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Archive for March 2011

A Harvest in the Park

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I do not mean to turn the focus of this blog solely to the proposed budget fixes of Minnesota’s GOP reps, but I cannot stop being amazed by the plans that are being proposed. Yesterday it was depleting dedicated funds, today it is harming one of, if not our greatest state asset, our state parks. I understand that Republicans are not interested in raising taxes. But is committing long term harm to state funding or to the state’s natural resources a better substitute?

MEP reports today on criticism the House is receiving over a proposed budget amendment that would open timber harvesting in two State Parks in Southern MN. “The amendment, passed by the Minnesota State House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, was added to an omnibus finance bill, and allows “black walnut and other timber resources suitable for harvest” to be logged in Frontenac State Park and Whitewater State Park.

The larger budget bill would also cut DNR funding. “The Minnesota House budget bill recommends cutting general state support for the state parks by 10 percent. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates they would have to close 10-14 state parks if the House’s proposed reductions were to become law.

I find this fix very difficult to understand. Not just because Minnesotans have time and again, and very clearly in 2008, declared their desire to protect Minnesota’s natural resources, parks, and waters, although that is a major part of why this does not make sense for Minnesota. What is even more difficult to understand, however, is the proposal that we would cut old growth forests that we have long ago decided to protect, because the state budget in 2011 is causing political danger. Think about the logic of this solution. We have real budget problems, but they are not insurmountable.  To solve a very temporary budget problem we are thinking of solutions that can not be undone.

Fifty years from now, in 2061, will Minnesotans look back on what is left of Frontenac State Park while birding in the fall and say: Yes, I’m glad they cut our old growth trees and took our parks away, so they could fix their 2011  budget, rather than making hard choices, compromising, and seeing the preservation of our lands.

I do not know that this budget amendment will last.  I would hope that it does not. But it has passed its way through committee, and has been included in the budget bill that will make its way to floor. This would be a tragic solution to a very short term problem.

Written by Christopher ZF

March 25, 2011 at 12:29

Don’t Deplete Dedicated Funds

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It might be tempting to say that, yes, Minnesota (and most places in the US) are running a deficit, and that if we have some surplus money in the coffers, well, we should use that money to bring our state back to the black.  Another way of putting this would be the GOP plan to help Minnesota balance the state’s budget: Instead of raising revenues through taxes, use funds dedicated to a certain purpose for the express purpose of budget deficit.

An MPR article explores this as an economic plan for budget crises. It is not a Republican/Democrat solution; both sides have tried to use one-time funds or dedicated money to solve immediate deficits.  How does it rate as a solution?

“It never fixes what financial experts call the structural imbalance, which means that without permanent tax increases or spending cuts, the budget problem just crops up again in future years. By tapping these funds, Republicans are masking the level of spending cuts needed to erase the deficit.”

The other problem that arises, on top of not solving the budget issues, is the lack of funding for those express purposes. Be it environmental, public safety or economic development funds. Taking money from causes that have been decided valuable will not create lasting budget security. So please, DFL and GOP in the state houses, be reasonable.  Don’t “reallocate funds.” That doesn’t help.

Written by Christopher ZF

March 24, 2011 at 20:20

More on Japan’s Nuclear Situation

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Since the earthquake and tsunami have brought turmoil to Japan’s nuclear plants, we at TRC have done little other than read about the situation. Intrigue surrounds the Fukushima Daiichi  nuclear facility problem. There is the sad and terrible side to this story that is obvious. But it is also fascinating, because nuclear energy is fascinating, and so, so complex. As a friend of mine said last night, if you think understand how nuclear power works, you don’t.  How we respond to something most people just don’t understand makes this whole situation fascinating.

For example, the Emperor of Japan appeared on television, an unprecedented event. In his televised comments, the 77-year-oldEmperor Akihito, expressed his worry over the situation, and attempted to calm his nation. “I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times.”  A lovely message to a nation in the grip of horror and sadness. Then, “He criticized the government’s plans for an evacuation of his province, the hardest-hit region, and complained about a lack of hot meals and basic necessities at shelters housing people moved from the areas closest to the plant.”

Meanwhile, at Fukushima Daiichi, things are getting worse. Maybe. Depending on who you are listening too. As ever new and more creative plans for cooling the exposed fuel rods are developed, then usually abandoned, differing opinions about the severity and the increasing/decreasing danger continue to come out. Yesterday, the American assessment of the danger from radiation surpassed that of the Japanese leaders. After Gregory Jackzo, the chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, gave his analysis to Obama, the Japanese responded, not in contradictory terms, per se, but certainly in dispute of the American report.  “The advice to Americans in Japan represents a graver assessment of the risk in the immediate vicinity of Daiichi than the warnings made by the Japanese themselves.” The US recommend a 50 mi. birth from the facility, for example, while the Japanese recommend 12 mi.

No one can know what will happen at Fukushima Daiichi. Things at the plant might be maintained without much more radiation being released. But that doesn’t seem likely. Concern seems to be growing, not fading, and the possibility of a serious nuclear event remains. “In the worst case, experts say, workers could be forced to vacate the plant altogether, and the fuel rods in reactors and spent fuel pools would be left to melt down, leading to much larger releases of radioactive materials.”

Let us hope that does not happen.

Written by Christopher ZF

March 17, 2011 at 12:42

The pesky, lingering problems of nuclear power.

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Relative to: Nuclear Power, in Japan and the US.

Here is today’s NYTimes discussing the problems of nuclear power in America and Japan:
Until this weekend, President Obama, mainstream environmental groups and large numbers of Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed that nuclear power offered a steady energy source and part of the solution to climate change, even as they disagreed on virtually every other aspect of energy policy. Mr. Obama is seeking tens of billions of dollars in government insurance for new nuclear construction, and the nuclear industry in the United States, all but paralyzed for decades after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, was poised for a comeback.
Now, that is all in question as the world watches the unfolding crisis in Japan’s nuclear reactors and the widespread terror it has spawned.

Advocates of nuclear power in the United States have, in the last 10 years, been staging a successful image reformation for their energy source of choice. A pro-nuclear President Obama has found support in congress and around the country for nuclear development, and states, including Minnesota, have been setting the stage for new nuclear production.  A week ago, new nuclear was viable and probable in the US, though several decades at least from producing electricity.

And yet, in the wake of the Japan earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing nuclear power woes, nuclear advocates are finding themselves set back in the United States. So. How much weight should a natural disaster on an island nation 8,000 miles away be given in the energy policy debates here? Probably not much. Minnesota, for example, doesn’t have (m)any earthquakes or tsunamis, and hasn’t had serious problems with our existing nuclear plants. Such correlations do not make for sound, logical energy policy making (not something the US has in general, btw). Japan is not the US, and the problems with nuclear that are currently underway are not representative of the problems new nuclear in the United States might face. This is true.

Still, it is important, now, as Japan faces very real nuclear threats, that the US reconsiders, and steps away from nuclear energy as a serious piece of the solution pie of America’s energy crisis.

True, nuclear is cleaner than coal, and the numbers say it is much safer. There can be no denying this. Right? Lots of smart people, environmentalists and energy experts and democrats and republicans, support nuclear power for the future. New nuclear development, new plants and reactors can help us solve the climate crisis, it is argued. But at the earliest, when could new nuclear plants replace electricity provided by coal burning power plants? 20 years? 30 years? If climate change is the threat scientists say it is (not really up for debate), then this is too slow to have the impact needed. We need to burn less coal now, not burn more coal for 30 years, then use nuclear in addition to coal.

Instead, there are many clean safe options–wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, a virtual portfolio of renewables– for our energy dependence. These solutions are still scoffed at by many as impractical, or simply impossible when it comes to fulfilling American energy needs. Renewables may not be as high-powered or produce as much electricity from a single plant, but the idea of single-stroke energy solutions is outdated, and the downsides offered by renewable energy pale in comparison to nuclear.

Why not nuclear, then? Well, it’s true, things don’t often go wrong with nuclear. But the downside when things do is unparalleled. I think, as a nation, we partially understand this. One need only look at the difficulty of finding waste deposit sites. But we had better make sure that we understand all the risks, are willing to deal with those risks should an accident occur, and are patient enough to pay billions now and wait decades to get a new reactor online. All while not destroying the climate in the meantime by burning coal.

Written by Christopher ZF

March 14, 2011 at 11:05

Keith Ellison, in two sentences

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The theater that is the US Government is going to start to a new production: a panel investigation of homegrown Islamic terrorism. Regardless of whether one finds this kind of investigation a good or bad idea (for the record, TRC thinks gov’t investigations of wholesale demographic groups of US citizens are a bad idea), understanding the role of Representative Keith Ellison in the country is becoming more and more important.

What does it mean to be the first Muslim elected to US Congress? What kind of expectation should or shouldn’t be placed on such an individual? I am an admirer of Rep. Ellison. I like his politics, and his fierce commitment to his values. I like that he’s from my state, and I like that my state elected the first Muslim. Minnesota is a place where difference is allowed–not just political and religious but sexual and racial, too.  So what does it mean to be the first Muslim elected to US Congress?

Here is Kevin Diaz, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, writing about the panel, and Ellison. This is the second paragraph of his article:

Ellison, a Muslim whose Minneapolis district has been fertile recruitment ground for Al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia, calls the GOP-led inquiry a “McCarthyistic” witch hunt that could demonize Muslims. As a star witness in the hearing, Ellison will be spotlighted nationally as the face of American Muslims.

Read that paragraph again, and look at just how much is said about Keith Ellison in those two sentences. Anything that follows will be informed by these notions, so fully loaded with information, subtle and non-, that Diaz has at this early point comprised a framework for Ellison difficult, if not impossible, to break out of.

What do we learn? Readers know he is Muslim and from Minneapolis. That his district is a recruitment ground for terrorists. A very fertile one indeed. And not just insurgents and terrorists, but insurgents who work for the scary, unknown group Al Shabab in Somalia. Ellison, in addition, considers the investigation a McCarthyist Witch Hunt, hearkening back to the good old days when the gov’t just went ahead and turned on its citizens. (It’s in fashion now, by the way, for conservatives to defend McCarthy and HUAC because there were, indeed, Communists in the country and gov’t, which I don’t think was the point). Finally, Ellison is the star witness; he is, no burden at all I’m sure, the face of the American Muslim. Whew.

Maybe all of this is true. Kevin Diaz might be putting forth just the facts, as he understands them. Context is key, and Diaz does go on to provide a bit of context, where he can fit it into the alluring narrative of homegrown insurgents and government investigations. This is, after all, a local story with all the intrigue a local reporter could hope for. Why waste time discussing, for example, why there are so many Somali individuals living in Minneapolis in the first place, or who/what is Al Shabab?

This may seem like a lot of criticism leveled at a single paragraph in a single news story in a local paper. But it is not. Hundreds of thousands of people will likely read this story today. Many will not read the whole thing, but breeze through the first few sentences and pass on. They will get only enough information to know that the Muslim Congressman opposes his gov’t’s attempt to stem homegrown Islamic terrorism. Then they will turn the page, and read about Joe Mauer’s knee.

Written by Christopher ZF

March 7, 2011 at 11:44

Scenic Rivers are protected. Keep it that way.

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As a nation, we have laws that are important and popular. One of those laws is the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, signed by President Johnson in 1968. When that legislation passed, 8 rivers were connected, making them the first protected by the new law in the nation. One was the (upper)St. Croix River. The (lower) St. Croix was added in 1972.

For a few years, there has been a back-and-forth battle over a proposal to build a new bridge over the St. Croix to replace the 80-year-old lift bridge in Stillwater. One of the arguments concerns the fact that according to the National Park Service, the planned four-lane bridge, a mega-sized mega-expensive project, violates the environmental standards of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which states that rivers “and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Regardless of the questionable environmental and legal status of the project, MN’s Washington County Board and WI’s St. Croix County Board of Supervisors have voted to approve an exemption from the current environmental laws surrounding protected rivers.  Last year, innocuously, Rep. Michele Bachmann penned legislation to get this bridge funded by the state and federal governments. It drew no co-sponsors, and got no action.

But this is not last year. Rep. Bachmann has again brought forth legislation to fund the bridge with a mixture of federal and state money, which is co-sponsored by two Representatives from Wisconsin. It has been called an earmark project, since, frankly, there is not much money in the coffers for gov’t funded bridge projects.

But this is not the point. The building of this bridge can only go forward if the project is given an exemption from the environmental standards as detailed by the current federal law which protects this river, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  This bridge is a bad idea. Not only is it bad for the St. Croix River, it sets a dangerous precedent for rivers across the nation. Protected waters are more important than ever, in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and everywhere else in the world. Wild and Scenic are descriptors that are getting lost daily in this nation, and protecting those we have already chosen to protect is not something that we should begin sacrificing. In response to Michelle Bachmann’s bill, Representative Betty McCollum said she would do everything in her power to defeat this exemption, and I am proud to be represented by her.

We know the importance of safe bridges in Minnesota, and we all want to see our people safe. This is not a question of safe bridge construction. Rather, it is a question of safe, environmentally sound construction on a project that does not simply choose to override the “special character” that was immediately recognized  and protected by the federal gov’t when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was established. Exempting the St. Croix presents a very serious challenge to all our nation’s protected rivers. Too few wild and scenic places remain in this nation for us to start exempting that which has already been protected.

I believe in this. Strongly. If you agree, let Rep. McCollum know that we support her, and let Rep. Bachmann know that we want our waters protected, and once they are protected, we want to keep them that way.

Written by Christopher ZF

March 2, 2011 at 00:17

On behalf of teachers.

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Relative to: America’s Teachers, and the protests against Union busting.

I’ve been wanting to discuss the happenings in Wisconsin for a while now, but finding that I have little to add to the situation. I support unions, generally speaking. I don’t think they are always necessary, but I think these kinds of situations are the reason they are necessary. Walker, who is trying to bend on the unions of Wisconsin (not balance the budget), is hoping they will finally break. I don’t know what will happen. I really don’t know what will happen if the unions in Wisconsin (the home of the union) do break, and unions around the country follow suit.

What frustrates me about these kinds of conversations, disputes about the need for union benefits and pensions and what kind of incomes and retirements are protected by the unions is this: not all employment is created equal. Sure, maybe some jobs don’t need union protection. But what if you are an electrician for the state, or a firefighter, or cop, or any number of demanding jobs. Working a white-collar job at a desk, waiting for retirement at 65 (or 67 or 70?) is not the same as holding these jobs until 65. It simply is not the same. And that goes for teaching.

Why do so many have such a negative attitude about public school teachers? Of course their not all good; no workforce has all good workers. As Jon Stewart said in his opening last night, with bankers its just a few bad apples, but with teachers, the whole lot are greedy animals. Really, I don’t understand how someone can send their child to a public school with all the other children for the day, then spend the night complaining about how good teachers have it. It’s mind boggling. The new argument is that teachers are not poor, they are solidly middle class. OK. So we can take money from the middle class now without remorse while denigrating the individuals who are responsible for the education of our youth as greedy SOBs just trying to get rich while not teaching kids? Or is it just that all the rich talking heads send their kids to private school, and do not know what the situation really is? Teaching is hard work, teaching your kids, well that’s even harder .

Regardless, here is Jon Stewart in a later segment, on behalf of the teachers.

Written by Christopher ZF

March 1, 2011 at 11:12