Little to do in the Legislature? Take a week off
Nearly two weeks ago, Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller suggested that legislators should go home for a while. Things are so slow in St. Paul that he said "I don't think there's a reason to have people sitting around here looking for opportunities to create mischief."
There are two reasons for the lack of activity. First, the early weeks of the session were quite productive, as Gov. Pawlenty signed the bonding bill, a jobs bill, a package of budget cuts and a slimmed-down health care program for the poor.
And now everyone is playing wait-and-see, as the local financial impact of federal health care reform remains somewhat fuzzy. Little is likely to happen with the state's remaining $700 million deficit until those numbers clear up.
So, if there's little for our elected officials to do, we like the idea that they should go home for a week. Let's save some daily expenses — up to $96 per diem for each senator, and $66 for each representative.
A little cost-cutting won't fix the budgetary hole, but it won't hurt, either.
Help a farmer: Buy local
Minnesota's agricultural economy took quite a hit in 2009. After a banner year in 2008, when the median net farm income for 3,000 surveyed operations was $91,242, the bottom fell out last year, with a median income of $33,417.
If you prefer to see things in terms of percentages, that's a 63 percent pay cut. Or, seen another way, the average farmer earned a 3.1 percent return on assets, the lowest rate in 17 years. Low prices for pork and dairy producers played a major role in this decline.
The good news is that livestock prices climbed steadily since January, but the dairy industry — especially small, family-owned operations — remains in crisis mode.
What can we do to help? For starters, we can try to purchase food that is produced locally.
If you prefer organic foods, your options are increasing. Minnesota now has more than 500 certified organic farm operations. Nationwide, only six states have more organic acreage than we do. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 44 percent of the food produced on these farms is sold within 100 miles of the farm where it was produced, and last year, total sales of organic grains, produce, meat and poultry were nearly $70 million in Minnesota.
But don't forget about all of the locally grown food that isn't organic. We're just weeks away from the time of year when farmers markets and roadside stands will be filled with nature's bounty, and a majority of it won't bear the "organic" label.
Buy it. Let's reward our local farmers for diversifying and responding to consumer demands.
Let's do what we can to make sure they have a market for their products. Yes, you might pay a bit more for locally grown produce, meat or poultry, but you'll also be helping to preserve family farms.
'Lifesavers' among us
Congratulations to Rep. Kim Norton, a DFLer from Rochester, and Sen. Steve Murphy, a DFLer from Red Wing, who last week received "Lifesaver" awards from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
They were among 19 people nationwide who were honored for their efforts to improve highway safety. Norton and Murphy were the key players in the successful fight to pass primary seat belt legislation in 2009. After the law took effect, compliance with Minnesota's seat belt law reached 90 percent for the first time.
But this isn't the first time Norton has been a difference-maker on our roads. On Aug. 1, 2008, Gov. Pawlenty signed the Graduated Drivers License standard, which spells out specific restrictions for newly licensed teen drivers. They are prohibited from driving between midnight and 5 a.m., and they can transport just one passenger under the age of 20.
We don't think it's a coincidence that fatalities on Minnnesota's highways are continuing to plummet. In 2003, 655 people died on our roads. In 2007, it was 510. But last year, the total was 403, and we're on pace to be well under 400 for this year.
Obviously, there are several factors at work here, including safety improvements in our cars and a reduction in the number of miles we're driving. But Norton and Murphy have played important roles in reducing the carnage on our roads.
Now, all we need is a strong law to combat distracted driving, as well as an ignition-lock requirement for first-time DUI offenders, and perhaps we can reduce the traffic death toll even more.