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South Central’s Carpentry Program allows students an inside perspective on building a home. (Photo courtesy of Dave Brokl)

Legislators, local leaders express frustration over bonding failure

With the Legislature once again adjourning its special session without passing a bonding bill, local officials say they’re frustrated and concerned about the fate of important local projects.

After an agreement was struck between the Republican controlled Senate and DFL leadership on a $1.35 billion bonding bill, legislators seemed closer than ever to passing what is traditionally its marquee legislation in even-numbered years. However, a bonding bill is more difficult for legislators to pass compared to other legislation because under Minnesota’s Constitution, at least three-fifths of both houses of the legislature must vote in favor of it.

In the House, that meant at least six Republicans would need to join with the DFL majority to pass any bill. Yet even though their Senate colleagues backed the bill, the House Republican caucus led by Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, sunk it with united opposition.

Legislators are expected to be called back into session again next month by Gov. Tim Walz, who is legally required to do so if he seeks to extend emergency powers first authorized in March and renewed each month since.

It’s likely to be more challenging to pass a bonding bill in August. In addition to being closer to November’s elections, an August bill would come as the state is selling bonds from previous authorizations, and Walz said he fears such a bill could spook investors.

Local projects in jeopardy

Medford Mayor Lois Nelson expressed disappointment with the bonding bill’s failure. While Medford hasn’t yet asked for bonding bill dollars to connect to Faribault for wastewater treatment, the city is laying the groundwork to do that.

Last November, the Capital Investment Committee heard a presentation from Nelson and City Administrator Andy Welti on the plan. But with the legislature failing to pass a bonding bill in two consecutive years, Medford’s proposed project would have plenty of competition.

“I am truly disappointed in our legislature,” Nelson said. “I feel that they are, quite frankly, playing political games.”

Faribault City Administrator Tim Murray said that two city projects stand to be affected if legislators can’t pass a bonding bill. The first is a proposed berm outside the wastewater treatment plant, that would protect the plant from the adjacent Straight River.

In recent years, the city has seen several floods that have imperiled the plant as well as general erosion of the river bank. With the high volume of wastewater produced by Faribault’s industrial factories, the wastewater treatment plant is a crucial if not particularly glamorous city asset.

The other project that could be affected is the Second Avenue bridge replacement project. The current bridge, which crosses Division Street, is structurally deficient. Without funding from state bridge bonds, Murray said the city would need to look elsewhere for funding to compensate. Another project the city has long wished to see is the Northern Links trail, which would connect the city’s trail system with the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail and Mankato. That project wasn’t included in the final bonding bill, even though senators heard about it on their tour.

In addition to those projects the city was directly involved with, Faribault Republicans Sen. John Jasinski and Rep. Brian Daniels pushed hard to provide increased funding for Faribault’s Academies for the Blind and Deaf.

While both campuses are full of historic buildings, many are in need of replacement. Even though they are designed to serve disabled students, many of those buildings fall woefully short of Americans with Disabilities Act standards as well as modern building codes.

Senate Capital Investment Committee Chair Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said that the academies have been a feature stop on almost every bonding tour. Senjem said that while the committee always tries to include a few projects, they often struggle to compete for funding.

In Northfield, the major project backed by Lippert and Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, was funding for a proposed regional transit hub. Located next to the city’s historic 1888 Depot, the hub would be centrally located, within biking and walking distance for many residents.

Previously, the hub failed to receive a requested $2.5 million in state bonding funds, but it was included in this year’s bill. Key legislators said they were highly impressed that the state’s investment would be coupled with other sizable public and private investments.

The project also garnered support because increasing transportation options is crucial as the state tries to address its workforce shortage. Lippert said that he was highly disappointed that despite momentum and broad support, the project would not be able to move forward this year.

“It’s been a priority of business leaders, the city and the (St. Olaf and Carleton) colleges,” he said. “It’s important for students, for households who need extra transportation, and for employers who want employees to have more options to get to work.”

Fundamental disagreements

Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, initially expressed support for a bonding bill but ended up voting against the final version. Petersburg expressed frustration that House Republicans were left out of final negotiations, and key projects they had backed were not included.

“The bonding bill needs to be a joint effort and negotiated with all parties voting for it,” he said. “We had a negotiated bonding bill prior to the start of the special session and then it was changed, with House Republicans left out.”

In addition, Daudt has maintained since May that his caucus would not support a bill so long as the governor’s emergency powers are in effect. Petersburg agreed, saying it’s time for the legislature to get significantly more information and input on the crisis.

“The information he is getting and using should be available to legislators,” he said. “I think our constituents want us to have power and input as well.”

With Republicans (including the four-member New House Republican Caucus) holding just 59 of 134 seats in the State House, Petersburg said that negotiations around the bonding bill provide the only real leverage House Republicans have.

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, sharply criticized Republicans for blocking the bill. While not as large as the bonding bill initially proposed by Walz, Lippert said the compromise effort would have provided crucial investment at a time when the state faces major economic challenges.

“It’s the biggest economic stimulus tool we have as a state,” Lippert said. “It would have created construction jobs throughout the state.”

Unlike his Republican colleagues, Lippert also voted to uphold the governor’s emergency powers. Lippert said that as the pandemic continues to spread across the state, with hundreds of new cases per day, Minnesota needs to be able to approach the issue quickly and nimbly. Lippert said he is disappointed that the governor’s emergency authority has become a partisan football. He said that nationally, 49 out of 50 state governors have emergency powers in place, including all 26 Republican governors.

Questionable tactics?

Senate Republicans have joined their House colleagues in opposition to the governor’s emergency powers, with Chaska Sen. Scott Jensen describing them as “dictatorial.”

However, even Senate Republicans strongly opposed to the governor’s powers moved to distance themselves from their House colleagues’ approach. That includes Sen. Jasinski who has repeatedly voted to end the emergency powers.

“I’m not a fan of using those tactics,” he said. “Although I don’t agree with the governor’s emergency powers, I don’t think you should hold (the bonding bill) hostage.”

As the only local senator with a seat on the Capital Investment Committee, Jasinski traveled across the state to see many of the projects included in the bill. He said that while he wasn’t enthusiastic about some of the projects in the bill, it was a compromise he could live with.

Jasinski was also an enthusiastic supporter of legislation to bring Minnesota into full compliance with Section 179 of the federal tax code. That measure, which enjoys bipartisan support, would allow small businesses and farmers to deduct the cost of certain equipment from their taxes.

That and other tax measures with bipartisan support were ultimately combined with the bonding bill in the House, raising concerns that the legislation could be a violation of the Minnesota Constitution’s “single subject” rule. Those concerns ultimately turned out to be moot, with Republican opposition to the bonding bill sinking the entire package. And without approval from the House, the Senate couldn’t even consider the measure.

MN Reconnect program eases adult students' transitions back to college

For Christina Rubie, 2008 wasn’t the right time to pursue a college degree.

After undergoing two emergency surgeries, Rubie put college aside. But 12 years later, she picked up where she left off at South Central College’s North Mankato campus. She plans to become a doctor.

Rubie said she can’t imagine returning to school without participating in MN Reconnect, a program designed to assist adult students in resuming and completing their college educations.

“It’s given me the opportunity to not give up on my dreams,” Rubie said of Minnesota Reconnect. “… There’s not a feeling in the world that can compare to that.”

Qualifying MN Reconnect students receive $1,000 scholarships for six semesters, including summers, to put toward tuition or any number of life expenses that may present barriers to earning their degree. That could include rent, mortgages, food, transportation and childcare. The $1,000 is an increase from last year’s $500 scholarships, and in addition to that, students may receive up to $1,000 to help with their past college debt.

Program participants must be between the ages of 25 and 62 and have at least 15 college credits under their belt, which they earned no less than two years ago. Since the program aims to help adult students finish what they started, adults who already earned a diploma or certificate are not eligible for Minnesota Reconnect. Participants must fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) from the federal government to qualify.

Apart from SCC, eight other colleges in the state offer the MN Reconnect program: Riverland Community College, Central Lakes College, Dakota County Technical College, Inver Hills Community College, Lake Superior College, Minneapolis College, North Hennepin Community College, and Pine Technical Community College.

Rubie found it easy to fill out the two-page application for MN Reconnect, and she called her advisor, Matt Leisen, an “absolutely phenomenal” program navigator with all the resources he provides. Each participating college has a program navigator to help students develop their academic plans, figure out which classes to take and navigate resources for any number of conflicts that arise in their personal and academic lives.

As a navigator for the MN Reconnect program, Leisen said he works with his students as often as possible, mainly online for now due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is a point of contact where a text or email will go out to them, and I will try to meet with them at least three times throughout the semester,” said Leisen. “The idea is high contact and wanting to make sure they keep academics the foremost priority in their life.”

Across both Mankato and Faribault campuses, Leisen said 87 students have enrolled in the Minnesota Reconnect program since it started at SCC. Twenty-nine students enrolled in fall 2019 and 24 in the spring of 2020 across both Faribault and Mankato campuses.

Amy Wagner, academic advisor and school navigator for Riverland Community College, has a caseload of about 50 Minnesota Reconnect students per semester across Riverland’s three campuses.

“We want to support [MN Reconnect students] in school, but that also means supporting everything else to allow them to go to school,” said Wagner.

Wagner generally meets with her students face to face unless they take all their classes online, but since March she’s met with students via Zoom more frequently. Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she set specific times and dates to visit each campus and set times in the late afternoon to coordinate with students who are parents who work during the day.

“Sometimes if students weren’t successful the first time they went to college, if they have anxiety about coming back, that is my role to help them make sure they’re not going through this alone,” said Wagner. “I always tell the students that I work with, ‘For whatever reason the first time you [attended college] it wasn’t the right time for you to finish, and I want to help you finish.’”

Amber Friesen, a part-time psychology student, was pleased to find out about MN Reconnect after enrolling at Riverland Community College last year. At 33 years old, she didn’t want to waste time or energy worrying about her credits transferring. Through MN Reconnect, she anticipates completing her two-year degree at Riverland next spring and plans to transfer to Minnesota State University, Mankato from there.

“I think it’s just awesome and a lot of people should do it,” Friesen said. “I thought about going back to school for probably at least five years and just never took the jump. If I’d known how easy this was, I probably would have done it sooner.”

Friesen said she’s impressed with how much Wagner has helped in the process, not only academically, but to make sure Friesen can seamlessly transition to MSU.

“It’s nice that it’s for people who are non-traditional students,” Friesen said of MN Reconnect. “Amy was able to give me more nonspecific help and balance classes with home life, so I could stay at home and homeschool my kids.”

Task forces' search turns up $200,000 of meth, cocaine

A pair of convicted drug dealers released early from prison have been charged with possessing $200,000 worth of methamphetamine and cocaine following a search of their home by agents from two southern Minnesota task forces.

Led by the Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force, agents with the Minnesota River Valley Drug Task Force and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension executed a search warrant July 8 at a Hilltop Lane apartment in Mankato. In a Friday press release, Cannon River task force Commander Paul LaRoche said the bust was part of an ongoing investigation into alleged drug activities by Jacqueline Rodriguez, 25.

Rodriguez was believed to be involved in the sale and transportation of large amounts of methamphetamine.

Inside the apartment, said LaRoche, were Rodriguez and the father of her baby, Jason Scheff, 39, along with 4.52 pounds of meth and more than 24 grams of cocaine. The meth was separated into four packages, each weighing about a pound.

Additional small baggies of methamphetamine and cocaine were reportedly located along with numerous digital scales and empty smaller baggies. Agents also located a total of 24.27 grams of cocaine and seized $3,100 in cash.

In one of the apartment’s rooms was a baby crib, said LaRoche. Inside the crib, agents reportedly located a digital scale with suspected methamphetamine residue on it.

“The seizure of 4.5 pounds was significant for our area,” said LaRoche. “We are pleased to prevent an upper level dealer from distributing the drugs to others in this area. We were also able to intervene an unsafe environment for the infant involved.”

Both Rodriguez and Scheff were charged July 13 for multiple felonies, including first-degree possession and sales of controlled substance.

Scheff has a prior conviction for first-degree controlled substance possession and third-degree controlled substance sale. According to Department of Corrections records, he was released on supervised probation in January 2019.

Rodriguez also has an extensive criminal history, including convictions for first-degree controlled substance possession, second-degree controlled substance possession and fourth-degree controlled substance possession, and a conviction for third-degree assault. Third-degree assault is a violent crime and constitutes an aggravating factor in sentencing.

Courts records show she was given a stayed sentence of 73 months in prison following a conviction for first-degree drug possession, but a year later a Sibley County judge revoked the stay and sent her to prison. With credit for time served, Rodriguez was released from the Minnesota Correction Facility in February 2019, just weeks after Scheff.

Both remain in the Blue Earth County Jail. Judge Mark Betters last week set bail for Rodriguez and for Scheff at $500,000 with no conditions.

Cannon River agents were also assisted by the Mankato Department of Public Safety.