Daily Digest: Commissioners, pay raises and mining

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Good morning, and welcome to Friday. It's been a busy 24 hours. Here's the Digest.

1. Walz names education, corrections agency heads. Gov.-elect Tim Walz named three more agency leaders Thursday who will help him govern the state when he’s sworn in next month. To head the education department, Walz tapped teachers union leader Mary Cathryn Ricker. Walz is a former teacher, and education is one of the largest areas of the state’s budget. Despite funding increases throughout DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s eight years in office, racial disparities in achievement have persisted, and a key goal for the next governor will be to close that gap. To head the state office of higher education, Walz named Dennis Olson, the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and a former director of Indian Education at the education department. Walz also chose Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell to be the new commissioner for the state Corrections Department. Two recent events have put a spotlight on the department and increased calls for more staffing in state correctional facilities. In July corrections officer Joseph Gomm was killed by an inmate at the Stillwater prison. Two months later, Oak Park Heights corrections officer Joe Parise died of a medical emergency after responding to an attack on a fellow officer. (MPR News)

2. GOP lawmakers blast Dayton administration for pay raises. Officials at Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) recently notified members of the Legislative Coordinating Commission (LCC) that they were allowing pay raises for positions in Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, St. Louis and Scott Counties. Positions for the city of Rochester and the Metropolitan Council were also included. Minnesota law caps pay for local government jobs at $171,338, unless a state waiver is granted. Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, is chair of the LCC subcommittee on employee relations, which has an oversight role on such waivers. O’Neill accused the administration of pushing through big raises without proper legislative vetting. “They have just usurped that entire process and told the Legislature this is what we’re going to do,” O’Neill said. “It’s not following the statutory procedures at all.” MMB Commissioner Myron Frans disputed O’Neill’s claim. He said the LCC was notified of the compensation limit increases by letter on Dec. 5, which allowed a 30-day window for the panel to meet and offer recommendations before the new salary limits take effect on Jan. 5. No meeting has been scheduled. Frans stressed that the action does not raise the salaries but allows local officials to raise them. (MPR News)

3. PolyMet project gets final state permits. State environmental officials have granted more key permits for the proposed PolyMet mine, the last of the major state approvals the company needs to build Minnesota's first mine for copper, nickel and precious metals. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Thursday issued three air and water quality permits for the nearly $1 billion project. That leaves only one major permit the company still needs before it can begin construction, a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers outlining PolyMet's plans to replace wetlands destroyed by building the open-pit mine near the Iron Range in the northeastern part of the state. It will also need additional local permits and approvals. PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry said he expects the Army Corps permit soon. "This represents the culmination of many years of hard work to allow the building of Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine," Cherry said. (MPR News)

4. Feds poised to renew leases for Twin Metals mine. The federal Bureau of Land Management says it plans to formally renew the mineral rights leases for the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely. The bureau said in a statement Thursday that its plans to impose updated stipulations on the leases from the U.S. Forest Service to mitigate risks to water resources and wilderness areas. A public comment period runs through Jan. 22. The Trump administration in September lifted a roadblock to renewing the leases that was imposed late during the Obama administration, which cited the risks of acid mine drainage to the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Several environmental groups are suing to quash the leases. Becky Rom of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters alleges the bureau is making an unlawful end-run around the earlier decision. In a statement, Gov. Mark Dayton said the decision to renew the leases would endanger the BWCAW. (AP)

5. Renewed push for laws to protect seniors. On Thursday, Sen. Karin Housley, the chairwoman of the Senate Family Care and Aging Committee, renewed her call for strengthening protections for the roughly 85,000 Minnesotans who live in senior care facilities across the state. “The mission that I plan on pursuing in this [legislative] session is: No senior in Minnesota will be left behind,” said Housley, a Republican from St. Marys Point, at a news event. As Housley was outlining her proposal, leaders of a group representing families of abuse victims were busy working the hallways of the State Capitol, pushing their own package of changes to the state’s system for regulating senior homes. Their efforts are being supported by AARP Minnesota, the state’s largest senior advocacy group, which this week launched an online petition urging leaders in both houses of the Legislature to make elder care reform a top priority. “The politics have changed, and legislators have gotten the message that elder abuse is a major concern of their constituents,” said Kristine Sundberg, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates, a volunteer group seeking better care for seniors. “We will not accept half measures in 2019.” (Star Tribune)

Barring major news the Digest will take the next week off to celebrate the holidays. Have a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year, and we will see you soon.


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