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

Conventions deserve separate weekends

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: June 1, 2014 - 2:20 PM

State political party conventions aren't conducted for the benefit of the people in their host arenas. They attempt to convey messages and meaning to the broader electorate -- even if most of those broader electors tune in only briefly.

Belief in that mission inspires journalists to report on these biennial confabs. It's why I felt duty-bound this weekend to spend one day with the Republicans in Rochester and another with the DFLers in Duluth. After more than 35 years of covering state party conventions, I could not imagine skipping either event.

But I had to wonder this year whether the parties share my belief in the purpose of conventions. If they do, why did they schedule their big shows for the same weekend, when each would detract from Minnesotans' focus on the other?

Mine might be the lament of a road-weary journalist. But every contributor of time and treasure to this weekend's not-inexpensive meetings has grounds for complaint, too. They aren't getting their money's worth when Party X's convention must share the news spotlight with Party Y's down the road.

The party officials I consulted blame the primary date shift from September to August four years ago for this weekend's convention collision. Fewer opportune weekends are available now, they said.

But that's not the whole story. There's also reluctance to meet after the filing period, which decides whose names are on the primary ballot. Conventions aim to whittle down that list. This year, the filing period closes on June 3.

Further, legislators don't like meeting while the Legislature is in session and its contentious issues are unresolved. Avoiding Easter, Passover, Mother's Day, Memorial Day and the Fishing Opener also comes into play. So, I fear, does a paucity of good will between the parties.

Holidays won't go away. But all the other excuses used to justify this year's same-weekend schedule deserve reexamination. Political parties are already deemed too insular and inscrutable. Conducting conventions simultaneously only makes that reputation worse. 

Moms transformed marijuana debate

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: May 9, 2014 - 5:27 PM

The moms stood in the House gallery for an hour and more as the debate over medical marijuana proceeded, bearing compelling witness to the point they'd been making all session: This issue is about the very lives of sick children and their families.

They are Minnesota mothers of young children suffering debilitating and potentially fatal forms of epilepsy. They've been at the Capitol all year, so much so that many legislators know not only their names, but their children's. They know how desperate those families are to relieve their children's misery, and how convinced they are that medicinal cannabis -- their preferred name -- can bring that relief.

Maybe because they were there, Friday's debate in the House was unlike any other this session. It was highly personal and emotional as legislators said they empathize with those standing moms and the other sufferers they represented. In turn, they told their own stories about the conditions marijuana or its deviatives might ease. Tearful stories were shared about the helplessness of losing a young wife and mother to breast cancer, the horrors of sickening chemotherapy, the desire of children to ease a father's multiple sclerosis symptoms.

The partisan politics that is the daily norm on the House floor drained away. The vote that sent the bill back to the Senate, and likely to conference committee, was a bipartisan 86-39, with 17 Republicans voting yes and two DFLers voting no.

Citizen lobbying is not rare at the Minnesota statehouse. But this year's dogged persistence of the "marijuana moms" has been extraordinary, and appears to be a game-changer. The opposition of law enforcement and the medical establishment has been enough to stymie medical marijuana bills in previous years. If this year proves different, the sick Minnesotans who will have legal access to marijuana's relief will have these mothers to thank.

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.


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