University of Minnesota and law enforcement officials headed to the Minnesota Legislature Tuesday to brief lawmakers about a recent spike in campus crime.
On paper, there has been little change in the campus crime rate. But the statistics are small consolation to students after a series of brazen crimes on and near campus – including sexual assaults, muggings and armed robberies.
“We no longer feel safe walking outside,” University of Minnesota student Sara Gottlieb told lawmakers Tuesday during a hearing of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee.
Universities have stepped up outreach efforts – urging students to take common-sense precautions like walking in groups and keeping expensive cell phones and electronics out of sight in public.
But students say they feel targeted, no matter what precautions they take. They can hide their phones, but criminals will assume they carry one anyway. They can walk in groups, but armed robbers near campus have attacked groups as well as individuals.
The University of Minnesota has 50,000 students, but it seems that almost everyone knows someone who has been a victim, or has had a close call. Student Rachel Sadowsky told senators about a friend who was robbed on his own front porch while coming home from work.
“We feel targeted and we do not feel safe,” said Sadowsky, who urged the university to expand patrols into the neighborhoods around campus.
“Hiding our phones is not enough… Walking in groups is not enough,” said Gottlieb, who lives blocks from a street corner where a student was held up at gunpoint in the middle of the afternoon this Sunday. “Carrying pepper spray is not enough, as a good friend of ours this weekend had her pepper spray turned against her as she was walking home.
So far this semester, there have been four serious crimes within blocks of student Zack Shartiag’s home in Dinkytown. Security worries are doing more than the weather to drive down attendance at campus events, he said.
“I’ve been changing my routes, I’ve been staying inside,” he said.
Those sorts of worries prompted committee chairwoman Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, to call a three-hour informational hearing of the to look into what campuses are doing about the crime spike, and what the Legislature might do to help.
“We are here to combat that fear, not succumb to it,” Bonoff said. “We are going to nip this....The university’s a jewel and we are not going to lose our students. We’re going to keep you safe.”
Campus police and community law enforcement testified about the efforts already going into the work of keeping students safe. The university recently hired three new officers for its 50-member campus police force and is putting in extra lighting, emergency call boxes and key-card locks on public buildings.
Since Aug. 1, there have been 28 robberies around the university’s Minneapolis campus. In the most recent incident, a 23-year-old woman was scraping ice off her car’s windshield at 4:43 p.m. Sunday when an armed man approached, displayed a gun, and demanded money. The man fled when the woman’s boyfriend approached.
The Minnesota Senate is upping the living allowance for outstate senators who have been struggling to find affordable housing in St. Paul during the legislative session.
"We've received quite a bit of feedback from members of the Senate...bipartisanly, that the current reimbursement for the housing allowance is inadequate to cover costs," Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Monday during a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee. "As it turns out, over half of the members are actually taking money out of their pocket to cover the costs of their lease agreement, utilities and parking."
The bipartisan rules committee voted unanimously for a resolution to increase the living expense per diem to $1,500 a month while the Senate is in session, up from the current rate of $1,200 a month. The housing allowance was last raised in 2007.
The rules committee also increased members' reimbursement for telecommunications expenses from $125 a month to $200 a month.
By Baird Helgeson
The Minnesota Senate is about to spend another $77,500 in legal fees to conclude the wrongful termination lawsuit brought by former staffer Michael Brodkorb.
The Senate received a nine-page bill from their lawyers for September through December, ending after Brodkorb agreed to drop the suit for $30,000.
Both sides agreed to pay their own legal fees, as part of the settlement. The Senate Rules Committee is scheduled to approve the bill Monday.
Taxpayers have already spent about $320,000 defending the Senate against the lawsuit.
Brodkorb was fired in December 2011 after it was revealed he had an affair with then Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, a Republican from Buffalo. Koch resigned her leadership position and did not seek re-election.
Brodkorb had served as the Senate GOP’s communications chief and, with Koch, was instrumental in helping Republicans win control of the state Senate in 2010. Democrats won back control in the next election.
Minnesota, a state known for clean politics, ranks among the worst for financial disclosure from the judiciary, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
"Minnesota is at the back of the pack for financial disclosure requirements, ranking 45th in the country along with Iowa," the Center found in a nationwide study of disclosure required of supreme court justices. "It has a self-policing system for enforcing the disclosure rules, in which Supreme Court justices would be asked to rule on a complaint about themselves. And the state currently does not require judges to report gifts, investments such as stocks or any financial debts on the one-page form."
The Center gave Minnesota an "F," for its judicial disclosure requirements. Minnesota's low ranking on this score is not unusual -- the state often gets below average grades from good government groups that measure transparency and disclosure required of public officials.
Earlier this year the state's campaign finance agency and some lawmakers pushed for more financial disclosure from lawmakers and other public officials. While that proposal largely fell by the wayside, Minnesota did increase the disclosure required of the judiciary.
From the Center: "Minnesota is toughening its requirements starting next year, meaning its lousy grade will undoubtedly improve. Legislation passed this year will require judges to file an additional form that other state officials already file. The form will ask judges to report investments, locally owned real estate and even involvement in horse racing starting in January 2014."
Republican House Leader Kurt Daudt believes a state presentation on Minnesota's economy prepared for a legislative hearing strayed from factual to political.
"The presentation was designed to look like a re-election campaign advertisement for you," Daudt, R-Crown, said in a letter to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton Monday regarding the state Department of Employment and Economic Development's prepared testimony for a hearing last week.
Asked for a response, Dayton deputy chief of staff Bob Hume completely dismissed the accusation, calling it "ridiculous."
"The Governor would be happy to sit with Representative Daudt, or the entire GOP caucus, and enumerate the games and gimmicks that have been in past budgets," Hume said in a statement. "The bottom line is that Rep. Daudt doesn’t like the fact that the economy is improving because it doesn’t suit his political needs. We have good news to tell, and that’s what we’ve been doing."
The presentation, according to the House Republicans, included slides with titles like "games and gimmicks caused a budget roller coaster," "leveling the playing field for the middle class" and "reforming government through smart investments."
Shortly after the presentation began last week, Republicans objected to its tone.
"I'm not sure it was games and gimmicks," Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said during the hearing. "I will tell you there were people on each side of the aisle doing the best job they could to try to make the system work in good faith."
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said part of the presentation was "out of line."
House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said at the time that the committee should set aside the idea of taking credit or not for the state of the economy. To a request that the committee skip the presentation until it was stripped of partisanship, Thissen proposed they move forward with the facts.
Much of the slideshow ended up being set aside during the hearing but it still raised ire.
"The nature of the presentation makes the preparation and use of it an inappropriate use of state resources for campaign purposes," Daudt said in his letter on Monday. He said if the Dayton administration uses the presentation, House Republicans will take "any action necessary" to stop it.
In reaction to Daudt's letter, Thissen spokesman Michael Howard said the original presentation was off focus.
"The request to DEED was to deliver a presentation focused on the strengths and challenges facing Minnesota's economy in the future and their PowerPoint presentation didn't necessarily reflect that focus," Howard said in a statement. "That is why the CF moved away from the PowerPoint presentation and focused more on productive testimony."
See the presentation's slide show, as captured by the House Republicans, below and view the video of the hearing here. The DEED portion of the meeting starts about 1 hour and 12 minutes in.
This post was updated with reaction from Michael Howard, Thissen's spokesman, and Bob Hume, Dayton deputy chief of staff.