Walz signs bill to expand disaster aid for barn collapses

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has signed a bill expanding a zero-interest disaster loan program to help farmers dealing with buildings damaged by heavy snow.
Walz signed the bill Monday. The measure cleared both the state House and Senate without opposition last week.
Walz says the bill is “critical” for farmers hit by extreme snow and blizzard conditions. The governor has said Minnesota’s economy is under threat from the number of dairy barn collapses this winter.
The bill broadens eligibility for the Disaster Loan Recovery Program run by the state’s Rural Finance Authority. It adds uninsured losses from the weight of snow, sleet or ice to the list of damages covered by the program. It would be retroactive to Jan. 1.

Human Services official on leave after child care report

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The inspector general of the Minnesota Department of Human Services is on leave after a legislative auditor’s report on fraud within the state’s Child Care Assistance Program.
The department Monday said Carolyn Ham is on leave, but the reasons are not public under the Data Practices Act. The department says Ham continues to hold the title of inspector general.
The report last week found a “serious rift” between Ham and the department’s child care fraud investigators.
Ham told Minnesota Public Radio News she is being treated as a scapegoat for problems in the department.
The report by Legislative Auditor James Nobles found fraud is a problem with the program but no proof that money from it found its way to terrorist organizations overseas.
Republican lawmakers have called for Ham’s resignation.

Prosecutor, Philando Castile’s mom develop crisis tool kit

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The mother of Philando Castile and the prosecutor who charged the officer who killed him have teamed up with others to develop a tool kit for law enforcement to use in times of crisis, including police shootings.
Valerie Castile and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi spoke about the tool kit during a recent online video conference with about 70 law enforcement agencies and other groups from around the country.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported the kit gives prosecutors and police ways to assess how prepared they are for police shootings, and see how they can be handled better. Among other things, the kit says a prosecutor should be immediately assigned to a police shooting and family members should be contacted within 24 hours.
“I hope you guys take time out to read it and absorb the information and just think about it and say, ‘You know what? This is doable work,'” Castile said, adding: “It’s not complicated at all because some of the information in the tool kit you are already doing and if you’re not, ask yourself, ‘Why am I not doing what should be done?'”
The tool kit also promotes connection to communities and advises agencies to collect data on racial disparities in their criminal justice system. It also says a prosecutor’s office should try to complete its investigation into whether charges are warranted within four to six months, and release its decision and full report to the public no more than two weeks later.
If charges aren’t filed, prosecutors should explain why to affected family members.
Philando Castile, a 32-year-old elementary school cafeteria worker, was shot during a traffic stop on July 6, 2016, after he told then-St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez that he had a gun. Authorities later discovered Castile had a permit for the firearm. Choi’s office charged Yanez with manslaughter, but he was acquitted.
The case got widespread attention after Castile’s girlfriend, who was in the car with her young daughter, began livestreaming the shooting’s aftermath on Facebook.
After the shooting, the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College and prosecutors, police chiefs and family members of shooting victims participated in a yearlong discussion on police shootings. Valerie Castile and Choi were among the participants, along with Philando Castile’s uncle, Clarence Castile.
During the video conference, Choi said being involved in the group helped him better understand the perspective of families who are waiting to see how the criminal justice system will handle a loved one’s death.
Choi said he knows it won’t make sense for every jurisdiction to adopt all the recommendations. But he’s hoping the tool kit will encourage police and prosecutors to examine what they’re doing and engage more with their communities.
“How arrogant if we thought we knew all the answers and we didn’t need to listen to our community,” Choi said. “I would say to government officials across the country, when we are thinking about our work, we have to recognize it’s not ours, it’s the people’s. … Nothing will really change unless we do it together.”
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

Minnesota House aims to hit drug companies for opioid crisis

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota House voted Monday night to hold drug manufacturers responsible for the state’s growing costs for dealing with the opioid crisis.
The bill passed 94-34 after around four hours of debate that split mostly along party lines. It would support a wide range of prevention, education, intervention, treatment and recovery strategies. The state would pay for them by sharply raising its currently low annual registration fees for pharmaceutical manufacturers and drug wholesalers that sell or distribute opioids in Minnesota.
The fees would bring in $20 million a year that would go into a new “Opioid Stewardship Fund.” A new advisory council would then make recommendations to state officials on how to spend it. Any settlements that the state reaches from opioid lawsuits against drug companies would also be deposited into the fund.
An opioid bill with some differences is working its way through the GOP-controlled Senate and has another hearing scheduled for Tuesday. The two versions are expected to go to a conference committee for resolution.
According to the sponsors, opioid-involved overdoses led to more than 2,000 visits to Minnesota emergency rooms in 2017, while opioid-related overdose deaths in Minnesota have increased steadily since 2010, to 395 in 2016.
The lead author, Rep. Liz Olson, told her colleagues that taxpayers have been among the hardest hit by the opioid crisis. “This cost of responding to this crisis is huge, and it’s hard to even calculate,” the Duluth Democrat said. As just one example, she said, county social service agencies are “drowning” in costs for placing children from affected families into other homes.
But Olson said one sector has benefited from opioids while failing to step forward to combat the epidemic — the pharmaceutical industry.
“With profits in the hundreds of millions, these groups have still not come to the table,” she said.
Rep. Dave Baker, of Willmar, whose son, Dan Baker, became addicted to opioid painkillers and died of a heroin overdose in 2011, was among the Republicans supporting the bill. He said it would put Minnesota on the “cutting edge” of fighting the opioid crisis.
Baker was a chief author of a bill with a different funding mechanism, dubbed “penny a pill,” which passed the Senate last year but failed to get a House floor vote amid industry opposition. Since then, Democrats have taken control of the House.
Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, who was speaker last session, led the opposition, saying imposing higher costs on the industry runs counter to the goal of reducing health care costs for consumers.
“This will literally increase the cost of health care for every Minnesotan,” he said.

St. Paul police identify victim of fatal Frogtown shooting

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Police in St. Paul have identified a man who was fatally shot in the city’s Frogtown neighborhood.
Police identify the victim as 21-year-old Mark Franklin Jr.
Franklin died of a gunshot wound at Regions Hospital on Friday. Police responded to a 911 call early Friday about shots fired inside a home.
Police say people in the house reported being there when Franklin was shot and that someone drove him to the hospital.
A 19-year-old St. Paul man turned himself in to police headquarters late Friday.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports the investigation continues, but police are not seeking any other suspects.

Minnesota graduate students develop human rights tool for UN

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Graduate students at the University of Minnesota have created a tool to prioritize efforts to address human rights violations that they’re hoping the United Nations will use.
Master’s students in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs developed the Minnesota Method for Human Rights Change, a tool for human rights advisers to use when deciding which issues to consider first.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the U.N. is charged with promoting and protecting the human rights that are guaranteed under international law and stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The Minnesota Method is designed to help advisers to that office identify one to three human rights issues to work on after conducting a series of assessments, the Minnesota Daily reported.
“You can’t do everything, because if you try to do everything, you end up getting nothing done,” said Todd Howland, a representative from the U.N. agency. “You need to prioritize, but you need to do it in a way that doesn’t undermine your credibility.”
The two-part method involves preliminary research and gathering local experts to help advisers determine which human rights need to be addressed.
Advisers and the U.N. can compromise their credibility if they’re working to address human rights issues that are easier to change, but that the country doesn’t view as important, said Howland, who led the students in developing the tool.
Involving local experts offers human rights advisers a clearer picture of the existing and positive movement for human rights change, “who is involved, how to better identify barriers to change, how to set goals to affect change, and how to select tactics to achieve those goals,” said Shelby Ankrom, a student on the project.
Student Gonxhe Kandri added that human rights change is a complex and difficult process to facilitate.
“It takes years and many moving parts the seekers of change must contend with,” Kandri said. “The Minnesota Method offers strategic pathways to facilitate human rights change.”
Information from: The Minnesota Daily, http://www.mndaily.com/

Some Minnesota counties invest in long-term recycling model

FOSSTON, Minn. (AP) — Several counties in northwestern Minnesota are betting that recycling more and burning any remaining trash will be cheaper in the long run than burying everything that’s thrown away.
Polk County is handling refuse for five other counties at its Materials Recovery Facility, which recently got an $8 million equipment upgrade to sort and pull cans and plastic containers out of garbage faster, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
The equipment uses an optical scanner that can determine types of plastic within a millisecond, as well as conveyor belts with magnetic fields to attract metal and push aluminum away.
The county sells the sorted, recycled materials and incinerates what’s left, using the leftover ash in road construction or dumping it in a landfill.
“Between what gets reused and what goes to market to be recycled, you’re looking at about 20 to 25 percent of the material that comes in the door gets used again or recycled,” said Jon Steiner, who manages the operation as Polk County’s environmental services administrator.
The county has been burning trash for decades, but the new sorting equipment increases the amount of material that’s removed from garbage. With more recycling, it’ll be easier to manage air pollution from the incinerator, Steiner said.
Incinerator ash is also much less reactive than buried garbage, and it’s unlikely to contaminate groundwater in the future, said Sigurd Scheurle, solid waste planner for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Beltrami, Clearwater and Hubbard counties have trusted Polk County with their recycling and garbage because officials believe the process will save money in the long term. The counties pay fees for each load of garbage.
Unfortunately, it’s cheaper and simpler to just dump all trash in a landfill, Scheurle said.
“The problem is that as the years go by we don’t stop paying for landfills,” Scheurle said. “They have to have perpetual care, and unfortunately many of them leak, and so they put our groundwater at risk.”
Scheurle believes the Polk County facility can serve as a model for other Minnesota counties to work together to recycle and turn garbage into energy.
Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mprnews.org

Police: Body in Minnesota appears to be missing 2-year-old

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A child’s body found wrapped in a blanket along a Minnesota highway is believed to be that of a missing 2-year-old girl whose mom police have said was fatally shot by her former pimp, authorities announced Saturday.
The discovery of the child’s body came hours after officials had put out a plea asking “the entire nation” to help find Noelani Robinson, whose father, Dariaz Higgins, is charged with killing her mom in Milwaukee on Monday. Police had said the child could be anywhere because her parents had traveled through numerous states.
An off-duty public works employee found the body that’s believed to be Noelani’s while driving home Friday night, Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales told reporters. The body was inside a blanket off the shoulder of Minnesota Highway 218 north of Austin, about 300 miles (483 kilometers) west of Milwaukee, Morales said.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said in a statement Saturday night that Higgins had stayed at a hotel in Austin at some point in the past week.
How and when the child died is not yet known. An autopsy has not been conducted yet, but authorities believe the death did not occur in the last 24 hours and that the girl “had been there for quite some time,” Morales said.
He would not comment on the condition of the body, but the BCA said the child died from blunt force trauma to the head.
Asked whether authorities believe Higgins was responsible for the child’s death, Morales told reporters, “That’s where the criminal investigation is shooting for. It’s just too early to tell.”
Authorities have not disclosed a motive in the death of the girl’s mom, 24-year-old Sierra Robinson. Police said Higgins was Robinson’s pimp and they had been romantically involved but were no longer together. Robinson had left Noelani with Higgins when she moved to Las Vegas last month but wanted her back, authorities said.
Higgins, 34, is accused of fatally shooting Robinson and wounding one of her friends. Police arrested him Wednesday and prosecutors have charged him with first-degree intentional homicide. Online court records do not list an attorney who could comment on his behalf.
The friend told police that Higgins had been living in Miami when he agreed to meet Robinson in Milwaukee to return Noelani to her. However, charging documents list a Milwaukee address for Higgins.
According to those documents, Higgins, Robinson, and her friend spent time driving around together in Milwaukee doing drugs Monday, before Higgins took them to an apartment building where he told them Noelani was. Authorities have not said whether they believe Noelani was there at the time. Prosecutors said Higgins shot Robinson and her friend when they got out of the car.
An Amber Alert had been issued for Noelani but was canceled Saturday.
Morales had suggested Friday that Noelani could be in the hands of human traffickers, but declined to provide details for why investigators believed that, other than to say, “That’s the world that these two individuals lived in, the victim and the suspect.”
The chief said Saturday that his department has sent two detectives to Minnesota.
“This is our job, and the closure is not the closure we like to find. But … it’s something that we have to come out and do,” Morales said.

No major injuries in Le Sueur County train derailment

LE SUEUR, Minn. (AP) — No major injuries were reported after a Union Pacific Railroad train derailed in Le Sueur County, but two crew members were taken to the hospital as a precaution.
KEYC-TV reports the train derailed Friday morning about 2 miles south of Le Sueur. Authorities say one locomotive and 12 rail cars left the tracks. The cause of the derailment is being investigated.
The sheriff’s office says some diesel fuel spilled from the locomotive on to the ground, sparking a fire.
Information from: KEYC-TV, http://www.keyc.tv

Minnesota dairy farmers see unusual number of barn collapses

PINE ISLAND, Minn. (AP) — Dairy farmers across Minnesota are struggling to find shelter for hundreds of livestock after at least 45 barns collapsed under the weight of this winter’s heavy snow.
Some farmers lost animals in the dairy barn collapses, while others are scrambling to keep their livestock healthy, the Minnesota Public Radio reported.
Laura Alberts, a sixth-generation dairy farmer near Pine Island, watched the family barn’s roof cave in a few days ago after the snow was made heavier by recent rains. The barn is completely destroyed and Alberts is waiting to figure out how much insurance money they will receive to rebuild.
She said her family is lucky because not one calf was lost during the collapse, and 125 animals are being moved to two different sites.
Several of Alberts’ neighbors lost livestock to buckling barn structures. Jason Reber said he lost six milk cows when a barn he was renting collapsed recently, and he expects to have to put eight more down because of injuries.
Reber said the losses could cost him about $14,000, and he’s still looking for places to house his surviving cattle.
The Minnesota Milk Producers Association said usually only one or two barns collapse in a typical winter. But Minnesota has suffered particularly heavy snowfall this time around, and in February alone, Minneapolis-St. Paul experienced a record-setting 39 inches (99 centimeters) of snow.
Lucas Sjostrom, the association’s executive director, attributes the high volume of barn collapses this season in part to the excessive weight and volume of the snow, aging structures and building designs that are open to promote ventilation.
Gov. Tim Walz warned March 9 that the state’s economy is under threat from the proliferation of dairy barn collapses this winter. Minnesota lawmakers unanimously passed legislation Thursday to help farmers repair buildings damaged by the heavy snow. The bill expands a disaster recovery loan program to include damage related to winter weather.
The Minnesota Milk Producers Association is also asking lawmakers to approve at least $30 million in assistance for farmers facing a tough time. The group plans to consult with farm experts and insurance companies about how to prevent future barn collapses.
Minnesota Department of Agriculture officials have also recorded at least 20 hog barn and 20 poultry barn collapses.
Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mprnews.org