Category Archives: Minnesota Legislature

Putting a Minnesota Spin on National Blueberry Month

Like many creatures of minimal physical stature, blueberries are hardy and nutritionally powerful perennials that have served the health and gastronomic needs of North Americans for some 13,000 years.  Something to ponder as we celebrate July 2013 as National Blueberry Month.

Native Americans enjoyed blueberries year round; they called the berries “star berries” because of the five-pointed star (calyx) formed by the blossom.  Native people carefully dried the summer harvest and added dried berries to stews, soups and a baked pudding they called Sautauthig, a mix of corn meal, water and blueberries; they used blueberries for medicinal purposes and powdered the blueberries to use as a meat preservative.  Legend has it that they shared the secret power of blueberries to help early settlers survive the harsh winters.  Some hold that the native delicacy Sautauthig was on the menu for the First Thanksgiving.

Today’s hardy and ubiquitous blueberry crop is the result of research of two intrepid researchers, Elizabeth White, daughter of a New Jersey farmer, and Dr. Frederick Coville.  The team produced the first commercial crop of blueberries in Whitesbog, New Jersey in 1916.

For today’s shopper blueberries rank second only to strawberries in popularity.  The humble fruit is also repeatedly ranked in the US. Diet as having one of the highest antioxidant capacities among all fruits, vegetables, spices and seasonings.

Minnesotans have a special fondness for and relationship with blueberries. Though at one time the climate hampered production, research, particularly through Extension Service, has improved the hardiness to the point where commercial production of blueberries is viable.  Of particular note is the fact that the plant’s short stature works as an advantage.

In 1988, the State Legislature, responding to the initiative of third graders in Carlton, MN, designated the Blueberry Muffin as the State Muffin.  The official recipe for the State Muffin is posted here:  http://mn.gov/portal/about-minnesota/state-symbols/blueberry-muffin-recipe.jsp

July is the month for blueberry picking in Northern Minnesota.  There’s berry picking on the Gunflint Trail and berry gathering is permitted in the BWCA , Quetico Park and the Superior National Forest.

Lake George, near Park Rapids, sports a world class Blueberry Festival July 26-28, The three-day event features a blueberry pancake breakfast, a blueberry ball, and a blueberry square dance.  There is an educational booth with answers to all you ever wanted to know about blueberries.  If that’s not enough there’s a pie sale, a pig roast, and the Firemen’s Bean Feed, along with a quilt show, an arts and crafts show, a flea market and a host of kids’ activities.   On Sunday there is an outdoor Gospel concert and a parade.  Contact info@parkrapids.com for more details.

At Whiteside Park in Ely the 33rd Annual Blueberry Art Festival will take place the same weekend, July 26-28.   There will be 300 exhibitors of original art and handcrafts with a rich array of ethnic foods and children’s events throughout the Festival.  There will also be a stage show each evening.   Contact fun@ely.org.

And take time to read Blueberries for Sal to a special child.  Even if it’s set in Maine it has a Minnesota-like feel that creates the right atmosphere for celebrating National Blueberry Month.

 

 

 

 

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Devil in the Details of the Nation’s Democracy

“Less than 48 hours after the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, six of the nine states that had been covered in their entirety under the law’s “preclearance” formula have already taken steps toward restricting voting.”  Joseph Diebold, ThinkProgress, 6/27/13

In the fragile infrastructure of voting rights the devil is inexorably mucking in the details.  The devil of voter suppression is on the prowl not only in those immediately affected states but also throughout the nation, including sacrosanct Minnesota.

And so we gird our loins for the post-Supreme Court blow to the Voting Rights Act.  The pattern of pernicious tactics we saw in the 2012 election is unleashed.  The well-orchestrated and funded drive to suppress the hard-won rights of American citizens marches on its swift and steady course to thwart the will of the people.

An early challenge – and opportunity – is the vigorous campaign to elect a new Secretary of State.  Mark Ritchie who has been unswerving in his commitment to fair and free elections, has announced he will not run again for this complex and powerful position.  The list of announced candidates suggests just how important the office is.

In fact, a critical challenge to voters is to understand the authority of the Minnesota Secretary of State position.   (http://www.sos.state.mn.us/index.aspx?page=4) Management of elections is just one of a roster of responsibilities of the office.  Still there are countless ways the elections process for which the Secretary of State is responsible can be manipulated intentionally or by benign neglect.

As in every aspect of government, technology is shaping the electoral process. Suppressors, working in concert state to state, would inhibit the process under the devilish guise of efficiency or security. Voters need to pay attention to the ways in which such pernicious Ideas flow with alacrity and momentum through the states.

Minnesotans are justifiably proud of having trounced the Voter ID Amendment to the State Constitution.  Now, complacency is the enemy of the people.  The ID requirement was just one arrow in the quiver of the determined vote suppressors.

Deciders Need to Hear from Public Transit Advocates

“You can’t understand a city without using its public transportation system.”   ― Erol Ozan, author, professor, information technologist

Maybe that’s why the Minnesota Legislature, in spite of its generosity of spirit during the past session, de-railed much of the long-term dependable funding proposed for public transit.  Basically, those who support , plan for and depend on public transit are back to short-term planning with no permanent funding that would allow for cogent comprehensive planning.

Legislators could exit the marble halls, rush to their cars (conveniently parked and guarded at taxpayers’ expense), and speed with abandon past the 94 Express, LRT construction, even the bikers and weary bus riders.  Some probably dashed off to enjoy a respite in distant lands where public transit is funded and functioning.  With luck, they will have time to reflect and connect the dots.

They may return to wonder why the electorate does not relish the endless wait at the bus stop.  Jeff Wood, chief cartographer at Reconnecting America, a nonprofit that advocates for public transit, explains the cognitive dissonance: “Well, nobody uses transit, so why should we fund it?”

In its study of Public Transit 101, the think tank Remapping Debate makes the case that “companies understand that there is an initial period during which the hope of future consumer adoption means significant pre-adoption losses.”   In commuting terms, it is obvious that solo drivers of pricey vehicles are not easily moved to embrace public transit as a concept – and they are vehemently disinclined to adjust their modus operandi.

Bottom line, legislators are not pressured by their constituents on the public transit issue.

David Van Hattum of Transit for Livable Communities, this state’s most ardent advocate for public transit, observes that “you can’t expect transformational change without sort of setting up the conditions so that people readily see public transit as an alternative.”

The question then is:  what might entice a reluctant public, particularly the Deciders, to invest time, creative energy and taxes to build a viable – even irresistible – public transit system?  Graham Currie of Monash University cites the three key things that would make a transportation option attractive to riders, the ultimate deciders in a democracy:  “No 1: service frequency; No 2: service frequency.  And you will never guess what No. 3 is…”

True enough, but there are other issues.  One is the issue of routes, a particularly hot topic as the Twin Cities builds out the LRT network.  Bus routes are a significant factor in design and deployment of rapid transit routes.  For example, residents in inner-ring suburbs are left in the dust – or the snow bank –  as express busses speed to the outer ring where time and convenience matter more.

Then there is the issue of subsidies for public transit, as if these were  unique.   Thoughtful Deciders know full well that automobile dependence is totally formulated on an incredibly pricey infrastructure that includes not only publicly supported highway design and construction but constant maintenance and policing.   The infrastructure also involves private and public support including parking facilities and related conveniences for car-dependent customers.  Public dollars for public transit, which includes the vehicles, fuel, stops, stations, etc. are just more visible.

One factor the politicians and advocates don’t mention – the issue of Class or Cool, depending on one’s view.  Some people are just too important or too cool to join the working masses, the old folks, the little people who must or choose to depend on public transit.

Another, more remedial factor, is the issue of public transit “literacy.”  In spite of good efforts on the part of transit staffers, there’s the “end of the diving board” terror that faces every newbie rider.   The knowledge hurdles are a serious issue for people who are used to being omniscient – where does the LRT stop?  Which side do you exit?  What’s that green card that the regular riders sport?  What’s the fare and will the machine make change?   The list goes on and few neophytes want to show a busload of transit regulars that they are beyond their depth.  Little do they know that the regulars are eager to advise, inform, even provide change for the neophyte.

And there are other disincentives.  Piles of unshoveled snow, packed with sand, are an insurmountable barrier for transit regulars.  Empty cement slabs are grim reminders of a day when vus shelters and benches once offered safe respite for uevN transit customers.  Tolerance for rude and unacceptable behavior, even non-threatening aggravations such as ear-piercing phone calls and trash in the aisles, can be curbed.  Online trip planning sounds like a low cost tech solution till you try to get into the head of the system designers.

So, public transit advocates didn’t get the 1% annual increase for public transit, support for the LRT build-out or stable long-term funding.   What’s next?  First, the possibility to gain political muscle.  Concerned citizens can take heart in the Transit for Livable Communities study that concludes that 91% of Minnesotans polled support state investment in transit.

One opportunity to speak out is the public hearing on a Draft Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) set for Wednesday, June 19, 3:00 p.m. at Metropolitan Council Chambers, 309 North Robert Street in downtown St. Paul.

Another political ploy might be to invite a Decider to a guided tour on a bus or on the LRT.  Help him or her with the boarding and exit hurdles, then take a long leisurely ride, preferably at a slow time of day, so you can point out the political, economic, environmental and health virtues of public investment in a vital and viable public transit system – with particular mention of how adequate long-term funding, coupled with concern for the customers, could change the shape of public transit.

 

 

Voting Procedures Still on the Public Agenda at State and National Levels

Voter registration, an issue that some had optimistically assumed was resolved two decades ago by the  National Voter Registration Act  has emerged – no, erupted – as a major issue, a mighty weapon wielded by forces that are only too well aware that the place to stifle the democratic process is the voting booth.  Tinkering with the electoral process has taken various forms shaped to the vulnerability of the venue.   In Minnesota, the pressure point was the Voter ID Amendment to the State Constitution.  Originally portrayed as a benign detail the pernicious proposal was soundly trounced by the electorate in the last election.

An unintended consequence of that ill-fated rush to exclude has awakened Minnesotans to the importance of voters’ rights and inspired elected officials scrutinize the details with unaccustomed care.

The first legislative measures to take stage center are related proposals to allow early voting and to eliminate a requirement that people have a valid excuse to vote by absentee ballot.   Thirty two states offer some form of early voting in which there is no requirement for a valid excuse.  In some cases the votes are counted immediately; in others votes are not tabulated until election day and voters have a chance to change their vote. Many Minnesotans consider early voting a non-issue since they have assumed that Minnesota has had early voting in place all along.

The proposal now before the state Legislature would allow Minnesota voters to vote up to 15 days before an election.  On-site registration would still be available following the same requirements as are currently in place for Election Day registration.  While opponents fear easy early voting gives too much power to parties and voter fraud, proponents of absentee voting argue that it is more convenient for voters and that it would shorten the lines on Election Day.  Governor Dayton has not weighed in except to be very clear about the fact that any decision will have to have bipartisan support.

With heightened awareness of the import of the electoral process per se, Minnesotans may be interested to learn more about what is happening in other states and at the national level.  The Brennan Center for Justice which has long studied voting practices recently produced a major proposal to “modernize voter registration and bring America’s election system into the 21st Century.”  The plan, known as the Voter Registration Modernization (VRM), is the centerpiece of the Voter Empowerment Act introduced last month by a raft of legislators and prominently mentioned in the President’s State of the Union Address.

Those who hatched their nefarious plans to skew the American electoral process by tinkering with the “details” may find that shining light on those details has illuminated the gaps in a system that is now enjoying unprecedented attention.

Minnesotans out-voted every state in the nation in the last election.  We captured the national headlines with defeat of the Voter ID Amendment, once on its way to easy passage.  We have reason to be proud of our record.  We have a concomitant responsibility to follow what is happening in the State Legislature and in Congress.  We know from experience what it takes to keep a collective eye on the electoral process — constant vigilance is the price of liberty.

Minnesota Gets a C+ on Transparency Tracking Tools

As the Legislature tackles the issues of state  – the economy, education, health, the environment, transportation and more — open government advocates know that the issue of transparency is the subtle common weave and warp of the process itself.  Though transparency remains an implicit element that seldom steps into the spotlight, a modest “C+” grade in transparency may capture the attention of Minnesota voters accustomed to being Way Above Average.

That not-much-above grade was conferred by Minnesota by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund in its 2012 report entitled Following the Money 2012: How the 50 states rate in providing online access to government spending data.  It’s important to underscore that the findings focus only on spending and only on online access to data.

The study is the prequel to the more recent US PIRG study of online access to city government spending.  It applies similar criteria and a parallel process to rate the fifty states.

The good news is that the states in general have made progress.  The 2012 study is the third annual ranking of states’ progress towards Transparency 2.0, a recognized  standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.  Minnesota is listed as one of fourteen states categorized as “emerging.”

In one way, this study itself is encouraging; as the researchers note, the life history of opening the government checkbook is relatively short.  In 2006 Congress passed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act which instructed the OMB to shine a light on federal spending by creating a single searchable website of federal awards.  Soon thereafter the states began opening their online checkbooks to the public.  Rising to the increased level of expectation the move towards openness has progressed apace.

As with the more recent study of city government, this analysis of state government, conducted by the U.S. PIRG looked at these features:

  • Comprehensiveness – contracts with private companies, subsidies, quasi-public agencies, leases and concessions to private companies
  • One-Stop – a single website where residents can search all government expenditures
  • One-click searchable and downloadable

The study cites several examples of ways in which Transparency 2.0 websites save dollars by reducing the number of costly information requests from residents, watchdog groups, government bodies and companies and the media.

Further, the report affirms that implementation of Transparency 2.0 costs less than one might expect.  Some states have set aside funds for re-tooling, while others have integrated new policies and procedures with existing funds.  Minnesota changes have been paid for out of existing funds.  The SWIFT (Statewide Integrated Financial Tools) project currently being implemented by the State of Minnesota is one ongoing effort to achieve Transparency Standard 2.0.

For those who care about where Minnesota is on the curve the news is neutral – we’re right in the dead middle.  Fourteen states got “C” grades with scores ranging from 79 (Georgia) to 66 (North Dakota).  Minnesota comes in at a grade of 78 along with Alabama, New Jersey and Oklahoma.  It is interesting to note that the size of the state budget does not determine the level of transparency.

The transparency super-stars have done extra-credit work, of course.  Some states provide detailed performance evaluation of agencies and contractors; other offer mapping tools where the public can see how specific areas of the state benefit from government spending    Information provided by some states is more comprehensive and some states provide extensive integration with local government, a process strongly endorsed by the researchers, and further explored in the more recent study of city government fiscal transparency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pew Probe Proves Minnesotans Have Polling Practices Down Pat

Unaccustomed as we are to patting ourselves on the back, Minnesotans can take pride in the results of the recent Elections Performance Index issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  Minnesota joins Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin in the winners’ circle of high performing states.

The Pew study is the first examination of election administration performance that covers all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

The results of the study is a detailed – and fun – online interactive map that election officials and voters can use to assess the details of election performance by each state.

The goal of Pew is to build a flexible and manageable measurement tool based on a well-defined list of indicators.

The findings of the study are based on a methodology carefully defined and described in the full report.  Key indicators include these:

>      Polling location wait time

>      Availability of voting information tools online

>      Number of rejected voter registrations

>      Percentage of voters with registration or absentee ballot problems

>      Number of military and overseas ballots were rejected

>      Voter turnout

>      Accuracy of voting technology

This report is based on the 2008 and 2010 elections.  Researchers indicate that the online report will be updated with complete 2012 data when they become available in late 2013.

 

 

Information – The Key Ingredient to Solving the Problem of Hunger in America

 

The buffalo meat aphorism applies – the more you chew, the bigger it gets.

Statistics abound.  We know there are people in every community who are hungry.  We think of children going to bed hungry, or unable to learn because they have had no breakfast, or not growing strong bodies not because of genetics but because of poor tutrition.  We think of elderly persons who have to choose between food and meds, or who have no transportation to get to the grocery story or the food shelf.  We think of parents working two and three shifts to fee their families.

And then we think about what we can do.  And many of us do lots.  We support the local food shelf with food and funds.  We volunteer for Meals-on-Wheels and the food shelf.  We support the food drive, the Walk to End Hunger, and we’re working to get ready for FoodShare month coming in March.

Still, we know in our hearts that hunger is one social issue that can be solved.  We just do not know how to frame, much less solve, the issue.  It’s the buffalo meat conundrum.  In my humble opinion, it’s not a lack of political will, but of complexity, unbridled political forces, and the difficulty of identifying the thread of domestic hunger midst the tangle of forces within which it is trapped.

President Obama put a name on some of the entanglements:

Speaking of income disparities, he said: “For me the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”

He spoke, too, of the limits of the social safety networks: “We remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.  We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm.”

He spoke of living wages, “We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship.” 

The President sets a tone that is emphatic and bold.  It’s up to an informed public, advocacy groups and elected officials to break that down into doable programs.

At the top of my list, as usual, is the imperative of transparency.   For starts, the main reason we don’t understand the symbiotic relationship between the Farm Bill and hungry Americans is that we can’t fathom the depths of the legalese.

If we know more about the use of public funds we will better understand the many tools we have to cope with hunger.  Of course we need to take care of people in need today, but we should not allow ourselves to stop digging deeper into knowing more – not just how many people are hungry, but why?

What is our food and nutrition research agenda?  Who is “discovering the facts?”

Who pays for the research?

Who is speaking to Congress? To the State Legislature?

How much of our food dollar goes for advertising? Lobbying?

Why are the elderly going hungry – is it shame, transportation, economics or is it the allocation of SNAP funds?

To what extent is hunger a “women’s issue?

To what extent are the issues of immigration and hunger related?

How are issues of hunger and the environment related?

Where do food co-ops fit in?

What are “competitive foods” and who has a stake in the regulation?

Who decides the ever-changing food pyramid?

Bottom line, hunger in this nation of plenty is one of the most complex issues on our endless banquet of solvable problems.  Thinking systemically about hunger is a powerful mental exercise that requires access to information that is current, accurate, impartial and understandable.  The conversation about hunger in America must reflect the perspectives of many forces – a challenge in a nation divided.

Still, it is only informed systemic thinking, putting hunger and the right to food in context, that we as a nation or a community will solve what is, in the end, a solvable problem.