The Free Press of Mankato, April 4
Voting still trumps money in politics
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on aggregate campaign contributions for individual donors likely left many voters disheartened that once again their influence in representative democracy was further eroded.
The ruling makes it easy to conclude that money talks in our constitutional democracy and the Supreme Court just gave wealthy donors a megaphone.
We hope voters and non-voters see it differently.
The Supreme Court ruling should be a clarion call if not a three alarm fire to prompt the average voter to get even more engaged in not only voting but grass roots democracy.
We don't have to look far to see how big money campaigns still failed because their messages didn't resonate with voters.
In Minnesota history, we need only go back to the first election of former Sen. Paul Wellstone in 1990.
His challenger, incumbent Rudy Boschwitz, outspent Wellstone seven to one. Wellstone rode a populist message to victory in a state that had elected dozens of Republicans to state and national offices just a decade earlier.
Still, overcoming such a barrage of talking points and attack ads that are designed to appeal to our worst fears and ingrained biases is still no small task. It's not easier with supposedly "objective" and "balanced" national broadcast media taking sides like they've never taken before.
If they don't take sides, they focus on the controversies and personalities instead of the issues.
The Supreme Court ruling will likely amplify that campaign noise and static and ultimate deception.
The court essentially allowed individuals to contribute the limit for one campaign to as many campaigns or committees as they desire. Previous election law had set a limit of a total of about $123,000 per election cycle.
The ruling would allow individuals to now donate up to $3.6 million through various means that could eventually flow directly to a candidate or a party committee, according to a report in the Washington Post.
The donations would still have to be disclosed under campaign contribution laws, but most could be easily disguised for their ultimate destination.
The ruling comes a few years after another by the Supreme Court, — the Citizens United case — where the Supreme Court ruled corporations and unions could give unlimited money to what are described as independent political activities. That ruling prompted the creation of so called Super PACS that could then engage not all too subtly in election campaigns.
So what's a voter or, for that matter, a non-voter to do? First, non-voters should become voters. Campaigns can track people who vote and therefore target messages at that demographic whatever it might be.
A big increase in non-voters voting throws a big curve into that system.
The best example of that was the election of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. An independent and dark horse, Ventura was shown to be losing in early polls. But a great number of young, first-time voters turned out unexpectedly and threw the victory to Ventura in a three-way race.
As always, voters should get informed. It's harder than it used to be with all the unreliable news sources, blogs and unvetted Internet news providers out there.
So, it's important to find a credible source of information — one that has been around for a long time and has sustained a viable business model with real paying customers.
Directly contacting those running for office should not be underestimated. Many consider a few calls or letters on a subject representative of how a lot of other people might feel.
If they get a lot negative feedback on an attack ad some outside group might be running supporting them, they might to disavow it.
In the end, money makes a difference in campaigns. But how much of a difference its makes is largely up to voters.
Rochester Post-Bulletin, April 8
Shortage of primary care doctors demands action
Have you heard of the Minnesota Legislative Health Care Workforce Commission? Don't feel bad if you haven't — after all, this commission doesn't exist yet. It's just an idea, easily lost among a seemingly endless array of proposals on how to improve our health-care system.
But this idea has been formalized and introduced as a bill in both the Minnesota House and Senate, and we think it's an idea that more people should be talking about.
Essentially, the goal of this bill — House File 322 and Senate File 2881 — is to find ways to encourage more aspiring doctors to become primary care physicians.
Why is that important?
Well, in 2010, the Council on Graduate Medical Education issued a report indicating that in order to reduce the national shortage of primary care physicians, 40 percent of all medical students would have to pursue careers in primary care. But for the past five years, just 12 percent have done so. The vast majority instead pursue medical specialties that offer higher pay, greater prestige, more minutes-per-patient and less grappling with insurance companies and mountains of paperwork.
To address this problem, the companion bills in the Legislature would create a 10-member commission — five representatives, five senators — that would expire on Jan. 1, 2015. During its six-month existence, the commission would face the daunting task of identifying existing medical workforce shortages and projecting future shortages across the state, as well as recommending new incentives that would encourage future medical students to focus on primary care.
We like the idea of creating such a commission. Although we recognize the new reality of modern medicine, with much routine care being provided by a nurse practitioner or a physician's assistant, we also know there is tremendous value in having a long-term relationship with a trusted primary care doctor.
Furthermore, we also know tens of thousands of Minnesotans live in rural areas where the local primary care doctor is a crucial-yet-vanishing resource. Minnesota must find new ways to encourage young doctors to move to such areas, or we'll face a full-blown crisis in rural health care.
Our only concern with the proposed commission is that six months seems like an awfully short time in which to tackle a very serious problem — especially when half of the members of this commission likely would be campaigning for re-election.
We know the need is urgent, but an 18-month timeline would be far more realistic. Yes, it's entirely possible that the November election could create some vacancies on the commission, but replacements could be named if the need arises.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 4
No 'privilege' for legislator DWIs
Ask Minnesota legislators whether they should be immune from drunken-driving arrests and their answer generally is what constituents expect to hear: "Of course not."
But when state lawmakers are asked to write that common sense specifically into statute, their actions — or in this case, their inactions — speak far louder than their words. Legislation sensibly clarifying lawmakers' historical protection against executive branch abuses of power — such as law enforcement detentions designed to impede a vote — by establishing that it does not shield lawmakers from drunken-driving arrests has screeched to a halt in the DFL-controlled Minnesota Senate.
Senators should take a cue from their colleagues in the Minnesota House, where there's broad bipartisan support for a bill dubbed a "no-brainer" by many House members, who face an election this fall, unlike the Senate. At a minimum, the Senate's DFL leadership needs to get the legislation out of committee and to a floor debate. There, senators could make their case for or against the bill in the spotlight that comes with a vote of the entire chamber.
Unlike the process in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill stalled about a week ago, a floor vote also would ensure that lawmakers' individual positions on the legislation are recorded. Only a voice vote was taken when the bipartisan eight-member committee moved to table the bill, so it's not clear who voted to do so. The committee's chairman is Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who said Thursday that he was among those who voted to table it.
This legislation shouldn't die a quiet, obscure death. It deserves a higher-profile debate on the floor where those opposed to it — who say it's unnecessary — can explain their objections. Voters also should be given the chance to hold their elected officials accountable for how they voted on a bill with broad appeal.
The legislation is being carried in the Senate by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, and in the House by Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. But its most vocal proponents are students from Concordia University in St. Paul who seized upon this issue in a political science class and are pushing legislators to make the change.
The students' efforts are a terrific example of citizens' ability to engage in the Minnesota legislative process. Their professor, Jayne Jones, took a hands-on approach to their education after coming across an ugly scene she claims to have witnessed in a St. Paul bar a few years ago: a lawmaker who loudly bragged about the ability to drive drunk with impunity due to legislative privileges. Jones would not disclose the legislator's name.
The students' high-profile push has put a welcome spotlight on the little known "privilege from arrest" provision within the Minnesota Constitution, which states that members of each house, in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest during the session, or while going to or from their duties. These protections have long roots in common law and date at least to medieval times, when English monarchs would abuse their authority to detain or otherwise thwart members of Parliament they didn't like.
The legislation pushed by the students would make it clear that drunken driving is a breach of the peace and, thus, legislators could not wave the wallet-sized card they carry stating their constitutional protections to get out of an arrest.
Opponents of the legislation, such as Latz, say that there's no evidence this has happened and that case law makes it clear the privilege does not extend to drunken driving. Opponents also point out that protections against arrest do not shield lawmakers from subsequent prosecution for drunken driving.
The bill's advocates, such as Concordia senior Hope Baker, argue that getting out of a drunken-driving arrest is tantamount to escaping prosecution because evidence about alcohol levels might not be gathered immediately. Incidents of legislators invoking the privileges also may go unreported.
Among the high-profile law enforcement supporters of the bill is Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, a retired 32-year police officer. He blasted the procedural roadblocks in the Senate as "smoke and mirrors" designed to protect lawmakers from answering to the public about their support for special treatment for politicians.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, expressed support for the legislation Thursday if he can be sure that the change does not create a loophole that downgrades a drunken-driving offense to a lesser breach-of-the-peace violation.
The Senate DFL leadership, which relayed requests for comment to Latz, needs to find a way to get this bill out of procedural limbo. Those opposed to the legislation say the facts are in their favor. If their case is as strong as they say it is, they should have no problem explaining their position to their colleagues on the floor and being held accountable by voters.