Star Tribune, Dec. 23
At long last, Congress provides a boost for Indian schools
After years of neglect, Congress has taken meaningful new steps to make the thousands of kids trying to learn in broken-down Bureau of Indian Education schools a national priority.
While there's still massive work ahead to modernize all BIE facilities, language within the just-passed 2016 federal spending bill suggests that a shameful era of poor management and zeroed-out replacement construction funding is coming to an end. BIE's 183 schools serve about 49,000 children in remote reservations in Minnesota, the Dakotas and nationwide. More than 60 schools are in such poor repair that replacement is required — a crisis detailed in a 2014 Star Tribune editorial series.
The sprawling $1.1 trillion omnibus funding bill that cleared Congress on Dec. 18 contains a $63.7 million funding increase for BIE construction next year. That's well short of $1.3 billion needed — at a minimum — to replace all the schools in need. Nevertheless, it's a big boost after years of little to no funding for replacement construction.
It will allow for the completion of the remaining three schools on the BIE's most current school priority replacement list, which dates back to 2004 and only had 14 schools on it to begin with. There are also funds to carry out planning and design work for schools on a new priority list that the agency was supposed to release this fall. In addition, there's forceful language directing the BIE's parent agency, the Department of Interior, to adopt the Department of Defense's swift, well-run school construction plan as a model to deal with the BIE backlog.
The Defense Department runs schools for military families and civilian employees. It is in the midst of a $5 billion effort to rebuild 134 of its 181 schools. The editorial series featured one of these new schools — a $47 million elementary school at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va. The series also detailed the shocking disrepair of the leaky pole barn that houses the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota.
Minnesota's congressional delegation, especially Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum and Republican Rep. John Kline, led the charge for improved funding and management. This bipartisan teamwork must continue. This year's funding boost cannot be a one-time event.
The troubling lag time in releasing the new BIE construction priority list also suggests that strong oversight will be necessary well into the future. Because of the delay, it's not clear whether Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig is on the new, yet-to-be-released priority list, though it's unimaginable how a school in such poor condition could fail to make it.
Language in the omnibus spending bill, however, suggests that policymakers have opened up a different avenue to help schools like the Bug school. The building on its campus housing younger students is in good shape. It's the high school that's well beyond its expiration date.
The more limited construction need may have hindered the Bug school as the BIE considered its needs against others. The omnibus legislation, however, appears to create a new funding stream for replacing a building rather an entire school — a hopeful sign.
The BIE needs to end its foot-dragging and release its new priority list. If the list doesn't include the Bug school, the Minnesota delegation will need to ensure that the school is swiftly funded through alternative measures and that a balky bureaucracy carries out necessary reforms to provide all BIE students with school buildings in which they can learn and succeed.
Post-Bulletin, Dec. 28
Fliers should prepare for Real ID surprises
Anyone having trouble boarding a plane in May shouldn't be surprised. By then, Minnesota's state-issued driver's license could be worthless in airports.
At the same time, the federal government's recent rejection of Gov. Mark Dayton's request for an extension to comply with federal Real ID standards by January shouldn't have been a surprise either. State officials knew the mandate was coming and did little more than talk about possibly discussing it during a special session, if one is held.
The deadline for Minnesota to meet the standards of the Real ID Act, a federal law adopted in 2005, comes at the end of the month. The law requires a federally compliant ID card for air travel "no later than 2016," but Minnesota remains among a handful of states failing to comply.
It doesn't mean Minnesotans flying out of the state on Dec. 31 will be stranded, however. Federal officials have promised to provide a 120-day notice before requiring those without a Real ID-compliant license to produce a secondary form of identification, such as an enhanced driver's license or a passport, to board flights.
That gives would-be fliers at least four months to upgrade their IDs.
It's likely frequent airline passengers won't be willing to test the limits as state lawmakers have done since 2009, when they effectively passed a ban on implementing the new federal standards, citing privacy concerns. We expect the state will see an increase in requests to enhanced IDs, which come at a minimum cost of $30.75 for those simply getting a duplicate of their driver's license. For drivers renewing licenses at the same time, the cost is $15 above the standard fee.
Others may opt to obtain a passport, but either set of steps will require making sure needed paperwork is in hand well in advance of any summer trip.
At the same time, we hope lawmakers prepare to take action on repealing the 2009 ban on compliance so a change can be made soon after the 2016 legislative session starts in March.
House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee Chairman Tim Kelly said he believes the next steps could involve phasing in the use of the enhanced license as a standard driver's license while seeking a federal waiver for the transition. Showing something is being done will be a good first step that has been delayed too long.
While we agree with the Red Wing Republican that a special session isn't needed, we aren't ready to sit back and wait.
The earliest the federal restriction is expected to take place early May, but it's not too soon to start lining up options if for anyone hoping to take a domestic flight during the summer months. As we noted when Dayton and others were putting their hopes on a request for an extension, people should take matters into their own hands and obtain an enhanced driver's license or secure valid passport. The process takes several weeks, so start now.
There's no reason to wait for another surprise related to the issue.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 26
Pipeline process is stringent. It must also be predictable
Whatever they think about oil pipelines crossing the state, Minnesotans need to rely on a clear and predictable review process.
That hasn't happened on the long and tangled permitting-process path for Enbridge Energy's Sandpiper Pipeline.
The proposed 600-mile line — described by the company as a $2.6 billion infrastructure project — would cross North Dakota and northern Minnesota, bringing oil from the Bakken reserves to a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin, from which it would be distributed to refineries.
Enbridge expresses disappointment with the long process, acknowledging at a meeting with the editorial board this month that proceedings, both in court and before regulators, have left its work substantially behind schedule.
The proceedings have included what's considered an unusual step by the state's Public Utilities Commission, separating consideration of project need from routing.
In a meeting earlier this month that dragged on for more than seven hours, those matters were rejoined, according to a commission spokesman, and the commission decided that an Environmental Impact Statement — the subject of court action — will go forward. Enbridge officials had told us they agreed to preparation of the impact statement in an effort to keep things moving.
There's frustration among opponents, as well. With the downturn in the oil market, "it's an excellent time for the state to say, 'Whoa,' " said Richard Smith, president of Friends of the Headwaters, an organization dedicated to protecting the source of the Mississippi River and its surroundings in northern Minnesota.
"Let's just step back; let's look at this whole process. Right now it's not really working. It's kind of a mess."
Smith makes a meaningful point about the challenges citizens face when they seek to make their voices heard as such complex proceedings unfold: "We're just private citizens," he told us, emphasizing the volunteer nature of the organization. "It's difficult to understand some of the statutes and rules around all of this," he contends. "It takes a while for us to figure that out."
Further, the utilities commission's process for engaging the public isn't "particularly friendly," Smith said. "I think they would just prefer to deal with the company."
While Smith's organization expresses reservations about the routing near various waters of Sandpiper and Enbridge's Line 3 — a project that would combine both an existing route and a new one to replace an aging pipeline — opponents like MN350 include climate concerns among their objections.
The biggest single take-away from recent climate talks in Paris, said Andy Pearson, MN350's Midwest tar sands coordinator, is that we need to keep "carbon in the ground."
"The era of fossil fuels has got to be wrapping up," he said. "Building the pipeline is a way of continuing that for decades."
Winona LaDuke, executive director of the native-led organization Honor the Earth, contends that need for the pipeline is "manufactured" and that the proposed lines threaten areas that are "the lifeblood of our people."
In the meantime, however, oil trains rumble across the state, feeding demand that isn't going away anytime soon.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who has said he supports Sandpiper, brought attention to the matter this fall in a letter to a railroad executive that called into question the increased routing of such trains through the state.
With the added traffic — including that near such people-packed locations as Target Field, Target Center and the University of Minnesota, Dayton said — an additional 99,000 people now are living within the half-mile evacuation zone of crude oil routes, bringing the statewide total to more than 425,000.
We consumers rely on the petroleum that rides the rails, and it's going to move, one way or another.
Enbridge contends that pipelines are the safest and most efficient way to move oil. As much as 70 percent of North Dakota crude is transported by rail or truck -- much of it through Minnesota, the company says, noting that Sandpiper's capacity will free up rail cars to move other products, including the state's valuable agricultural commodities.
The company also says Sandpiper will create 1,500 construction jobs, and that it expects to pay an additional $25 million in annual Minnesota property taxes after the line's first year in operation.
Enbridge applied to build the Sandpiper in the fall of 2013. Its timetable called for concluding design, public outreach and permitting early this year, with construction beginning in 2016 and completion in 2017.
When it comes to making judgments about tapping and moving the Earth's resources, we've maintained we Minnesotans can do so with more confidence — under our stringent and exacting environmental requirements — than folks elsewhere, without those standards.
Diligence is good, and so is facing facts: Oil is going to move; moving it safely and efficiently must be a priority; compromise is useful.
The stringent process by which we make decisions about how it moves should give us confidence in the decision, provided that process is followed, and that it's predictable — for everyone involved.