Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, has covered state government and politics for more than 30 years.

House panel approves a better State Capitol office building

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: April 4, 2014 - 4:09 PM

I wish I'd been standing next to the bust of Senate Majority Leader Nicholas Coleman Friday afternoon when the House Rules Committee voted 14-13 to proceed with construction of a $77 million new office building for all 67 state senators. I think I might have heard a cheer.

The building plan that barely cleared the House Rules panel must now return to the Senate Rules Committee for final blessing. But given nearly 40 years of partisan resistance to the idea of providing suitable office space for every senator, the Senate panel would be foolish not to gratefully go along with the House's version.

A new, unified Senate office facility fixes a problem that dates to Coleman's era. Legislators didn't have offices of their own before 1975, when annual sessions, open meeting laws and more professionalization threw the institution's doors open to public participation.

Senators have been scattered in the Capitol and State Office Building since then. The arrangement is hard on citizen lobbyists, especially the elderly and disabled. It doesn't do anything positive for lawmaking efficiency or collegiality, either. The Capitol's renovation is poised to make matters worse, shrinking from 45 to 23 the number of senators that the Capitol can accommodate.

Nevertheless, the proposal to correct those problems with a new building has come under heavy partisan fire as "self-serving" and unnecessary. The plan the House Rules Committee approved is an improvement over an earlier version. It houses all 67 senators under one roof and costs nearly $17 million less, mostly because plans for an adjacent parking garage have been dropped. Still, it was no surprise that it cleared the DFL-controlled House panel with no votes to spare.

Today's legislative office space dilemma traces back to the move toward a more orderly and transparent lawmaking process. That history gives a twist of irony to the unconventional process that brought the building question to the fore this year. By choosing to launch the authorization process in the 2013 Senate tax bill rather than the capital improvements bill and skimping on hearings, the building's Senate DFL backers handed ammunition to their Republican critics.

The vetting that happened at House Rules on Friday was at least a year overdue. As a result of the analysis of alternatives conducted in public view, the 14 DFLers who voted yes can at least defend their decision with facts and figures. They point to the version the House committee approved as the most cost-effective way to fix the Senate's 40-year-old space problem.

A champion for breakfasts

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: April 1, 2014 - 4:37 PM

State Sen. Alice Johnson has been the champion of breakfasts for Minnesota school children through two legislative careers. The Spring Lake Park DFLer is working hard to secure $7.25 million in surplus dollars to provide free breakfasts for all Minnesota school children. She'll learn at Thursday's Senate Finance Committee meeting whether her persistence has paid off.

Free school breakfasts are a project she began 20 years ago in part one of her two-part legislative career. Johnson served 14 years in the House, from 1986 to 2000, including a stint as chair of the K-12 funding committee.

She returned as a senator in 2013, and discovered to her surprise and dismay that she could pick up where she left off on school breakfasts. The positive results of a six-site, three-year pilot project she pushed through the 1994 Legislaturs had been ignored during her hiatus from the Capitol.

That's a shame, Johnson said, because those results should have compelled action. They showed that if all children were offered free breakfast, nearly all children participated. Today, only students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches are offered free breakfasts. Only about half of eligible students participate. The pilot project analysis pointed to one reason: the stigma of a subsidized meal is counter-productive.

When all students ate breakfast in their classrooms, attentiveness and behavior through the day improved. School nurse visits declined in number. And test scores improved, as judged by the scores of sixth graders who were offered free school breakfasts compared with their own performances as third graders, when free breakfasts were only available to a few.

Providing free school breakfasts "offers the best return on any investment in closing the achievement gap," Johnson says. She's even made a video to sell the idea.

Free school breakfasts for all are among a number of policy ideas that were advancing at the state Capitol in the late 1990s, then slowed or halted by two recessions, recurring deficits and partisan discord. Now that the state budget is in the black again, Johnson may be back at the Legislature at just the right time.

Remembering Nazi Germany, part zwei

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: March 26, 2014 - 12:26 PM

Consider it a Minnesota counterpoint to a controversial Nazi reenactors' party on Martin Luther King Day at a Minneapolis restaurant. That's the contrast that struck me Tuesday as about 100 Minnesotans -- legislators, business executives and academicians among them -- heard four scholars consider the continuing implications of the Nazi memories today's Germans bear.

Their forum, sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Center for German and European Studies, highlighted the huge German response to a recent three-part TV docudrama that aired in that country as "Our Mothers, Our Fathers." It is being screened for American audiences as "Generation War."

The film depicts the war experience of five young friends, two women, two soldiers and one Jewish man. One German critic called the series "the first and last chance to ask our grandparents about their true biographies."

A last chance to hear war participants' voices is indeed at hand. Surviving war veterans are now in their late 80s and 90s. But it may be news to Americans that some Germans have not yet had a first chance to explore the Holocaust and Nazi brutality with their elders.

Panelists explained that not until the 1990s, after Germany was reunified, did Germans truly examine Nazi history and debate the German population's culpability for atrocities. In the former East Germany, Holocaust denial was commonplace, panelists said. In some telling, the 6 million Jews murdered in Nazi death camps were characterized as war victims akin to other Germans who suffered and died from 1939 to 1945. 

Today's German goverment is "actively involved in keeping the memory alive, and in educating this and future generations about German history," said Christa Tiefenbacher-Hudson, honorary consul of the Federal Republic of Germany in Minneapolis. "It's all meant to understand what happened in the past and also to prevent that it would happen again in the future." Minnesotans, too, should seek understanding of the sort that comes from sober analysis of genocidal empire-building -- not from partying in Nazi garb.

Borlaug's new home: National Statuary Hall

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: March 25, 2014 - 10:27 AM

Norman Borlaug would have been 100 Tuesday. He also would have been proud and a bit embarrassed by the fuss made over him at National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, where Borlaug's statue was dedicated as one of the two stony likenesses allotted to the state of Iowa.

My hunch is that he might have also noted that while he was born in Cresco, Iowa, he was educated and launched on his career in agricultural research at the University of Minnesota. I knew Borlaug well enough to know that he considered Minnesota his second home.

The bronze sculpture of Borlaug depicts him as he looked while working at his third home, in Mexico. That's where he conducted his work to increase wheat yields -- and yielded strains and methods that ended starvation in much of the developing world. He won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Borlaug was described as "a great gift of Iowa" at Tuesday's ceremony in Washington. His Minnesota connection is bound to be recognized Thursday beginning at 1:30 p.m. at his alma mater, where a celebration and conference about food security in his honor is set for McNamara Alumni Center.

Building's critics need Plan B

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: March 24, 2014 - 11:47 AM

A proposed new office building and parking complex for Minnesota senators is “unnecessary, unconstitutional and unpaid for,” a group of Republican legislators charged Monday as they announced plans to try to repeal the $90 million project’s as-yet-incomplete authorization process, set in law in 2013.

They also faulted the new building’s DFL backers for lacking a Plan B — an alternative to the new building both for housing legislative floor sessions in 2016, when the Capitol will be closed for restoration, and for the loss of about 15 Senate offices from the Capitol when that project is completed.

But as reporters learned upon questioning, the project’s GOP critics don’t have a Plan B, either.
It’s getting close to crunch time for the building proposal — lest indecision cause delay in the four-year Capitol restoration and cost taxpayers a tidy sum. Its fate sits in the House rules committee.

To be taken seriously at this late date, any revision in the proposed building plan ought to come with plausible, cost-effective alternative solutions to the problems it is intended to solve. Where will the Legislature meet in 2016? If it’s in existing space, how much will it cost to make over that space for the peculiar electronic demands of a floor session? Where will the public find their senators after the Capitol is rebuilt to house fewer of them?

For 40 years, senators’ offices have been split between the State Office Building and the Capitol. That’s a confusion-causing inconvenience for citizens, some of whom travel long distances for the sake of rushed meetings with their legislators. It will be a shame if lawmakers don’t seize the opportunity presented by Capitol renovation to correct that long-standing mistake.

Staggered Senate terms, anyone?

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: March 20, 2014 - 12:46 PM

This week, the Minnesota Senate's DFL majority is likely going to be very glad to see Friday come. They've been on the receiving end of a scolding by the DFL governor, thinly veiled scorn from their House counterparts, and a barrage of barbs from the GOP minority, all over their handling of politically sensitive tax and facilities issues.

At this writing, the Senate majority is aiming for redemption via approval of a $430 million tax relief bill. It's a good measure.

But critics note that the bill would not be necessary if the Senate majority had pursued different policies in 2013. The new bill includes federal conformity measures that the House favored last year, and repeals three ill-advised expansions of the sales tax to businesses that the Senate promoted 10 months ago.

The Senate also tucked planning money for a new office building for senators in the 2013 tax bill, and DFLers have been asked to defend it ever since. That building's fate now rests in the hands of a politically nervous, DFL-dominated House Rules Committee. On Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton accused senators of holding up this year's tax bill for the building's sake. They denied the charge -- but the Senate tax bill has been leaping through procedural hoops since.

Dayton's signature on a tax relief bill will soothe some DFL political nerves. But it's not likely to diminish the sense that the Senate isn't as attuned to public opinion as Dayton and House members. That stands to reason: Dayton and the House are on the 2014 ballot. Senators' four-year terms aren't due for renewal until 2016.

This year's tax-and-facilities drama is bound to revive interest in an old proposal -- staggered terms for state senators. Of the 38 states whose senators serve four-year terms, 28 states stagger their terms so that half of senators are on the ballot each year.

A four-year term brings a welcome long-term perspective to state lawmaking. It gives senators more  latitude to take political risks. But that risk-taking is only beneficial if it serves the state's long-term interests, not self-interest-- and does not lead to risk-takers' remorse soon thereafter.

The state Constitution gives Minnesota senators a degree of political freedom that officials in many other states would envy. My hunch is that some Senate critics would say that the Constitution is too generous in that regard, and that it should be amended to stagger Senate terms.




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