Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

The Free Press of Mankato, Aug. 5

Let nature take its course

Like a lot of things that get attention these days, it started with a video. Two Mankato brothers recorded a deformed bunny in their backyard, imitating the narration of late Australian animal explorer Steve Irwin. And we now have the makings of a legend. For several weeks anyway.

This “Frankenstein” rabbit, as the college-age narrator dubbed it, not only got lots of attention because of the video posting on Reddit, but animal lovers everywhere said instead of making fun of the animal with the growths, they kids should have gotten the bunny some help.

Whether or not you think it’s funny or not to make a video of strange phenomena found in nature, it’s clear that wildlife experts don’t think rabbits with this condition should be helped. In fact, most wild animals that are sick or injured should be left alone.

Rabbits that have sprouted growths have the Shope papilloma virus. It’s the same virus thought to be behind the jackolope legend. (Someone way back when decided to capitalize on the deformity. Taxidermists fashion antelope horns on rabbit heads that can frequently be found on display out West, including at South Dakota’s Wall Drug.)

Department of Natural Resources regional wildlife manager Ken Varland told NBC News he gets calls about horned rabbits once or twice a summer. DNR officials don’t respond by catching the rabbits. The virus can’t be treated. The condition could turn cancerous in an estimated 20 percent of cases, he said.

Varland believes the growths wouldn’t interfere with the rabbits’ social interactions with other rabbits. He said the biggest threat to rabbits, deformed or not, are predators.

And that’s how nature works and always has.

Although it’s the work of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville to treat injured and sick animals, experts there urge people to call first to check and see if intervention makes sense. Sometimes what we interpret as cruel, such as a young, struggling bird being left behind, is nature’s design to concentrate on raising the strongest and healthiest.

The DNR says the best choice is to limit human intervention during natural causes of animal injury or death. Interrupting food-web dynamics may result in cascading impacts on wildlife communities and ecosystem health.

And an important consideration to potential rescuers is that being bitten or clawed during the rescue attempt is a real risk. (Minnesota storyteller Kevin Kling quoted a bar patron who watched the frantic “rescue” of a beaver by other bar patrons and then said: “How long do you think it’s going to take a beaver to get out of a cardboard box?”)

The DNR offers this straightforward, sound advice when it comes to wildlife: “If you care, leave it there.”

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St. Cloud Times, Aug. 4

Still some I-94 avenues to explore

Perhaps too optimistically, Central Minnesotans hoped a high-level meeting last week would knock some sense into — or at least a better explanation out of — MnDOT as to why its next 20-year statewide roads plan no longer supports expanding Interstate Highway 94 between Rogers and St. Cloud.

Unfortunately, Gov. Mark Dayton’s staff confirmed Thursday that while he understands the frustrations of those using the busiest commerce corridor outside the Twin Cities, he won’t overrule the Minnesota Department of Transportation and reinsert the project into its “Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan: 2014-2033.”

Dayton, who met with U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and other I-94 backers, rightly noted the entire state faces a road funding challenge and he can’t just cherry-pick one project. He also suggested I-94 proponents shift their focus from MnSHIP to a new state program called Corridors of Commerce.

Certainly, proponents should heed the governor’s advice. But before the focus shifts to that and other funding sources, MnDOT must fully explain its decision to eliminate this expansion and similar projects statewide known for years in MnSHIP as “Inter-Regional Corridors.”

You see, current and previous MnSHIP plans have cited the IRCs as one of about eight major spending categories, drawing hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. The new MnSHIP plan zeroes out IRCs completely. All other categories survive; some even gain funding between 2014 and 2033.

How can an agency so well-known for using formulas, rubrics and public input to set priorities and budgets take a longstanding hundred-million-dollar category suddenly down to zero? It’s a question that deserves a more thorough answer than a blanket (and nonstrategic) “There’s not money.”

If MnDOT isn’t going to show I-94 the money, at least show the rubric used to get to zero.

Finally, proponents of the I-94 expansion definitely should begin pushing for funds through the Corridors of Commerce program Dayton mentioned.

The Legislature created it last session. It designates $300 million in state bonding for improving roads outside of the Twin Cities that are key to regional economic development. Potential projects and the money are separate from the MnSHIP plan and funds for those.

Obviously, as the busiest outstate freight corridor, I-94 will be a serious contender in a scoring process that MnDOT is still developing. Look for more details in the fall, with awards coming by July.

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St. Paul Pioneer Press, Aug. 4

Last-minute fog, bad government

Minnesota’s new $15.6 billion education funding bill includes a provision that allows control of some local dollars to shift from voters to school boards.

It’s among measures that got little exposure in the flurry of last-minute, end-of-session deal-making that left Minnesotans with $2.1 billion in visible tax increases. Reporters’ work in recent weeks has begun the public discussion that should have happened before passage of this — and several other key measures from the DFL-dominated Legislature.

Under the new school legislation, metro districts can convert up to $724 per pupil of voter-approved taxes, the Pioneer Press’ Christopher Magan reported last week. The conversion won’t immediately give many districts more money or result in immediate tax increases for all property owners. But in most cases, voters will not be able to undo some funding they approved in the past.

In St. Paul, residents might get to revisit only a portion of their public school district’s roughly $840 per pupil operating levy when it comes up for renewal in seven years, the Pioneer Press’ Mila Koumpilova reported, noting that “the shifts are appealing to districts because they make those dollars invulnerable to levy renewal defeat at the polls.”

Some Republican lawmakers, she reported, have criticized the shift, saying it would disenfranchise homeowners and make districts less accountable for money that comes directly from local taxpayers.

If school leaders do nothing before the end of August, metro districts automatically will convert $424 per pupil of existing levies from voter to school board control. Outstate districts will convert less. School boards can vote by the end of September to shift another $300 per student.

– A state gift tax: A provision of the omnibus tax bill made Minnesota only the second state in the nation to tax large gifts between residents.

Those affected — taxpayers who make more than $1 million in taxable gifts over the course of a lifetime — will find themselves charged for giving relatives such things as lake homes, boats and family businesses, the Pioneer Press’ Nick Woltman reported. Gifts between spouses and charitable contributions are exempted, as well as certain direct payments made on medical bills or educational expenses. The Minnesota Department of Revenue expects the new tax to generate about $13.5 million in 2014, increasing to $34 million by 2017.

– Storage and warehousing services: The measure — among business-to-business sales taxes first proposed and later dropped by Gov. Mark Dayton — “arose at the end of the session like a fiscal Lazarus from the tomb,” wrote Pioneer Press columnist Edward Lotterman, criticizing the new tax and another on repair and maintenance of business equipment as bad public policy.

Implementation of the tax — expected to generate nearly $100 million annually — was delayed until April 2014, allowing lawmakers to revisit it. Until then, uncertainty is a critical issue for business interests, some calling for repeal and citing examples of companies already delaying expansion plans.

Minnesota would be the first state in the nation with such a tax.

– Senate office building: Construction of an $89.5 million Senate office building and parking ramp is scheduled to be completed by May 2015.

“With little public debate, the Legislature included language authorizing the project as a small provision in a controversial, 379-page tax bill that passed in the final minutes of the last night of the legislative session May 20,” the Pioneer Press’ Bill Salisbury reported. “DFLers and Republicans argued for hours over the income and cigarette tax increases in the bill, but almost nothing was said about the proposed new building.”

The fog of last-minute deal-making and big bills obscures decisions of consequence, and, often enough, as the examples above illustrate, bad government.

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