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Minnesota Senate Republicans release legislative priorities

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Senate Republicans unveiled priorities for the new legislative session this week that include limiting the governor’s peacetime emergency powers and avoiding tax increases to help with financial woes caused by the pandemic.
The package includes legislation that would allow businesses with COVID-19 safety plans to reopen, shift authority to close schools from Democratic Gov. Tim Walz to local school boards, and limit other emergency powers from the governor. The package also features scholarships for low-income students and initiatives to make buying a house more affordable.
The caucus’s priorities also include blocking clean emissions standards for cars and cutting 5% from the budget of each state agency.
Lawmakers are working with a projected surplus of $641 million in the current budget that runs through June 30. They face a $1.3 billion budget shortfall in the next two-year budget. The Legislature is required by law to come to terms on a balanced two-year budget, which is expected to total around $50 billion.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he aims to close the budget deficit without income tax, gas tax or sales tax increases.
“We have reserves, we have CARES Act money coming in and we also know that our state agencies can be more efficient,” he said.
Democrats, who control the House, earlier this month announced their priorities, including a package of five bills to assist workers, families and small businesses struggling due to the ongoing pandemic.

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Minnesota allocated nearly 900K vaccine doses so far

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota health officials reported Friday the state has now been allocated 871,650 doses of federally controlled COVID-19 vaccine, up more than 240,000 doses from a week earlier.
The state’s snapshot of progress in administering vaccines also showed that 214,050 people have gotten their first dose of a two-shot series, with 49,604 people having completed the two shots.
If all the state’s 5.6 million residents were to get two shots, the federal vaccine allocated so far would amount to less than 8 percent of what’s needed. The numbers don’t reflect doses sent directly to federal organizations in Minnesota such as Veterans Affairs facilities.
During a visit to a long-term care facility in New Hope, Gov. Tim Walz and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that with a new president came a different tone from the federal government that includes consistency in messaging about the virus and a willingness to understand the perspective of state and local governments in their virus response.
Should the Biden administration deliver on its goal of 100 million doses in the president’s first 100 days, that would work out to around 2 million doses reserved for Minnesota.
“At the rate we’re at, and this is where the frustration lies, it’s not fast enough so when they’re talking about releasing 100 million doses over that time … that gets us awfully close to (3 million) over the next 90 days,” Walz said. “If it falls short, again, we’re not closer to having that herd immunity.”
Minnesota officials have been eager to receive more doses of the vaccine, and launched nine pilot sites this week to administer shots to people 65 and up, in line with federal eligibility guidance that expanded to include the group. Teachers and child-care providers were also eligible to seek appointments at the pilot sites, though demand was so high and supplies so limited — just 6,000 doses for seniors — that a booking website crashed as appointments were snapped up.
The state has given top priority to health care workers and long-term care residents and staff, and officials said Thursday they’re on track to give the first of two doses to everyone in those groups by the end of January. The state’s virus dashboard shows weekly vaccinations ramping up since they began, with just under 5,000 shots given the first week the vaccine was available — Dec. 13 — rising to about 80,000 the week of Jan. 10.
The state is receiving an allocation of 68,000 doses next week, which includes second doses reserved for some who have received their first dose. Walz said they expect to see “a more predictable rhythm of what we’re going to get and how we’re going to get it” within the next week.

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Man in Minnesota charged with threatening member of Congress

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A marijuana industry activist who said he was temporarily living in Minnesota has been charged with threatening an unnamed member of Congress, according to court documents unsealed Friday.
Jason Robert Karimi, 32, was charged earlier this month with one count of interstate communication of a threat, and he made his first court appearance Friday. According to the charges, Karimi called a U.S. representative, who is not named in court documents, on Jan. 11 and left a voicemail threatening violence.
According to the charges, Karimi said, “I want to see you as scared as possible, terrified and (defecating) your pants … we’re coming for ya.” The voicemail went on to say “we are going to cause you pain in every way possible … we’re going to end all political power you have (and) make it so you can’t even walk in anything but a wheelchair.”
The voicemail was left just five days after a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Capitol Police reviewed the voicemail, and authorities traced the number to Karimi. When an FBI agent contacted him, Karimi allegedly said, “Is this about the voicemails?” according to court documents.
The criminal complaint says Karimi admitted to leaving the voicemail but said he intended only “political pain” and he uses “political threatening” to get attention. He said that after he left the voicemail, he was afraid the Secret Service would come and get him.
Karimi allegedly told the FBI agent that he worked mostly in Iowa as a lobbyist for the marijuana industry and that he wants to lobby the U.S. government on marijuana issues. He said he planned to move to South Dakota and was staying in St. Paul with a friend temporarily.
Court documents list the Federal Defender’s Office as Karimi’s attorney, which is often the case for first appearances, but the court docket says an attorney will be appointed. A message left with the federal defender was not immediately returned.
The Star Tribune reported that Karimi has actively blogged for a website that promotes marijuana policy in Iowa called “WeedPress,” and he’s commented about the industry on local television shows there.

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After turbulent times, Minneapolis mayor seeks 2nd term

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minneapolis mayor who found himself in the middle of turbulent times that included violent demonstrations over the death of George Floyd said Thursday he is running for reelection.
Jacob Frey said his efforts to change police policies, increase affordable housing and create a more inclusive economy warrant a second four-year term. He said he stood up to pressure to dismantle the police department and instead worked with the police chief to revise the department’s body camera policy, shift department culture and ban warrior-style training.
“Over the last four years, we’ve confronted opportunity and hardship together,” Frey said in a statement. “We’ve also faced unprecedented challenges and calls for necessary structural change.”
Frey was called upon to manage two major events in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic that began gaining steam in March and the protests following the death of Floyd on May 25. Floyd, a Black man who was handcuffed, died after Derek Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe.
Some blamed Frey and Gov. Tim Walz for waiting too long to to bring in the National Guard to help as the city, including the Third Precinct police headquarters, was raided and burned. Frey and Walz responded by criticizing each other.
Frey in June was booed and jeered by activists asking to defund the police.

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Minnesota vaccine pilot starts giving shots to seniors

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota began administering a limited supply of coronavirus vaccine to seniors through a pilot program on Thursday after federal vaccine priorities expanded last week to include the newly eligible group.
The program’s limited supply of 12,000 shots is reserved for seniors, teachers and child care workers at nine sites across the state, despite what state officials say is an inadequate weekly shipment of 60,000 doses from the federal government. The program aims to provide 6,000 doses per week to the roughly 900,000 Minnesotans over 65.
“I got quite lucky,” said Ron Tupy, 65, of Apple Valley, who was among the first recipients of the vaccine at the program’s Brooklyn Center location on Thursday.
Tupy had some minor trouble with the registration website in the form of error messages as significant demand caused the website to crash on Tuesday, but he said scheduling the appointment and then getting the shot was fairly simple.
“It was actually pretty well organized considering it was the first day,” he said. “People lined up outside, though we didn’t stay out too long, and it went along quite well. I was in and out in probably an hour, maybe less.”
Health officials say the nine sites serve as a foundation for how the state would establish future mass vaccination sites. State officials hope the new Biden administration will significantly increase Minnesota’s allotment, which would boost the state’s distribution pace.
As of Monday, 203,839 first doses of the vaccine have been administered and 41,984 Minnesotans have been fully vaccinated, according to state data. Just over 40% of the nearly 610,000 doses in the state have been used.
Health officials on Thursday reported 32 more Minnesotans have died from COVID-19 and 1,292 new infections, pushing the state over 6,000 deaths and 450,000 cases since the start of the pandemic. Nearly 560 patients are hospitalized due to complications from the virus, including less than 100 in intensive care for the first time since September.
Tupy, who retired in March right as the pandemic began, said he has tried to avoid leaving his home, resorting to online shopping for much of his needs.
“I had hoped in my retirement that I could start doing some volunteer work,” he said. “I kind of put all of that on hold, at least until I got vaccinated.”
Tupy said he didn’t have any reservations about getting the COVID-19 vaccine because he’s received a variety of other vaccines in his lifetime. With his first dose in his arm and the appointment for the second dose scheduled, he said he’s excited and looking forward to life beyond the pandemic, namely dining out with family and friends.
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Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Advisory board named for Minnesota conviction review unit

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A man who led a panel that reviewed a high-profile murder case where a Minneapolis man was freed from prison after doubts were raised about the police investigation was one of 16 people named Thursday to the advisory board of Minnesota’s first conviction review unit.
St. Thomas law professor Mark Osler served as chairman of the group of experts from around the country who examined the conviction and sentence of Myon Burrell and recommended the commutation of his life sentence. Burrell was convicted in the killing of a little girl hit by a stray bullet in 2002 and served 18 years before he was released.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said other leading experts on the advisory board include former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson and former Minneapolis NAACP President Leslie Redmond.
The Innocence Project of Minnesota, now known as the Great North Innocence Project, announced in October it had received a $300,000 Department of Justice grant to create the conviction review unit.
The board’s first step will be recommending a director and helping to get the unit off the ground. Once it begins reviewing cases, the board will advise on evolving issues related to wrongful convictions and sentencing and make policy recommendations, Ellison said.

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UnitedHealth overcomes pandemic hit and tops 4Q expectations

UnitedHealth’s fourth-quarter earnings tumbled as costs from COVID-19 hit the health insurance provider, but results still easily beat expectations.
Health care use rebounded in the final quarter of 2020 after the global pandemic kept people away from doctor offices and surgery centers when it first spread earlier last year.
UnitedHealth also said Wednesday that its insurance business spent more in the quarter covering claims for COVID-19 testing and treatment. They accounted for 11% of all care activity, not counting prescriptions. That’s up from 6% in the third quarter.
Medical costs, by far the company’s largest expense, jumped 7% to more than $42 billion in the fourth quarter.
Overall net income for UnitedHealth Group Inc. fell more than 37% in the fourth quarter to $2.21 billion, and adjusted earnings totaled $2.52 per share.
That topped the average analyst forecast for earnings of $2.39 per share, according to a survey of analysts by Zacks Investment Research.
Total revenue climbed more than 7% to $65.47 billion, also surpassing analyst forecasts.
The results generated little surprise on Wall Street after UnitedHealth gave analysts an update on its business last month. The quarter turned out “slightly better” than the guidance it provided then, Jefferies analyst David Windley said in a research note.
UnitedHealth had said it expected care use to rebound in the final quarter of 2020, and the company also set aside reserves in the quarter to pay rebates from the lower utilization earlier in the year, which contributed to huge insurer profits.
UnitedHealth runs UnitedHealthcare, a health insurance business that covers more than 48 million people mostly in the United States. Its Optum segment also runs one of the nation’s largest pharmacy benefit management operations as well as a growing number of clinics and urgent care and surgery centers.
Operating earnings from that segment climbed 3% to $3.1 billion in the fourth quarter.
UnitedHealth also reaffirmed on Wednesday its forecast for 2021 adjusted earnings of between $17.75 and $18.25 per share. That includes a per-share hit of about $1.80 due to rising COVID-19 costs as well as procedures that are being put off due to the pandemic. The company’s commercial health insurance enrollment also has been hit by high unemployment during the pandemic.
Analysts expect, on average, adjusted earnings to total $18.20 per share, according to FactSet.
Shares of Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group Inc. slipped less than 1% to $350.42 in mid-morning trading. The Dow Jones Industrial Average — of which UnitedHealth is a component— rose slightly.
UnitedHealth’s share price is about 5% below the all-time high mark of $367.95 that it reached last November, according to FactSet.
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Follow Tom Murphy on Twitter: @thpmurphy
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A portion of this story was generated by Automated Insights (http://automatedinsights.com/ap) using data from Zacks Investment Research. Access a Zacks stock report on UNH at https://www.zacks.com/ap/UNH

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Klobuchar: Democracy cannot be taken for granted

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar took center stage Wednesday at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and used her introductory address to remind Americans that democracy cannot be taken for granted.
Klobuchar recalled the insurrection that had happened at the U.S. Capitol two weeks before.
“It awakened us to our responsibility as Americans. This is the day when our democracy picks itself up, brushes off the dust and does what America always does — goes forward as a nation under God, indivisible with liberty for all.”
Klobuchar is the ranking Democrat and incoming chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee. She was the lead Senate Democrat on the congressional planning committee for the inauguration.
“It falls on all of us, not just the two leaders we are inaugurating today to take up the torch of our democracy, not as a weapon of political arson, but as an instrument for good.”
She introduced the Supreme Court justices who delivered the oaths of office and then introduced Biden before his address.
Despite the security concerns Klobuchar said she is glad the inauguration took place at the Capito.
The symbolism is important, Klobuchar said. “We will not back down.”
Most of Minnesota’s 10-member congressional delegation planned to attend the ceremony. Rep. Betty McCollum will be watching from home in St. Paul.

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Minnesota vaccine pilot program spots for first week filled

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota health officials on Wednesday announced that all 6,000 spots in a coronavirus vaccine pilot program reserved for Minnesotans over 65 have been filled after issues with the registration website caused it to crash on Tuesday.
The 12,000 doses reserved for the program this week — half of which are reserved for teachers and child care workers — were diverted to the program from the state’s weekly allocation of 60,000 doses from the federal government. Nine sites will begin administering the limited doses to the newly eligible group on Thursday.
State officials said the significant demand for an extremely limited supply of doses for the program caused long wait times and issues with the website as seniors attempted to make appointments on Tuesday.
As of Sunday, 200,840 Minnesotans have received their first dose of vaccine and 38,521 individuals have been fully inoculated, according to the state’s dashboard. Just over 40% of the 479,525 doses shipped to Minnesota providers across the state have been administered.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm testified before committees in both the House and Senate on Wednesday to update lawmakers on the progress of the state’s vaccine distribution efforts. Malcolm said the state’s pace depends on the number of doses the state is allocated by the federal government, which she said is currently not enough to meet demand.
“We agree that speed is certainly desirable, but highly contingent on the supply,” she said. “We just know that we’re going to be still dealing with supply not being fully adequate to meet the demand … for some time.”
Malcolm said it’s too early to project how President Joe Biden’s administration will transform delivery of vaccines to states.
Malcolm told lawmakers that all 369 skilled-nursing facilities across the state have had first doses administered through the federal pharmacy partnership program and have the inventory they need to administer second doses. Assisted living facilities, which number over 2,000, are expected to have first doses administered or scheduled by early February.
The commissioner said the first two of three tiers of health care workers — which include most hospital workers, emergency medical services and urgent care facilities — have been completed. Health officials aim to have first doses scheduled for the third tier of other health care workers in the coming weeks.
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Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Minnesota vaccine site crashes as seniors register for doses

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota COVID-19 vaccine registration website crashed on Tuesday as newly eligible seniors tried to make appointments to get some of the few doses just made available to the group.
The state began taking appointments at noon for a limited supply of 12,000 doses now available to seniors, teachers and child care workers at nine sites statewide. The call center received more than 83,000 calls, and the website experienced 2,000 hits per second, at one point peaking at 10,000 hits per second as Minnesotans aged 65 and older tried to schedule an appointment.
State officials said 6,100 appointments had been booked as of 2 p.m. People reported long waits and error messages on the registration website.
State health officials said half of the 12,000 doses are reserved for seniors while half will go to teachers and child care workers. Minnesota is getting 60,000 doses from the federal government per week. State officials hope that number will go up soon after President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Wednesday.
Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said during a news conference Tuesday that issues with the registration system are less about how the system was set up and more about high demand for a small number of doses.
“Even if we’d had two weeks to plan for it, the bottom line is that when we say people 65 and older, we’re talking about 918,000 Minnesotans who want to be vaccinated for a very limited number of spots,” Ehresmann said. “I think this is the result of an incredibly pent up demand for vaccine and a very limited supply.”
Health officials reported on Tuesday that six more Minnesotans have died from complications due to COVID-19, and the state has 922 new infections, putting Minnesota at 5,945 total deaths and 448,268 cases since the start of the pandemic.
Hospitalizations continued to decline, with less than 600 patients hospitalized due to the coronavirus, including 110 in intensive care.
Meanwhile, many Minnesota schools welcomed back some of their youngest students for in-person instruction on Tuesday, after Gov. Tim Walz told school districts last month that they could reopen their elementary schools starting this week regardless of case growth in their communities.
Some school districts, including the state’s largest in Anoka-Hennepin, opened for kindergarten, first- and second-grade students and plan to bring back older elementary students next month. Others, including the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts, will begin their reopening process later this month or next month.
Schools are required to take extra precautions. Teachers must wear masks and face shields, and plexiglass barriers have been erected in classrooms. Schools will test teachers and staff for the coronavirus every two weeks.
Walz released his Safe Learning Plan in July, which allowed school districts to work with local health officials to decide between in-person, distance or hybrid learning models based on virus case numbers in their area. In November, many schools shifted back to remote learning as Minnesota experienced explosive case growth statewide.
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Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.