is they are much more important to not just the recipient communities, but to preserving resources and protecting all Minnesotans.

That’s why requests for state aid aimed at maintaining or replacing such infrastructure should be top priority - especially for outstate communities where residential growth is not enough (or nonexistent) to fully fund such projects.

Look no farther than the city of Foley, which sought $10 million to help cover $22 million worth of wastewater upgrades, including connecting Foley to St. Cloud’s sewage treatment system.

The governor said no to this and many other similar requests from outstate cities ranging from Melrose to Buhl.

Yet his proposal spends $5 million on a Litchfield community center, $8.4 million on snow-making equipment at Giants Ridge, $9.5 million on an aquatics center in Moorhead and $15 million on a community center for Plymouth, a fast-growing Twin Cities suburb.

While worthy and of benefit to those communities, how are any of those projects more critical than fixing outdated or ailing wastewater plants?

And, yes, that same logic applies to local projects like the $12.15 million Walz wants to provide for a $24 million upgrade of the Municipal Athletic Complex or $4 million for St. Joseph’s $16 million Jacob Wetterling Recreation Center. We’d like to see those projects succeed, but first things first.

The governor says his plan spends $631 million on preserving state assets (think buildings) and balances choices with 22% of his projects being outside the Twin Cities, 27% in the Cities and 51% “having a statewide impact.”

Interestingly, he puts comparatively small amounts of bonding and other funds toward transportation - noting the Legislature last session rejected his 20-cents-gallon gas tax increase and stressing now it must find another solution instead of simply ignoring those funding challenges.

And to his credit, Walz fully funds the $150 million request from Minnesota State for preserving and improving its campuses. And he puts $20 million toward $600 million worth of deferred maintenance for Department of Corrections facilities.

Sill, with so many needs for so many projects critical to fundamental public services across the state, it’s hard to grasp why about half of his bonding bill pays for projects that are more about recreation, entertainment and tourism than basic infrastructure.

Knowing that - and hearing Republican leaders talk about a proposal worth half this much - it certainly will be interesting to see how the Legislature reaches the three-fifths super-majority required to pass borrowing bills.

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