State lawmakers spent more than three hours Friday mulling the economic benefits and privacy pitfalls of unmanned aerial devices, more commonly known as drones, while contemplating how to regulate them, if at all.
From attorneys and civil rights advocates to law enforcement and college professors, witnesses explained to a joint committee of legislators in a fact-finding hearing to learn how the devices work, how they’ve been regulated in other states, and their risks and rewards. Lawmakers left the hearing acknowledging that the information is useful should bills be drafted for the 2015 legislative session as concerns grow about potential high-tech spying.
A pair of University of Minnesota professors testified that they received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to use drones on in research facilities across the state, while Le Sueur County Geographic Information Systems Manager Justin Lutterman said the county was among the first local governments in the nation to get FAA approval to use a drone to map drainage ditches. The device’s high-tech cameras create 3-D mapping, completing in 15 minutes tasks that would ordinarily take a week, and at 16 to 20 times cheaper, he said, leading lawmakers to acknowledge distinct economic benefits to the technology.
Donald Chance Mark, Jr., an Eden Prairie Attorney whose firm specializes in aviation and has researched drone regulations, said the FAA receives 25 reports per month of drones in national airspace. Still, the agency has yet to establish a comprehensive set of laws surrounding drones, suggesting state legislatures take regulating them into their own hands. Twenty states across the country already have passed drone-related legislation.
Still, he said, “I’m not blaming the FAA for lagging behind,” he said. “The proliferation of these is just amazing.”
The FAA currently prohibits commercial use of drones without a specialized permit, yet realtors are using the devices to market or survey property, while drone companies are marketing their wares to farmers at trade shows.
Mark said potential legislation could involve registration of drones and licensing of their operators, pilot training or limiting the size and weight of the devices.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization’s primary concern when it comes to drones is the potential that they could create constant surveillance.
“If we do nothing, there is a chance we could get there,” Stanley said.
So far the organization said it would approve of law enforcement’s use of the drones in emergency situations, but would take a "wait and see" approach on private sector regulation of drones, start first with law enforcement regulation.
Bill Franklin, Executive Director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, said no law enforcement agency in the state owns or uses the devices, and that embracing the technology is likely far down the line.
"We're still trying to get computers and dash cams in all Minnesota squad cars,” Franklin said, but added that they would comply with the law if drones were used to gather evidence in future investigation.
Outgoing Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, remained skeptical, however, saying law enforcement has challenged data privacy-related policies in the past.
“We don’t want to impede your ability to get the bad guys, but frankly there are some bad guys within your ranks,” Holberg said.
Franklin responded that the organization has remained forthright, and has been and remains willing to negotiate on a number of issues.
Jay Reding, an attorney who owns and operates drones, told lawmakers that regulation requires knowing about drones and how they work. For instance, the skills required to pilot a drone are far different from that of a 737 jetliner. A ban on commercial use of the devices is also mostly ill-advised, he said. Hobbyists can fly drones within certain parameters legally, but if they make as much as $1 doing so, it's prohibited.
“There needs to be a common-sense, risk-based approach,” he said.
Minnesota lawmakers and the governor will have a nice cushion with which to craft a budget after the Minnesota Management and Budget Office on Thursday reported the state will see a $1-billion surplus.
The surplus, though expected, will set the table for the start of the upcoming budget process as Minnesota legislators figure out what to do with the windfall.
State budget officials said Thursday that the surplus is the result of higher tax revenues, mainly in sales and individual income tax collections, and reduced spending in health and human services. Moreover, the budget surplus from the 2014-15 fiscal year, which ends in June, was projected Thursday to be $373 million after diverting a portion of it to the state's budget reserve.
Budget officials said the drop in spending on health care is largely because of a different composition of enrollees receiving medical assistance.
State budget director Margaret Kelly on Thursday said that though the number of enrollees in medical assistance grew slightly from a previous forecast, the uptick of enrollees have been largely adults without children. Since that forecast, the rate of familes with children and individuals with disabilities enrolling in medical assistance has also dropped.
Since February, when the Minnesota Management and Budget agency published its last forecast, the state’s economy has expanded largely as projected, aided by stronger employment growth. The job gains have shrunk the unemployment rate to its lowest level in more than eight years — 3.9 percent.
Minnesota's economic outlook, however, was downgraded Thursday from the February report. State economist Laura Kalambokidis said that despite a turnaround in the labor market, wage growth is now projected to grow more slowly in 2014. Furthermore, it's likely that millennials burdened by high student-loan debt are not buying homes, which is reducing the rate of household formation.
Still, the budget forecast shows that the the state's fiscal picture has brightened considerably since February 2013, the last time the state faced a deficit, which stood then at $627 million.
Thursday’s forecast will guide the governor’s budget proposal, which Dayton has said he will present to the Legislature on Jan. 27. State lawmakers will craft their budget proposals based on a later February forecast, which includes updated economic data such as holiday retail sales and the country's fourth-quarter economic output.
Gov. Dayton has not yet gone into great detail on his priorities, but they are likely to include a request to fund child-care tax credits during next the next legislative session, set to begin next month.
“I’m not going to make any decisions until I see the revenue projections, but that’s still one I would give a high priority,” Dayton said Tuesday.
The tax credit would be intended to help families afford the cost of child care — a goal also supported by DFL legislators. The governor’s budget proposal may include funding requests for transportation, or a specific proposal may be introduced separately early next year. Dayton said during his re-election campaign that funding basic maintenance of the state’s infrastructure will be a key legislative priority.
The $1-billion surplus will likely make for a smoother session. Republicans are back in the majority in the House, but having extra money to work with would help the GOP, the DFL governor and DFL-controlled Senate create some common ground for compromise.
Dayton and legislative leaders on Thursday are expected to react to the complete report that was released at 11 a.m.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report
Minnesota Democrats are continuing their onslaught of criticism for GOP mailers that attack DFL House members for votes on an expungement bill and a drunk driving bill, pointing out that a pair of the Republican party’s own candidates this election cycle backed the same legislation.
In a news release, the DFL said that State Sen. Torrey Westrom, a Republican facing off against Rep. Collin Peterson in the 7th Congressional District, voted to pass an expungement bill criticized in the mailers as “allowing felons to work with our school children.”
Meanwhile, State Sen. Scott Newman, the state’s GOP Attorney General candidate, voted for an ignition interlock bill that the Republican Party is using to go after DFL House members.
Newman, R-Hutchinson, recalled that the measure had side support from law enforcement organizations. The measure passed unanimously in the Minnesota Senate, meaning that all Republican senators voted for it as well as all DFL ones.
The Republican Party claimed in its mailers that the drunk driving measure, “weakened penalties for dangerous drunk drivers.”
Newman said he would not vote for a bill that weakened penalties for dangerous drivers. Instead, he said the interlock bill allowed people who had been caught driving drunk to keep their licenses but only if they had a device installed that required them to be sober to start their cars.
“It may actually help get people off the road,” he said. Newman said he had not seen the mailer in question and was comfortable with his vote for the bill.
The mail pieces drew swift criticism from the DFL, who alerted the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Minnesotans for Safe Driving about the mailers. In response the nonpartisan organizations wrote letters criticizing the mailers and praising the legislation.
On Thursday, Minnesota Republican Party chair Keith Downey struck back, saying the DFL is just as guilty of using sensational imagery in its advertisements. Downey decried the "misleading and sensational mail from the Democrat party."
"Minnesota Democrats have to use these tactics because their ideas don’t work," Downey said.
DFL Chairman Ken Martin called on Downey to explain why he stands by the ads if they call out members of his own party.
“If Keith Downey and the Republican Party (are) standing behind these attacks, then they are standing behind attacks against Torrey Westrom and Scott Newman.” Martin said in a statement. “If Downey is not prepared to make those charges against Westrom and Newman, then we expect he will cease to make those charges against Democrats that took those same votes.”
Downey and Westrom did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday said that a Star Tribune report of a nonprofit using state funds to subsidize cruises, a director's car lease and spa treatments was very concerning and alarming.
"I was personally really appalled," Dayton said. "I take it very seriously."
The DFL governor met with his Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and others about Community Action on Monday to further delve into its spending. As a result, two state agencies, Human Services and Commerce will immediately develop an action plan to deal with Community Action.
The Star Tribune reported on Sunday that Community Action, which drew board members from high-profile Democratic ranks, that a Human Services Department audit found " the organization’s longtime chief executive, Bill Davis, misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2011 to 2013."
Jesson said her department saw red flags in the nonprofit's administrative spending and began looking into it months ago.
"I think we've been taking this very seriously. A step at a time," she said. Community Action was given an opportunity to respond by September 1. Those responses did not assuage the worry.
"What we have seen so far has not alleviated the serious concerns we had," she said.
Jesson said the department looks into state subsidized nonprofit spending and results and audits those that do not comply with best practices.
Jesson said that Dayton's budget two years ago included more funding for Human Services auditing.
Monday morning, Dayton did not say definitively whether Community Action would receive any more state funding.
"Give us an opportunity here to converse among ourselves," and the city of Minneapolis, he said. Dayton said he only became aware of the spending when the Star Tribune reported it on Sunday.
Community Action, which is supposed to help low-income city residents, included state Sen. Jeff Hayden, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson and City Council Member Robert Lilligren on its board. The Star Tribune reported that those elected officials sent others to board meetings in their stead.
Dayton said the party affiliation of the board members -- they are Democrats -- did not change his feelings about the nonprofit's spending.
"I would be very alarmed if there were Democrats involved, I would very alarmed if there were not Democrats involved," Dayton said. "The fact that there were people who were placed in positions of responsibility who allegedly...spent public funds inappropriately, particularly funds that were intended to help people get out of poverty, is very disturbing to me."
As construction workers milled at the site of a new state Senate office building by the Capitol, GOP candidate for governor Jeff Johnson held a press conference off to the side to renew his frequent criticism of the project.
Johnson and three other Republicans are in the final sprint toward Tuesday's primary election, where the party will pick its opponent for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Around the same time Johnson criticized the office building as wasteful and tried to link it to Dayton, he drew a rebuke over taxes from GOP opponent Kurt Zellers.
"Jeff Johnson is carrying the same tired ideas that Mark Dayton tried to force on Minnesotans just last year," read a press release from Zellers, the former House speaker. It's a reference to a May 2013 interview in MinnPost where Johnson expressed support for lowering the overall sales tax rate but shrinking the number of products and services exempt from it. That's similar to a tax reform proposal from Dayton in early 2013 that he later abandoned.
Johnson cited his strong rating from the Minnesota Taxpayers League and his record on the Hennepin County Board as evidence for his opposition to tax increases. He said he would seek to cut taxes as governor, and would veto any tax increase from the Legislature.
"Kurt's probably recognized that he's a ways behind and needs to go on the attack," said Johnson, whose endorsement from the state GOP has contributed to a view among many Republicans that he has a slight edge heading toward Tuesday's vote. The other two contenders are Scott Honour, a businessman and political newcomer, and Marty Seifert, the former House minority leader.
Johnson said he preferred to focus his criticism on Dayton, not fellow Republicans. It was Johnson's second press conference at the site of the new Capitol office building in less than six weeks. He called the project, being built with $77 million in taxpayer funds, "symbolic of Dayton's priorities."
The Minnesota DFL noted that several prominent Republican lawmakers, Sen. Dave Senjem and Rep. Matt Dean, were involved in the official process around moving the project forward, and voted in favor of hiring an architect and construction company.
Dean, in response to the DFL criticism, said while he did serve on the appointed panel that signed off on hiring an architect and contractor, that he has repeatedly stated his larger opposition to proceeding with the building . He said he didn't feel the state should specifically penalize architects or contractors for a project that had already been approved.
Johnson said if he were to become governor, he would seek to cancel construction if it's not too far along. If the state has already invested tens of millions, he said, he would try to re-purpose the building for some other state use besides the Senate.
The Honour campaign also took its turn criticizing the office building. The campaign released a video of his running mate, state Sen. Karin Housley, holding up a series of signs mocking the project.
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