April 27, 2007

Iraq Spending Bill Debate

Yesterday, the Senate sent an Iraq spending bill to the President that included a timetable for withdrawl. President Bush has promised to veto the bill because he doesn't believe in timetables. Democratic leaders are urging the President to sign the bill, saying that it is what the American people want. The first major showdown between Democrats and the President since November's elections is shaping up over the bill. The New York Times is now reporting that after almost a month of tough talk, the President is changing his tone and is now expressing a willingness to negoatiate with Democrats to overcome their differences. What has not changed is his opposition to a timetable. If the President were to sign the bill, troops would begin leaving Iraq by October 1. The Democrats are 15 votes away from being able to overturn a veto. They are unlikely to gather that many votes.

Vikings Stadium Goes to Capitol

The Vikings and the Metrolpolitan Sports Facilities Commission presented the case for a new Vikings stadium to the Senate Tax Committee today. Despite the fact that Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller has said that there is no way that the Vikings stadium bill will pass this year, the Vikings are presenting it as a desperate situation that needs to be addressed. MPR reports that the committee met the proposal with great skepticism. One of the major hangups in the conversation is that the Vikings have not said how much money they would need with the state. Some of the senators expressed support for the stadium, but admitted that its not likely that it will be passed this year. They said they might have better luck with the proposal next year. The proposed stadium plan would cost nearly a billion dollars. It includes a retractable roof and would be climate-controlled. The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome ends in 2011.

Smoking Ban Debate

This is a story I've been following since the beginning of the legislature because it is one of the most widely covered. Today, the House debated, and voted on the statewide smoking ban proposal. Last month, the Senate passed the bill that proposes banning smoking in all restaurants, bars and other public buildings around the state. Today, the version the House passed was essentially the same, with one caveat: local authorities could approve ventilated smoking rooms in bars. This was the aspect of today's debate on which both the Strib and MPR chose to focus. Under the House bill, smoking would be illegal in bars, restaurants and all work places by 2009, but bars could get approval from local government to build smoke rooms where patrons could smoke, but not order food or drink (they don't want workers having to go in the room). The Senate bill bans smoking in the same places starting in August, and allows bars to build outdoor patios for smokers. Both have now passed with relative ease, but the two bodies will have to negotiate the final version of the bill.

April 19, 2007

My Dream Act Story

Since we have to post one of our stories on the blog and tell about our reporting process, I decided to use the state government story I turned in today. It's about the Dream Act. Here it is:

Eric Rodriguez is 22-years-old, and has spent the past three years working various jobs to save enough money to attend a community college. He would have liked to go the University of Minnesota after graduating from high school, but he did not have the money to do that.
That is because Rodriguez, despite living in Minnesota for more than ten years, has to pay out-of-state tuition at Minnesota state schools because he was brought to the United States by his parents without documentation. Rodriguez thinks that is unfair.
“I think it’s unfair because I’ve been here for ten years and can’t get in-state-tuition, but a kid from Iowa only has to live here for a year,? Rodriguez said, referring to the current state requirements for in-state-tuition.
But those requirements might change soon.
Three years after it was first proposed in the legislature, in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants might become a reality.
The so-called Dream Act would provide in-state tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants who have attended at least three years of high school in Minnesota and are willing to sign an affidavit promising to work toward citizenship. The bill was first proposed by Sen. Sandy Pappas in 2005 after students from Abraham Lincoln High School in St. Paul who were in the same predicament as Rodriguez asked her to help.
“These kids told me, ‘This is Minnesota, this is America, the land of opportunity and education is key,’? Pappas said.
The DFL-controlled Senate passed the bill the last two years, but the Republican-controlled House refused to vote on it. This year, the bill passed through the committee process with relative ease, making it to the Senate floor within two months of its introduction. Before it could be voted on, though, it was attached to the Senate’s Omnibus Higher Education bill, which the Senate passed on March 22 in a 63-2 vote.
The biggest difference this year is that the DFL controls the majority of the House as well. It appears that after three years, the Dream Act is likely to go to Governor Pawlenty, who has vowed to veto the bill.
Mariano Espinoza, Executive Director of the Immigrant Freedom Network, credits the increased support to a three-year campaign to lobby legislators and educate the public.
“It takes years, sometimes, to build the support for a bill, but now we have big support,? Espinoza said.
Part of the strategy, he said has been to enlist support from students like Rodriguez who would be affected by the bill involved. Many students met with their legislators to lobby for the bill and several testified before Senate committees.
“We are trying to get students to be principle actors in this process,? Espinoza said. Once legislators saw the students’ faces and heard their stories, Pappas said, they were ready to support the bill.
“The most important thing in getting support for the Dream Act has been letting legislators hear how this issue is affecting people,? Pappas said.
Despite the efforts of activists like Espinoza and Rodriguez, and the overwhelming support of the legislature, Pawlenty has promised to veto the Dream Act because it amounts to rewarding illegal immigrants. Because the bill is now a part of the omnibus higher education bill, that would mean vetoing all higher education spending and policy passed by the legislature this year. Pawlenty has indicated that he is willing to do just that.
“It looks like the Governor is planning to veto the entire omnibus bill unless we can come up with some sort of deal with him,? Pappas said.
But Espinoza believes that Pawlenty will be unable to stop the bill from becoming law this year, with strong DFL majorities in the Senate and the House.
“We have the votes in the Senate (to override a veto) and we are close in the House,? Espinoza said.
Pappas is not as confident. She said that although the votes on the bill have been overwhelming majority, many Republican legislators appear to be unwilling to vote to override the veto of a Republican governor.
If the Dream Act does not become law this year, Pappas said she will continue to push for it next year. Making the bill a law is the first step in changing the environment for immigrants in Minnesota, she said.
“We still have a problem with attitudes towards immigrants,? Pappas said.
The Dream Act, she said, could have a symbolic impact on immigrant communities, tying them to their communities.
For Rodriguez though, the Dream Act becoming a law would have more a more practical effect.
“If it passes this year, I’ll change my plans and go to the ‘U of M,’? Rodriguez said.

So here's the story of me writing the story. I decided to write the article because I remembered the bill from last year, when I worked in the Senate. I remembered it doing well in the Senate but then dying. Then I saw that it was getting press this year and decided to talk to Sen. Pappas about it. That was an ordeal in itself, as her office couldn't get me linked up with her for over a week. Fortunately, they were very nice and gave me a rundown of where the bill was and some of the history so I had a starting point. More importantly, they gave me the phone number of Mariano Espinoza, the director of the Immigrant Freedom Network and told me he was a big player in the debate. I had a bit of a hard time getting ahold of Mariano, and once I did, we sort of talked in short conversations before he finally gave me some time. He was an invaluable source though, because he really knew the issue and was heavily involved in the process. He also gave me the name of someone to call to get the names of students impacted by the bill. That person's name was Juan, a volunteer at the Network. It took a few minutes of talking to him before I realized he wasn't a student, at which point he gave me some names and numbers. We talked for a bit and he told me he would call the students and let them know they could talk to me. I think that was really helpful because when I talked to Eric Rodriguez, he was comfortable talking to me. That interview went really well and gave me a good anecdote for the lead. It also gave me a better idea of how students were involved in the lobbying process, which became a big part of my story. On the same day I got Juan's number, Sen. Pappas's office offered me some time with the Senator, so I went down to the Capitol and got to pull her off the Senate floor, which made me feel very important. She was extremely open and helpful, which I didn't really expect since she is a politician. After talking to her and Eric, I pretty much had everybody I needed. I tried to talk to someone from the Governor's office, but they didn't return calls, and one woman even told me not to expect to hear from them. She did say that it was fair to expect that the Governor would veto the bill and that he did not support it. Finally, I also attempted to get ahold of a leader of the Minnesotans for Immigration Reduction group, but he never returned email (his phone number was not listed). One major obstacle to finding opposition to the bill is that there is almost none. In the Senate, all committee votes on it were unanimous and the House has yet to take the bill up. Sen. Pappas said that only one group spoke against it in hearings, and that was the Immigration Reduction Group. I enjoyed writing the story because I thought it was an interesting look at the process of building support for a bill, which isn't often covered. It was the most challenging story to get sources on this semester, but the sources I did get were very interesting and helpful.

In writing the story, I had fewer challenges than in other stories like the crime and court story. I think that is largely because of the people I talked to. I dealt with far less complex language than in those stories because the people I talked to are used to making their words understandable to the general public. What was difficult in writing the story was going back and forth between voices. I was using three different sources, and they all had plenty to say about all that I wrote about. It was difficult to weave their quotes together without making it confusing to the reader. A good example of this was when I returned to Rodriguez in the last paragraph. I wanted to connect the end to the beginning, but that's not easy after not having him in the story after the lead. To solve this problem, I made sure that his quote at the end referred to what he had talked about earlier- his desire to go to the U. I wish I had done a little better at weaving Espinoza and Pappas's quotes together in the middle of the article.

I think that if I had been writing this story for a website, I could have linked to audio of Rodriguez talking about the Dream Act. It would have been valuable to hear a young man with an accent talking about how the bill would affect him. He was very well-spoken and it would have been a good way to make the story more multi-media. I could also have posted audio of Pappas telling the full story of the students coming to her to ask for help with the issue. That was an interesting story that I couldn't print in its entirety for space reasons. Photos of all my sources would have also helped add a visual element.

April 18, 2007

Body of Cadet Found

The body of Nick Rossini, a missing 21-year-old West Point Cadet, was found in Goose Lake Monday. Rossini went missing in December when he was back in White Bear Lake during a vacation from West Point. The Pioneer Press reported that the night before he went missing, he crashed his parents' car after a night of drinking with friends. His blood alcohol level was .15. This prompted family members to hope that his disappearance was the result of either his panicking over the consequences for the incident or memory loss from the accident. They held out hope that he had run away to escape punishment, or was wandering around, suffering from memory loss. Monday's discovery destroyed that hope. Police say that foul play was not involved, and that in all likelihood the incident was the result of an accident. Rossini appeared to have been running when he went into the lake. He may have been trying to run across the ice, or somehow fell in, police say.

April 17, 2007

MAC Rules Against Cabbies

The Metropolitan Airport Commission changed its rules today, suspending the licenses of cab drivers who refuse to drive passengers carrying alcohol for 30 days. The ruling comes after several months of discussion and controversy. This controversy stems from the refusal of some cabbies to drive passengers with alcohol because of their Muslim beliefs. The vast majority of airport taxi drivers are Somalian and most of them are Muslim, MPR reports. Muslims believe that consuming, selling or carrying alcohol is a sin. MAC officials said that there were about a dozen incidents of cabbies refusing to drive passengers because they had alcohol per month. The decision by the MAC changes the current rule, which forces cabbies who refuse to drive a passenger to move to the back of the line, which sometimes takes up to four hours to get to the front of. The lawyer for the Muslim drivers said that the group plans to fight the decision because it is a violation of the cab drivers' First Amendment rights.

April 13, 2007

Minneapolis School Board Closes Schools

This is a follow-up to Wednesday's post about the North Side Initiative. Last night, the Board held another heated public meeting about the proposal to close six schools in order to consolidate resources. They voted 6-1 in favor of the proposal, to the dismay of most in attendance, MPR reports. Many in attendance protested the decision and made impassioned pleas to the Board to abandon the plan, or at least delay the decision. The meeting lasted four hours, and despite some attempts by a few Board members to delay the vote and remove some schools from the list, the original plan was approved. The Star Tribune reports that the Board was fractured by the decision, and that relations between some members were frayed by the tumultuous debate. One member said that the Board had become a tool of the district's administration. This is the first in what could be many votes to close Minneapolis schools in the next few years, as the district has at least 600 classrooms that are no longer needed due to declining enrollment.

April 12, 2007

St. Paul School Board Member Resigns

Al Oertwig, the longest-serving member of the St. Paul School Board, resigned today after being accused of looking at child pornography at a public library, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports today. Even though Oertwig denies the charges against him, the Star Tribune is reporting that he decided to resign to avoid distracting the board from the work of the district. The incident in question occurred at the Metropolitan State University Library. About a month ago, security officials at the library discovered that a man had logged onto a computer under Oertwig's user name and viewed "homosexual child pornography." They called police, who tapped the man on the shoulder, prompting him to run away. The Tribune did an interesting thing regarding this incident. They reported that one police report lists the man as unkown, but cite the Pioneer Press's reporting that another police report names Oertwig. This is another in a string of stories that I have blogged about where the Pioneer Press, with its smaller staff and limited budget, has really out-reported the Star Tribune. It goes to show the importance of establishing contacts and good reporting.

April 11, 2007

Protests Over North Side Initiative

There was a development in a story I covered last month for our local government assignment. Last night, a crowd of almost 300 people went to Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis to protest the Minneapolis School Board's plan to close six schools as part of the North Side Initiative. When I reported on the story, the Board was meeting to discuss how many schools would be closed, not the specific buildings. That decision has since been announced, and the change to the discussion is quite noticeable. At the meeting I attended and wrote about, there was no opposition and everybody, including the members of the crowd who chose to speak at the end of the meeting, was supportive of the plan, which according to MPR is an attempt to stop the flow of students out of Minneapolis schools to the suburbs. Now that the schools pegged for closing have been announced, community members are rallying against the plan because they fear it will harm students by removing stability. I was surprised that neither MPR nor the Star Tribune mentioned this marked change of opinion in their coverage of the protest. The Board will vote on the North Side Initiative on Thursday night, and given the tone of the Board members at the meeting I attended, they are likely to approve the plan.

April 9, 2007

Three Gopher Football Players Arrested

Three University of Minnesota football players were arrested on Friday night and are being held at Hennepin County jail, the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press reported. The reporting that has been done on this story reminds me a great deal of the crime stories we wrote earlier this semester. The reporters have relied on official statements from police and the University, as well as public documents, such as the ICR. The players were arrested Friday night for allegedly sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman at the University Village apartment complex. Details beyond this have been hard to come by. The Pioneer Press, despite its location in St. Paul (the investigation, the University and the jail are all in Minneapolis, home of the Tribune) has had much more detailed reporting on the story. The most recent article includes a timeline of events surrounding the investigation, and an interview with one of the players' mother. The details about the investigation include that six detectives investigated the case from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday before concluding that there was probable cause for arresting the players. It also explains that two of the three players agreed to talk to the investigators. The Tribune included such details as the fact that on average, the University receives reports of one or two rapes by strangers per year.

April 7, 2007

U.S. Prosecutors Quit

The Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press are both reporting that Minnesota U.S. Attorney's Office prosecutors quit yesterday, but they have somewhat differing accounts of just what happened. The Tribune is reporting that three prosecutors, the first assistant U.S. attorney, who is second in command, and the chiefs of both the criminal and civil divisions of the office all quit on Thursday but did not say for what reason. The Pioneer Press is reporting that four managers, the three named in the Tribune article and an administrative officer quit. They are reporting that the reason for the "decapitation" is a disagreement over the management style of Minnesota's U.S. Attorney, Rachel Palouse, who was confirmed by the Senate in December. The report is based on statements by an anonymous source, who said that the four managers were tired of Palouse's "dictatorial" style of leadership. The Tribune report also included speculation, mostly from politicians, that the resignations were related to the recent difficulties at the U.S. Justice Department and the Attorney General's Office. It appears, just from looking at these two articles, that the Pioneer Press has better sources at the U.S. Attorney's Office and was able to get a better story as a result. We will have to wait and see whether the Tribune is able to catch up. This story is worth following.

April 6, 2007

Photocop Ruled Unconstitutional

The cameras that were used by the Minneapolis Police Department to catch motorists who drove through red lights have been ruled unconstitutional by the Minnesota Supreme Court today. The ruling affirmed a lower court ruling from more than a year ago. The photocop program was controversial in large part because it recorded license plate numbers and mailed tickets to the registered owner of the vehicle, according to MPR. The major constitutional issue was that the burden of proof was on the accused driver to prove that they were not driving the car. This distinction was at the crux of today's ruling. Mayor R.T. Rybak said he was disappointed by the ruling because collissions at intersections decreased by more than 30 percent while the program was active. He said that the city will continue to pursue ways to enact the program. The state legislature was considering a statewide Photocop program, but it stalled in the committee process.

April 1, 2007

Senate Passes Tax Hike

Just a follow-up to yesterday's entry. In a rare Saturday vote, the Senate passed a new top income tax rate. According to the Star Tribune, seven DFL senators voted against the bill, making it highly unlikely that the Senate will be able to override the likely Governor's veto. The new bill would add $300 million to the K12 budget over the next two years, the Pioneer Press reports. Senate Republicans took two hours to speak out against the bill. They called it a job-killer that would have serious consequences for the state's economy. They also conjectured that the new top rate will drive the wealthiest Minnesotans out of the state. Both parties agreed that the tax system is in need of reform because middle-income Minnesotans pay a higher portion of the state's revenues than high-income Minnesotans.

March 30, 2007

DFL to Approve Record Tax Hike

According to the Star Tribune, the DFL-controlled Senate is poised to approve a record tax increase this weekend. The new tax increase would raise taxes on the highest earners in the state. The increase will affect those making over $250,000. The new rate will be 9.7 percent, the highest top rate in the country. The proposal would create nearly $1 billion in new revenue, which would be used for education and property tax relief. The increase would affect K-12, early education and tuition increases. It would also increase aid to local governments in the hope of offsetting the recent property tax increases around the state. The Pioneer Press is reporting that Gov. Pawlenty will likely veto the tax increase. If that happens, the DFL will need to find some Republican votes to override the veto. The more likely scenario is that the Governor and the legislature will propose new budgets that represent more of a compromise.

March 28, 2007

Senate Approves Smoking Ban

After several months of debate, the Senate has passed a statewide smoking ban. This issue has been heavily covered by the local media, perhaps more than any other issue in the state legislature this year. That coverage promises to be amped up further as the bill gets closer to being signed into law. The Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio both have articles on their Web sites about yesterday's vote. It is interesting to contrast the two articles. The Strib ran an article with a one-paragraph lead explaining the vote, followed by three sections headed "What it does," "Exemptions," and "What's Next?" It explains that the bill bans smoking in all public places, including restaurants and bars but not including Indian casinos. The article says that Gov. Pawlenty will likely sign the bill, but it will face some difficult tests in the House first. MPR's article takes a more historical look at the issue. It explains how smoking has been restricted for 30 years in Minnesota, but this is the first major change to those laws. It also provides a detailed history of this bill, explaining how it went through committees and survived many challenges to get to the Senate floor and get approved. While neither article is in itself complete, together, they provide a pretty full picture of the bill and its impact.