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Capitol Chatter: Buffer-related lawsuit fails

Buffers of grass that filter crop land pollutants and soil out of water are required by Minnesota law. Submitted photo / Minnesota Pollution Control Agency1 / 5
Renville County is turning to an eye in the sky for help with enforcing the state's new buffer law. The county board of commissioners approved a contrac for enhanced, aerial images of the county that will allow staff to use computers to accurately measure the width of buffers. File photo / Forum News Service2 / 5
Buffers of grass that filter crop land pollutants and soil out of water are required by Minnesota law. File photo / Forum News Service3 / 5
This Stearns County, Minn., buffer was seeded and state officials checked. It filters pollution from water running into a nearby stream. Submitted photo / Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources4 / 5
Don Davis of Forum News Service5 / 5

ST. PAUL — Gary Haugen has lost his attempt to overturn a decades-old decision that forces him to install vegetative buffers.

The lawsuit, recently decided by the Minnesota Appeals Court, technically dealt with whether an unnamed streambed is public — and, thus, required to have buffers along it — or a private water course. Appeals judges ruled, like a district judge did earlier, that the 1980 Department of Natural Resources decision that it is public stands.

"I will say I'm not sure where we go from here." Haguen said. "We need to get the word out to our legislators to write good statutes and not pass laws and let government agencies then write the rules for the law."

Minnesota's buffer law requires buffers up to 50 feet along lakes, rivers and streams and of 16½ feet along ditches.

Several landowners joined Haugen in the original lawsuit, but dropped out after state officials agreed to let them meet the 16½-foot mandate instead of the 50-foot one.

Appeals judges ruled that the Haugen suit came too late, that the Department of Natural Resources is the governmental body that categorizes water bodies and the DNR properly gave the public notice before it made its 1980 decision.

"The court found that the argument the DNR failed to notify landowners the (public waters inventory) may be the basis for the requirement of buffers at someday in the future..." Joe Smentek of the Minnesota Soybean Association recently wrote. "Rest assured, legal challenges to the buffer law will continue for the foreseeable future."

Pawlenty a target

It is obvious that Democrats worry that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be the Republican governor candidate this year.

One of many Democratic attacks came from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party: "Pawlenty left Minnesota in economic shambles and then cashed in to make millions lobbying for the very Wall Street banks that brought us the Great Recession. Pawlenty left Minnesota with a $6.2 billion deficit. As Minnesota dug out from his financial mess, which was then compounded by the Great Recession, Pawlenty took a job making over $2 million a year as a top lobbyist for Wall Street."

The DFL attack went on for many paragraphs.

"To appease the far right during his presidential campaign, he flip-flopped on major issues and embraced positions that are out of touch with every day Minnesotans," the party claims.

The DFL comments may have been the most extensive so far, but other national and state Democratic-leaning organizations also have reacted.

Pawlenty is said to be considering a run for governor and in recent days he has appeared to be nearing a campaign launch. One indication is a fundraising event in Florida.

Texting violations soar

Minnesotans may be doing a better job of buckling seat belts and driving the speed limit, but law enforcement officials say they are texting while driving way too much.

Newly released figures show 7,357 people were cited last year for texting from behind the wheel. There has been a steady increase since 2012, when there were 1,707 texting citations. Last year, just short of 6,000 got those tickets.

Still, speeding remains a bigger issue, with 211,603 tickets written last year, a bit below a couple of other recent years. And 32,071 no-seat belt tickets were written, the least in years.

The texting increases come even as public safety officials have ramped up their efforts to stop the practice.

State law bans drivers from texting, even when they are stopped in traffic. Minnesota lawmakers are considering going further, requiring hand-free devices to use a phone while driving.

Better wages, better care?

Lots of lawmakers are talking about ways to improve care of the elderly, and State Sen. Kent Eken's opinion is better pay would help.

The Twin Valley Democrat introduced legislation that would boost provider wages.

"Enhanced oversight and more effective regulation have dominated the conversation when it comes to the heartbreaking and widely reported stories of elder abuse..." Eken said, adding that they are good goals. "What's missing from the conversation are the wages we pay those who care for our parents, grandparents and loved ones."

Eken proposes a constitutional amendment to obtain new revenue for nursing home wages by taxing the richest 4 percent of Minnesotans receiving Social Security. The tax would be on people with an income more than $118,500 who collect Social Security.

O'Toole leaving MNsure

MNsure CEO Allison O'Toole is leaving to join a newly formed health-care organization.

MNsure Chief Operating Officer Nate Clark was picked as acting CEO.

"I'm so proud of the strong progress our dedicated MNsure team has made over the last few years, and I know they will continue to improve in the future," O'Toole said.

She has worked for MNsure since 2014 and became CEO in May of 2015.

O'Toole is headed to the United States of Care, where she will be director of state affairs. The group is a non-profit organization working on access to medical care for every American.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.