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Exploring the dynamics and power of tribal partisan identities

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 8:20am
Eric Black

Perhaps you’ve noticed that in most developed democracies there are more than two relevant parties. Not here.

Since the emergence of the Republican Party in the Lincoln era (replacing the Whigs as one of the two major parties), every president has been a Republican or a Democrat. And only once (in 1912, when retired Republican President Theodore Roosevelt attempted a comeback and ran as a Bull Moose Progressive and came in second) has any presidential candidate other than a Dem or a Repub even finished in the top nor anywhere near second (the most successful of these, in terms of popular vote, was Ross Perot in 1992, whose 19 percent of the popular vote netted him zero electoral votes).

In no other democracy have the same two parties retained such a stranglehold. Personally, I’m not a big admirer of this ironclad duopoly. I assume most Americans don’t think about it much or about why and how multiple parties are able to thrive more in other democracies or whether this makes the politics better or worse. I probably think about it too much. There’s no perfect system.

But Sunday’s presidential election results from France, following ours of last year, got me thinking about our system — especially about the dynamic between partisanship and identity.

A changing dynamic

Over the recent decades of rising partisanization in America, the degree to which Democrats and Republicans see their party affiliation as a core element of their identity is reflected in a poll question, used since the 1960s, in which Americans were asked if they would be upset if their son or daughter married someone from the “other” party. In 1960, the last year of the bland “I Like Ike” era, only 4 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans said it would bother them.

In 2008, that number increased to 20 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans, according to a poll by YouGov. By 2010, that number had leapt to 33 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

It’s an impressive trendline. While the portion of Americans who said they would be upset if their son or daughter married someone of another race or religion went steadily down over these decades, the portion of Republicans who would be upset to have a Democratic son-or-daughter-in-law went up tenfold and the Dem number went up sevenfold.

And by the way, according to research by Shanto Iyengar, director of Stanford's political communications lab, this feeling had almost nothing to do with a growing positive feeling by partisans toward their own party. It had almost everything to do with growing negative feelings toward the other party.

Consider the possibility, based on all of the above, that as a statement of their own tribalized partisan identity, more and more voters are casting a vote less in favor of their own tribe’s nominee but against the nominee of the enemy tribe.

Comparison with France

Hold that thought and let’s switch to the comparison of the recent elections in France and the United States.

Early last year, more than a few Democrats relished the idea that Donald Trump might win the Republican nomination, because they believed that he would alienate so many “normal” Republicans as to be unelectable. Starting in August, the Clinton campaign ran ads, targeted at Republicans, portraying Trump as so dangerous and so despicable that even loyal Republicans had to break party ranks.

If that strategy had worked, Clinton would have won not only the popular vote but the electoral vote as well. But it didn’t work. According to exit polls, the share of self-identified Republicans who crossed over and voted for Hillary Clinton (8 percent) was the same as the share of Democrats who said they voted for Trump (8 percent).

(I know that many who voted for Trump said they didn’t like him but believed he was better than Clinton. Personally, I think the negative stories about Clinton that so offended her detractors – Benghazi, her email server blunder, etc. – pale in comparison to the scandals, lies, policy incoherence, racism, sexism, predatory business practices, etc., that might have persuaded Republicans to break ranks on Election Day.)

You can dismiss that as my bias, fine. Either way, it fits with the argument I’m making here that tribal partisan identities are very powerful, and more and more Americans feel an increasingly powerful tribal partisanship as part of their identity.)

Now to La Belle France for a moment:

No primaries

For starters, their system of choosing a president is quite different from ours. No primaries. Each party has an internal mechanism of choosing a presidential candidate. In most cases, the party leader who will be the party’s presidential candidate has been the party leader for a while.

The winner this year, President-elect Emmanuel Macron, is unusual in this regard because his party, “En Marche!” is a brand new party, founded by him for the purpose of his presidential bid. Under the French system, the general election, which is the only election, is a two-stage process with all party nominees on the first-round ballot and the top two first-round finishers facing off in a second round.

A couple of obvious points of difference with our system:

They don’t have a year’s worth of elections comparable to our primaries. Supporters of many parties have the chance to vote for their real true first choice in the first round without having to worry about the “wasted vote” argument that applies in U.S. politics, for example to the Green and Libertarian Party voters. And it is essentially guaranteed that the president-elect will have received a majority of the votes in the second and final round, which seems like a good thing for the legitimacy of the new president. Our system guarantees neither a majority nor even a plurality vote winner, and, at present, we have a president who won neither the majority nor a plurality of all votes cast.

11 candidates on ballot

In France this year, 11 candidates, the nominees of 11 parties, were on the ballot in the first round. In round one, seven minor parties divided about 15 percent of the vote (but, as I mentioned above, at least their supporters could vote for them in this round without “wasting” their vote on a hopeless cause, because they would get a chance to cast a meaningful vote on the second round).

The other roughly 85 percent of the total first round vote was divided fairly evenly among the four biggest parties. Macron led the first round with just 24 percent. The vital battle for second place was quite close. The National Front’s Marine Le Pen squeaked into the finals with 21 percent, followed by François Fillon of the center-right “Republican” Party with 20 percent and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (whose socialist-leaning party La France insoumise translates as something like France Unsubmissable) at 19.5 percent.

So those four parties totaled 85 percent of the vote. By a narrow margin, Macron and Le Pen won the right to face off in the final. Everything favored Macron in the finals; he ended up actually exceeding expectations with his landslide 66-34 percent victory.

Those numbers mean that of the roughly 55 percent of voters who voted for neither of the finalists in the first round, more than three-quarters of them voted for Macron. Macron was expected to win, but his margin exceeded expectations. There may be a lot of ways to explain the result, but I want to link up with the rant at the top about the connection between partisanship and “identity.”

Republican identity

In the United States, the majority of votes in the Republican primaries were cast for a candidate other than Donald Trump. Of course, in a big field (17 candidates at one point), winning less than a majority in a field of 17 isn’t an insult to Trump. But given the dynamics of this race, the radical strangeness of Trump’s policy positions, many of which combined falsehoods, incoherence, inconsistency and deviations from Republican orthodoxy, and; considering that many party activists were trying to the very end to find a way to block his nomination, it’s reasonable to assume that many Republicans, at various points during the year, were horrified by the idea of Trump representing their party or as their president.

And yet, as mentioned above, 90 percent of Republicans, many of whom had viewed him with horror a few months earlier, voted for him. Why?

In the spirit of the argument I set up at the top, I would say that some portion of the explanation is that “Republican” is part of their identity, and it’s hard to vote against your identity. And the powerful pull of your political tribal identity will supply some explanation for sticking with your tribe, for minimizing your objections to your tribe’s new chief and maximizing your objections to the chief of the “other” tribe.

France's final round: the dynamics

The same thing might be true in France, but there’s the big difference: The majority of voters in the second round of the French vote were neither members of Tribe Macron nor Tribe Le Pen. Their tribes didn’t have a candidate in the final round and so were freer to take more seriously Le Pen’s disqualifying qualities, the sort-of racism, the sort-of fascism, the radical nature of her statement and policies vis-à-vis immigrants, the Euro and French participation in the European Union. Almost everyone who shared her views on those issues was already in her party and voted for her in both rounds. A relative few, who presumably liked her message but voted for someone else in the first round, switched to her in the second round.

But the “tractor beam” of partisan identity did not exert its powerful pull on those roughly 55 percent of French voters who were aligned with neither Macron’s En Marche! nor Le Pen’s National Front. Free of that incentive to ignore Le Pen’s unsavory qualities, they switched overwhelmingly to the less objectionable Macron.

By the way, that “tractor beam” reference derives from a powerful magnetic force represented in science fiction, and was also a nod to my friend Larry Jacobs, the U of M political scientist, who used the idea of a tractor beam associated with partisan identity way back in May to caution against the idea that Donald Trump was unelectable, back when the unelectability of Trump was conventional wisdom.

3-D printing the way to bionic humans

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 8:18am
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We can’t all live upstream

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 8:00am

I once had the pleasure of working with a man named Phil, who was an avid fisherman. Between work and sleep, he spent most of his time fishing. He was by no means a political activist, but he always wore his signature baseball cap emblazoned with the warning: “We can’t all live upstream.” At that time, Phil was worried about how the nuclear power plant in Red Wing would affect the water and fish around the plant and downstream from it. Others shared his worries, in particular members of the Prairie Island Indian Community just next door.

Colette Hyman

Phil was right to worry: Water discharged from cooling towers at a higher temperature than the normal river water made it harder for fish to survive near these discharge pipes and further downstream. In addition, radioactive tritium discharged into the river from the plant proved dangerous to all aquatic life and to all who use river water. In 2016, concerned about living next door to an aging nuclear power plant and nuclear waste storage facility, the Prairie Island Tribal Council purchased land outside St. Paul to provide for future generations.

Pipeline effects

I am certain that Phil, wherever he is, is just as worried, if not more so, about pipelines planned from northern Minnesota, because the effects could be even worse. Enbridge Energy is planning to replace one of its aged and failing lines (Line 3) with one that would be even bigger and riskier. This pipeline would carry tar sands oil from Canada. When this substance leaks into the water, as it did when Enbridge’s pipeline burst in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2015, tar sands oil, or bitumen, coats the bottom of lakes and rivers and is very expensive and nearly impossible to clean up.

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Enbridge Line 3 would carry, each day, 760,000 gallons of the dirtiest fuel on the planet, through some of the most sensitive lands and waters in northern Minnesota. This pipeline would threaten not only recreational use of the region, including fishing, but critical resources for Ojibwe survival –fish, wild rice, other medicinal and nutritional plants, ceremonial and burial grounds — to which the Ojibwe were guaranteed access by legally binding contracts, i.e. treaties signed with the U.S. government. And guess, what, that pipeline is designed to run right through the headwaters of the Mississippi: There is NO upstream from Enbridge Line 3.

And Enbridge has lots of friends helping to move things along more swiftly: Republican state Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington proposed a rider to the state’s omnibus jobs, energy and appropriations bill that would eliminate the environmental review process and allow Enbridge to start construction to start as early as July. Not surprisingly, the bill, with the Enbridge rider, passed the House on a partisan vote with all Republicans voting in favor. The Senate companion bill is authored by Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona, whose job as deputy majority leader is to whip up support for Republican legislative initiatives. The fate of the bill lies in Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto power.

The black snake

For the Standing Rock Water Protectors, the Dakota Access Pipeline embodies the black snake prophesied by Lakota teachings as bringing widespread devastation when it went underground. Defeating the black snake has become the clarion call of Indigenous activists working to stop the threat of pipelines, including Enbridge Line 3.

We in Minnesota should not be lulled into complacency by a governor willing to wield the veto pen to stop Enbridge. We know that slicing off one head of the many-headed black snake will not stop this destruction of our lands and waters. We must remain vigilant and stand with Water Protectors everywhere to resist the black snake and the greedy corporations profiting from it.

With the Governor’s Fishing Opener just around the corner, it’s a good time to remind him that this long-awaited date on the calendar of every fishing enthusiast in Minnesota is under existential threat right now. But we also have to remember that, really, we all live downstream.

Colette Hyman has lived and worked along Minnesota rivers and lakes since 1979.

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St. Olaf says racist note directed at student was a hoax

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 5:51am
Brian Lambert

Red meat for talk radio. Says Jennifer Brooks and Paul Walsh at the Strib, “A racist threat against a St. Olaf student that touched off campuswide protests and forced the college to cancel classes earlier this month was a hoax, the school revealed Wednesday. A student confessed to writing the note, St. Olaf President David R. Anderson wrote in a message to students. The threat — an anonymous, typewritten note — was ‘fabricated,’ he said, as an apparent ‘strategy to draw attention to concerns about the campus climate.’

$5 million measles. The WCCO-TV story on the outbreak says, “Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger has requested the legislature create a public health response contingency fund to help battle infectious disease outbreaks. On Wednesday, Ehlinger released a statement regarding an immediate need for an emergency fund, citing the recent response to a series of infectious disease outbreaks. … Ehlinger is requesting the legislature create a public health response contingency fund of $5 million to ‘to ensure sufficient resources are available for immediate, life-saving actions to protect Minnesotans from infectious disease outbreaks and other unanticipated public health threats.’”

But dead men don’t pay taxes, do they? Iris Perez at KMSP-TV says, “It’s only been three weeks since Fox 9 brought you the story of Adam Ronning, the Minnesota man who the IRS falsely declared dead for 29 years. Tuesday, thanks to Senator Amy Klobuchar, Ronning received the news he’s waited decades to hear – the issue has been rectified. ‘This was an absurd situation. This constituent was declared dead by the government when he wasn’t. It doesn’t get much worse than that,’ the Senator wrote to Fox 9 in a statement shortly after her office delivered the news.”

Hmmmm. Is someone feeling the shifting tide in his district? The AP reports, “Minnesota GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen is calling for an independent investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election following President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. Paulsen is the only Republican in Minnesota's delegation to do so. In a statement, he says the Comey firing amidst the investigation into Russian meddling is ‘extraordinary.’ Paulsen says it calls for an independent investigation that American people can trust. Paulsen faces a difficult re-election fight in a swing district in Minneapolis' western suburbs.” 

I’d go for 50. Stribber Stephen Montemayor reports: “A drug kingpin whose organization trafficked large quantities of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and prescription narcotics through two Minnesota Indian reservations was sentenced Wednesday to 25 years in federal prison. Omar Sharif Beasley, 39, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in December 2015 and admitted to leading a distribution network that funneled drugs from Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis to communities in and near the Red Lake and White Earth Indian reservations.”

Not dead yet. The PiPress Nick Woltman writes: “The Forest Lake Police Department might not be dissolved after all. Two days after the city council voted to disband the 25-person department and contract with the Washington County sheriff’s office for law enforcement services, Forest Lake officials reached a tentative agreement with the union representing its officers to keep the department operating through at least 2019, according to a news release issued late Wednesday night by Forest Lake. The contract must still be approved by the city council and by the union’s members, which include the department’s patrol officers and sergeants.”

So much for artisanal snow machines. Nicole Norfleet of the Strib writes, “Less than a year after recreational vehicle maker Arctic Cat opened a modern headquarters in the North Loop of Minneapolis, the company's new owner has decided to close the office. Textron Inc. announced in January that it would purchase Arctic Cat in a $247 million deal. On Tuesday, Rhode Island-based Textron notified Arctic Cat employees that it would close the offices at 500 N. 3rd St. by the end of the year. Most of the 60 employees who currently work there will have the opportunity to gradually transition to the company's St. Cloud campus … .” North Loop to St. Cloud. That’s a bummer, man.

For Midwest Energy News Frank Jossi says this about the omnibus budget bill and alternative energy in Minnesota. “Clean energy and environmental advocates are concerned that several provisions in a Minnesota Jobs and Energy Omnibus bill would remove regulatory oversight of programs, shift power from experts to legislators and potentially kills jobs in a growing sector. … .”

You might be able to help. Kirsti Marohn at MPR says, “The Minnesota State Fire Marshal is asking for the public's help in solving a series of church arson fires going back five years. According to the fire marshal, 13 churches in eight Minnesota communities have been intentionally set on fire since 2012. That includes last year's blaze that caused millions of dollars in damage to the 118-year-old St. Mary's Catholic Church in Melrose, as well as the historic Darling Church near Little Falls that was destroyed in March.”

Beyond polarization: Challenge others and yourself, and you will learn a lot

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 2:20pm

We are students in PA 1401, Organizing for the Common Good, at the University of Minnesota who decided to work on the issue of polarization.

Whether you are conservative or liberal, student or professor, there is a problem on our campus that cannot be ignored any longer. The polarization of groups, opinions, and ideas on campus is an issue that is not only important to address, it is also essential to bar its growth and instead advocate for conversation. A group of students, who hold all political leanings, were determined to take on an issue that could no longer be ignored. We began our journey as seven students looking to close the divide among different opinions and create a conversation about why every opinion should be valued.

We met with as many people as possible, students and faculty, of all political leanings to learn how polarization affects them. One professor we talked to agreed that the number of liberal students on campus was far greater than the number of conservative students; however, he then proceeded to say that conservative students sometimes walk into class “expecting there to be bias against them.” Also, he believes that conservatives tend to take a “few instances” where conservative opinions are being attacked and try to make it appear as something that is occurring on every campus, which he feels is unfair for conservatives to do. As we concluded our meeting with this professor we wanted to ask for any advice about what our next steps moving forward could be and he simply replied, “You could pick a new project.” Now this could be viewed differently by different people, maybe as sarcastic or as a joke, but to say that to us, students, who care about this issue, seemed disrespectful because it delegitimized our group's efforts to solve this issue.

Another view

On the other hand, we met with another professor who held a quite different opinion. When asked about the issue of polarization on campus, this professor immediately agreed with our group's efforts. He said that he has witnessed an opposition to conservatives on campus, and in the nation, that has never been seen before. He believes that this is unfortunate because, in his experience, classrooms with multiple opinions function better and the students learn more. This professor also acknowledged that often professors who are on extreme sides of the political spectrum motivate their students to become more extreme in their stances as well. He does not believe that this is necessarily a bad thing, but thinks that this should also be allowed for professors who hold opinions of the right. When leaving this meeting, the professor offered one piece of advice, which is in direct correlation of our motivation to address this issue: Allow yourself to be challenged by opposing ideas and beliefs while maintaining respect for the person who you are conversing with and for their opinions.

When digging deeper into how our country became so deeply divided we came across the Manichean (good versus evil) mindset. Harry Boyte, founder of the Center of Democracy and Citizenship (now Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College), says Manichaeism has “shaped America and the millennial generation.” Manichaeism is rooted in door-to-door canvassing invented in the 1970s, which depended on demonization for success. When one canvasses for an issue the canvass paints a black and white picture of bad vs. good, labels the opponents the enemy and moves on from there. This radically oversimplified frame has spread across society, and is used by talk news shows, social media, and political campaigns. It leads to tremendous polarization and the idea that we have nothing in common with the other side. This polarizing approach has increasingly left its mark on nearly every campaign, furthered by new technology, as a recent NBC news report has found.

A small challenge

After spending this semester talking with those we would normally see as disagreeing with us we have come to learn that we really have much more in common with them than one would think. We encourage everyone to try a small challenge. Find someone you disagree with — it can be on any issue, big or small. Sit down with them, ask tough questions, answer their questions honestly, and most important, learn their story.

Challenge other people and challenge yourself; we promise you will learn a lot not just about them but about yourself as well.

Charlie Carlson, Kat Gehl, and Zach Maron are students at the University of Minnesota. Fellow students Campbell Fisher, Katherine Xu, Spencer Wilkins, and Dupree MacBryer also contributed to this commentary.

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What drives Trump to think and do as he does? Starting a list of possibilities

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 12:19pm
Eric Black

Reading and thinking about the emerging facts and arguments over what we might as well start calling Comeygate, I find myself making a list of things about President Trump's qualities and beliefs that drive him to do and say some of the things he says and does. I claim no expertise in any of the relevant fields, and hope that those with those areas of expertise will continue to help us try to understand this, but on a quick first draft, some of those qualities and beliefs of Trump might include:

  • That he doesn’t respect facts or the truth or even care about maintaining the appearance that he respects facts or the truth. Perhaps that’s because he believes – and has substantial reason to believe, although he may be testing the limits of this one — that his followers will follow him anywhere and believe him about anything. And that he is intoxicated, perhaps to the point of blindness, by that belief.
  • That he craves and loves power to an alarming degree, maybe even more than he craves and loves money, although the two loves are deeply intertwined.
  • That his addiction to power renders him unable to understand the fundamental nature of the American system, a system of checks and balances that renders even the single most powerful person in the system unable to get away with anything and everything.
  • That he has something very big to hide on the Russia story and that he is terrified at the idea that anyone with the power to seek the underlying truth of that story might be more loyal to the truth and the country than to him.

Feel free to start your own list or suggest additional elements that belong on the list.

Jeff Johnson announces run for governor

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 12:15pm
MinnPost staff

Johnson is giving it another shot. The Star Tribune’s J. Patrick Coolican reports: “Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson announced Wednesday he is running for governor in 2018. … Johnson, the 2014 Republican nominee, made his announcement with a polished video via social media, promising to restore “power, opportunity and freedom” to Minnesotans. … Johnson, of Plymouth, is known as the Hennepin board’s most conservative member and a frequent critic of government spending, the expansion of light rail and the Metropolitan Council. He previously served in the House. … In his video, Johnson said he would seek to cap property taxes, automatically rebate taxes when there’s a surplus, end the Metropolitan Council, give choice in education and health insurance.”

The Trump staff shakeup you aren’t talking about today. The Star Tribune’s Josephine Marcotty writes: “The sudden overhaul of a key advisory panel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sends a worrisome signal that science will take a back seat to industry under the Trump administration, according to a respected University of Minnesota water scientist who chairs the panel. … Deborah Swackhamer hasn't lost her job — her term on the Board of Scientific Counselors ends in 2018. But 13 members of the 18-person panel will not be reappointed, and now she faces months of uncertainty about whether the scientific mission of the panel will be watered down by the industry representatives who are likely to replace them.”

Speaking of staff shakeups … MPR’s Catharine Richert reports: “The Rochester Art Center has laid off five of its 12 employees after an audit found deep financial difficulties. … The art center has suffered a series of personnel and financial blows in the last year. Executive director Megan Johnston left without explanation after a short tenure. She was gone within weeks of the completion of an independent auditor's financial report saying there was substantial doubt the center could survive. … The departures include two full-time employees. … According to a statement from board president Brad Nuss and the museum's interim director Lee Koch, the layoffs are meant to help balance the center's struggling budget.”

Might be kinda important. WCCO reports: “Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger has requested the legislature create a public health response contingency fund to help battle infectious disease outbreaks. … On Wednesday, Ehlinger released a statement regarding an immediate need for an emergency fund, citing the recent response to a series of infectious disease outbreaks. … Those outbreaks include multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, hundreds of new syphilis cases and the measles outbreak, which is the worst Minnesota has faced in nearly 30 years.”

In other news…

House hunting? “10 most expensive Twin Cities homes for sale right now” [City Pages]

Per usual, it’s about parking: “Battle Brewing Between Bicyclists and Businesses in South Minneapolis” [KSTP]

Good luck: “Larson reps Minneapolis music on The Voice” [KARE]

After negotiations falter, Dayton vows to veto 'every one' of Republicans' budget bills

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 9:52am
Briana Bierschbach

It’s practically a rite of spring in St. Paul now: The trees blossom, the birds come back — and the workings inside the Minnesota Capitol go dark.

That’s what happened this week, as negotiations over the state’s two-year, roughly $45 billion state budget went from plodding steadily toward a resolution to what seemed like a sudden break, between the Republicans who control the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Those tensions set off a series of moves by Republican leaders that started late Monday and went into Tuesday evening, as GOP lawmakers worked to send their budget bills to Dayton’s desk — without a compromise. 

In response, the governor assured reporters Tuesday that he will “veto them all,” leaving everyone in the dark as to what happens next.

The two parties have less than two weeks until May 22, their constitutionally imposed deadline to adjourn the 2017 session. If they don’t finish on time, Dayton can call legislators back into a special session to finish budget bills. But if that doesn’t happen before July 1 — the start of the next fiscal year — state government operations will go into automatic shutdown mode.

It was gonna be different this time

Like most sessions, lawmakers convened in January saying what they almost always say: that they didn’t want things to end this year with closed-door negotiations, late-night maneuvers and deals pushed until the final hours. That it was going to be different this year.

And it was, for a time. Lawmakers bumped up deadlines to get major budget work done and made it to negotiations with the governor earlier than usual. But, as in most sessions, the drama happened anyway. 

“It’s had different forms,” Dayton said Tuesday, remarking on how recent sessions have all concluded with last-minute blowups. “We each have very different views about what’s best for Minnesotans. Minnesotans should expect that we’re going to have these very significant differences; the question is how we are going to resolve them.”

The rift came after Dayton and legislative leaders had spent the previous five days in meetings discussing a budget deal, usually emerging from those discussions with few details to share but generally positive remarks about the process.  They described talks as “productive” and “cordial,” even though lawmakers still had major differences to work out.

Those differences largely center on what to do with the state’s $1.5 billion budget surplus. Republicans want tax cuts — something north of $1 billion — though they also want to trim spending on health and human services and state government administration. The governor is proposing to raise spending on things like health care, education and state government.

On Monday, budget negotiations moved into the horse-trading phase. Dayton made an offer on four smaller budget areas — public safety, higher education, economic development and agriculture — reducing his proposed total spending by about $74 million, he said.

After the meeting, House Speaker Kurt Daudt emerged and said he’d hoped things were moving faster, but they were still making progress. “Things at the Legislature never move as quickly as I would like them to, and I’m sure the public probably feels the same way, but we are working hard and we are working well together.”

MinnPost photo by Briana BierschbachAfter the meeting, House Speaker Kurt Daudt emerged and said he’d hoped things were moving faster, but they were still making progress.

But behind the scenes, things started moving very quickly. Republicans left the meeting with the governor and went into meetings with rank-and-file legislators. Later that evening, they began preparing their own budget bills for a vote, with or without a compromise in hand. On Tuesday morning, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said negotiations had slowed down over the weekend and the offers presented by Dayton on Monday were “unacceptable.” 

“The steps were so small on the smallest bills that we didn’t know how we could possibly get there,” Gazelka said. “I think they were sincere first offers, but they were unacceptable and would not lead to getting done on time.”

Daudt said they were worried Dayton was “slow-walking” a deal because he would benefit politically the longer negotiations take. “The governor gains leverage if he pushes us to the end,” Daudt said, describing the move to vote on their budget as a “backup plan.” 

Republicans and Dayton met again Tuesday afternoon, with Republicans presenting an offer on all of their budget bills, reducing their tax cut proposal from $1.13 billion to $1 billion and spending more on state government and health and human services. Dayton countered that with another offer on the four budget bills discussed the day before, coming down a total of $122 million.

Republicans left the meeting frustrated they weren’t making progress. Within hours, they began taking up their budget bills on the House and Senate floors. 

‘I will veto every one of those bills’

What does this all mean for the end of session? At the very least, the move delays further negotiations between Dayton and Republicans. It will take several days for legislators to pass all of their budget bills and send them to Dayton. The governor said that he will veto all of the budget proposals. 

"They should know that I will veto every one of those bills, which will leave us with the same differences several days from now that we face today,” Dayton said. “Their actions will make it much more difficult for them to fulfill their constitutional responsibility to send me budget bills, which I can sign, by May 22.”

Dayton added that the actions of the GOP leadership, in the middle of discussions with his office, have changed the tone of negotiations going forward. “All the flurry of activity over the last 12 hours without any discussion with us, without any forewarning,” Dayton said. “It certainly changes the tenor, for sure.”

Republicans and governor are not unfamiliar with discord: They went into a 20-day government shutdown over the budget in 2011, and the last two sessions under divided government have ended in acrimony, special session talks and plenty of unfinished business.

MinnPost photo by Briana BierschbachSenate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka: “The steps were so small on the smallest bills that we didn’t know how we could possibly get there.”

For now, all sides say they still want to work together, even if their actions are sending mixed signals about whether that can actually happen. “I’ve done this before and I’ve been involved in a few of the blowups before the breakthrough, and that does happen,” Daudt said Tuesday. “I don't think this is [a blowup]. We want to work with the governor, we want to get this solved.” 

For his part, Dayton remained open to meeting with Republicans on Wednesday, even as they continued to pass budget bills he plans to veto. Dayton’s daily public schedule, which he releases to reporters, read that Wednesday is “intentionally left open to be responsive to the legislative process.”

If that doesn’t happen, perhaps they’ll talk about it Friday. That’s when the governor and legislative leaders are scheduled to be together on a boat in the middle of the Mississippi River in St. Cloud for the state’s fishing opener.

Trump's stated reason for firing Comey is utterly unconvincing

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 9:23am
Eric Black

Nothing about yesterday’s big story makes much sense. I certainly don’t claim to know why President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The reason cited by Trump in his laughable letter to Comey firing him is utterly unconvincing. The letter said:

While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.

I do not believe the current incumbent appreciates what he says he greatly appreciates. I also do not believe that he is “concurring” with the recommendation of the Justice Department.

The “judgment of the Department of Justice that [Comey is] not able to lead” the FBI was delivered to Trump yesterday in the form of a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. I reiterate that I don’t know Trump’s real reasons, but the Sessions letter and the Rosenstein memo are both dated yesterday. To me they have all the earmarks of fake recommendations to provide cover for Trump to do what he wanted to do, which was fire Comey and appoint a replacement who will owe his job and his loyalty to the guy who appointed him.

Don’t take my word for it. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard (no liberal and no Democrat) tweeted out the same analysis. The Kristol tweet read:

The Rosenstein memo is dated ... today. So there was no real recommendation from DOJ. Trump wanted to do it, and they created a paper trail.

But why did Trump want to do it? After all, many Democrats (including Hillary Clinton) lay substantial blame on Comey for tipping the election in Trump’s favor with his famous, unprecedented last-minute announcement that he had reopened the investigation into Clinton’s infamous e-mail problems, even though there turned out to be nothing new turned up by the investigation.

Comey has continued to defend that decision in ways that don’t satisfy Clinton or most of her supporters, who suspect that the real motive was to hurt her chances of winning the election. (Personally, I don’t particularly subscribe to that theory.) But if that theory is correct, Trump owes Comey a large debt of gratitude (although appropriate gratitude is not one of his core virtues).

For his part, Trump has publicly expressed his anger and disappointment that the FBI did not recommend criminal prosecution of Clinton over the email business (which certainly would have helped Trump’s electoral chances even more).

My best guess (it’s only a guess) is that Trump feels he needs guaranteed loyalists in every position that might have influence over the ongoing investigation of the Trump-Russia-interference-in-the-election matter.

Comey, who had Republican credentials and had served in the George W. Bush Justice Department, was nonetheless appointed to the FBI directorship by President Barack Obama. It was an Obamian gesture of nonpartisanship, but also a recognition that Comey’s conduct in key Justice Department matters had suggested that Comey was a relatively nonpartisan, nonpolitical straight shooter and man of principle.

During Comey’s most recent moment in the spotlight, testifying to Congress and being pressed to explain why he did what he did on the various election-related matters, he certainly begged the nation to believe that he is that nonpartisan, nonpolitical straight-shooter, who felt “nauseous” at the possibility that some of his decisions had affected the election outcome. Personally, I halfway believed him.

Meanwhile, the question of whether Trump colluded with the Russian efforts to help him win the presidency remains. Several Trump associates are up to their neck in Russian connections. Personally, I go back and forth in my hunches over whether Trump was actively involved in the Russian collusion. Certainly nothing has been proven along those lines, but there’s a lot of smoke that might indicate fire.

In firing Comey, Trump has strengthened the argument that a serious bipartisan congressional commission staffed with nonpartisan investigators needs to be created to get to the bottom of the Russia stuff, and it needs to be populated and staffed by people Trump can’t make disappear with his famous catchphrase: “You’re fired.”

How much milkweed to save monarch? Only 1.8 billion new stems, study finds

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 9:10am
Ron Meador Photo by Steve Hilburger, USGSA group of monarch butterflies covers an oyamel fir
tree at an overwintering site in the Piedra Herrada
Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico.

All over Minnesota and beyond, citizens and clubs and the occasional municipality are planting milkweed in hopes of helping the monarch butterfly reverse its ongoing population crash.

Still, the losses continue. This gorgeous, iconic creature’s numbers have declined by probably 80 percent in the last decade, and it may face 50-50 odds of disappearing from the Midwestern landscape in the next two.

The prospect has already moved the governments of the United States, Mexico and Canada to join in a preservation plan that includes better protecting the monarchs’ overwintering grounds in Mexico and promoting healthier habitat in their summer breeding range. Protection under the Endangered Species Act may be ahead.

But ultimately recovery will require massive restoration of milkweed plants of the Asclepia family — an important food source for monarchs at all ages, and an absolute necessity during the transformation from egg to larval stage — that have been lost primarily to herbicide-intensive agricultural practice.

How massive? According to a new analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey, 1.8 billion new milkweed stems are needed to reverse losses in the monarch’s North Central range.

That’s a lot of backyard gardens, boulevard strips and park plantings.

By my very rough calculation, it amounts to 73 milkweed stems for each and every household in the target breeding range, which includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, along with parts of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Missouri.

Tough creatures to count

Rough calculations are a hallmark, even a necessity, of discussions about saving the Midwestern monarch, the basic problem being that they are tough to count. So tough that the standard population measure is not number of butterflies but hectares of overwintering grounds in the high-elevation Oyamel fir forests of central Mexico.

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According to the USGS analysis, the largest population size recorded since monitoring began in the mid-1990s was in the winter of 1996-97, when it stood at 18.19 hectares (not quite 45 acres).  The record low came in 2013-14, falling to 0.69 hectares (1.7 acres); there was a rebound to 2.91 hectares in the winter just past.

That amounts to about 7.2 acres, equivalent to about eight football fields without the end zones. The goal of the U.S.-Canada-Mexico collaboration is to more than double that, to six hectares, as a foundation of sustainable population health.

So how many actual butterflies might that mean?

Monarchs overwinter in huge numbers, presenting researchers with a few choices for their census-taking. None is terribly ideal.

  • You can catch, mark, release and recapture a sample of butterflies, which is kind of like banding birds but harder on the fragile butterflies.
  • You can count the number of butterflies blanketing a single tree trunk or limb, then multiply that by some factor representing tree surface per hectare.
  • If a storm happens to kill a lot of butterflies you can count the corpses, but just because they hold still doesn’t make this a small task; one count found more than a thousand piled up in an area of less than one-half a square foot.

The USGS analysis considered the results of six census efforts, made some statistical adjustments and concluded that the best population estimate for overwintering monarchs was 21.1 million per hectare.

That’s below the midpoint of the studies’ range, which ran from 6.9 million to 60.9 million per hectare. It’s also below the 37.5 million used by the Pollinator Task Force in 2015, whose work informed the White House goal of six hectares (thus, 225 million monarchs) by 2020.

USGS now figures a reasonable 6-hectare population would be only 127 million butterflies. That leads to a big reduction in milkweed-restoration need, since each individual monarch is assumed to require 28.5 stems to maintain the health and reserves required for the flight south.

Still, it translates to a need for 3.62 billion stems to support a population restored to health. And we have only about half that on the land.

Roundup and its collateral damage

Until recently, of course, the Midwestern landscape had all the milkweed the monarchs could use and more. This was before Roundup and genetically modified crops.

Asclepias weren’t necessarily lovely plants, but neither were they obnoxious, and their steady eradication has not been undertaken in a deliberate or purposeful way. Collateral damage is more like it, the consequence of farming practices that make corn and soybean production easier for the producer.

Development of the sweepingly efficient herbicide glyphosate, aka Roundup, and of corn and soybean varieties genetically engineered to withstand it, has changed herbicide application from tightly targeted to widely dispersed, with essentially one poison killing pretty much any weed while the crops keep growing.

This in turn has changed the Midwestern landscape to one in which milkweed no longer coexists with crops — and this matters a lot because a milkweed stem in cropland, for reasons that are not fully understood, produces almost four times as many monarch eggs as a milkweed in, say, a residential garden.

Which is not to say that milkweed loss is the only cause of the monarchs’ problems, or that glyphosate-based farming is the only source of milkweed loss, or even that milkweed restoration is the only possible way to avert extinction.

As chief author Wayne E. Throgmartin of the USGS office in La Crosse, Wisconsin, said in announcing the findings,

Reasons for monarch population declines are complex, although some evidence suggests that loss of breeding habitat is a primary factor. Other factors include adverse weather conditions in recent years, loss of overwintering habitat, disease and exposure to contaminants.

Mexico has already made progress on protecting the overwintering habitat, which after all doesn’t amount to that much land. Factors of weather and disease are beyond human influence, as are many contaminants. (An exception would be pesticides, which we could control more wisely if we chose.)

That leaves conservation and restoration of milkweed across the monarchs’ summer breeding habitat as the best available response, but still quite a difficult one.  

* * *

The USGS analysis draws on paper published last September by John Pleasants of the University of Iowa, which I excerpt here because of its crisp analysis of how much milkweed has been lost, and why.

I estimate that since 1999, 850 million milkweeds have been lost from corn and soybean fields. In addition, since 2008, over 11 million milkweeds have been lost from grasslands due to their conversion into cropland, an annual loss rate of about 2 million milkweeds.

Of the estimated 2.2 billion milkweeds present on the landscape in the Midwest in 1999, only 1.34 billion remained in 2014, a decline of almost 40%. But because each milkweed stem in an agricultural field averages 3.9 times more monarch eggs than a milkweed stem in non-agricultural habitats, the potential monarch support capacity loss has been 71%.

A conservation goal of 6 hectares of overwintering butterflies has been proposed. It is estimated that the current milkweed population could support about 3.2 hectares under average weather conditions in the breeding season.

A total of 425 million milkweeds would need to be added to increase the monarch support capacity by just one more overwintering hectare…. Thus, a massive milkweed restoration effort will be needed to produce a resilient monarch population.

Absent milkweed restoration, the moncarch's outlook is not likely to improve. In a paper published in March, a team that included Throgmartin and Pleasants reviewed various contributors to the monarch population’s decline and instability, concluding that

[G]given a range of plausible quasi-extinction thresholds, the population has a substantial probability of quasi-extinction, from 11—57% over 20 years, although uncertainty in these estimates is large…. An approximately 5-fold increase of the monarch population size (relative to the winter of 2014—15) is necessary to halve the current risk of quasi-extinction across all thresholds considered.

* * *

The USGS study estimating monarch population size and milkweed restoration needs can be read here, and the service’s announcement of its findings is here. The Pleasants paper estimating Midwestern milkweed losses is here and the analysis of extinction risk is here. All can be read without charge.

Life experience is key for certified peer support specialists

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 8:47am
Andy Steiner

A few years ago, Chris Shaw was in addiction treatment at the Minneapolis VA when he met a man who changed his life. 

“He came in and told a story about being a veteran, about how he went through the ranks and how he struggled with addiction, and how he made his way through to the life he has today,” Shaw recalled. “Here was somebody who knew he was in a room of people like him and he knew he could help them by explaining his shared experiences. He wasn’t a psychologist, a psychiatrist or a counselor. He was just a regular person, a peer. It was very powerful to me and the other participants to have this guy open up like that just so he would provide some comfort to us.”

The man was a peer support specialist, a person in recovery from substance use disorder and mental illness who had been trained to provide support to people with shared life experiences.

Shaw was impressed by the power of the support specialist’s plain-spoken, direct message.

“I thought, ‘How did he get to do this? How did he get a job like this?’ That to me was amazing,” he recalled.  “Later, when we had a minute, we talked more about his job, and after I graduated from treatment I told him, ‘I want to know more about what you do. I want to do this.’ ”

That conversation set Shaw off on a path that eventually landed him in a room filled with other people just like him, ordinary folks who’d parlayed their varied and challenging life experiences into a spot in a demanding two-week training program for certified peer-support specialists.  

Rigorous training

The program, which is funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), is designed to provide participants with the tools they need to give peer counseling and support to people facing a range of life challenges. Program participants must be 21, have a GED and have a mental health diagnosis. They also must have been in recovery for at least one year.

In Minnesota, certified peer support specialists work in a variety of paid positions — including in hospitals, addiction treatment centers, psychiatric clinics, homeless shelters and community behavioral health hospitals. Their services are billable under Medical Assistance for an array of rehabilitative mental health services.

“Certified peer support specialists offer something that other mental health professionals can’t,” said Jode Freyholtz-London, executive director of Wellness in the Woods, a mental health consumer-run organization, and associate facilitator for the peer specialist program. “They have been through it all, and they understand how to help others work their way through a range of problems.”

Freyholtz-London led the certified peer support specialist training session that Shaw attended this spring at Wellstone Center in St. Paul. The trainings have been state funded since 2009, when DHS provided grant funding for the program.

Freyholtz-London explained that applicants like Shaw go through a rigorous selection process before they are accepted into the training program.

“This program is not for everyone,” she said.

Once an applicant has been accepted, the real work begins. The training program lasts, Freyholtz-London said, “for two intense weeks. We start at 8:30. We end at 4:30. Plus I send participants home with three or four hours of homework every night. It is actually comparable to three college credits jammed into two weeks.”

The intensity of the program “separates the chaff from the wheat,” Freyholtz-London  said. “There are some folks who say, ‘No. Not going to do this,’ and they drop out.”

Shaw was determined to earn his certification. He said the program was a lot of work, but it was well worth it.  

“It feels like you relive your lifetime though those two weeks,” he said. “You have to face your demons and say, ‘This is why I’m here. Now how can I take what I’ve learned and help someone else?’”

Participant profile

Shaw’s class of certified peer support specialists was a diverse bunch, Freyholtz-London said.

“We had a range of faith perspectives, diverse cultures. We had people who were working, people who weren’t working. We had a standup comedian,” she laughed. “We even had a Bigfoot hunter.” The range of life experience and interests among the students reflected the range of people living with mental illness, Freyholtz-London said. In the end, the differences made the group stronger: “Those unique perspectives all came together to support each other. People who didn’t know each other became family.”

Sunny Forrest works with the homeless community. He heard about the certified peer support training program from a colleague who thought it would be a great fit with his skills and background.

“I was a certified recovery specialist prior to this and so this new certification helps me in my career,” Forrest said, adding that he has a history of mental health and addiction problems. “I currently work with homeless people on harm reduction and addiction problems. Most of the people I see also have a mental health diagnosis. So this training helps me understand how to talk with them and how to be with them as well as understand my own mental health diagnosis.”

Anne Thomas works in a group home. She decided to complete the training to improve her listening and problem-solving skills at work. 

“A lot of times a resident will come to us with their problems and staff will just tell them what to do,” she said. “Since the training, I’ve been learned to say things like, ‘What are some options you can use to solve this?’ And residents seem of happy, like ‘I can come up with some ideas’ and I will support them in that.”    

A trained social worker, Charles Dorsey decided to take the peer specialist certification after a mental health crisis caused him to put his career on hold. He’d been working in a series of jobs when a former coworker reached out. 

“He said, ‘There’s this new position we’re going to be hiring for called certified peer specialist. We think it would be perfect for you,’” Dorsey said. “I’d heard a little bit about it and so then I looked into it.” He was thrilled to hear about a program that would show him how to help others by sharing his own experiences. 

“The fact that now I can help someone else through sharing what I’ve been through is just so amazing. I decided to get this certification.”

Freyholtz-London said that many people in the training program feel the same way.

“As a community of people who have a lived experience with mental illness, for so long we have been considered not only by ourselves but also by our community as damaged people who are unable to give back,” she said. “With this training, we have an opportunity for two solid weeks to celebrate our experiences, to learn how to help others. How often do you get to do that?”

The certification program takes the shame away from the diagnosis, and turns it into something much more powerful: marketable skills and experiences that can be harnessed to help others recover.

“There are not many jobs where your life experience gets to be on your résumé,” Freyholtz-London said, “but that’s definitely the case with peer support specialists. My life experience is my calling card. It’s what I use to help other people.”

Unique perspectives

Certified peer specialists understand that their life experiences make them able to help clients in ways that their “nondiagnosed” coworkers just can’t.

Take Forrest. He works with Hennepin County’s DART program, a diversionary addiction treatment program for homeless people.

“We mainly deal with very high utilizers of the ER and detox,” he said. His life experience — combined with his new peer specialist training — helps him connect with the people he serves.

“Today I interviewed a guy that was on his 22nd time in dotox so far this year,” Forrest said. “He has a strong alcohol addiction. He’s homeless. He’s been through 12 treatment centers.” The client, whose brain function has been affected by his excessive drinking, told Forrest he didn’t to go back to treatment, quit drinking or move to a shelter. 

“The peer part of the job is so important because if someone like him talks to a normie about his alcoholism, they’re really not going to understand,” Forrest explained. “But if I work with someone who has a mental health issue, I’ve been there, I’ve been through it. If they talk to me about hearing voices, if they talk about the stigma they’re facing, I understand that. I think they are more likely to open up to me and talk about the real personal things that they need to talk about so that we can get some of their issues solved.”

Dorsey has had the same kind of experiences at work.  

“I’m on a team called the Access Team,” he said. “I bring a unique perspective. A coworker might not know how to connect with somebody who’s not doing that well mentally, but because I have that personal experience, I might be able to really connect with them. I can honestly say, ‘I know what you’re going through.’ And that helps.”

That skill and understanding is exactly what certified peer support specialists bring to the table, Freyholtz-London said. Demand for program graduates is growing, as employers are beginning to understand just how peers can make the recovery process better. 

“There are more and more work opportunities becoming available for people with this certification. When we launched the program, providers didn’t always know how to use our grads. But it’s catching on. People understand that peer support is unique and effective. These days, employers are looking specifically for our skills.” 

20-year life expectancy gap found among U.S. counties

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 8:37am
Susan Perry

Life expectancy has risen overall in the United States in recent decades, but at the county level, not everyone is benefiting equally, according to a study published Tuesday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

In fact, the gap between counties with the shortest and longest life expectancy at birth varied by 20 years in 2014  — a disparity that is larger than it was in 1980.

Oglala Dakota County in southwestern South Dakota, which includes the Pine Ridge Reservation, had the lowest life expectancy in the country in 2014 at 66.8 years.  The county with the highest life expectancy — 86.8 years — was Summit County in Colorado, which includes several ski resorts. 

“This study found large — and increasing — disparities among counties in life expectancy over the past 35 years,” the study’s authors conclude. “The magnitude of these disparities demands action, all the more urgently because inequalities will only increase further if recent trends are allowed to continue uncontested.”

Gains and losses

For the study, researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle used various national databases to estimate life expectancy for each county from 1980 to 2014.

During those 35 years, U.S. life expectancy at birth increased overall by 5.3 years for both men and women, from 73.8 years to 79.1 years. Men gained an average of 6.7 years, from 70 years to 76.7 years, while women gained an average of four years, from 77.5 years to 81.5 years.

But, as noted, those gains weren’t shared across the country. In fact, in 13 counties, newborn babies had shorter expected life spans in 2014 than their parents’ generation did at birth in 1980. In Owsley County, Kentucky, for example, the average life span in 2014 was 70.2, more than a two-year drop from 72.4 in 1980.

Counties with low life expectancies were particularly prevalent in Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama and several states along the Mississippi River, the study found.

Counties that showed the greatest improvement in life expectancies since 1980 were in central Colorado, Alaska and along both the eastern and western coastlines.

Minnesota’s counties fell somewhere in between. 

Age and other factors

The researchers also looked at the risk of dying among five age groups, as well as the extent to which risk factors, such as socioeconomics, race/ethnicity, health-related behaviors and access to health care, contribute to inequalities in life expectancy at the county level.

Between 1980 and 2014, all counties experienced declines in their rate of early death among children under the age of 5, and the gap between the counties with the highest and lowest early death rates for children in that age group narrowed. Almost all counties (more than 98 percent) also showed declines in the rate of early death in two other age groups:  children and young adults aged 5 to 25 and middle-aged and older adults aged 45 to 85.

On the other hand, the risk of early death for people between the ages of 25 and 45 increased in 11.5 percent of the counties during the study period. Furthermore, inequities in the risk of dying early rose for all adults, although particularly for those age 65 to 85.

Behavioral and metabolic risk factors — such as smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, diabetes and high blood pressure — were associated with 74 percent of the variation in life expectancy, the study found. Socioeconomic factors such as income, education, unemployment and race were independently related to 60 percent of the variation. Health-care access and quality explained 27 percent of the inequities.

'Not acceptable for a country like the U.S.'

"Looking at life expectancy on a national level masks the massive differences that exist at the local level, especially in a country as diverse as the United States," said Laura Dwyer-Lindgren, an IHME researcher and the study’s lead author, in a released statement. "Risk factors like obesity, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, and smoking explain a large portion of the variation in lifespans, but so do socioeconomic factors like race, education, and income."

Another author of the study, epidemiologist Ali Mokdad, was much blunter about the significant of the study’s findings in an interview with the Guardian reporter Richard Luscombe.

“You expect disparities in any country, but you don’t expect the disparities to be increasing in a country with our wealth and might,” Mokdad said. “We spend more money on health care than anybody else, and we debate the hell out of health care more than anybody else, and still the disparities are increasing.”

“Everybody, in Europe and elsewhere, is increasing life expectancy at a greater pace than we are,” he added, “so that’s also disappointing and not acceptable for a country like the U.S. … I hope policymakers will look at this and say it's not about politics any more, but the future of the United States.”

FMI: You can read the study in full at the JAMA Internal Medicine website. IHME has also posted an interactive map on its website, where you can explore county-level life expectancy trends in Minnesota and across the U.S..

Chopin Society lineup includes Goode, Serkin; Tom Nichols on 'The Death of Expertise'

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 8:23am
Pamela Espeland Photo by Steve RiskindRichard Goode

Since its founding, the Frederic Chopin Society has had one job: to present solo piano recitals by major artists of the international piano world. The society has done that job so well that it just announced its 35th season. All five concerts feature prize-winning, often-recorded artists who have played with major orchestras and festivals around the world and earned rave reviews in the international press. All will be held on Sunday afternoons in Macalester’s Mairs (say “mars”) Concert Hall, a warm, intimate, acoustically flexible space designed by HGA’s Tim Carl, who also designed the new Northrop and the Ordway Concert Hall.

Stephen Hough made his Twin Cities debut with the Chopin Society in 1994. Jonathan Biss, Benjamin Grosvenor, Yevgeny Sudbin, Simone Dinnerstein, Jeremy Denk, Imogen Cooper, Daniil Trifonov and Lise de la Salle have all played for the society. More than 130 pianists have appeared on past seasons, some multiple times over the years. And in case you’re wondering, the society long ago expanded its programming to include music by many composers, not only Chopin.

Moscow-trained pianist Zlata Chochieva will make her Chopin Society debut on Oct. 8. The winner of 14 international competition prizes and a rising YouTube presence, she plays in major concert venues and festivals all over, but mainly across Europe and most recently in Miami. She’ll perform Chopin’s Opus 25 Etudes and works by Rachmaninoff.  

This name should sound familiar. Peter Serkin – his father was the great Beethoven interpreter Rudolf Serkin – will give his inaugural Chopin Society performance on Nov. 12. In 1966, when Serkin was 19, he won the Grammy for Best New Classical Artist/Most Promising New Classical Recording Artist. Since then, he has explored five centuries of classical repertoire, become a strong advocate for new music, played the world’s major concert halls and made numerous recordings. His program at the Mairs will feature works by Mozart and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

Peter Serkin

Jan. 21, 2018, will mark the Minnesota debut of Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen. The winner of several piano competitions in Scandinavia, Pohjonen is a regular at international music festivals, including the Suvisoitto in Finland with Osmo Vänskä and Erin Keefe. He recently recorded the Sibelius Piano Trio for the California label Yarlung Records, but at the Mairs, he’ll play Bach, Franck, Mozart and Schubert (“Wanderer” Fantasy).

One of Britain’s foremost pianists, Imogen Cooper will give her fourth Chopin Society recital on March 4. Among her many accomplishments, Cooper has played with all the major British orchestras, won a 2007 CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and established the Imogen Cooper Music Trust to mentor young pianists. She’ll play music by Beethoven and Haydn and a contemporary piece by British composer Julian Anderson.

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Another Chopin Society favorite, also making his fourth appearance here, New York native Richard Goode will close out the season on April 8, most likely with a sold-out concert. A leading interpreter of classical and romantic works, winner of the Avery Fisher Prize, he has recorded extensively for Nonesuch and won a Grammy for his CD of the Brahms sonatas with clarinetist Richard Stoltzmann. Goode will play Renaissance-era pieces by William Byrd and Bach, a Beethoven sonata and Book 2 of Debussy’s Preludes.

Details about the concerts, season and single tickets will be posted on the Chopin Society’s website by late May.

The picks

Tonight (Wednesday, May 10) at Magers & Quinn: Tom Nichols presents “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” The cult of ignorance is nothing new in America. We’ve always been suspicious of intellectual elites and partial to the idea that one person’s opinion is as good as another person’s actual knowledge. But, as Nichols points out, “These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. … I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself.” People who don’t want to learn anything won’t show up, and this is bound to be depressing, but maybe Nichols will have suggestions for what to do. 7 p.m. Free. 

Tonight at the Trylon: “Don’t Look Back” 50th anniversary screening. D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about then-23-year-old Bob Dylan is now officially 50 years old. Good grief. Writer, musician, and author Dylan Hicks will give the introduction and play some music. Presented by Sound Unseen. 7 p.m. Tickets ($12) are sold out, but there are usually some available at the door.

“Don’t Look Back”

Thursday at the TPT Street Space: Christopher O’Riley. Schubert Club Mix closes out its fourth season with the popular pianist and NPR host (“From the Top”) and a mix of old and new music: Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” followed by Philip Glass’ “Metamorphosis No. 2.” Two sets: 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30 general admission). Come early for a music trivia game.

Thursday through Saturday at Orchestra Hall: Erin Keefe and Matthew Lipman Perform Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante. Violinist Keefe is the Minnesota Orchestra’s concertmaster (and Accordo member; see below). Violist Lipman won the Grand Prize in the 2012 Friends of the Minnesota Young Artist Competition and, in 2015, an Avery Fisher Career Grant. This promises to be exquisite. Also on the program: Lutoslawski’s Little Suite and Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” Symphony. Osmo Vänskä conducts. 11 a.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday. FMI and tickets ($25-96).

Sunday at MacPhail: The Bakken Trio and Wei-Yi Yang. Bring Mom to what the Bakken is calling “a bouquet of French chamber music.” The Trio will be joined by Taiwanese pianist and Yale professor Yang for music by Franck, Fauré, and Dutilleux and Bizet’s “Children’s Games” for piano four hands. 4 p.m. in Antonello Hall. Tickets here or at the door ($25/$20 seniors/$15 students).

Monday at Plymouth Congregational Church: Accordo. With guest artists Alexander Fiterstein on clarinet and Anna Polonsky on piano, the acclaimed chamber ensemble will perform a program of music by Schumann, Hindemith and Brahms. If you haven’t yet caught an Accordo concert and wonder who they are, this is the group made up of SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra concertmasters and principal string players. It’s a crème-de-la-crème situation. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($21-$32.50).

Building school climate: leveraging relationships and embracing alternatives to exclusionary discipline

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 8:00am

During my years of teaching, there is one student in particular who has challenged and inspired me, whom I’ll call Jane. As a sixth-grader, Jane was a strong young lady who wanted to pave her own path and didn’t appear to want adults guiding her along the way. Her independent spirit was something I admired, but it often got her in trouble. After taking my theater class, she showed an interest in the upcoming school musical. Despite her stubbornness, she surprised me with how well she took feedback. She brought passion to our practices and wanted to improve so that she could be the best actress. I harnessed her willingness for improvement as a way to initiate subtle conversations about her behavior. Slowly, as we built our relationship, her behavior improved.

Tara Lorence

Jane was in my homeroom the next year. Her attendance was spotty and she rarely came to class prepared. After multiple conversations, I learned that she was homeless. Her mom was struggling to find work and couldn’t provide a stable environment for her daughter. It now made sense to me why this child was so fiercely independent and why she didn’t rely on adults for anything, especially emotional support. Going forward I began addressing her behavior differently. Instead of punishing or excluding her from the lesson, I worked to redirect the small negative behaviors and encourage Jane’s positive behaviors. Over time, she began to say I was like a mother to her. This student needed a supportive adult and she found that in me. Even now she struggles with certain adult interactions, but I continue to encourage her for all she does well and challenge her when I know she can do better. All students have potential — the difficult, yet critically important, part is helping students realize that potential.

Jane has challenged me to think critically about my teaching practice and more broadly about how adults and students can improve school climate. As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, there is so much to appreciate in terms of who contributes to my school’s climate.

It starts with staff

Our positive school climate starts with staff. Our interactions exemplify for students how to positively interact with people of different backgrounds and experiences. When students sense discord between teachers, it affects how they think they should interact with their own peers. I’ve witnessed the way colleagues demonstrate trust and respect for each other and then see our students do the same.

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We also create warm, inviting, and supportive classrooms, lunchrooms, offices, and hallways. The key is setting clear expectations with students and prioritizing connecting with them. Middle school can be rough. Taking the time to get to know each student makes a difference in how the student shows up in the classroom. This is why my colleagues and I have gone above and beyond to create positive school climate by attending or leading extracurriculars and celebrating achievements and birthdays in the classroom. We have started after-school clubs (with little or no compensation), given up lunchtime to work or mentor students, and connected with families through home visits and calls. Most important, we show our students we care, every single day.

Building relationships with students has also allowed educators at my school to empower students to lead in building school culture. Students are greatly influenced by each other. It’s important to give student leaders a platform from which to positively influence their classmates. Tapping into the leadership abilities of students, even those who might not yet think of themselves as leaders, is a proven way to keep them on track and even encourage them to mentor struggling students.

Restorative justice techniques

Another critical component of positive school climate is to embrace alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices; schools implementing restorative justice techniques have reduced suspensions 75 percent. The Legal Rights Center and Minneapolis Public Schools have used restorative conferencing and re-engagement planning to increase attendance, graduation rates, academic outcomes, and parent-school engagement among suspended students.

As state lawmakers continue to meet, I’d like them to appreciate teachers by helping schools like mine continue to build positive school climate. Legislators should require districts to provide training on restorative justice and trauma-informed responses. They should also make a meaningful investment in these strategies so educators have the time, training, and support staff to faithfully implement them.

As we celebrate educators throughout the month of May, we should shine a light on those who build positive school climates each day through their interactions with colleagues and the relationships they build with their students. And we should celebrate them by providing needed resources for alternatives to exclusionary discipline so educators are empowered to further improve their school's’ climate.

Tara Lorence is a fourth-year middle-school teacher in Columbia Heights.

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Minnesota beekeeper wins 'partial' victory in fight over insecticide

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 5:54am
Brian Lambert

“Partial” is better than none. Dan Kraker at MPR reports, “A Minnesota beekeeper is claiming a partial victory in a federal lawsuit over the regulation of a common insecticide. Last week, a federal judge in California ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency violated the federal Endangered Species Act when it approved dozens of neonicotinoid insecticide products. Steve Ellis of northeast Minnesota is the lead plaintiff of suit, which claims the EPA approved products containing neonicotinoid insecticide without adequately considering harm to bees and endangered species. Center for Food Safety attorney Peter Jenkins said the judge will now consider if she should suspend some of the products registered a decade ago.”

There are no more surprises in this story. Says the AP, “A man who says he was abused by a priest 46 years ago has sued Bishop Michael Hoeppner and the Diocese of Crookston in northwestern Minnesota, alleging the bishop coerced him into signing a document saying the abuse never happened. The lawsuit announced Tuesday says Ronald Vasek was exploring whether to become a deacon in 2010 when he told Hoeppner he had been abused by a priest during a trip to Ohio when he was around 16 and that the priest worked at Holy Trinity Church in the town of Tabor. Vasek says the bishop advised him not to tell anyone, including his wife.”

Here’s MPR’s Brian Bakst on the (latest) meltdown over the budget at the Capitol. “The standoff could complicate efforts to craft a new two-year budget by the required adjournment date of May 22. Missing that mark would force the Legislature into special session with a possible government shutdown on the horizon weeks later. Democrats complained of a power play. ‘Let's quit the charade,’ Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said at one point, urging lawmakers to at least get the tactic behind them so real negotiations could resume.”

Yeah, “total” is about right. Says Peter Cox for MPR, “Melissa Maher, a Lino Lakes city council member, is facing scrutiny after she wrote a Facebook post that seemed to threaten Republican Congressman Tom Emmer. Emmer's Facebook page posted a photo of his visit to a Cokato farm on Monday morning. Shortly after the post went up, Maher issued a disparaging response: ‘If I were you Emmer, I'd avoid people who have a lot of deadly objects at hand. Selling us all out was not a good plan for your future. You're a coward … .’ The post quickly drew the ire of others, including one of Maher's constituents who responded that the comment was ‘beyond rude’ and ‘borders on threatening’. Maher responded to that calling it a ‘total lapse of judgment.’ "

Sweet dome. The Strib’s Aimee Blanchette writes: “The world needs more obscure candy. At least that's what the owners of Minnesota's Largest Candy Store say. The Wagner family hopes their latest expansion — an 85,000-pound, 60-foot space dome — hits the sweet spot. Drivers on Hwy. 169 south of Jordan already can't miss the place with its hangar-like building sloshed with yellow paint and filled with quirky sweets like bacon-flavored soda and jalapeño cotton candy. But lately, the mysterious silo addition has been taunting tourists who want to know what's inside.”

Waiting another day for “Media Day.” Says FoxNewsTravel, “After a bit of bad press, Delta has admitted that they aren’t quite ready to face the media. In a statement Delta issued on its official Media Day website, the company says it’s postponing its International Media Day until sometime later this year. The airline went on to cite Congress’ recent interest in ‘airline customer service issues that have gone viral on social media’ as the reason for the decision.” And they’re not the airline that dragged a paying customer off a plane, or had a scorpion drop on another one.

No. 2. Barry Amundson of the Forum News Service says, “[Lisa Twomey of Moorhead is] one in the vast army of working moms in Minnesota, a state that was ranked the second best in the nation for working moms as Mother's Day nears. North Dakota at 19th and South Dakota at 34th were further down in the rankings, but also won high marks in a few categories, according to a study released this week by personal-finance website WalletHub. The rankings were based on day-care quality, median women's salaries and female unemployment rates, among other categories.”

The inclusiveness stuff is clearly a plot. Says Beatrice Dupuy for the Strib, “The calls flooded into Delano Superintendent Matthew Schoen’s office as soon as word got out that teachers were putting up rainbow-colored signs that read, ‘Diverse, Inclusive, Accepting, Welcoming, Safe Space for Everyone.’ Some parents took issue with the rainbow color scheme, which they felt focused on the gay and lesbian community. In response, district officials informed teachers by e-mail that they could be violating a written policy about the posting of non-school-sponsored material. Now district officials and the Delano Teachers Union are trying to work out a solution. By late afternoon Tuesday, district officials told the union that teachers could use their discretion in deciding whether to keep the signs up, and Schoen said that staff were never ordered to remove them.”

On President Trump and his difficult job

Tue, 05/09/2017 - 2:47pm
Mary Stanik

“If you would only recognize that life is hard, things would be so much easier for you.”   

Mary Stanik

These rather frank words were spoken not by the Cheshire Cat from “Alice in Wonderland” but by Louis D. Brandeis, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court between 1916 and 1939. The blunt opinion expressed by Brandeis might take on some special significance in light of President Donald Trump’s recent chat with reporters as to how he thought the presidency would be “easier” than his former life of reality television, a gold-soaked tower, and promoting the art of the deal. In the interview, Trump also said, “I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life.”

In the aftermath of the interview, a great many people around the world were shocked, amused or angered (or all three) by Trump’s view that the job still considered to be the world’s most coveted and difficult, a job that can involve sending young Americans to death or to grievous injury or making decisions that can hurtle the economy into the netherworld or the beginnings of prosperity, might be easier than firing apprentices, running a beauty pageant or heading a privately held real estate organization.

What would predecessors say?

One wonders what past presidents, none of whom seems to have gone on the record as thinking the presidency might be easier than being an elected official or supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe (Eisenhower), might think of Trump’s musings. Wartime presidents might be especially interesting to query.

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Historians have long held strong suspicions that Abraham Lincoln suffered from some form of depression, an affliction that must have been extraordinarily hard to maneuver without modern psychiatric treatment during the ravages of the Civil War that Andrew Jackson was not able to prevent. One might imagine that Lincoln, who appeared at least 10 or 15 years older after four punishing years in office but still managed to keep most of his hair without a combover, might have something particularly wry to say to Trump. The hypertension suffered by Franklin Roosevelt was no doubt made far worse by the need to pull the country out of the Great Depression and then through World War II. Roosevelt’s tastes for martinis and a buoyant, cigar-clenching countenance, along with sage words about fearing fear, were meant to convey determination and resolve during incredibly tough times that did not seem to include much light at any tunnel’s end. Not ease. Not a longing for any former life.

'Ought to be pretty easy' traps

While most former presidents and ordinary citizens do realize the American presidency is a job that should be sought and held only by those who will regard it as the exhausting, sobering, and ultimate mental and physical challenge that it is, it's also true that far too many of us everyday people neglect to employ enough investigation before entering into situations that should require much serious planning and thought. Far too many of us fall into the “this ought to be pretty easy” traps posed by many of the world’s looming opportunities and bright, shiny objects.

For instance, many of us pursue and somehow obtain jobs that markedly differ from or exceed our personal and professional desires and capabilities. If we’re lucky, we leave those jobs before they leave us or even destroy us. How many people get married simply because they are enthralled with the idea of a spectacular wedding or the prospect of being attached to a (pick one or several) rich, famous, handsome, powerful, protective, beautiful, or gullible person? High divorce levels indicate that marriage is indeed not always easier than remaining single or being married to a different person. Or having more realistic views of the hardships as well as the joys of marriage itself. In the final analysis, presidents and ordinary people may not differ that very much. And too many of us don’t realize that life is hard. If we would only admit as much, things might be much easier to bear.

If it were possible for the president to be soothed by a peer, perhaps another president who faced great adversity while championing unvarnished talk, he might wish to consider counsel from one who tried to help the disenfranchised but in the end, was shamed out of office by the millions who did not support a vicious war that hung about him like several dead albatrosses. That president, Lyndon B. Johnson, once said “the presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands.”

Because, in the end, the presidency is hard. So is life.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, formerly lived in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel "Life Erupted." 

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Dean Phillips will challenge Paulsen in Third District

Tue, 05/09/2017 - 12:52pm
MinnPost staff Dean Phillips

Meet Erik Paulsen’s latest challenger. The Star Tribune’s J. Patrick Coolican reports: “Dean Phillips, an heir to a Minnesota liquor fortune who later helped launch a successful gelato brand, said Monday he’s preparing to run for Congress as a DFLer next year against U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen. … Phillips of Deephaven said he’d officially launch a campaign in the coming days. ‘I’m concerned about the direction in which our country is headed,’ he said in an interview. … Paulsen is a fifth-term Republican from Eden Prairie and a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He declined through a spokesman to comment on Phillips’ candidacy.”

On the heels of the Star Tribune’s report about Minneapolis’ sloppy attempt to cover up the location of its Super Bowl command post, Tony Webster gives more information on the building. He writes: “But no doubt, there is a security risk here: MPD’s presence in the building at all. … The 511 Building is a carrier hotel and internet exchange point, the Midwest’s most critical internet infrastructure north of Chicago. It’s home to the Midwest Internet Cooperative Exchange (MICE), which connects about 75 internet service providers and internet companies. The building’s datacenter is also home to servers for large Minnesota companies, financial institutions, and provides faster, local connectivity for services like Netflix, Amazon, and Google.”

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Good they caught him before he could branch out into other species. The Duluth News Tribune’s John Myers reports: “A 40-year-old Aurora man has been charged with stealing more than $3,400 worth of birch trees off state and county land near the Iron Range. … A criminal complaint has been filed in St. Louis County District Court against David Allen Lawrence for timber theft from state land. … It's believed to be the first criminal charge in Minnesota connected to the recent rash of illegal cutting of small Northland birch trees sold into the decorative knickknack market first reported by the News Tribune in March.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Tech Crunch’s Sarah Perez reports: “Target announced this morning it’s now testing a next-day home delivery service called Target Restock. The service, which is currently being trialed with Target employees ahead of a customer-facing pilot this summer, is designed to offer an easy way to shop online for household essentials which will arrive the day after you place your order. … The move is clearly meant to compete with similar offerings from rival retailers, like Amazon’s Prime Now and its Prime Pantry service, as well as Walmart’s efforts in same-day grocery delivery and pickup.”

In other news…

Probably not what you think it is: “Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges' campaign manager resigned over 'racial slur'” [City Pages]

Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul: “Capitol Hill employee under investigation for communications, actions involving student, school says” [Pioneer Press]

Worth it just for the photos: “Punk rocker of bonsai world at work in northern Minnesota” [MPR]

Beetlemania: “Minneapolis, St. Paul losing thousands of trees to ash borer” [Star Tribune]

Congrats to 2017 hot dog vendor the year Natedogs. [Instagram]

When Budget negotiations go bad: Republicans call Dayton's offer 'unacceptable,' ready vote

Tue, 05/09/2017 - 11:34am
Briana Bierschbach

Negotiations over the state’s two-year budget took a sudden turn Tuesday, with Republicans claiming Gov. Mark Dayton is slow-walking a deal, which has led them to ready their own budget plans for a vote.

The move comes after days of closed-door negotiations between Dayton and GOP leaders in the Legislature that, by all accounts, were moving slowly but surely toward a deal. But their most recent meeting on Monday broke up after Dayton made offers to Republicans on the public safety, agriculture, economic development and higher education budgets. Between those offers, Dayton reduced his proposed spending by about $74 million, he said.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said those offers were “unacceptable.” “The steps were so small on the smallest bills that we didn’t know how we could possibly get there,” Gazelka said. “I think they were sincere first offers, but they were unacceptable and would not lead to getting done on time.”

In a statement, Dayton said he’s met with legislators for the last six days to work out their differences on a budget and made four budget offers.

“Instead of returning to the table with their counteroffers, as we had agreed they would do – Republicans are instead choosing to double down on their original budget bills with no compromises,” Dayton said in a statement. “I am hopeful that those who are in the Legislative Leadership have the ability, resolve, and political courage to come back to the table so we can finish the job Minnesotans sent us to Saint Paul to do on their behalf.”

Dayton and Republicans plan to meet Tuesday afternoon to continue going over the budget bills. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said that meeting must be productive or the House and Senate could move start taking votes in their own budget bills — without a compromise. That could force Dayton to veto budget bills and start the process over.

Lawmakers are trying to pass a budget deal and meet a May 22 deadline to adjourn. If a budget deal is not passed in time, Dayton could call legislators back into a special session. They must find a deal before July 1, the start of the fiscal year, or state government operations will automatically shut down. 

Yes, it's a big deal that money for Southwest LRT was in the federal budget. And, yes, it could still be killed

Tue, 05/09/2017 - 11:26am
Peter Callaghan

Was the news that the Southwest Light Rail Transit project was included in the 2017 federal budget compromise a big deal?

Or not?

How you answer might depend on which side of the Great SWLRT Debate you land on.

For supporters of the project — a 14.5-mile $1.858 billion extension of the Green Line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie — the news was cause for celebration. In a year when the president of the United States had said he wanted all rail projects excised from the budget, seeing any funding for projects next in line for federal funding, including Southwest LRT, came as a surprise.

For opponents, though, the news was dismissed as a blip in a long-running battle that is far from over. And with so many hurdles left to leap, they argued, the project’s relatively paltry allocation in the budget, $10 million, was hardly cause for a victory lap, especially if you account for the hostility of the state Legislature and the uncertainty surrounding one of the key local funding mechanisms.

So is it possible that both sides are right? Sorta? Kinda? Maybe?

Given the complexity of the fight about light rail transit in the Twin Cities, the answer is probably: Of course. Here, then, is an explanation of why that's the case; where things go from here, and what could still kill the project. 

Why was the $10 million in the federal budget such a big deal?
Because the inclusion of the first bit of federal funding for Southwest LRT — along with projects in Washington state, California and Maryland that (like SWLRT) do not yet have final approval by the Federal Transit Administration  — was a surprise.

In March, when President Donald Trump released his first 2018 budget outline, no money for mass transit projects was included, and administration officials asked Congress to begin zeroing out the federal funding share of transit projects starting with the 2017 fiscal year budget.

That’s why the agreement recently reached by Congress — which essentially preserved a status quo transit budget — was taken as a pleasant and unexpected development by project backers. Not only was Southwest LRT listed by name and dollar amount, but the budget language orders the transportation secretary to “administer funding” for the listed projects.

But it’s only $10 million. Isn’t the feds’ share of the project supposed to be a lot more?
Yes, $929 million — but that’s for the duration of the project’s construction. Each year’s budget only allots the federal government’s share of the money needed in that given fiscal year. Even if everything goes as Metro Transit hopes, construction on Southwest won’t begin until the fall, which means there may only be a few weeks of work done before the close of the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. Should the funding continue, Metro Transit would expect to get around $125 million from the feds in 2018.

Could the Trump administration still kill Southwest LRT? 
Sure. Now that Trump has signed the budget agreement, the Southwest LRT project office still has to complete a lot of work before it can even apply for a full-funding grant agreement (FFGA), which locks the feds into providing their full share of big transit projects. And the administration could still make the decision not to spend the transit funds provided for in the budget. 

What’s more, the secretary of transportation could still refuse to sign an FFGA, even if the staff recommends such an action. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao did just that earlier this year when transit staffers recommended the signing of an FFGA for a project related to commuter trains in the San Francisco Bay Area. The action came after 14 members of Congress from California wrote her urging that the agreement not be struck (one concern was that the project is connected to a controversial plan for a high-speed rail network in the state).

Metropolitan Council

The California delegation letter was the backdrop for a similar letter sent by 84 Republican legislators from Minnesota— including House Speaker Kurt Daudt — urging Chao to deny an FFGA for Southwest LRT. That missive led Gov. Mark Dayton to send his own letter to Chao urging her to fund the project and to sign the agreement when it’s presented to her. 

If Chao remains disinclined to sign additional FFGAs it will become apparent later this year, well before a decision on the Southwest project is due. Should she refuse, Southwest is in trouble. Should she sign other FFGAs, it bodes well for the project.

So is construction going to start soon?
A lot still has to happen before that can happen. Let’s start with the freight rail agreements. Right now, two railroads — BNSF and the Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company — use the tracks in the right of way that are supposed to someday carry light rail trains. Metro Transit is currently negotiating shared-use agreements with the railroads that will govern how the corridor is shared.

But the state Legislature may affect those negotiations. House File 2230 would allow Metro Transit to share liability should an accident occur involving a freight line, including ethanol trains that TC&W moves through the Kenilworth corridor, between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in Minneapolis. The railroad argues that since they aren’t the ones putting passenger rail in what had been a freight corridor, they shouldn’t bear the liability alone, and legislative opponents worry that a massive accident could leave taxpayers to cover all the costs of a disaster. 

Met Council won’t comment on details of the ongoing railroad negotiations. But spokesperson Kate Brickman said the bill is not necessary for completion of the negotiations. “At no point before or after [Southwest submits its FFGA application] is the legislation necessary,” she wrote.

So what about the money?
Within the next few weeks, Metro Transit will submit information to the Federal Transit Administration that will allow the feds to assess whether the local agency has the financial wherewithal to complete the project and operate it in the future.

Though funding for the Southwest LRT project has been complicated by the refusal of legislative Republicans to deliver a 10 percent share of construction costs, the Met Council thinks it can show it has the money to cover half of the project’s construction costs — even without the state pitching in any more money.

As of now, the project relies on transit sales tax assessed in five metro counties to cover $516.5 million of the $929 million non-federal share. The Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority will use property tax revenue to pay $185.8 million (plus the donation of $69 million in land). The state had already provided $30.3 million. 

To replace the rest of the state’s share of the construction costs — money that the GOP-controlled Legislature is unlikely to provide — the Counties Transit Improvement Board, the regional body that administers the transit sales tax, and the Met Council planned to issue what are called certificates of participation (COPs), a borrowing instrument that will be repaid with future transit revenue. 

The FTA’s examination of the Metro Transit’s “financial capacity” will look to make sure that money is real. The federal government doesn’t allow a local transit agency to cannibalize existing service to pay for a light rail line, and Metro Transit is already facing an operating shortfall that may be worsened by the pending state budget.

It gets even more complicated, though. After last week's meeting of the Counties Transit Improvement Board, commissioners struck a deal to dissolve the regional agency, which would allow Southwest LRT to abandon the COP funding mechanism (or at least shift the burden to Hennepin County). It would also absolve the Met Council of having to find money in its transit revenue to repay them, easing that shortfall and making the SWLRT finance plan look more sustainable. 

If approved by the five counties — Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington — and CTIB, the agency could be dissolved by September 30. If that happens, counties could impose their own transportation taxes by Oct. 1. 

Yet it’s still unclear what will happen with the numerous poison pills sprinkled through the most recent transportation proposal by the GOP at the Legislature, which include a ban on the use of COPs; a demand that Hennepin County hold a public vote if it wants to increase the transit tax, which is currently set a quarter of one percent; and an outright ban on the use of new money on light rail expansions unless the Legislature approves it.

Dakota County Commission ChairMike Slavik

Both Dakota County Commissioner Mike Slavik and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said they’d heard from legislators that leaders at the Capitol wanted CTIB to work things out on its own. “Some of the hope and the discussions is that with this, we would all be working together to not have those portions of the CTIB bill in a final transportation bill,” Slavik said. “It strengthens the hand of those on the hill who want to get rid of that language,” McLaughlin said.

Even if it passes the Legislature, there are doubts that Gov. Mark Dayton would sign such a bill as his support for light rail expansion has been strong. 

Let’s just say all the money stuff can be worked out. What then?
The federal government puts grant applicants through a lengthy set of hoops to prove that their projects are viable, sustainable and paid for. Only then will the FTA sign the most important document for any light rail project: the Full Funding Grant Agreement.

That contract is the final step in guaranteeing that the FTA will be a funding partner for the life of the construction. It would also allow federal money to begin flowing to reimburse for money that’s already been spent on “project eligible costs.” 

But just because the Southwest project is in the 2017 budget agreement recently approved by Congress doesn’t guarantee the FTA staff will recommend signing the FFGA or that the administration will allow it to go through.

Metro Transit and the Met Council hope to apply for an FFGA for Southwest LRT this summer and get a decision and a signature by the end of 2017 or early 2018. In either case, it will require that the project’s position in the 2017 federal budget remains in the 2018 budget.

What else could derail the project?
A lawsuit, for one. In August 2015, U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim issued a ruling on a lawsuit brought by a neighborhood group called the Lakes and Parks Alliance. That suit, paid for mainly by residents along the Kenilworth Corridor, where Metro Transit planned to run light rail parallel to existing freight tracks, challenged the environmental review of the project. 

Specifically, the suit alleged that Metro Transit made what was essentially the final decision on the route before it had completed an environmental review, which — if true — would have violated federal law. That’s because the agency needs to be open to changing direction if an environmental impact statement suggests that a different alignment would cause less harm.

MinnPost photo by Peter CallaghanCommissioner Peter McLaughlin

Tunheim rejected the request by the neighbors for summary judgment. He did find, however, that the Met Council got very close to prejudging the EIS and locking itself in to one particular alignment for the project. “The Court remains concerned that the Met Council has done more than express a preferred alternative,” the judge wrote, “and has ‘gone too far’ and has effectively committed itself to a specific route.”

Tunheim hung onto to the case to provide time to see how officials overseeing the project behaved going forward: how the Met Council's revised EIS would look; how the agency went about seeking consent a second time from the cities the line passes through; and whether the neighbors who sued could find new information that would make the judge change his mind about his decision. “The Court anticipates that at the appropriate time when the record is more adequately developed, the Court will once again consider summary judgment,” Tunheim wrote.

The project’s EIS was completed and accepted by the FTA last July. In December, the FTA allowed Southwest LRT to move into the engineering phase. 

But now, 21 months after Tunheim’s ruling, attorneys for the Lakes and Parks Alliance have filed a second request for summary judgment based largely on information it obtained via discovery in the suit. Filed on April 28, the motion cites emails and other communications that the plaintiffs say show Met Council officials considered the Kenilworth route irreversible. In one, current Met Council Chair Adam Duininck wrote to then-Chair Jane Hague to express unhappiness that the council sided with St. Louis Park on the issue of co-locating freight and light rail in the Kenilworth corridor. “From the first briefing I received on SWLRT, it was overwhelmingly clear where the staff recommendation was headed,” wrote Duininck in 2013, when he was a Met Council member representing Minneapolis. “That sense of it being a foregone conclusion is the primary driver of why Minneapolis believes the process has not been fair.”

Whether there is enough new in those documents to persuade Tunheim to order a new environmental review and analysis of other routes will be determined after the Met Council replies to the summary judgment filing and perhaps after another court hearing.

But in an email discovered by the neighbors but not cited in the court filing, Duininck told Dayton in early 2016 that the lawsuit remained troubling. After telling Dayton that the FTA was unlikely to sign an FFGA before President Obama left office, Duininck wrote that the reason is that the FTA “is concerned that the litigation risk is still there until Judge Tunheim rules on the Lakes and Parks Alliance case.”

Anything else that could stop it? 
Yes — the Minnesota Legislature. For three sessions, backers of Southwest LRT have held on to hope that Republicans who control the Minnesota House would be open to a compromise — some sort of deal that would deliver the final 10 percent of construction money. Even selling the instruments designed to obviate the need for more state money, the certificates of participation, were delayed until this session could be completed in order to see if something could be worked out.

If anything, animus toward the Southwest LRT project and light rail, in general, has only become more intense. And many of the lawmakers who signed the letter to Chao are making decisions on transportation funding.

“The saga will continue,” McLaughlin said. “We have two weeks to go.”

Correction: This story has been updated to show that the emails that are the basis for the current court filing by the Lakes and Parks Alliance were gotten via discovery in the suit and not via the Data Practices Act.

MinnPost Picks: on Reconstruction, the High Line, and the fight over a House seat in Montana

Tue, 05/09/2017 - 11:14am
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