“Will Work for Change”

By | Health Care, Le Sueur County, Rice County | No Comments

“Will Work for Change,” emblazoned the yellow tee-shirts of about 25 students from the Social Work program at St. Olaf College, at the Capitol this past Monday. They joined about 700 other undergraduate students from colleges around the state to talk to us about specific legislative policies that truly make a difference in people’s lives. Unfortunately, these occupations don’t offer a great salary, underscoring the passion these young men and women have for a career choice that satisfies them in so many other ways. These students have a clear desire to empower individuals and advocate for their well-being within the communities in which they live. Minnesota would benefit immensely from many more young service-oriented professionals like them. Unfortunately, few follow a professional path in this direction because a common theme spans social work and related career fields: low wages and worker shortages. This was reinforced at recent meetings with nursing home workers at a meeting in Owatonna and a town hall meeting for persons with disabilities in Faribault.  Potential employees take better paying jobs at hospitals and clinics or choose other career options perpetuating the problem.

Providing high quality community services requires not just social workers, but also transit drivers, housekeepers, cooks, crisis managers, medical care providers, not to mention those who help with bathing and dressing. The people who work these jobs are passionate, caring people who love their clients and the sense of purpose it brings them. Unfortunately, they really do work for “change,” averaging just $11.55/hour with many making much less. Too often, low wages lead to higher turnover, which reduces the quality of care. The people who want to do this work are out there, but low pay is a severe barrier to continuing their careers. Too often, they don’t even start because of it.

My soon to be 16-year-old daughter will be looking for a summer job in the next month or so. I suggested she consider one of our local care facilities, hoping she would learn some of the skills that come with a tough job that provides dignity, safety, and hope to our community members. She looked at me quizzically and mumbled something about a job at a cash register with flexible hours. When a retail job can earn just as much or even more, it was difficult for me to make a compelling case for this industry to someone just entering the workforce. Of course, we need retail employees too, but I have concerns about the future of our seniors, people with disabilities, and our community’s most vulnerable. Unless we address the low pay and the current funding model for our counties, nursing homes, and home and community-based services, we will face a crisis within a few short years. Some would argue we have already reached that crisis point.

Listening to social workers, care providers, nurses, administrators, and others share their passion for their rewarding careers reinforces the need that we as a state must do more. The quality of life of our seniors and citizens with disabilities depends on it. There are bills in legislature that offer solutions. They include Medical Assistance reform and another 5% campaign (increasing compensation to care providers). The time is now. I applaud those who really do “work for change.”


Rice County Drug Court

By | Le Sueur County, Rice County | No Comments

This past Thursday I sat in on a weekly convening of the Rice County Drug Court.  The Rice County Drug Court (RCDC) was established in July of 2014 joining several counties that have started drug courts as way to ensure offender accountability, improve efficiencies in processing drug cases, and  reduce overall social and economic costs of illegal drug activity to society. Most importantly, the RCDC hopes to establish and support a pathway to success for each participant.

On this particular afternoon, young men and women each took their turn standing before Judge Thomas Neuville, each sharing the challenges of the past week while the judge asked questions about a job, their treatment program, family matters, or other personal reflections.  Each participant handed over a journal with entries specific to their challenges of staying clean and chemical free.  The judge takes the time to read these journals weekly and provides written notes to the participants with the goal of ensuring compliance and regular feedback about expectations, not only from the judge, but other supporters including the county attorney, the drug court administrator, parole officers, social workers, and chemical and mental health advocates.   Other aspects of the program include required drug treatment, possible electronic monitoring, and random drug testing. Later phases of the program allow successful participants to meet bi-weekly or even monthly as long as the rules of the RCDC are being followed.

Not everyone “graduates” from the drug court.  A successful program can save the state money in the long run.  The courts are less crowded and many young people can avoid lengthy prison terms.  Success relies on positive enforcement strategies. For example, after each participant shares their few minutes with the judge, he announces “how many days” the participant has been chemical free.  This cues everyone in the courtroom to applaud.  Judge Neuville acknowledged the need for a “different set of skills” for this type of courtroom and participant interaction.  But, building these relationships focused on participant reflection helps guide the phases to successful conclusions.  These offenders need the support to stay drug free and on productive and relevant in our communities.  A recent offender who fell out of the program found his way in front of Judge Neuville in the regular court proceeding knowing he would now face a prison sentence.  His first words to the judge were “I’m sorry. He knew he had let the judge down.

I hope we can fund the Drug Court through the judicial budget.  It is an innovative approach in reducing the adverse impact of serious and repeat offenders on the citizens and criminal justice system in Rice and other counties while creating a system that is more effective for participants.  And it seems to be working.

Transparency and Good Governance

By | Energy, Le Sueur County | No Comments

Often times, good bills come to me from a constituent who shares their concerns or ideas on how to improve our communities and our state. Recently, I have been working on an issue that came to me after a few concerned citizens brought it to my attention. Publicly-owned municipal utilities, including the Municipal Power Agencies (MPAs) that provide energy to Le Sueur and New Prague in our district, do not have to comply with the Data Practices Act or open-meeting law that keeps public entities transparent and accountable.

Under current law, municipal utility companies are not regulated by the Public Utilities Commission or any other state body when it comes to public access. While perfectly acceptable for a private company, this can present a problem in a public setting: for example, publicly elected officials appointed to the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency board for Le Sueur, Shakopee, North St. Paul, and other cities are required to sign strict confidentiality agreements and cannot share anything discussed at board meetings with their constituents. This government-sponsored censoring of our elected officials and public servants should not be allowed to continue. I am not alone in my concern. Several mayors of Minnesota cities and representatives from Minnesota newspapers have reached out to me in support of municipal utility company transparency.

Municipal power agencies provide an invaluable service to dozens of Minnesota cities, and can be a good option for a city looking to provide affordable energy to their citizens. Certainly not all MPAs have engaged in dubious behavior, but the public should be allowed to examine the actions of those who are ultimately accountable to the voters.

It is true that MPAs are technically following the law, as a 1998 Minnesota Supreme Court decision narrowly ruled to exempt MPAs from the Open Meeting Law and the Data Practices Act. This is why I have authored a bill to clarify Minnesotans’ expectations for these agencies, requiring them to follow the same laws that allow the public and media to access school board meetings, the city council, and even the state legislature.

As the dissenting opinion from that same case argued, “Cities are not required to join together to form publicly-owned electrical utilities, but if they do, those publicly-owned entities should not automatically be entitled to a level of secrecy in doing business that other government entities are not accorded.” Increasing opportunities for discussion and public input in a utility that is formed by other elected bodies can only further the goal of serving the public good.

My bill has the support of many in the Senate, but unfortunately the House version of the bill has not been granted a hearing, stalling the bill in both chambers. This inaction is perpetuated by the widespread belief that Minnesotans do not face a problem in this regard. In fact, the website of the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association (the organization that lobbies for MPAs) falsely claims they are subject to the very transparency laws they ignore.

The core of good government is accountability and transparency, and from my perspective these organizations have neither. Anything can happen behind closed doors, and the checks and balances so critical to our democracy cannot happen without transparency. This should not be a partisan issue; it is time for legislation to correct this oversight, and to make sure these government agencies are truly accountable, especially to the people they serve.

Town Hall Meetings 2015

By | Kevin Dahle MN Senate District 20, Le Sueur County, Rice County, Scott County | No Comments

This past Saturday, I concluded two weekends of town meetings across Senate District 20.  Both Representative Bob Vogel (20A) and Representative David Bly (20B) accompanied me in their respective town meetings in libraries and restaurants in the eight communities we visited.  We enjoyed hearing from constituents as they provided input on the policy and budget issues we are discussing here at the midpoint of the 2015 legislative session.

Good dialogue on wide ranging topics were held.  Folks shared their thoughts on the budget surplus, health care, education, property taxes, and buffer zones on agricultural land.  We talked about pensions, climate change, renewable energy standards, and the scope of government.  A young teacher from New Prague passionately expressed his opposition to the “last in first out” legislation which he viewed as another attack on his profession.  Nursing home workers from LeSueur implored the legislature to fix the nursing home funding inequities that exist in our state.  Others argued for the need for a reasonable funding solution to fixing our roads and bridges and the state’s long term transportation needs.

I always enjoy face to face meetings.  In nearly every instance, pointed questions moved easily to productive dialogue and a better understanding of shared concerns.  Democrats, Republicans, and Independents left the meeting with handshakes and thank yous, with better insight on our positions and thoughts on the issues of the day or how the legislative process works.

I thank those community members who took the time to stop by to share their thoughts and concerns.  I look forward to our next meeting.

Renewable Energy Standard for the Future

By | Economy, Energy, Environment | No Comments

In 2007, a broad coalition made up of entrepreneurs, businesses, labor, environmentalists, concerned citizens, and legislators came together to pass a Renewable Energy Standard (RES) for Minnesota.  That historic legislation required 25% of our electricity come from renewables such as wind, solar, and biomass resources.  The bill passed the Minnesota House and Senate with only 13 of 201 legislators voting against it.  Governor Pawlenty signed the bill into law and Minnesota became a national clean energy leader.

The current Renewable Energy Standard has been a huge success and has created thousands of clean energy jobs in our state.  Employment in clean energy sectors reached 15,300 in 2014.  Clean energy employment in Minnesota surged 78% between January 2000 and the first quarter of 2014, growing steadily through the recession.  The RES has resulted in nearly $9.4 million in wind energy production tax revenue that is paid directly to counties, primarily in Greater Minnesota and land use agreements have a generated millions of dollars of revenue for Minnesota farmers. Many utilities are already several years ahead of schedule in meeting the 2007 RES requirements.  Despite these impressive numbers, Minnesota is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

A few weeks ago, I introduced legislation that would increase the existing RES to 40% by 2030.  Currently, we get 15% of our energy from renewables, but we are using only 1% of our wind potential.  In addition, compliance with Minnesota’s existing RES has been affordable.  The state’s largest 3 utilities, representing 80% of Minnesota’s retail electricity sales, reported little impact on wages as a result of their renewable energy investments through 2012.  As wind and solar prices have dropped, several utilities have even reported savings in some years, particularly when natural gas prices have spiked.

Raising the RES is beneficial to the economy, creates jobs, reduces Minnesota’s reliance on imported electricity, benefits public health, and helps preserve our precious earth and its resources.  We are on the right trajectory to meet those goals established nearly 8 years ago.  The rules and the structure are already in place.  Increasing our renewable energy standard will send us on our way to a truly, clean, reliable, and sustainable energy future.