Editorial Roundup: Minnesota

Minneapolis Star Tribune. February 10, 2024.

Editorial: Set modest goals for legislative session

After four years of major policy changes — and big spending — here’s hoping for a return to normalcy in even-year work at the State Capitol.

After all that state government has been through in the last four years, the return of the Minnesota Legislature to the State Capitol Monday may have some Minnesotans bracing for a fresh wave of major change.

Legislators have generated a number of such waves already this decade, producing both disruption and impressive results. Minnesotans can take pride in how their state government navigated the pandemic and in many of the policy and spending decisions made during last year’s supercharged, big-surplus session.

But now the pandemic is largely passed, the economy has improved, the state budget is set, and the election of state senators and constitutional officers is more than two years away. That makes this a fine year for legislators to give Minnesotans a reassuring show of steadiness. We’re rooting for an old-style even-year session.

Even-year regular sessions resumed 50 years ago after a nearly century-long hiatus, with an understanding that legislators would not reopen biennial budgets unless the state was facing an emergency. Budgets would still be set in odd-numbered years. In even years, legislators were tasked with directing capital investments via a bonding bill, considering non-fiscal policy matters, conducting oversight and planning, and amending flaws in previous legislation.

That 50-year-old agenda, writ broadly, is well suited to this year. Last year’s whopping $17 billion surplus has been allocated. The latest state budget forecast projects that in 2026-27, spending is on track to exceed revenue by $2.3 billion. Fiscal restraint is now in order.

The forecast makes room for what ought to be this session’s top goal: resuming the traditional every-other-year rhythm for major bonding bills. Too many times in the past two decades, that rhythm has been disrupted by partisan gamesmanship. The $2.6 billion bill enacted last year was a catch-up measure, needed because no bill passed in 2021 or 2022.

This year, a bill close in size to the $982 million proposed by Gov. Tim Walz is affordable. That’s enough to produce a nuts-and-bolts bill devoted to repair of existing structures, especially on higher education campuses, and improvements in public health and safety, including clean water.

Other proposals to increase general fund spending should be met with caution. But the general fund is not the only funding source at legislators’ disposal. They should think creatively and respond affirmatively to the plea from University of Minnesota to shore up funding of academic medicine and help the university return to sole ownership of its hospital facilities, as envisioned in a letter of intent last week between the U and Fairview Health Services.

The Legislature ought not wait until 2025 to bolster this state’s commitment to keeping health care, education and research strong at the U. The recent uncertainty that has surrounded the future of the university’s quarter-century relationship with Fairview has already taken a toll. Minnesota slipped to ninth place among public research universities in NIH funding in 2023, behind Wisconsin. A show of state support this year would help keep talent and research dollars coming.

The U also deserves to be at or near the front of the line if the next state budget forecast reveals an opportunity to supplement fiscal 2025 appropriations. The university is now scheduled for no increase in state aid in fiscal 2025 after a modest increase in 2024. Flat funding of the state’s best talent magnet won’t help Minnesota win the competition for brainpower. World-class universities are central to the best economies in the world.

One other funding claimant — public safety, including transit — should also be favored for a boos t. The personnel shortage that afflicts law enforcement is not solely a money issue, but it likely can’t be solved without additional spending. In particular, legislators should act on Walz’s 2023 recommendation for $8 million to enclose and control access to some of the most crime-plagued light-rail stations — a strategy the Star Tribune Editorial Board endorsed in its 2023 special report ” Systemic insecurity: Saving Twin Cities light rail.”

Where possible, though, this year’s legislators should look for remedies for the state’s ills that involve policy changes rather than funding increases, and that incorporate ideas from both parties and all regions of the state. Particular attention should be given to the state’s persistent shortage of workers and the deficiencies related to it in housing, child care, health care and education. The state’s business community should be heard at the Capitol, especially after a 2023 session that rankled leaders of some of the state’s most valuable employers.

This session should afford legislators time to lead discussions about long-simmering questions, among them legalization of sports gambling and end-of-life options for the terminally ill. It should allow for improvements in last year’s laws governing police restraint of students in schools and the establishment of dispensaries to sell marijuana.

This should be the year that an Equal Rights Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution is finally sent to the voters for approval — 101 years after a constitutional gender-equity guarantee was first introduced in the Minnesota House.

That move might be seen as a salute to the rise of female leadership at the Legislature in recent years, including newly elected Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy. It could also count as a tribute to one who stepped down. Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic’s Feb. 2 resignation from leadership for health reasons brought legislators together in concern and praise for her ability to unite people of diverse perspectives around common causes. We join those who wish her well, and hope that her example long endures.

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Mankato Free Press. February 12, 2024.

Editorial: Refusing to follow mask laws not a free speech issue

We are big, bold boosters of free speech, and that speech indeed could be heard through masks during the COVID pandemic.

Fortunately, a recent federal appeals court ruling reflects that stance. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in two related cases in New Jersey stemming from lawsuits where plaintiffs said school boards retaliated against them because they refused to wear masks during public meetings.

Four years after the pandemic reared its ugly head in this country, we all remember the controversial struggles over pandemic laws that were put in place to make public health the top priority. That meant mask mandates in many states and communities. New Jersey was no different, and at least two members of the public refused to wear masks at school board meetings and were eventually cited for trespassing. They’d broken the law.

The appeals court that heard those two cases reasoned that refusing to recognize the mask requirement during a public health emergency didn’t amount to free speech. The court equated it to refusing to pay taxes based on the belief that taxes are theft or not wearing a motorcycle helmet as a symbolic protest against a state law requiring them. You can voice your objection and refuse to follow the requirements, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t breaking the law.

School board members and officials were vilified across the country as they tried to make decisions to best educate students and keep them and staff protected from illness during an unprecedented public health crisis. Parents and other members of the public had every right to weigh in — but not illegally so.

At this point, many people just want to put the pandemic behind them and all of the angst that went with it. However, there was much to be learned from what we went through, including recognizing the difference between an opinion and a constitutional right.

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