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Daily Digest: No immunity, SWLRT lawsuit, MNLARS compensation

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Good Tuesday morning. Here's your Digest.

1. No legislative immunity in defamation case. A Minnesota lawmaker isn’t entitled to legislative immunity in a defamation case against him, the state Court of Appeals ruled Monday. State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, sought legislative protection in a civil matter in which he questioned the ethics of a St. Paul city appointee. Lesch had raised concerns in a Jan. 2018 letter to new Mayor Melvin Carter about his appointment of Lyndsey Olson’s as city attorney. Olson sued Lesch for defamation. Lesch had asked the courts to declare his three-page letter — written on Lesch’s legislative letterhead — an official act subject to immunity. A district court judge and now the Court of Appeals declined to do so. “A legislator’s actions must be within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity in order to warrant legislative immunity,” the appeals court decided in an opinion written by Judge Lucinda Jesson. In their unanimous opinion, the three appeals judges said Lesch’s letter was of personal or political nature rather than legislative. (MPR News)

2. Appeals court throws out SWLRT challenge. A federal appeals court on Monday ordered the dismissal of a longstanding lawsuit against the Metropolitan Council challenging the Southwest light-rail line. In 2014, the Lakes and Parks Alliance (LPA) filed suit against the regional planning body and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) charging the $2 billion project violated federal and state environmental laws. The FTA, which is expected to pay $929 million toward building the line, was later dropped from the lawsuit. Construction of the 14.5-mile line, slated to link downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, has already begun, with passenger service expected to begin in 2023. St. Louis Park, Minnetonka and Hopkins are part of Southwest's route, as well. (Star Tribune)

3. MNLARS checks headed to deputy registrars. The state will soon be sending out checks to the people who run licensing offices around the state. They're known as deputy registrars, and the money is to reimburse them for expenses related to the troubled system MNLARS. Eligible deputy registrars, both public and private, will get a share of the $13 million that lawmakers authorized back in May. The headaches began for deputy registrars when the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS) went online in July 2017. Technical problems delayed many transactions and forced local licensing staff to work long hours to catch up. Deputy registrars make their money from fees on the transactions. “The deputy registrars were certainly hurt by MNLARS. There’s no question about it,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who is chairs of the House transportation committee. “They are small businesses and they incurred losses and incurred loses for no fault of their own. And so, it was incumbent on the Legislature to compensate them.” (MPR News)

4. Do homicide charges deter drug-related deaths? Bryan Hodapp of Eveleth shared some synthetic mushrooms with his girlfriend while they attended a wedding rehearsal. Soon after, Krystal Wicklund started showing signs of a "bad trip" from which she would never recover. Kimberly Elkins split her prescription fentanyl patch with her boyfriend, Aaron Rost, at their Hibbing apartment. A family member later found both unconscious, and only Elkins would survive. Terry Richards prepared two syringes of a fentanyl solution inside his Grand Rapids residence. He injected one himself while he watched his wife, Katrina, use the other. When Katrina stopped breathing, Terry tried throwing water on her and administering CPR, but nothing would bring her back to life. In each case, there were two consenting users. One died. The other was sent to prison. In the Northland and across the country, the application of homicide charges has become a favored response for police and prosecutors seeking to address the opioid crisis by cracking down on dealers. But the tactic remains controversial, with critics arguing that such prosecutions have little to no deterrent effect and frequently serve to punish people struggling with addiction. (Duluth News Tribune)

5. Minneapolis poised to enforce minimum wage bump. For Brian Walsh, the job of enforcing Minneapolis’ 2017 minimum wage law has only just begun. From teaching new payroll systems to investigating alleged violations by employers, there are a lot of challenges in enforcing the city’s labor standards, which is one result of the law’s incremental approach. On Monday, the effort marked a milestone, however. Minneapolis rolled out its second annual increase to the minimum wage under the law: from $11.25 to $12.25 for large businesses, and from $10.25 to $11 for employers of 100 or fewer workers. The hike is part of the city’s multi-year plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 hourly for all businesses by 2024, with gradual adjustments that aim to provide business owners time to adjust. Up to this point, the law hasn’t impacted many employers, Walsh said, since most already paid rates above the law’s pre-2019 requirements. But with the new standards starting Monday and subsequent hikes, more Minneapolis businesses will need to revamp their payscale to comply with the law. (MinnPost)