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

Bell Museum in bonding crosshairs

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: May 7, 2014 - 10:20 AM

The long-neglected James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History appears about to have its moment in a conference committee spotlight. Created in 1872 by the state and sited on the campus of the University of Minnesota, the Bell's 75-year-old facility has been treated as a near-orphan in many recent years, excluded from university funding requests and denied state funding via gubernatorial vetoes and legislative parsimony.

But it found a champion some years ago in House capital investments chair Alice Hausman. The St. Paul DFLer put full funding -- $51.5 million -- for a new Bell Museum into her bonding bill.  After several rounds of downsizing, it is still there -- for now.

Keeping it there is now a major challenge. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler singled out the Bell Tuesday when he issued a stern statement objecting to the House bill's tightfisted response to other university requests.

"The University of Minnesota recognizes the Bell Museum as a great asset to the state," Kaler said. "However ... we support funding for the Bell Museum as long as it does not divert money from projects requested by the regents for the university."  He noted that the House bill that left the Ways and Means Committee Tuesday fully funds only one of the university's six top priority requests, that for renovation of the Tate Laboratory of Physics.

It's hard to conclude that the Bell isn't squeezing the university's share of the House bill, when those items are packaged together on summary sheets and in House File 2490's text. But Hausman is correct when she says that the Bell is not a university facility. It's a creature of the state, created to fulfill a scientific and educational mission embraced by the Legislature 142 years ago. Its cramped 75-year-old Art Deco building may be charming, but it's an impediment to the fulfillment of that mission today.

The Legislature has demonstrated considerable creativity in adding buildings to the Capitol complex without general obligation bonding, using lease-back agreements. The Bell is a state facility, every bit as much as a new state Senate office building will be. Surely legislators who want bonding authorizations reserved for the university and other purposes can be as creative with Bell financing has they have been with their own office needs.


Prof. Oberstar's seminars

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: May 3, 2014 - 6:38 PM

A visit to the Star Tribune by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar was a special occasion no editorial writer wanted to miss. Oberstar, who died Saturday at age 79, was a font of knowledge about his beloved Eighth District, his policy specialty -- transportation -- and a whale of a lot more. 

Oberstar's Editorial Board briefings were the equivalent of graduate school seminars. Far from being out of touch, as his political rivals claimed, he was often the first to tell us about new mining technology, pending industrial expansion in Duluth, or a proposed nature preserve in the southern part of his district.

He was also as conversant about Twin Cities transit needs as any metro-area member of the state's congressional delegation. As the House Transportation Committee chair from 2007 until his defeat in 2010 and the ranking minority member for many years before that, Oberstar was deeply familiar with Minnesota's requests for federal transportation dollars.

He loved cycling and was a champion for bicycle trails. He loved railroads, and regaled us with stories about his first trips from Duluth to Chicago and back aboard the fast trains of the 1950s. But his critics had it wrong when they accused him of neglecting highways and bridges. When the Interstate Hwy. 35 bridge fell in Minneapolis in 2007, Oberstar quickly and successfully led the charge for nearly full federal funding of its replacement. 

Oberstar was a popular Editorial Board guest for another reason: He was fun. He always brought a big smile, a warm greeting (sometimes in French), good humor and abundant enthusiasm for his topics. Though he visited infrequently, he always seemed as glad to see us as we were to see him. 

I was looking forward to seeing the former congressman next month at the opening of the Green Line, the new light rail link formerly known as the Central Corridor between Minneapolis and St. Paul. He helped make it happen. He surely would have been there. He surely will be remembered there, and missed.

Marijuana and the art of compromise

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: May 1, 2014 - 2:14 PM

Big policy changes seldom occur in a single session of the Minnesota Legislature. More typically, change comes incrementally over several sessions, nudged along by a few key legislators and persistent interest groups who are willing to take what they can get one year and come back again for more.

Second-term Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, is encountering that reality as the sponsor of a bill to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

On Thursday, Melin stood before TV cameras to announce her decision to limit the scope of her bill, so as to neutralize the opposition of the state's major law enforcement organizations. The new version of the bill will allow cannabis extracts and oils to be prescribed under clinical trials to treat certain medical conditions, and vaporized marijuana to be used under medical supervision.

That's very similar to a proposal Gov. Mark Dayton offered six weeks ago. Melin and medical marijuana advocates rejected it then, saying it did not go far enough. Some advocates say they won't support the new version. They note that a stronger bill, legalizing pot smoking for medicinal purposes, is advancing in the state Senate, and would provide relief for more conditions more conveniently. 

But Melin, a 28-year-old attorney, sounded like a veteran when she explained why she's come around: "I personally wish we could do more. I don't like that some people are being left out. But if we can do something for some people -- and I'm actually of the opinion that this is doing a lot for a lot of people -- then that's actually a pretty big victory for the cause and for a lot of these families. It will allow them to access the medicine they need."

After weeks of trying to persuade medical marijuana opponents that her bill would not erode public health or safety, Melin's persuasive work is not over. She must now convince her allies that doing something beats doing nothing this year. That, too, is the mark of a good legislator.


Abeler's 'all in' U.S. Senate race

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: April 22, 2014 - 1:49 PM

State Rep. Jim Abeler's voice Tuesday quivered a bit with emotion, but his words and decision were clear: He won't be back in the state House next year, no matter how his bid for U.S. Sen. Al Franken's seat ends. He's "all in" as a Senate candidate, he said.

The eight-term Republican from Anoka went so far as to introduce to reporters the Republican he hopes will succceed him in the House, 26-year-old Abigail Whelan, a former legislative staffer. 

Abeler is the 14th House member to announce that he or she won't seek reelection, and one of three who are bowing out of the 134-member body to seek higher office. With up to four more lawmaking weeks ahead, that list is likely to grow.

But few departures are likely to be met with as much bipartisan regret as Abeler's -- in part because it will coincide with the retirement of DFL Rep. Tom Huntley of Duluth, and comes not long after the 2011 departure of former state Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, for a Hennepin County post. Those three were longstanding legislative masters of health care policy who did much to make Minnesota a leader among the states in health insurance coverage at an affordable cost.

Legislative policy batons get passed with every election, and sometimes get dropped. That's the nature of the institution, and a challenge for legislative leaders. It falls to them to structure committees with succession planning in mind, so that junior legislators are ready to shape major bills when senior legislators step aside or their districts show them the door. It can be a tough assignment. With matters as complicated as health care, expertise builds slowly, and legislators' willingness to acquire it is not universal.

As for Abeler, he says he's eager for a chance in the U.S. Senate to apply his bipartisan style and health policy principles -- protect the client, not the delivery systems -- to national efforts to control costs. Only the occasional break in his voice revealed that he's also sad to go.

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.


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