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February 28, 2007

Camp SpongeBob?

Mall of America officials announced this morning they have signed an exclusive deal with the Nickelodeon network for branding-rights to the mall's amusement park.

The park, formerly known as Camp Snoopy, has been officially lacking mascots since failing to reach an agreement with the company that owns the Peanuts characters last year. The mall has been calling its large indoor rides and attractions area "The Park at MOA."

The deal could prove lucrative; SpongeBob SquarePants, one of its most popular cartoon characters, grossed $1.5 billion from toys, commercials and theme parks in 2004, according to Forbes.com. The partnership also may add fuel to the mall's plans for a $1.9 billion expansion that would about double its size and add a parking garage. The plan also seeks $234 million in state and local subsidies.


When You Gotta Go...

Anyone who has ever been denied access to an "employees only" restroom during an emergency now has less to worry about.

The Senate commerce committee passed the Restroom Access Act on Tuesday, to the relief of about 35,000 Minnesotans with bowel and bladder control problems.

The act would require stores to let medically needy people use their restrooms, even if they are for employees only.

Some people do not see the need for a law allowing access to restrooms. They say the law is just extra burden on store owners and isn't required because of simple human decency.

"It's hard to understand how somebody could deny someone bathroom access," said Mike Hickey, Minnesota director for the National Federation of Independent Business. "It would be nice to know what's the actual need here."

The Senate committee apparently was unconvinced by such agruments.

Employees who refuse to let such patrons use their facilities could be charged with a petty misdemeanor and a $100 fine.


February 21, 2007

Big Tobacco Gets Small Break

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned an $79.5 million lawsuit against Philip Morris today.

The case, Philip Morris USA v. Williams, tested the power of juries to impose large punitive awards against tobacco corporations in product-liability trials.

In their ruling, the justices decided to follow the precedent that punitive damages should typically match "actual" damages.

The case originated in Oregon from the family of a Jesse Williams, who died in 1997 from a smoking-related disease. A jury had originally awarded the family $800,000 in compensatory damages in 1991 and $79.5 million in punitive damages.

Williams smoked up to three packs a day for 47 years. Court records say Williams never believed that cigarettes were a health danger, until he got cancer. The Oregon jurors said Philip Morris engaged in fraud and negligence affecting a large number of people over five decades.


February 19, 2007

A Higher Cost for Beauty?

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn (D-Minneapolis), wants to extend Minnesota's 6.5 percent sales tax to cosmetic surgery and in-office procedures including chemical skin peels, laser hair removal, cosmetic injections and spider vein treatments.

Any person with the money for cosmetic surgery can afford to pay the tax, said Kahn.

Kahn's bill excludes medically necessary procedures, like as facial reconstruction after an accident. It also wouldn't apply to laser eye surgery.

New Jersey became the only state that taxes cosmetic surgery back in 2005, collecting an estimated $11 million this year. But cosmetic surgery taxes have been proposed in other states like Texas, Illinois and Washington. Kahn said the tax would raise about $7 million per year.

Most of that money would come from hardworking women trying to "do something for themselves once in a while," said Dr. Richard D'Amico, president-elect of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. He said 90 percent of cosmetic surgery patients are female, with a yearly income average of $60,000.

The Minnesota proposal is scheduled for its first hearing before a House tax panel today.


Two Men Shot Near Funeral Home

Two men were shot near a hmong funeral home in Maplewood last Saturday.

An unnamed gunman opened fire at about 10:40 p.m. in the parking lot outside Metro Funeral Home while the building was full of mourners, Maplewood police said Sunday.

The first victim, a 20-year-old man from Brooklyn Park, was shot in the abdomen while standing outside the building. He was taken to Regions Hospital and as of Sunday remained in intensive care, police said.

The second victim, a 40-year-old man driving by the scene, was shot in the left arm by a stray bullet. He was treated at Regions Hospital and was released Sunday.

Police Lt. David Kvam said the first victim appeared to be the intended target. No arrest has been made, but a suspect has been identified.


February 11, 2007

Flu scares up vaccines, new ideas

With the news that two 8-year-olds and one 17-month old have already died of a flu outbreak in Minnesota, parents and health officials are taking steps to ensure health.

Children's Hospitals and Clinics in St. Paul administered over 1,500 free flu shots Saturday, most to children. Minnesota is one of nine states with flu cases in more than half the state's regions, according to a recent report from the CDC, despite an average total number of deaths and illnesses from influenza this year.

Some are proposing that all children should simply be vaccinated each year. Patsy Stinchfield, a nurse practitioner who heads the infectious disease program at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, says the most appropriate place for mass-vaccination of kids are the schools.

The task would be a major undertaking for schools, and some are critical that it could be done, at least this year.

"The problem is, for us to gear up in schools for a major deal like this in the fall would be difficult," said Ann Hoxie, a school nurse also on the state's vaccine advisory panel. "That's a massive effort in a short window of time."

An effort, many say, that may be well worth it.


Teen charged with rape, "person of interest" in two other cases

A seventeen-year-old male has been charged with raping one women and is being investigated in connection with two other rapes in Minneapolis.

According to the charges filed Wednesday, Lorenzo London followed a 35-year-old woman off a bus Jan. 31, then pulled out a gun and demanded money and told her to remove her clothes. The woman refused, so London punched her, raped her, and beat her with the gun.

London was charged with first-degree rape, aggravated robbery and kidnapping. Hennepin County has filed a motion to have him tried as an adult.

St. Paul police are also investigating London in connection with the rapes of a 57-year-old woman and 13-year-old girl last month along Payne Avenue. St. Paul police have made a link between London and the location of the rapes, Sgt. Paul Schnell said.

Although DNA tests have determined that the attacks were committed by two different men, police consider London a "person of interest" because he has ties to St. Paul and to the violence used in the attacks. The results of the tests won't be known until at least next week, said Sgt. Paul Schnell.


February 6, 2007

Weather Turns Political

It is always amazing to see the power that nearly weightless snowflakes have upon our gas-guzzling, 4-wheel drive, speedy vehicles.

For example, my normal 30-minute drive to school today took an hour and a half before I gave up and went back home.

And I'm not the only one.

Rep. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, was so upset about the poor driving conditions he called a news conference today at the state Capitol, according to WCCO.com.

"It's time to stop the hanky panky," he said. "Let's get down to real business. Let's fund real snowplow drivers, not ones that are taken out of an office someplace and asked to drive a snowplow."

Murphy said the Minnesota Department of Transportation is underfunded and that a gas tax of five cents per gallon would do a lot to help solve the problem by putting more trucks with trained drivers on the roads.

Lucy Kender, from MnDot, says that the today's traffic issues were an anomaly resulting from surprise bad weather that lasted all day, as well as "cautious drivers."

Kender also said all plow drivers must be trained to before operating a truck.

MnDOT said it usually spends about $40 million a season clearing the roads. So far this winter, it has spent $7 million.


Outbreak Among High School Wrestlers

An outbreak of herpes has infected 40 wrestlers from 16 high schools, according to the Pioneer Press.

Last week the Minnesota State High School League put a halt to all inter-school competitions and any contact among wrestlers in practice within schools for eight days; the moratorium will be over Wednesday.

The wrestlers were diagnosed with herpes gladiatorum, a form of the herpes virus that is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. The disease typically manifests itself as lesion on the face and neck.

Of the 40 cases reported, all but one involved wrestlers in the 189-, 215- and 285-pound weight classes. The other was in the 160-pound class.

Skin infections are not uncommon among wrestlers; the MSHSL's Web site even includes a form for wrestling coaches to fill out to report infections among team members.

The origin of this particular outbreak has not been determined.

Only some meets originally scheduled during the 8 day moratorium have been rescheduled, the MSHSL says it is up to the individual schools whether to reschedule all meets or not.


February 5, 2007

Minn Soldier Guilty of Desertion

A Minnesota soldier was sentenced to three months in military prison Monday for deserting her unit the day before being deployed to Kuwait.

Spc. Melanie McPherson, 28, an Army reservist from Tofte, Minn., originally pleaded guilty to going absent without leave, or AWOL, which is a lesser charge. But the new ruling finding McPherson guilty of desertion supercedes the first.

McPherson hitchhiked back to Minnesota from Fort Bliss in July.

Other than the prison sentence, McPherson was reduced in rank to private and will receive a bad-conduct discharge.

McPherson was trained as a military photojournalist, but said that she was afraid to be deployed and then be assigned a more dangerous job, like truck driving, that she had not been trained for.