Dayton’s veto nixes push for expansion of fireworks sales in Minnesota

Gov. Mark Dayton extinguished a fireworks bill Saturday night.He vetoed a bill that would have allowed the sale of larger fireworks in Minnesota. The current law allows for the sale and possession of some nonexplosive and nonaerial types of fireworks, like sparklers, cones, party poppers and snakes.The bill, originally authored by Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, would have allowed the sale of larger, more “novelty” fireworks. Proponents argued that a large amount of revenue could be generated if the sales were allowed, as many Minnesotans cross the borders into neighboring states where larger fireworks are sold.In his veto message, Dayton said the law would put many Minnesotans at risk of injuries and property damage.“It is government’s foremost responsibility to protect the safety and the well-being of its citizens,” Dayton said. “In this case, government has the responsibility to do its utmost to protect vulnerable young Minnesotans, courageous firefighters and police officers and innocent bystanders of all ages who could become victims of someone else’s carelessness.”The bill was opposed by many medical and safety professionals, including the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the City of Minneapolis and the Mayo Clinic.Matthew Putnam, a professor in orthopedic surgery and trauma at the University of Minnesota, said there are many circumstances that lead to firework injuries.“The age of the person, the experience of the person and the time and circumstance are major factors that contribute to injuries,” Putnam said. “If the time is at night and it’s dark out, and the circumstances are that the person is drunk, then there is a higher probability that something will happen.”Putnam said there are a lot of young children and an increase in young women coming in with firework injuries. Continue Reading

Survey of employees brings insight to the city

The recently released Employee Engagement Survey shows most city employees have a negative outlook on their job.The survey revealed only 33 percent of respondents agreed that there are enough employees to complete work, down from 40 percent in the 2009 survey.Only 34 percent said city leadership has employee morale and well-being in mind, down from 36 percent in the 2009 survey.Chuck Bernardy, the city’s human resource manager, wrote in an email that the surveys are important because they give employees the opportunity to give feedback in areas where the city can improve.Respondents were split over their ability to advance or get promoted. Bernardy said this could be due to the tough economy.“With fewer positions, there are fewer opportunities for advancement and additional work for the employees who remain,” Bernardy said.In the last couple of years, there have been budget cuts for the city and a 12 percent reduction in the workforce since 2008.Most employees have a favorable view of employees’ ability to cooperate, with 76 percent agreeing.More city employees feel that management is making use of their good ideas with 40 percent agreeing — up from 32 percent in the 2009 survey.Bernardy said the results were relatively stable compared to the 2009 results.The survey had a record number of respondents — 66 percent, or 2,560, of city employees responded. That’s up 5 percent from the 2009 survey, according to Bernardy.Stephanie Kendall, the director and executive consultant of Kenexa, the firm that helped conduct the survey, said employees had a month to complete the survey online.Kendall said the surveys are important for organizations and groups to see what concerns employees have.“The goal is to provide each employee with a chance to share their thoughts into what is working well and what needs improvement,” Kendall said.Kendall said Kenexa will help develop action plans for the city to improve some of the results and make the workplace the best possible for all employees.Bernardy said some factors that have improved since the 2009 survey are that more people have favorable views about pay and benefits, up 10 percentage points; employee involvement, up 7 percentage points and community engagement, up 4 percentage points.John Stiles, spokesman for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, said the results are important to Rybak, who has experienced five or six surveys in his career as mayor.“As an enterprise, the employees are the most valuable resource, and obviously we want people to feel like there’s a place for them with the city of Minneapolis,” Stiles said. “We will support them if they work on improving themselves, and we will help them advance their careers.”Stiles said Rybak examines the results and meets with the department heads every two to four weeks. He said if there are significant areas in which a department can improve, Rybak will discuss it with the department head.Bernardy said the Minneapolis City Council approved an Alternative Work Arrangements Policy in 2010 in response to survey results. Continue Reading

Right-to-work stalls in Legislature, Employee Freedom amendment could still make it to the ballot in 2012

As the legislative session winds down, the status of the Employee Freedom amendment is up in the air.The constitutional amendment, introduced by Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, in early February, would allow workers to choose whether to join a union as conditions of employment. If workers choose not to join a union, they wouldn’t be forced to pay the dues.The amendment has not moved through the Republican-controlled Legislature as quickly as some hoped — it’s still in the Senate’s Rules and Administration Committee. The legislation originally began in the Jobs and Economic Growth Committee and then was referred to the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee where it passed on a 7-6 vote.David Schultz, a professor who specializes in law and politics at Hamline University, said Republicans may be wary of moving the amendment forward “because of the backlash that has occurred in other states when similar legislation has been passed, such as in Wisconsin.”“They want to avoid further alienating voters,” Schultz said. “If the voter ID and marriage equality amendments are already on the ballot, this amendment might be overload.”Schultz said if Gov. Scott Walker, who passed a law eliminating public unions’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin last year, survives the recall election, it may show that “big labor” can be taken on.Sen. Mike Parry, a co-sponsor of the amendment, said there is support for the bill.“I think a majority of the [Republicans] are supportive of the amendment, but how do you move forward?” Parry said. “It’s a very contentious amendment.”Although the amendment has Republican support, Parry said he was unsure if there is any support from Democratic-Farmer-Labor party members, some of whom are supported by big labor unions. Continue Reading

$61M spent on lobbying in Minnesota 2011, up $2 million from last year

More than $61 million was spent on lobbying in Minnesota last year, according to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.Business groups spent more than $14 million on lobbying, with Xcel Energy spending roughly $2.4 million and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce spending $2 million.Sen. Linda Higgins, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said most of the money spent isn’t given to legislators but rather to campaigns. She added that lobbyists provide information supporting or opposing an issue, rather than pay lawmakers money to influence a vote.Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, said she doesn’t meet with lobbyists as much at this point of the session.“At the beginning of the session, we have more time, and I may meet with five or six lobbyists a day,” Higgins said. “When committees are wrapping up and we’re spending more time on the Senate floor, we don’t have as much time, and lobbyists often talk to us when we’re walking through the hallways.”The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board states a lobbyist is an individual who communicates or urges others to communicate with public or local officials, is paid a certain amount and spends a certain amount of time lobbying.Lobbyists must register with the state and file periodic reports on spending, according to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.Under state law, lobbyists can spend more on campaigns in election years than in non-election years and more on the governor’s race than in the House or Senate campaigns. They cannot make contributions during a legislative session.Robin Phinney, a research associate in the political science department who studies interest groups, said contrary to popular belief, most money isn’t given to lawmakers.“Not all of the money is automatically buying a vote,” Phinney said. “They are using the money to signal interest and research in the issue.”Higgins said when she arrived in the Senate, the Legislature put such rules and standards on lobbying in place.“Most money that is spent by lobbying groups, I assume, is employee salaries and contracts,” Higgins said. Continue Reading

In vote this week, graduate workers take sides on union backed by UAW

For graduate student employees at the University of Minnesota, Monday marks the beginning of a week-long election that could end in the formation of a union.About 4,400 graduate student employees are eligible to vote. In order to form a union, a majority of voters must be in favor of it.Despite previous failed attempts, union proponents at the University think organizing with the United Auto Workers will be the key to forming a union this time around.Both the University and UAW encourage students to vote, as they will be affected by the outcome. If a union passes, students who aren’t members will be required to pay UAW because they benefit from contract negotiation.David Larson, an employment law professor at Hamline University, said unions are a “headline issue” right now, from Wisconsin’s collective bargaining law passed last year to the right-to-work bill currently in Minnesota’s Legislature.“Things are extremely polarized in terms of union organizing,” Larson said. “Any attempt is going to be very contentious.”He said the hard part is getting the union organized. Once it’s in place, the University is obligated to bargain in good faith.Scott Thaller, a Graduate Student Workers United/UAW spokesman, said graduate student employees have been organizing the past two years, collecting signatures from 30 percent of graduate student workers to request a union election. Continue Reading

Republicans propose tobacco tax hike

Republican legislators want to double taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, which could burn a hole in smokers’ wallets.The current tax for cigarettes is $1.23 a pack. However, the proposed increase would more than double that to $2.52 per pack.Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, said he proposed the House version of the bill in order to reduce the number of teenage smokers.According to the American Cancer Society, youth smoking rates drop by 6.5 percent for every 10 percent increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes.Proponents of the bill also argue the increase would bring in $320 million over two years, which would allow the state to repay the more than $2 billion it borrowed from public schools to overhaul budget deficits.Minnesota’s current cigarette-tax rate is the 27th highest in the nation, according to Raise it for Health coalition, comprised of some of the largest health organizations in the state.Dave Golden, a spokesman for Boynton Health Service said the tax increase will hopefully deter younger people from smoking.“Increasing the taxes on cigarettes yet again will decrease the rate of young smokers because they’re not going to want to pay $8 a pack for a product,” Golden said.According to a 2010 Boynton survey, 18.4 percent of University of Minnesota students smoke. That’s down from 41.8 percent in 1998.In 2003, the University implemented a ban on smoking within 25 feet of campus buildings.Alex Card, a physics major at the University, said raising taxes on cigarettes won’t discourage younger people from starting to smoke.“There’s no way to stop that,” Card said. “Kids are going to smoke, and nothing will change that, no matter how expensive [cigarettes] are.”Golden said students generally have a great handle on reasons why they shouldn’t smoke.“It’s a horrible addiction with serious impacts,” Golden said. “Once you start smoking, you can’t escape the addiction.”First-year student smoking rates have decreased significantly in recent years and now sit at about 20 percent. Continue Reading

10th Avenue Bridge gets in line for repairs

Built more than 80 years ago, the 10th Avenue Bridge is in need of some repairs.Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, is seeking $7.6 million in bonding money to mend the bridge, which hasn’t seen major renovations since the 1970s. “The 10th Avenue Bridge is one of several bridges that’s due for repairs,” Dziedzic said. “It’s on the city’s priority list and they feel if they do maintenance now, it’s like preventative medicine so it will help maintain the bridge for several more years.”City of Minneapolis spokesman Casper Hill said the bridge does not pose any safety risks to the public. The city owns and inspects the bridge.“Rehabilitating the bridge now would be more cost effective than delaying the work,” Hill said.Hill said rehabilitation will save the city as much as $40,000 a year in maintenance costs, but replacing it would cost between $65 and $110 million.Tom Styrbicki, a bridge engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the 10th Avenue Bridge is not in bad condition and does not need immediate attention but could use some general repairs and maintenance.Strybicki said some of the outer layers of concrete are deteriorated and exposed but said the inner concrete layers are secure and safe.In a recent MnDOT Structure Inventory Report, the 10th Avenue Bridge was given a “satisfactory” rating for deck conditions and fair ratings for its beams and support structures.Dziedzic said she works closely with the city and MnDOT on bridge repair and monitoring.Several bridges in Dziedzic’s Senate district are being repaired or are under consideration, including the light-rail construction on the Washington Avenue Bridge.Although constituents haven’t complained specifically to Dziedzic about the bridge during her first month in office, many in nearby neighborhoods have voiced concerns over recent closures like the new Lowry Avenue Bridge, which is currently under construction.Dziedzic requested a hearing for the bridge-specific bonding bill in the Capital Investment Committee in January, but she doesn’t know when or if that hearing will take place. Besides the $7.6 million request, the city already has a municipal state aid of $2.2 million and will match $1.2 million in city bonds for repairs.Hill said the city follows federal guidelines to ensure safety for public use.Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives, said bridges have been better inspected after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, but she said the 10th Avenue Bridge needs repairs and upgrades.Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said she feels uncomfortable when jogging in the area.“It’s spooky running under the bridge,” Kahn said. “When looking from below, there are lots of concrete chunks missing.”Dziedzic said repairing the bridge now would be more cost effective.“We need to preserve and maintain what we have because it’s sometimes cheaper to fix and maintain it rather than building a whole new structure,” Dziedzic said. Continue Reading