We’re incorrigible: we just can’t resist fixing things

A University of Minnesota scientist has invented a sponge that could absorb dangerous chemicals from groundwater in the East Metro.

A Minnesota company has developed a method using our abundant peat for extracting metals from water, such as sulfides from Iron Range mining draining into wild rice paddies.

A Minnesotan is building patio furniture from the plastic waste that is collecting on ocean beaches. 


Our state can claim credit for inventing many products, including some that are nice but not necessarily necessary, such as cake mixes, the nerf ball and microwave popcorn.




Special Education Facts:
Why, What, Who, How Much?

Minnesota schools divert more than $600 million annually from regular classroom instruction to pay for special education services mandated but not paid for by the state and federal government.

Special education services are provided to eligible students in Minnesota public and private schools as required by federal civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, and by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for each disabled child aged birth to 21, and by state law.

In the least restrictive environment possible, meaning regular classrooms with non-disabled children, teachers must provide individualized lesson plans to suit the specific needs of each disabled child. The Minnesota Department of Education lists 12 categories of disability, and there has been a notable rise in the number of children diagnosed with a major disability.

A total of 137,598 Minnesota students, about 16% of all K-12 students, receive some special education services. In addition Minnesota has 448 alternative schools, designed for children whose needs cannot be met in a traditional classroom. Alternative schools serve 14,159 students.

Special education funds may be used solely for the unique needs of the students with disabilities and may not be used to provide services that are identical or similar to those provided to general education students. The federal government contributed $11.9 billion to schools across the country for special education in 2016. Schools also receive special education aid from the State of Minnesota in addition to basic per pupil funding of $6,067 this year. The total state special education aid for 2017 was $1.25 billion. A school receives, for example, an additional $10,400 for a child with autism spectrum disorder or an additional $18,000 for a child with an emotional behavioral disorder.

Individual school districts also spent an estimated $1.7 billion from local taxes,18 percent of their spending in 2016, to meet the requirements of educating special education students. Special education funds are spent for specially trained staff and supportive services; salaries of regular classroom teachers do not increase when they have disabled children in their rooms. 

A bill that proposes a working group to study the costs of special education is moving easily through the legislature.


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Why Not MinnesotaCare for All?
The pros and cons of a state-operated health insurance plan

In recent years health insurance premiums in the individual market in Minnesota have skyrocketed, and some insurers have abandoned the market entirely, particularly outstate. As a solution, Gov. Dayton has proposed allowing anyone who does not have employer-sponsored health insurance, regardless of income, to buy into MinnesotaCare, the state’s low-cost plan for those who make too much to qualify for medical assistance but not enough to pay for private insurance. 

MinnesotaCare is currently limited to those making between 133% and 200% of the federal poverty guideline–a maximum of $49,200 this year for a family of four. It covers a comprehensive list of services, including dental, eye exams and mental health treatment. It is paid for with state and federal tax dollars, a 2% tax on healthcare providers, and premiums paid on a sliding scale by enrollees. In 2017 the maximum premium is $80 per month per person.

According to the sponsor of the senate bill which contains the proposal, a MinnesotaCare buy-in would reduce insurance premiums for individuals and provide them with better access to doctors, especially in rural areas where there are often few options for coverage. It would guarantee a quality, lower cost option in every county, and all providers who now accept MinnesotaCare patients would be required to accept the new subscribers. Individuals would pay the premiums in full so there would be no new cost to the state.

At a hearing in the Minnesota Senate, individuals told personal stories of the heavy financial burden of meeting their healthcare needs using available private insurance plans. Other supporters of the buy-in, including the Minnesota Nurses Association, AARP, and the Farmer’s Union, stated that the program would provide an affordable insurance option, broaden provider networks and stabilize the individual market. 

Opponents of Dayton’s plan, such as the Minnesota Hospital Association, the Minnesota Medical Association and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, cited reimbursement rates that do not cover the costs of care, threatening the viability of rural clinics which already have slim margins, and shift costs to private payers. According to Sen. Michelle Benson, chair of the state Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, hospitals receive full reimbursement from privately insured individuals but less than half for those on public programs. She wonders if outstate hospitals can survive if more patients are on a public plan and fewer on private plans.

To prevent a collapse of the individual market, the Minnesota Legislature this year created a $542 million “reinsurance” program to help insurance companies cover expensive medical claims. Eighty percent of individuals’ claims between $50,000 and $250,000 will be paid by the state. The program appears to have had the desired result of smaller premium increases for 2018.


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How the federal food stamp program has evolved
“…a fuller and wiser use of our agricultural abundance,” said LBJ in 1964

In 2016 more than 645,000 Minnesotans received $603 million in what we know as food stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). 55% of recipients lived in the seven-county metro area. 295,000 were children. The average benefit per person per meal was $1.17.

The food stamp program began as an effort to support struggling farmers during the depression. The federal government bought farm products at a discount and gave them to the states to distribute to the hungry. In 1939 the program was formalized by FDR’s New Deal. Low-income individuals could buy food stamps and receive $0.50 in discounted bonus stamps for each $1 they spent to then buy certain surplus foods. 

The program was suspended during World War II when poverty levels decreased significantly. President Lyndon Johnson re-established the program in 1964. The Food Stamp Act sought to make better use of continuing agricultural surpluses, improve the health of  low-come individuals and support agriculture generally.

In the early 2000’s, credit card-type Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards were introduced, and the program was re-named SNAP, both changes in part to reduce the stigma of food stamps.

Any food or food product that will be consumed in the home can be purchased with food stamps. This includes soft drinks, candies, cookies and birthday cakes. Food stamps cannot be used to buy liquor or cigarettes or laundry soap or diapers.

To qualify for SNAP benefits, which are paid for with federal tax dollars but administered by states, a person must be a U.S. citizen or legal immigrant. Benefit amounts are based on household income and size. For example, a family of three with an income of less than $2,808 a month could receive $504 in benefits.

Certain non-citizens who are ineligible for the federal benefits can receive funds from the Minnesota Food Assistance Program (MFAP). In his 2016-17 budget, Gov. Dayton recommended $1.1 million for the program.



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How our elected officials raise our taxes without asking us

Local school districts–EdinaBurnsville-Eagan-Savage, and Anoka-Hennepin, for example–are asking voters to approve levy referendums that would allow them to increase the amount they collect each year by the rate of inflation.

Gov. Dayton wants to add a percentage tax to gasoline at the wholesale level. The current tax is a unit tax, which means it stays the same no matter how the price of a gallon fluctuates. The wholesale tax would increase as the price of gasoline increases.

The statewide business property tax, which all business in the state pay in addition to local property taxes, includes an automatic annual increase.

The tax on a pack of cigarettes goes up annually, based on the rate of inflation.


The good news: Liquor taxes are not indexed for inflation and have not been raised since 1987.



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Some things to know about Native American rights regarding land use in Northern Minnesota
and how they affect a proposal to replace an old pipeline

Enbridge Energy is asking for permission from the state Public Utilities Commission to replace an aging pipeline that would cross 337 miles of Minnesota from the far northwest border with North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin. The majority of the pipeline route would follow pipelines or electric transmission lines already in operation.

Tribes oppose the project, saying the pipeline would desecrate their lands, violate treaty rights and poison the water. They are asking that the existing pipeline be closed down and be remediated and no new pipeline built. 

Most of what is now the State of Minnesota was ceded by Native Americans to the federal government in a batch of treaties in the 1800s. Tribes exchanged land for payments of cash and goods and the right to hunt, fish and gather (wild rice, in particular) on the ceded land.

Courts, including a 1999 decision in Minnesota’s Mille Lacs lawsuit, have affirmed tribes’ “usufructuary” rights, the right to use land owned by another without causing damage or changing it in any substantive way. Native Americans have usufructuary rights over millions of acres of land in Minnesota.

Treaties have been widely litigated over the years, and the U.S. Supreme Court has established guidelines for their interpretation: Ambiguities in treaties must be decided in favor of tribes, treaties must be interpreted as Indians would have understood them and treaties must be construed liberally in favor of tribes. For example, tribes would have understood that reserved rights to hunt, fish and gather mean the right to live off the land.

Tribes also fear that pipeline construction will disturb sacred sites. In Minnesota, it is a felony to disturb a burial ground. Sites are also protected by the National Historic Preservation Act, which states that the federal government, Indian tribes and others will “foster conditions under which our modern society and our prehistoric and historic resources can exist in productive harmony and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.”

Native Americans and the environmentalists who have joined them in opposition to the pipeline also argue that we have enough oil and must begin the transition to clean energy. 

About half the oil we consume is gasoline. Here are some of the 6,000 other products made from petroleum.


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POINT:  At a mayoral candidate forum and in an op-ed in the Star Tribune, Rep. Ray Dehn called for disarming Minneapolis police. He said that officers don’t need to carry a gun on their person all the time and added that we can combat crime and improve safety by reinvesting resources in housing, education and health care.

 A Star Tribune reader responded to Dehn’s op-ed in a letter to the editor:

If mayoral candidate Dehn has the answers, I have the questions.

Reading the Aug. 1 commentary by state Rep. Raymond Dehn, a candidate for Minneapolis mayor (“My approach to policing and public safety issues”), I have one concern. He states that the best deterrent to crime is providing people with affordable housing, healthy food, clean air and water, accessible education, and quality health care. Whatever happened to “get a job”?


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theseA few short subjects for these long summer days

Tribal and environmental activists in northern Minnesota are threatening to stage a protest similar to North Dakota’s Standing Rock conflict last winter to prevent Enbridge Energy from building a new pipeline to replace its aging 1,000-mile Line 3. “If that permit is issued, you can be sure you will have Standing Rock in Minnesota. I will tell you that,” White Earth tribal member and Honor the Earth executive director Winona LaDuke said. “We’ve been very clear with the state representatives, and the governor of Minnesota, that if they approve this line, there will be tens of thousands of people in Minnesota. Read about it here.

The Mission Statement of the new Museum of Capitalism in Oakland, California ends thus: Our educational work is crucial for establishing justice for the victims of capitalism and preventing its resurgence. Notably, the museum will also bring to light the vast number of individuals and communities around the globe who resisted capitalism and helped to develop alternatives to it, serving as an inspiration to future generations.

Before SPAM was unwanted email it was unwanted meat, the invention of Jay Hormel, son of George Hormel who founded the Hormel company. SPAM is short for spiced ham. It’s celebrating its 80th birthday.



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Why haven’t we closed the achievement gap between white and minority students in fifty years of trying?

The achievement gap is “any significant and persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different groups of students, such as white students and minorities, for example, or students from higher-income and lower-income households.”

The gap between the level of achievement of minority students and white students in Minnesota is among the largest in the country. It’s not a new problem.

Efforts to improve outcomes for minority students began with the 1964 Civil Rights Act which required that the commissioner of education “conduct a survey and report to the president and Congress…concerning the lack of availability of equal educational opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin in public educational institutions.” The result was the Coleman Report, published in 1966.

We know what doesn’t work because we’ve tried: desegregation, busing, reforms such as the self-esteem movement, p­re-school, teacher quality, testing, class size, standards-based instruction or increased spending generally.

Page 325 of the Coleman Reports states: Schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

A 20-year-old study by the Brookings Institution posits that improving parenting skills may be as important as improving schools but immediately acknowledges the difficulty of attempting to tell parents how to raise their children.  “As a practical political matter, whites cannot tell black parents to change their parenting practices without provoking charges of ethnocentrism, racism, and much else.” Importantly, the study also surmised that closing the achievement gap would do more to advance racial equality in the United States than any other strategy they were considering at the time.

This spring the Atlantic Monthly ran an article about a parenting program called the “Boston Basics” and asked, “Can Love Close the Achievement Gap?”

NOTE: The achievement gap between white and minority students in Minnesota is as large as it is not because our minority students do worse than the national average but because our white students do much better.



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This is what compromise looks like
On representative bills from our 2017 legislative session

Bus and light rail fares should cover 80% of operating costs.

As proposed, HF1150 (2017 Regular Session): Establish as a primary objective an increase of the average farebox recovery ratio, calculated for all regular routes and lines operated by the council, to at least 80 percent by 2022.

As enacted, HF3 (2017 Special Session): Requires a report to “include a section that identifies the total ridership, farebox recovery ratio, and per-passenger operating subsidy for (1) each route and line in revenue operation
by a transit provider, including guideways, busways, and regular route bus service; and (2)
demand-response service and special transportation service.”

Businesses that offer apprenticeships to high school students could receive tax breaks.

As proposed, SF2244 (2017 Regular Session):  An employer is allowed a credit equal to $2,000 per secondary school student, age 16 or older, participating in a youth skills program.

As enacted, SF1456 (2017 Regular Session): $500,000 once to the commissioner of labor and industry for grants to local partnerships for the implementation and coordination of local youth skills training programs.

Gov. Dayton lobbied hard for statutory authority in the Real ID bill to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

For example, SF224 (2015 Regular Session): “Driving card” means a class D driver’s license, provisional license, instruction permit, motorized bicycle operator’s permit, or motorized bicycle instruction permit, that is issued or issuable under the laws of this state by the commissioner to a person who is unable to demonstrate lawful presence in this country through current lawful admission status, permanent resident status, indefinite authorized presence status, or United States citizenship.

As enacted, HF470 (2017 Regular Session): The commissioner of public safety is prohibited from adopting any final rule that amends, conflicts with, or has the effect of modifying requirements in Minnesota Rules that require proof of legal status to acquire a driver’s license. State statute remains silent on the issue.


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How legislators establish their partisan credentials
and signal core policy positions of their parties

Republicans and Democrats introduce bills that assure voters
of their loyalty to positions on key issues and define their parties 


SF10:   Requires electors to vote for the popular vote winner of a presidential election
HF65:   Imposes a surtax on corporations with a high ratio of executive to worker pay
SF101: Amends the Minnesota Constitution to guarantee gender equality
SF134: Requires special prosecutors for certain police use of force cases and prohibits use of grand juries
HF245: Automatically registers driver’s license applicants to vote
HF277: Amends the Minnesota Constitution to declare healthcare a fundamental right
HF275: Creates a commission to develop a strategic plan to address impact of climate change on health and well-being of Minnesotans


SF19:   Reduces the state tax on Social Security income
:   Requires local law enforcement to comply with federal immigration detainers
HF238: Allows the use of lethal force in defense of one’s home, repeals the duty to retreat
HF55:   Increases the penalty for obstructing traffic
SF65:   Requires zero-based budgeting: state agencies must justify all expenses each budget period
HF188: Establishes the right to carry a firearm without a permit
SF150: Prohibits the Met Council from spending money on light rail without explicit legislative approval

There are also perennial favorites with bi-partisan support, though not enough to pass so far.

SF235: Repeals the ban on certain fireworks
SF152: Increases the speed limit on I-35E, the “practice freeway”





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Why our state legislature may matter more
than Congress

Updated 12/29/16

There are 7,382 state senators and representatives in our country’s 50 state legislatures. In their 2015-16 legislative sessions, they passed a total of 29,122 bills into law. Over the same two years Congress enacted just 199 new laws.

Minnesota’s 201 legislators passed and Gov. Dayton signed into law 184 bills during our 2015-16 biennial session. These state laws impact every corner of Minnesotans’ lives. For example, new laws

  • lawAllow pharmacists to dispense a 90-day supply of a prescription drug. 
  • Permit termination of spousal maintenance when the party receiving spousal maintenance is living with another person.
  • Require a license from the Board of Cosmetologist Examiners to apply, remove, or trim eyelash extensions.
  • Allow pet owners to set aside funds in a pet trust to be used after they die for the care of their animals.
  • Remove the limitation on the number of physician assistants a physician is allowed to supervise.
  • Allow a mentally or physically impaired person to stay in a temporary dwelling on a relative or caretaker’s property.
  • Eliminate the five-day waiting period for marriage licenses.
  • Allow bars and restaurants to sell alcohol beginning at 8 a.m. Sundays.
  • Require a technician to obtain proof of age from clients who state they are 18 years of age or older before performing any body art procedure on a client.
  • Allow eligible patients to use a drug that has successfully completed Phase 1 of a clinical trial but has not been approved for general use by the FDA.
  • Permit banks to hold raffles where tickets are earned by making deposits into savings accounts. 
  • Extend the statute of limitations for identity theft to five years.

Legislatures are not only productive and wide-ranging. They also move fast. For most there are just a few months to introduce a piece of legislation, discuss it in one or more committees, pass it with a floor vote in two chambers and get a governor’s signature. Minnesota’s recent biennial session was nineteen weeks in 2015 and eleven weeks in 2016.

questionmarkblue2Is passing more laws necessarily a good thing? Conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke said, “I vote Republican because they have fewer ideas.”

How to stay in touch with legislative activity

Learn who your state senator and representative are here.senatechamber

Sign up to receive information daily about committee schedules, floor session agendas and more.

Watch legislative activity live on TV all day Monday through Friday on TPT’s Minnesota Channel beginning January 3.

Get Senate and House TV and webcast schedules and video archives here.

Learn how the process works and how to participate, how to search for or follow a bill and much more on the legislature’s website.


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How much are we paying to care for other people’s children?

nurseryschoolLast year Minnesota taxpayers spent $247 million from federal, state and county dollars to help parents pay for child care. The State of Minnesota subsidizes the cost of day care for more than 30,000 low income children each month.

For low income families in a basic sliding fee program, the average total monthly assistance was $1,030; for families in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, who are making more than 47 percent of the state median income, the average total monthly assistance was $1,486.

Along with proposals in the 2015-16 legislative session to generally increase funding, some unsuccessful attempts to expand child care assistance included HF3194, appropriating $3 million for at-home infant care; HF3275, increasing eligibility for child care assistance for parents who are in graduate school; and SF 3056, providing child care grants to help recruit, prepare and retain women in high–wage, high demand, nontraditional jobs.

Because of serious fraud in the day care system the legislature in 2015 gave the Department of Human Services more power to investigate and prosecute fraud, including one St. Paul day care center that bilked the State of more than $4 million that would have otherwise paid for care for a low-income child.

The 2016 legislature also passed a bill, SF 3208, that established a child care task to address the affordability of child care and related issues. The task force will report its findings to the legislature in January.

moneytree3Gov. Dayton has stated that he wants to expand state-funded early education in part because child care is expensive. Parents who don’t qualify for state child care subsidies would no longer have to pay the out-of-pocket costs of child care while their children attend preschool programs. Advocates for expanding public preschool say families would save thousands of dollars every year:  One infant and one four-year-old can cost Minnesota parents as much as $25,000 a year for day care.

Gov. Dayton’s original proposal would cost taxpayers $1.25 billion over the first four years, and  hundreds of millions of dollars from the general fund every year thereafter.


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You paid $34,000 of a

St. Paul homeowner’s $50,000 rooftop solar system


St Paul homeowners received a credit on their federal income taxes and a rebate from Xcel Energy to reduce the cost of their home solar electric system by more than 60%.

The federal government allows homeowners to take a credit on their income taxes of 30% of the cost of installing residential solar electric systems.

Xcel Energy gave the homeowners a one-time rebate when they installed their system. Xcel now pays residential producers of solar electricity annually based on the amount they produce, which adds up to hundreds of dollars a year.

The Made in Minnesota program offers rebates per kilowatt hour of electricity produced when the panels are certified as made in Minnesota. Our state commerce commissioner sets the amount of the incentive payment “by determining the average amount of incentive payment required to allow an average owner of installed solar photovoltaic modules a reasonable return on their investment.”

There is no sales tax on residential solar systems and no property tax on the increased value of the home.

Minnesota has 170 tax credit and rebate programs available to anyone interested in converting to solar.

If solar is such a good deal, why does it need subsidies? 


The myth of oil company subsidies: According to the Congressional Budget Office, federal energy tax subsidies in 2013 were $16.4 billion–$7.3 billion for renewable energy and $3.2 billion for fossil fuels. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy spent $3.4 billion–$1.7 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy and $0.5 billion for fossil fuels.

Many of the supposed subsidies to the oil and gas industries are available to all U.S. businesses.


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Are we asking our schools to do too much…
or too little?

inlocoparentis2What, exactly, is it that we want today’s schools to do?

Traditionally, we have asked our schools to deliver specific and essential areas of knowledge and to prepare children to become productive members of our democratic society.  But today, do our schools have time to teach? And what do teachers really do all day?

The number of school administrators and other school staff has increased nearly three times the increase in the number of teachers and more than seven times the increase in the number of students since 1950. Nationwide, we are spending 10 times more than we spent in 1950 on education and five times as much per pupil.

Despite the investment of money and personnel, there is a persistent gap in achievement levels of white and non-white students, especially in Minnesota. It is important to note, however, that only one-third of the achievement gap can be attributed to factors within the school. Other factors such as poverty, homelessness and poor health and nutrition account for two-thirds of the gap. That is the so-called opportunity gap.”

puzzlepieces6Should our schools do more? Advocates believe that a new model called the “full service community school” will shrink the opportunity gap and, ultimately, the achievement gap. A full service community school is a place that not only educates our children but also provides access for families to food, clothing, housing, health care, parenting classes and other services. Congress has authorized $55 million in grants to establish trial full service community schools throughout the country.

Four schools in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, Rochester, Duluth and Brooklyn Center, were among the first to receive funding from the federal government to experiment with this new model. Brooklyn Center Community High School, which converted in 2009, and Myers-Wilkins in Duluth have had good results with improved attendance, graduation rates and test scores in these low-performing schools.

In 2015 the Minnesota legislature appropriated $500,000 to fund additional community schools. Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, will ask the legislature for $2 million next session to support these efforts.


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Good ideas that should get more attention
from the legislature 

SF 2429:  Exempt Minnesota from daylight saving time.billmagnifyingglass

SF 3345:  Require a display on gas pumps to read, “The price for each gallon of gasoline includes the current state and federal gasoline taxes totaling 46.9 cents per gallon.”

HF 2631:  Require students to demonstrate their knowledge of civics as a condition of receiving a high school diploma.

SF 2704:  Restrict government’s ability to compel access to electronic communication devices. 

SF 3343  Limit annual payment due on the state’s outstanding debt to no more than 3.35 percent of the non-dedicated general fund revenue received by the state during the same fiscal year.

SF 2491:  To gauge how behavior changes with policy changes, require the Department of Revenue to provide dynamic scoring when assessing the financial impact of legislation.

AndHF 3621: Make it a misdemeanor to misrepresent the use of an animal as a service animal for the purposes of securing the rights or benefits accorded to persons with disabilities.



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Really bad idea

Really bad ideas that will, no doubt, come to Minnesota

IDcard2The City of Milwaukee is issuing city ID cards for illegal immigrants and the homeless.

Federal funds for “wage insurance” would make payments to workers who lose their jobs and take new ones at lower salaries.

States are considering government-sponsored retirement plans for private-sector workers.  

A new tool called a social impact bond is providing governments a way to raise seed money for non-profits and social service organizations.

Capital projects that are funded by bonding must guarantee life expectancy.



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Thank a rich person or a local business

Minnesota individuals and businesses donated $1.6 billion to charities and foundations last year. More than three-fourths of Minnesota’s foundations were founded by individuals and donated more than half of the funds. checkbook

People making more than $102,000 a year paid 74% of all state income taxes.

Minnesota businesses also paid $1.4 billion in state corporate income taxes and $840 million in statewide property taxes. They paid 42% of all state sales taxes.




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