May 7, 2007

Battle over wine sales in supermarkets

by Jesse Poppe

For as long as Senator Linda Sheid (DFL - Brooklyn Park) can remember, shopping for the week’s groceries always consisted of two trips. After purchasing a tenderloin dinner for company that was coming over, she remembered how well a tangy Gallo wine would accompany the meal and drove even further from home to buy it from the liquor store.

“This was always such an inconvenience; making two stops when one would make much more sense.? Sheid said. “Of course, I’d always buy more than just one bottle so I wouldn’t have to make the trip again that month.?

This routine is familiar to many in the state, where archaic alcohol laws have limited wine sales to liquor stores since the times just following Prohibition. If a current bill passes the Minnesota Legislature, however, these historical laws may be just that, affecting not only consumers but the profit margins of both liquor stores and supermarkets as well.

This bill was introduced to the Senate by Sheid and has bipartisan support. The bill has a partner in the House, and would allow supermarket areas spanning at least 8,000 square feet to sell wine in their isles.

“We want to allow consumers to make both their dinner and wine decisions in the same store,? said Sheid. “33 other states, including Wisconsin, already have similar laws, but since I’ve started carrying this bill in 1985 even beer wholesalers have opposed it.?

An age old debate

The subject of expanding wine and other alcohol sales to commercial areas other than liquor stores is not a new one. Sheid said that the Minnesota Legislature has been rejecting attempts to change the law since the 1970s, and opponents of this year’s measure say it will once again fail to garner enough support.

Heavy opposition of the bill has come from liquor stores, who are worried about losing sales in the competition that would be encouraged by letting grocery stores into the market. General manger Steve Wilk at Surdyk’s Liquor Store, one of the largest liquor stores in the Midwest that also allows customers to purchase their wine online, said that he expects this bill to die fairly quickly.

“I think the legislature has done its job in that past and I hope they stand up to this type of law again,? Wilk said. “If (the bill) stands alone and doesn’t get tagged to something else, our lobbyists tell us that it won’t pass.?

Wilk argued that increasing competition by including supermarkets is bad for business, and thinks that local liquor stores in particular will experience the most problems.

“Most of the constituents for opposing lawmakers are rural and municipal stores, who stand to lose the most money from this law,? he said.

Sheid acknowledged the clout that those supporters represent. “The law won’t likely change until municipal stores get on board,? she said.

Proponents of the bill, specifically the Minnesota Grocers Association, claim that competition will be healthy for consumers who can shop around for the best prices on a product. In addition, it would be much more convenient for customers who prefer to buy all of their goods in one place.

“We’ve heard from so many customers who want an isle in grocery stores near the cheese and meat section devoted to wine,? said Jaime Pfuhl, executive director of the Minnesota Grocers Association. “Minnesotans pay more for wine than most of the country because of these restricted licenses.?

Pfuhl said the bill is lenient because it limits supermarket sales to wine and still allows liquor stores to control beer and spirit sales. “Grocery stores just want to be a small part of a very large market,? she said.

Age restrictions and current limitations

One of the main concerns that opponents of the bill stress is that grocery stores are unfit to combat underage sales and purchases of alcoholic products.

“Liquor stores represent a controlled environment where store policy requires clerks to check all ID’s,? Wilk said. “How will supermarkets manage this when even the cashiers aren’t legally adults??

Pfuhl argues that most stores are already well equipped to handle age-restricted products.

“Many grocers sell cigarettes and adult related material,? she said. “Our registers automatically lock when these types of products are scanned and someone of age must come over to make the sale.?

Sheid said that presenting the danger of underage buyers is a red herring issue. “There is no law that exists currently which requires liquor stores to check all ID’s,? she said. “Our law would include this restriction.?

While most advocates seem to argue that customer satisfaction is the main issue at stake, Wilk argued that current regulations already allow for grocery stores to own liquor stores.

“The convenience argument really bothers me,? Wilk said. “The current law says that a supermarket can run a liquor store as long as there are separate entrances and a wall separating the two entities. They just want this law so they don’t have to spend money.?

Pfuhl pointed out that it’s not that simple. “Supermarkets can’t always afford to run two stores,? she said. “Although it look like that’s their only option again this year.?

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Analysis:
This story, while interesting and informative, was difficult to report based on the lack of success of similar bills in the past. I found it on a list of interesting bills on the Minnesota Legislature website while researching for a previous story. It especially caught my eye because I am from Wisconsin, and wine in supermarkets is very common in my hometown.

This is one of those bills that gets dragged out every time and consistently gets voted down. There were, however, strong opinions on both sides of the bill, which made it entertaining to report. When interviewing people, I used comments from previous interviews to gain a broader view of the subject, especially when the two comments differed. In addition, I had specific points to ask about going into to the reporting process, such as declining sales for liquor stores and concern for underage sales, but gained other angles from my sources, such as municipal stores and separate entrances for liquor stores next to supermarkets.

The main challenge for this story was getting a hold of the executive director for the Minnesota Grocers Association, Jaime Pfuhl. I had tried to contact her for sometime, but only managed to get her on the phone just days before my deadline. I was glad to finally get her comments, however, as they really rounded out the story and gave a voice for the countless supermarkets in the state.

If I were to employ a more multimedia approach to this story, I could get pictures of both liquor store and supermarkets, as well as the manager at Surdyk's, Steve Wilk, at his store. In addition, I could have recorded parts of my conversation with Sen. Sheid, who was very candid with her comments. I don't believe any of these things would raise any ethical concerns, and think that the addition of these forms of reporting would only help enhance the ability of the story to convey the facts to the reader.

April 29, 2007

House passes tax bill

MPR reported that the Minnesota House of Representatives passed a bill Friday that would ease property taxes across the state while affecting income taxes for the wealthy. Governor Pawlenty has threatened multiple times to veto the bill when it goes to his desk.

The bill passed on a 74 to 59 vote, despite Republicans speaking against the bill for 5 hours. They offered no changes to the bill however, as most trust Pawlenty to make good on his veto threats. Democrats, however, claim that the bill will lighten the property tax load for 90 percent of Minnesota homeowners, with the main relief coming for farmers, senior citizens and veterans.

Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, blasted the bill.

"This is one of the most massive, invasive, pervasive, poor-folk-hurting, middle-class-back-breaking, tax-the-rich-bashing, class-warfare-baiting tax increase I have ever seen in my time as a state representative," Smith said.

KARE 11 posted an AP story on their website about the bill. It details the affect that the bill would have, including how the bill would apply to an estimated 1 percent of taxpayers, and 80 percent of them make at least $1 million a year.

House Taxes Committee Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington praised the vote.

"We won't get property tax relief for free," said Lenczewski. "We need to be responsible. This bill is responsible."

Three dead in Kansas City mall

CNN reported that a gunman killed two people and wounded two others Sunday in a shopping center in Kansas City, Missouri before police confronted and killed him.

The shooting took place in the parking lot on the west side of the mall. Police are still investigating both the motive behind the attack and a possible link to a pair of earlier incidents, one involving and elderly woman killed in her home 6 miles from the mall and another involving an injured police officer making a traffic stop.

Janet Coleman, a witness at the mall, claimed to have seen "a young man with a sawed-off shotgun" being chased by police in the parking lot.

MSNBC also reported on the incident, and identified the car driven by the shooter as one belonging to the elderly woman shot 6 miles from the final crime scene. No names have been released yet in the case.

April 22, 2007

State newspaper feud continues

The clash between Minnesota's two largest newspapers, the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press, continued Friday when a Ramsey County judge granted the request from the St. Paul-based paper to search the computers of it's Minneapolis counterpart, according to the Star Tribune in an effort to police itself.

The legal battle between the two journalistic institutions began Thursday, April 12 when the Pioneer Press sued its former publisher and current CEO and publisher of the Star Tribune Par Ridder for absconding with sensitive advertising information prior to his and two other former Pioneer Press employees departure to their jobs at the rival Minneapolis newspaper.

The hotly contested case has been reported by both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press, and the stories have been very similar and accurate in nature. Ridder has reportedly commented "Just know that I am absolutely confident we will prevail."

April 11, 2007

Protesters oppose plan to close schools

MPR reported Wednesday that hundreds of community members attended a Minneapolis school board hearing Tuesday night to protest the plan to close six schools on the the city's North Side.

The crowd, which consisted of parents, students, and teachers, came to the meeting with concerns about the Northside Initiative, which would close both elementary and K-8 schools. The proposed schools include Jordan Park, Davis Academy, Lincoln, North Star and Shingle Creek in Minneapolis. The sixth is Tuttle Elementary, located in Southeast Minneapolis.

School board officials say that the school closings are necessary to combat dropping enrollment among North Side schools. Over the last 7 years, the Northside district has lost nearly half of its enrolled students to other schools, including suburban, private and charter institutions.

The Northside Initiative would also require a core curriculum, full-day kindergarten, languages, fine arts and music in the remaining schools. The money saved from closing the schools will be used to try to narrow the growing achievement gap apparent in Northside schools, where test scores have dropped dramatically compared to other districts.

Critics of the plan, however, have questions about the success that it will have. Lily Rothbart, a special education teacher at Jordan Park, expressed her doubts.

"Six schools is too drastic, and it deprives certain neighborhoods of a school completely," Rothbart said. "If the district is hoping to actually fix a problem and not just save money for something, this isn't the way to do it"

The Star Tribune reported on the plan on Wednesday, April 4. In the article, Minneapolis school finance chief Peggy Ingison reassured the school board that the plan will work on the North Side due to the poverty of the students coupled with their lagging test scores, a combination that will bring in more aid. However, she cautioned against employing the strategy in other parts of the city that are performing better and have kept up their enrollment.

The school board has been asked to approve the Northside Initiative on Thursday, April 12.

April 8, 2007

Gopher football players arrested in connection with rape

WCCO Channel 4 news reported through an AP wire story on their website Sunday that three members of the Minnesota football team who have been in custody since Friday night could be charged Monday with sexual assault of an 18-year-old woman.

Defensive end Alex Daniels, cornerback Keith Massey, and running back E.J. Jones have been suspended from the team pending an ongoing investigation. A police report states that the alleged victim was raped between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Bail has been set at $100,000 for each player.

The Pioneer Press also reported on the incident, which happened to coincide with the annual Gopher spring game on Saturday at the Metrodome. The new Minnesota football coach, Tim Brewster, said at a news conference Saturday that he "absolutely would fully support these three young men and see how it unfolds."

April 3, 2007

Pawlenty radio ad blasts State Dems

MPR reported Tuesday that Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is broadcasting a new radio ad while state lawmakers are away on Passover and Easter vacation.

The ad is reportedly critical of the Senate's plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest in the state in order to fund education programs. Pawlenty has already vowed to veto the bill should it land on his desk, part of his new campaign stance of "no-new-taxes."

In another story released by MPR but written by Associated Press reporter Brian Bakst, the Minnesota State Legislature is expecting a long and drawn out rest of spring and possibly summer over the issue on taxes. Many DFL Senators are seeking a tax hike to pay for state projects, but find themselves in a stalemate with Pawlenty, who has threatened to veto any new tax bill.

The Star Tribune also posted a story on Pawlenty's radio ad that criticizes a proposed raise in income taxes. In the ad, the governor tells listeners to call their representatives and request a change in policy. The ad is currently running across the entire state.

April 1, 2007

Iron Range mines suspected in cancer deaths

MPR reported Thursday that 36 new cases of a rare form of lung cancer were reported among miners in Minnesota's Iron Range, causing alarm for state health officials. Taconite dust is suspected to be responsible for the sharp increase in cases.

The cancer is called mesothelioma, and is usually associated with asbestos. Officials with the Department of Health plan to conduct a follow-up study after concluding one in 2003 with Minnesota state miners. They hope that this study will clear up questions that they have concerning the possible dangers of taconite dust.

Mining officials are also interested in the pending investigation, and Cleveland Cliffs mining spokesperson Dana Byrne said that it is in the company's best interest to discover the cause of the high levels of mesothelioma.

The Star Tribune also reported on the study, but focused more on the specific case of Susan Keplar, who's husband Lee died in 2004 at age 64 of mesothelioma. This was a more effective of personalizing the situation instead of simply jumping into the cold and dry facts of the case.

The story in the Star Tribune also indicated that 52 people had died from the disease while over 200 miners have filed for workman's compensation with claims of "lung ailments."

March 25, 2007

Controversial gas tax increase clears the State Senate

KARE 11 News reported Saturday that a proposed gas tax of 10 cents passed the Senate floor Friday on a vote of 42-24. It would be the first gas tax increase in nearly two decades and contains vehicle taxes which would pay for more than $1 billion a year in transportation projects.

Governor Pawlenty has opposed the bill from the start and promises to veto it should get parked on his desk, claiming that "they know this is going to be vetoed" in reference to the state DFLers who are promoting the legislation. Pawlenty instead is encouraging a bill that centers on $1.7 billion in borrowing over the next decade. The bill failed in the Senate, however, and a version of it is expected to fail in the House as well.

Despite the overwhelming support for the notion of a gas tax increase, both chambers seem to be at an impasse with Pawlenty. MPR reported that the House also passed a similar package that includes other tax increases, but both the Senate and the House fell short of the number of votes needed to override Pawlenty's expected veto.

Pawlenty is adament about only supporting a gas tax increase if it is called for by voters, which won't happen until a November ballot measure is developed. MPR says that he and other GOP critics see the current bill as a waste of time.

Suspect arrested in connection with dog beheading

The Star Tribune reported Thursday that police had arrested a man who they believe is responsible for decapitating a young girl's therapy dog and leaving its head in a box on her front porch.

Despite the evidence against the man and charges expected to be filed the next day, the Star Tribune displayed solid journalistic ethics by withholding the suspects name until he was, in fact, charged with the crimes of killing a companion animal and cruelty to a companion animal. They did, however, say that the man was someone who the owner of the dog, 17-year-old Crystal Brown, befriended but grew apart from after he wanted her to be his girlfriend.

On Friday the Star Tribune ran another story, this time naming the suspect as 24-year-old Anthony Albert Gomez, who had used his cell phone to make a videoclip of the grisly act. The story also gave details on the dog, who was a 4-year-old Australian shepard mix named Chevy.

The case has recieved national recognition, and Crystal has recieved cards, donations and a general outpouring of support from people all over the world, most likely the due to the gruesome nature of the crime. Crystal suffers from despression and has recently purchased a new dog named Diesel.

There is a fact discrepency in this case, however. WCCO Channel 4 News posted an AP story on their website claiming that Gomez and Crystal had dated. This contridicts the Star Tribune's story which claims that Crystal denied any involvement outside of friendship with Gomez.

March 10, 2007

Paulose sworn in as first women U.S. Attorney in Minn.

The swearing-in ceremony for Rachel Paulose on Friday was an historic occasion for the state of Minnesota for two reasons; she is the first women in the position as well as the youngest.

The Star Tribune reported Friday that over 300 people attended the event at the law school in the downtown Minneapolis campus of The University of St. Thomas. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and chief justice emeritus of the Minnesota Supreme Court A.M. (Sandy) Keith were in attendance.

WCCO Channel 4 news also reported on the event via an AP wire story. Paulose has been a federal prosecutor in the state from 1999 to 2002. She is a graduate of Yale Law School and the University of Minnesota.

March 1, 2007

Police officer accused of slur against Rep. Kieth Ellison (DFL-Minn)

The Star Tribune reported that a Minneapolis police lieutenant allegedly referred to U.S. Congressman Kieth Ellison as a terrorist, ironically during a police ethics training class on Tuesday.

Lt. Bob Kroll, an 18-year veteran of the Minneapolis police force and vice president of the police federation, now faces an internal investigation regarding his comments.

Police Chief Tim Dolan sent out an e-mail condmning Kroll's comments and publically apologized to Ellison. In the e-mail, Dolan said that classmates contested Kroll's comment.

WCCO Channel 4 news also reported on the story. In the report Mayor R.T. Rybak calls the alleged comment "shocking ignorant and incredibly reprehensible."

Despite all of the accusations, Kroll maintains his innocence. WCCO reported that Kroll insisted the description of his comments was "extremely inaccurate."

February 27, 2007

Minnesota Legislature heats up over stem cell bill

Legislation allowing the University of Minnesota access to state money for stem cell research was amended Tuesday to include a ban on human cloning, MPR reported through an AP wire release.

The bill, which has already drawn significant controversy, passed on a 12-7 vote in the House Higher Education and Work Force Development Committee. It was a significant victory for scientists at the University who hope to acquire the funds necessary to study embyonic cells. These studies could be used to find possible treatments or cures for injuries or diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

The author of the bill, Rep. Phyllis Khan (DFL-Minneapolis), supported the amendment. "It's a backstop against what they're saying the slippery slope is," Khan told reporters.

Opponents of the legislation, however, such as Rep. Dan Severson (R-Sauk Rapids), equate the bill to government-funded abortion. The bill "opens the door to who knows what in the next 30 years ," Severson said.

The Pioneer Press reported on the start of the committee hearing on Friday, focusing more on Severson's challenge to Meri Firpo, an Assistant Professor and scientist of Medicine and Endocrinology at the University of Minnesota's Twin City campus.

The story offers two distinct perspectives on the issue; Jackie Hunt Christensen of the Parkinson's Action Network and Bishop Richard Pates of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Christensen argued that people with severe diseases need and want stem cell research to occur, and that the embroys used in the research will be otherwise discarded. Bishop Pates disagreed with that rationale and said that it is still unethical for researchers to consciously destroy a human life.

February 25, 2007

Chaska man dies after being found partially frozen on pavement

A 19-year-old man from Chaska was found partially frozen to the pavement early Saturday morning by a snow plow driver, KARE 11 news reported.

Chaska Police said that Sean Humphrey was not wearing a jacket, gloves, or a hat when he was found at 5:00 a.m. Saturday.

WCCO Channel 4 news reported Sunday that Humphrey had died after spending Saturday night in critical condition in Hennepin County Medical Center. According to police, he apparently fell and hit his head on the curb, althought the exact cause of death is still under investigation.

The headline on the WCCO website also said that it was Humphrey's 19th birthday when he died Sunday, a fact that makes the story more tragic but has little relevance to the actual events of the Saturday morning or what ultimately led to Humphrey's unfortunate situation.

The Pioneer Press also covered the story, but held the information about Humphrey's prospective birthday until the second paragraph.

February 18, 2007

Fatal head-on collision on I-35W

A 30-year-old man died Friday after crashing his Nissan Murano into a tractor trailer carrying telephone poles on I-35W near Lino Lakes, closing the southbound lanes of the Interstate for nearly 5 hours.

KARE 11 news reported that the driver of the truck, a 42-year-old Wisconsin man, escaped the crash with only minor injuries.

The Star Tribune reported Saturday that the victim of the crash driving the Nissan Murano was Micah Rosenthal of Minneapolis, according to the State Patrol office. Officials also confirmed that Rosenthal was driving northbound on I-35W when he crossed the median and collided head-on with that tractor trailer driven by Kelly Koch of Tripoli. The specific cause of the accident is still under investigation.