James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Removal of brains, shooting at mobs and other "useless" laws

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: April 24, 2014 - 4:26 PM
Brains no longer needed

Brains no longer needed

In this year's Legislative "Unsession," Gov. Mark Dayton wants to get rid of 1,007 "useless and obsolete" laws that he says are clogging the body politic with all manner of unwholesome bureaucracy and general stupidity. Matt Swenson, the governor's spokesman, told me that Dayton has already signed five bills that have taken care of 45 obsolete laws, including statutes regarding desertion from the National Guard, defunct higher education programs and rules that restricted what farmers market vendors can offer as samples to tempt customers

Now setting aside how the governor got to this place - asking everybody in state government to take time to find useless and obsolete laws - I decided to examine the list itself to find out what it says about what our leaders once thought was important enough to sign into law but now is viewed as wasteful and even ridiculous.

One law authorizes doctors to remove the brain of any newly-deceased Medical Assistance recipient for Alzheimer's research, with the permission of next-of-kin. "The extracted brain shall be immediately transported to the St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center in a manner prescribed by the St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center." Created in 1985, the research project is apparently complete, so I hope the brain-collecting has ended as well

Another law slated for elimination restricts the National Guard from firing blanks at an unruly mob. Another requires the Department of Human Services to issue a report every five years on its reports. There's a law authorizing a toll for a bridge that goes nowhere, and money for a road that goes nowhere. A $5,000 MNDOT contingency fund was set up in 1959, but no one can remember why.

Reading the list is a visit to the policy graveyard. A 1999 program that designated communities as "E-Commerce Ready" collapsed with the dot.com bust. An effort to give inmates more leadership in prison-based organizations "was not successful." A law that set up wilderness areas within federal forests in northern Minnesota is no longer needed, because "designation of future state wilderness areas is unlikely."

Some of the issues are very much with us today. One law refers to juvenile prostitution prevention grants, which haven't been awarded since 2003. Another refers to a defunct "at-risk out-of-wedlock pregnancy prevention program" that used to spend $1 million a year.

For most of these laws, it's like the old jars of barbecue sauce at the back of the fridge, or the college textbooks on your bookshelf. They don't affect your life that much, but it feels good to get rid of them.

One law highlighted as particularly silly intrigued me. The governor proposed eliminating the requirement that elevator operators get government certification. He noted that only two remained in Minnesota. I set out to find them. More on that later.

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