Sensing a major new source of exports for Minnesota producers, a group of state lawmakers wants $100,000 to help small farmers tap into opportunities presented by the normalization of trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
"I think there is an opportunity for the best family farmers in the world here in Minnesota to expand the markets in Cuba as the restrictions are being lifted," Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, said Tuesday. "I would like to see us get down there first."
In December, President Obama issued an executive order to open business, trade and travel relationships with the island 90 miles of Florida that's lingered under Communist rule for more than half a century. Earlier this month, Sen. Amy Klobuchar took the lead on a U.S. Senate effort to lift the Cuban trade embargo completely. That would eliminate any remaining legal barriers to Americans who want to do business in Cuba.
Considine's bill would provide $50,000 in state dollars in 2016 and again in 2017 aimed at helping Minnesota farmers tap that emerging market. He said the first installment could help fund a Minnesota trade mission to Cuba, and the rest to spread what's learned on that trip to small farmers and business owners.
Influential Minnesota companies are already working the issue. Cargill has urged an end to the embargo, and is sending a group of executives to Havana this month to meet with Cuban government officials. Advocates of Considine's proposal said it would give smaller farmers and business owners a foot in the door too.
"We do not have the export division or budget that large corporations can use to explore new markets," said Ralph Kaehler, a St. Charles, Minn., cattle farmer who in recent years was able to capitalize on exemptions to the embargo to sell some livestock to Cuba.
Kaehler and members of his family traveled to Cuba in 2002. His son, Cliff Kaehler, now runs Novel Energy Solutions, a Rochester-based solar energy firm. He said Cuba has the potential to be a trade partner with the U.S. on par with Canada and Mexico.
"Are we going to be the state that capitalizes on this huge market?" Cliff Kaehler said.
Considine's bill has support from Republicans and Democrats in the state House and Senate. On Tuesday, the House Agriculture Committee reviewed the bill before tabling it for possible addition to a larger agricultural spending bill.
In addition to Klobuchar and Minnesota state lawmakers, the opening of Cuba has grabbed the attention of other Minnesota policymakers. U.S. Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson, Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison are pushing a House companion to Klobuchar's bill. Rep. Betty McCollum traveled to Cuba last summer, and has since sponsored legislation to end funding of American propaganda efforts against the country.
A measure that would grant Minnesota law enforcement 90 days to hang on to location data gleaned from automated license plate readers narrowly made it out of a Minnesota Senate committee intact Monday, though it’s likely to face further challenges from privacy advocates in the Legislature.
After an hour-long debate, the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee voted 9-8 against an amendment that would change law the length of time law enforcement could keep “non-hit” data from 90 days to zero.
For the third consecutive session, lawmakers have sparred over whether LPR “hits” on innocent people should be deleted immediately—what privacy advocates want, or kept for 90 days-- what law enforcement wants.
Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, cast the deciding vote against the zero-retention amendment after a moment’s hesitation. Champion, who last year authored a 90-day retention bill that unanimously passed the Senate last year (a final measure died in conference committee,) said his vote was a difficult one.
I’m conflicted on it,” he said, adding that he’s hoping for a shorter retention period this time around-- one that pleases everyone.
“I hoped there would be some ability for all of the players to come up with some compromise that works.” he said. “Hopefully they still will do that.”
Sen. Ron Latz, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chief author of the 90-day retention bill, has long called it a compromise between law enforcement’s capability to fight crime and concerns for ordinary citizens’ privacy. A contingent of uniformed law enforcement officers have maintained a presence at each of the Senate hearings. Latz was resistant to having the bill heard in Monday’s Transportation committee, saying it pertained to data practices and was not in the committee’s jurisdiction. He said he expected a close vote, but didn’t know how it would turn out, and he’s ready for further challenges.
“An amendment is in order any step of the process, so I’ll be prepared for it.” He said.
Ten states currently have enacted laws regulating license plate reader use and data storage, though none, Latz pointed out, have zero retention. Under a zero-retention, he said, potential evidence could be destroyed before police may even know a crime was committed.
“You don’t know on day zero whether the license plate owner is involved in a crime. That data is destroyed immediately,” he said. “Even if you find out the next day that there was a murder and witness comes forward the day after and said ‘I saw a partial plate, it was a white Camry with the license plate letters ABC,’ that data is gone because there was no retention whatsoever.”
Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, proposed the zero-retention amendment, thinking it had a “50-50 shot” of passing. Although it didn’t, he voted to pass the bill out of committee.
“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “But you have to put an amendment out there for what you really want. I’m willing to go with 90 but I’d rather have something else.”
The bill heads next to the Senate Finance Committee. A pair of similar dueling measures in the House still await committee hearings.
Photo: Sen Ron Latz testifies on behalf of his 90-day retention bill for license plate reader data.
Top leaders in the Minnesota House and Senate have proposed creating a legislative budget office to provide legislators "nonpartisan, accurate, and timely information on the fiscal impact of proposed legislation."
The bills, introduced Monday, come after Republicans late last week questioned a report issued just hours ahead of a floor vote on a GOP-sponsored bill that would revise teacher seniority rules that guide layoffs.
The report, known as a fiscal note, was prepared by the Department of Education and approved by the Minnesota Management and Budget Office (MMB).
Under the current structure, fiscal notes are prepared by agencies who would be affected by proposed legislation. It is then approved by MMB. Lawmakers from both parties have in the past questioned analysis, raising questions of partisanship.
It would require that state departments and agencies, as well as the state Supreme Court, provide information to the proposed Legislative Budget Office.
With an additional $832 million available this year for Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers to work with thanks to a positive budget forecast, the DFL governor said Friday that he wants more than half that money to benefit the two ends of the learning spectrum.
"I propose that we invest our collective good fortune in our collective better future," Dayton said Friday, after state budget forecasters said a projected surplus had swelled to $1.9 billion from $1 billion just three months earlier.
To that end, Dayton said he'd seek an additional $444.2 million in spending to bolster several priorities. He's suggested an additional $238 million to ensure full statewide access to pre-kindergarten programs, rather than partial access as he initially proposed.
Dayton also backed an additional $127.5 million to freeze tuition for two more years at all public higher education institutions, plus $25 million more in state grants for college students.
In addition, Dayton said he'd propose setting aside $50 million to implement expected recommendations from a Child Protection Task Force working to bolster that system.
Dayton also flagged $3.7 million for the Minneapolis Park Board, which he'd initially proposed penalizing for what he called its delays to the process of approving a new light-rail route through southwest Minneapolis. On Friday, the Park Board and Metropolitan Council reached a deal meant to end those delays.
With that additional spending, about $388 million in additional surplus dollars would remain. Dayton said he would fully detail his revised budget proposal on March 9. The extra dollars could leave some room to negotiate with Republicans on their priorities for the surplus, which include tax relief, spending on road and bridge repairs, and additional money for nursing homes.
Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol agreed Friday that Minnesota's projected $1.9 billion budget surplus is great news for the state, but there was considerably less agreement on what to do with it.
"Today is good news for Minnesotans," said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, echoing comments by Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL legislative leaders.
But, where Dayton and DFL allies suggested greater spending on areas like education and transportation, the GOP's emphasis was as-yet-unspecified tax relief -- and the argument that Dayton now should jettison his proposal to raise state taxes on gasoline for transportation projects.
"I think this surplus means Democrats can stop talking about a gas tax in St. Paul," Daudt said. That's after Dayton said just a few minutes earlier that he intended to proceed with that proposal, which involves a new, 6-percent-per- gallon tax on gas at the wholesale level. Daudt said a portion of the surplus should be spent directly on rebuilding roads and bridges.
Daudt was elusive about what kind of tax relief Republicans might pursue. But he suggested at least $900 million, or about half the new surplus figure, should be returned to taxpayers. Whether that might come in the form of wide-reaching relief, like an income or sales tax cut or rebate, or more targeted relief through tax credits or carve-outs to smaller subsets of taxpayers, he wouldn't say.
"Anything is on the table," Daudt said.
Various Republican lawmakers have already introduced bills tending toward the latter approach, with tax relief for businesses meant to promote new job creation, tax relief for farmers and other proposals.
Still, it was clear Republicans have their eyes on spending some portion of the surplus. Besides roads and bridges, Daudt and other GOP leaders expressed an interest in boosting state payments to nursing homes and spending more on schools, among other possible priorities.
"We will be proposing spending but it will be spending targeted at results," said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
As new spending requests from interest groups flooded in via press release, Democratic legislative leaders said the new money available should be focused toward programs that aid working families.
"We hope to hear the priorities of communities across the state," said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis.
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