Star Tribune, June 10
Legislature 2015: Special interests win, environment loses with ag bill
Legislators this year are brazenly putting the needs of special interests over Minnesota's treasured natural resources with an agriculture and environment budget bill that undercuts critical pollution safeguards. In doing so, they also sent an alarming warning to anyone in years to come who challenges powerful interests such as agriculture and mining: Those who ask hard questions should expect political payback.
Thanks to a responsible veto by Gov. Mark Dayton, the sprawling ag and environment budget legislation has improved somewhat since it first passed the Republican-controlled Minnesota House and the DFL-controlled Minnesota Senate, where many pro-mining Iron Range lawmakers are in leadership roles. The revised bill will be up for a vote during the upcoming special session. While the bill still contains a needed compromise on "buffer strips," which will help curb agricultural runoff, there's still too much in the legislation that threatens environment interests.
It took the respected Minnesota Environmental Partnership three pages to sum up the myriad ways that the legislation rolls back or undermines important safeguards. Among the lowlights: raiding millions of dollars from landfill cleanup funds, abolishing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Citizens Board, exempting mining sulfide waste from solid-waste rules, allowing cities to unsustainably tap dwindling aquifers, and putting in place costly and time-consuming new hurdles clearly intended to keep state pollution control officials from doing their jobs.
At a time when there's international alarm about shrinking bee populations, state lawmakers also approved funding to put deceptive "pollinator-friendly" labels on products that are not. Lawmakers also reprehensibly broke a widely heralded agreement that would have provided incentives for advanced biofuels development while spurring farmers to grow more perennials or cover crops as the raw material. The landmark incentives for these corn alternatives, which can help curb erosion and runoff, were jettisoned.
There's more than a whiff of political payback in this bill and in another key action taken this session. The move to eliminate the 48-year-old MPCA Citizens Board came after its members voted in 2014 to require an environmental-impact statement from a proposed 9,000-head dairy operation, spurring outrage from some in agribusiness. Language requiring additional notice before state officials order a "discretionary environmental review" comes after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources ordered one earlier this year for a large North Dakota potato grower intending to convert forest land to potato fields.
The high-profile move to privatize a key duty of the state auditor's office also comes after Auditor Rebecca Otto cast a vote against mineral mining leases in 2013.
The flawed legislation will likely pass in the special session. In future elections, voters should ask a key question: How did incumbents vote on a bill that so clearly prioritized special interests over Minnesota's natural resources?
The Free Press of Mankato, June 11
Restrictions needed on these tobacco products
Never, ever believe tobacco companies will slow in their deceit and devious tactics.
After states successfully sued tobacco makers for their decades of lies and negligence in hiding the risks of smoking, many states and the federal government put more restrictions on tobacco marketing and sales.
One big change was a federal requirement that companies stop making and selling flavored cigarettes — other than adding menthol flavor. The effort was needed because tobacco companies were selling bubble gum, grape and other candy flavor-infused cigarettes with an obvious aim at getting children to try them and become addicted, lifelong customers.
But big tobacco quickly shifted gears by putting all the same candy flavors in cigars, little cigarillos and other tobacco products that weren't specifically barred in the federal regulations.
The products, sold in convenience stores and anywhere other tobacco is sold, are also often cheaply priced — another effort at snagging underage kids to try them. Individual flavored cigars can sell for as little as 50 cents.
Because big tobacco is constantly looking for new ways to push their products to kids, society must be constantly vigilant.
The Minneapolis City Council is considering an ordinance that would restrict flavored tobacco sales. The flavored cigars and other flavored items could only be sold in smoke shops and other shops where only those 18 and older can legally enter. That would help reduce the chances they get into the hands of kids.
The measure would also set a minimum price of $2.60 for a cigar to make them less attractive to children.
The measure, which will be debated in the coming weeks and is being fought by the convenience store industry, also puts more limits on flavored e-cigarettes. Many health experts worry the candy flavored e-cigs are a simple gateway that get minors hooked on nicotine and eventually smoking tobacco. Tobacco is a legal product and adults have every right to buy and use it. But society has every obligation to ensure that an inherently dangerous product is properly regulated to keep it out of the hands of children.
The ordinance Minneapolis is considering needs to be considered by other cities and by the state Legislature. Federal regulators, too, need to revisit the rules and treat all of the flavored tobacco products as persona non grata.
St. Cloud Times, June 9
USA Freedom Act should make you shake your head
The good news — if you can call it that — is for the first time in 15 years a majority of federal lawmakers last week supported reducing the spying powers they allow the NSA to have on the very voters who elect them.
The bad news is those powers remain at levels unimaginable prior to 9/11. The worst news? Most Americans apparently don't care enough to do much more than shrug at the adoption June 2 of the USA Freedom Act.
Think about its very name for a moment. The USA Freedom Act is literally as much an oxymoron as its parallel predecessor — the Patriot Act.
The USA Freedom Act still allows roving wiretaps, "lone wolf" surveillance authority, secret courts and other mass-spying tools granted to the National Security Agency under the Patriot Act, various executive orders and other legislation issued as far back as the 1970s.
Yet the latest change is labeled the USA Freedom Act — and heralded by all sides as an important victory for freedom — because it can claim one major victory: It no longer allows the NSA to collect Americans' phone records and Internet metadata in bulk.
The act ends the practice of major cellphone and Internet providers routinely turning over to the NSA all their records of customers' phone calls and Web use. While the content of those communications was not provided to the NSA, the details about numbers called, locations, metadata, etc., clearly gave the government plenty of personal information.
Under the Freedom Act, the NSA still can access those records. First, though, it will have to get a warrant — from a secret court.
While the court proceedings are not public, the Freedom Act does seek to shed at least a little light on the rulings of these secret courts established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. As The Washington Post reported, companies not only have more options to publicly report FISA requests, but court opinions considered significant are to be declassified, either in full or summary form.
Such reductions in NSA access and legal steps to provide more transparency in secret courts are why some privacy proponents are championing the Freedom Act as a big victory in the battle to stop our own government from spying on its citizens.
They are correct in that it is a victory. Only time — and the level of apathy Americans show about being spied upon — will determine whether it's big or small.