Minneapolis Star Tribune. May 3, 2021.

Editorial: Criminal justice fees in Minnesota pose an unfair burden

A just system needs proportionality, and the state places too large a burden on poorest residents.

Fines, fees and mandatory surcharges can turn even a minor parking or traffic ticket into a costly affair that can quickly spiral out of control.

A story in Sunday's Star Tribune by Jessie Van Berkel details how a $30 ticket for expired license tabs can quickly mushroom to $130, thanks to a hefty "state surcharge" that eclipses the cost of the ticket itself, along with a $15 fee charged in some areas to support law libraries. And that is if the fines are paid on time. Delay adds late fees.

Make no mistake, laws should be enforced, with reasonable penalties that cover costs to the system and serve as an incentive to observe them in the first place. But a just system requires proportionality. To levy $90 of charges on top of a $30 ticket is not reasonable. To allow it to reach the level of license suspension, cascading charges and arrest warrants is unconscionable.

The charges are largely budget-driven, Scott Williams, deputy manager of safety and justice for Ramsey County, told Van Berkel. "It's just an ongoing pattern where, 'Oh, we have a tough budget year — we have a number of tough budget years — we have a budget hole to fill. How do we fill this? Well, we can add some fees,' " Williams said. "That results in this cumulative impact on individuals trying to get on with their lives."

Data from the State Court Administrator's office show that state and local governments collected more than $91 million in fines, fees, surcharges for criminal and traffic cases in 2020, and millions more went unpaid, Van Berkel reported.

State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who leads the House committee on public safety and criminal justice, calls it "criminalizing poverty." Mariani told an editorial writer that there are proposals with bipartisan support in the Legislature and among civil rights groups that would mitigate the worst impacts. One would ban license suspension for missed payments on minor infractions or for failure to show up in court.

"You don't need to suspend licenses for failure to pay low misdemeanor traffic fines," Mariani said. "The collateral consequences get disproportionately huge. Did our society mean to punish someone to this extent for small infractions? Most would say no. We're making it impossible for people to dig out from under."

The second proposal would give judges the ability to waive or reduce the $75 state surcharge now applied to every petty misdemeanor and traffic ticket. Right now, Mariani said, judges can reduce or waive the fine itself, but are prohibited from touching the surcharge. "That's not right," Mariani said. "If a judge determines that the surcharge is going to present a real hardship to someone, they should have the ability to reduce or waive that."

Mariani said there is broad support for the proposals among civil rights groups, attorneys and others, and bipartisan support within the Legislature.

Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, a retired sheriff's deputy, said during a March hearing that "our fees and surcharges have gotten way out of hand," but said he did not know where the money would come from to make up the difference.

That, however, is not reason enough to let a situation that we know to be unjust continue. "Supporting courts and the criminal justice system is the responsibility of the entire citizenry," Mariani said, not just those caught breaking the law.

There is a vast network of fees built in across the criminal justice system that may take time to dismantle. But the two legislative proposals would go a long way toward alleviating the worst effects, and they deserve passage.

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St. Cloud Times. May 2, 2021.

Editorial: Historic tax credits make financial sense for Minnesota

Minnesota's lawmakers are well aware of their power they hold in crafting state budgets, tax plans and policies.

Their decisions literally build the future Minnesota we will live in. This year, they will also wield considerable power over our past.

Minnesota's Historic Structure Rehabilitation State Tax Credit has for years provided a 20% tax credit to rehabilitate significant historic buildings across Minnesota and put them back to work for businesses. St. Cloud's Whitney Building along St. Germain Street is among the historic buildings to get new life through the program.

But the tax credit, created to help spur jobs and the economy after the Great Recession, is set to sunset on June 30, unless legislators take action. The House omnibus tax bill seeks to extend the program by eight years, the Senate by one.

Not everyone believes that preserving the past is worthy of state incentives. While history, nostalgia and community aesthetics are clearly desirable, they can logically be viewed as wants to be paid for privately, not needs to benefit from public support.

However, we think the program is smart financially as well as culturally, and we call on legislators should continue the program. Here's why:

— According to annual reports on performance of the program, which are required by law, the credits generally create about $9 of economic activity for every $1 spent in Minnesota.

— The program is well-controlled, with strict qualifications set by the state and federal government, starting with a requirement that the building be on the National Register of Historic Places and project approval from the State Historic Preservation Office. The credits are intended for and restricted to buildings with high intrinsic value, and those controls are in place to ensure that happens.

— The credits are only allowed for projects that will, after renovation, generate income.

— Reuse of existing buildings logically reduces waste by preventing wholesale demolition of properties worth saving.

— Historic buildings tend to be in the core of cities and towns. That means taxpayers avoid much of the cost that would otherwise be spent to extend utilities and streets or providing public services in new areas of urban sprawl.

— Minnesota projects that have taken place under the program since 2011 have generated $3.5 billion in private sector economic activity and created more than 18,650 jobs since 2011, according to Erin Hanafin Berg, policy director at Rethos, formerly known as the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.

In short, the math appears to work. If it did not, there would be no excuse for both houses of the Legislature to propose extending the program.

Why are historic properties special? In one way, they aren't. Minnesota supports businesses with many varieties of grants, tax credits and other incentive programs. Among them: the Angel Tax Credit, tax increment financing, Opportunity Zones, Enterprise Zones, innovation grants, data center tax exemptions, incentives for young farmers, and more.

Tax credits that help put Minnesota's significant older buildings back in service for main street businesses make sense — not just because they can be beautiful connections to our communities' pasts and enhance our quality of life. Handled well, the tax credit program pays off financially as well.

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Mankato Free Press. May 4, 2021.

Editorial: Transparency: Continue online public meetings

When the COVID pandemic began, city councils, county boards, school boards and other public bodies began airing their meetings online, including using Zoom, YouTube, public access television and via phone.

There were some glitches early on as local governments and the public learned to use the technology, but it has become a comfortable and convenient way for the public to watch their elected officials in action.

The practice should continue into the future, even after public bodies are allowed to meet in person and have citizens attend meetings in person.

Virtual meetings allow people to watch meetings they are interested in no matter where they might be at the time. Residents interested in a city council or county board meeting who may be out of the area or who have responsibilities that keep them at home are still able to listen in. People have also been able to call in and voice their opinions during public comment periods at meetings.

For those without transportation to get to city hall, the school district office or the county board room, they are still able to participate. Those who have physical difficulties can also easily be a part of their elected officials' meetings from the comfort of their home.

Already, some states are considering legislation that would make virtual meetings part of their open meeting laws. California is considering various proposals that would remove barriers to virtual meetings, such as current rules that require a quorum of elected officials to be physically within the boundaries of the jurisdiction. Other legislation would require public bodies to offer virtual access to meetings simultaneous with their normal in-person meetings.

The virtual meetings of the past year have been allowed under part of the governor's emergency declarations. But not all public bodies in the state followed the spirit of the rules. A resident filed a complaint with the state after a St. Louis County school board continued to hold meetings with a quorum of members meeting in person but barring the public from attending in person.

While the board did allow residents to listen in on the meeting virtually, the Commissioner of Administration ruled they violated the Open Meeting Law as they chose to meet in person but only allowed remote attendance for the public.

The case shows that as public bodies have been allowed to air meetings virtually, some will try to find loopholes to limit full public participation. That's why the Legislature needs to clarify rules.

Lawmakers should refine the Open Meeting Law to encourage public bodies to continue allowing remote access once in-person meetings resume, while ensuring that local governments do not try to circumvent the spirit of the law to limit public access, whether in person or remotely.

Access to the business of public bodies should be as easy as possible.

END