Daily Digest: Klobuchar hits the trail

Good morning, and happy Presidents Day. Here’s the Digest.

1. Amy Klobuchar spent the weekend campaigning for president. One big challenge for Amy Klobuchar is setting herself apart from the rest of the crowded field of Democrats seeking the party’s 2020 nomination. And that’s what she tried to do on her first road trip since announcing her campaign last week. She presented herself as someone who wins elections not only with support from Democrats, but also with votes from Republicans and independents. At a jam-packed restaurant in Mason City, Iowa Saturday afternoon, Klobuchar said she’s the Democrat best positioned to win next year. “I know that I can beat Donald Trump because I have won in rural counties in our state. I have won every single congressional district including Michele Bachmann’s three times in a row.” Klobuchar played up her Midwestern roots in an key area where Trump won in 2016. Much of what of she had to say on her stops in Wisconsin and Iowa came directly from her speech announcing her campaign. She called for stronger gun control measures and environmental safeguards, digital privacy, universal health care and nationwide broadband internet by 2022. (MPR News)

2. Walz to release first budget tomorrow. Money for schools and housing. New money to offset costs for local governments. Tax credits for startup investors. Gov. Tim Walz has been unveiling pieces of his budget proposal and reiterating top priorities — education, health care and “community prosperity” — as he prepares to debut his vision for the next two years of state spending. Tuesday’s budget proposal rollout will also detail where the cash would come from. That’s where things get complicated, and where Walz faces a new test. Minnesota has an economic cool-down on the horizon, state economists predict. The last two monthly revenue snapshots came in well below estimates, signaling Minnesota’s $1.5 billion budget surplus could easily shrink. “I’m not under any illusion here. I’m sure I will disappoint my friends, in some cases, I will disappoint those who don’t agree with me,” Walz said. “The hard part of that budget was the stack that was dozens of pages long that were the nos.” (Star Tribune)

3. State pays $45,000 to former official who oversaw MNLARS project. A state official involved with the bungled rollout of Minnesota’s vehicle licensing and registration system was paid $45,000 to leave his job without suing, according to an agreement made public Friday. Paul Meekin was fired last year after the system, known as MNLARS, debuted in 2017 with extensive flaws related to vehicle title and registration transactions. Meekin had been the chief technology officer at Minnesota Information Technology Services, called MNIT. He was in charge of the nearly $100 million project at the time of the launch. An investigation commissioned by the state IT services determined that Meekin failed to provide proper oversight of the MNLARS project. Meekin has said it was unfair to make him the fall guy for a project that had a host of problems over the decade the new MNLARS was developed. Meekin had left open the possibility he would sue. But in June, he settled with the state to avoid any litigation.The settlement comes without admission of wrongdoing on either side. Meekin was allowed to replace the letter of termination in his personnel with an “irrevocable” letter of resignation. (MPR News)

4. Some tobacco companies stopped paying money owed to Minnesota. Several cigarette brands, including Salem and Winston, have stopped paying money owed to the state of Minnesota under the historic 1998 court settlement with Big Tobacco. The shortfalls, estimated at $15 million a year, come as funding for the state’s free quit-smoking assistance program is set to expire next year. Without new funds, Minnesota would be the only state that does not provide a free tobacco cessation program — even as teen tobacco use is rising and a historic drop in adult tobacco use appears to be slowing down. The state has sued the tobacco firms to recapture the funds, and bills were introduced in the Legislature last week to dedicate any resulting money to anti-tobacco efforts. Those efforts include the free Quitplan program, now operated by ClearWay Minnesota, a nonprofit established using some money from the original $6.5 billion tobacco lawsuit settlement. Still, Minnesota pulled in $154 million in 2018 in tobacco settlement payments from brands that have been paying, as well as $648 million in taxes on tobacco products. That revenue goes into the state’s general fund, with little spent on tobacco control. (Star Tribune)

5. County attorney hires son over other qualified applicants. At least 10 current or former prosecutors applied for a recent opening in the criminal division of the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office in Duluth, according to records obtained by the News Tribune. One had 26 years of experience, including a term as an elected county attorney in southern Minnesota. Another offered a background with 18 years of criminal law practice in two states. Two attorneys who submitted applications spent five or more years prosecuting crimes in neighboring Carlton and Lake counties. At least two others brought current or past experience as a public defender. The pool of 26 candidates included “many qualified applicants,” St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin acknowledged. But he chose to consider only one finalist for the position. His son, Tony Rubin, accepted the job. The younger Rubin spent four years in private practice but had no prior experience in criminal law. While the move did not apparently violate any county policy or state law, some experts said the hiring of a family member poses serious ethical concerns. Rubin declined to be interview for this story, referring the News Tribune to his past comments on the decision. He defended the hire in previous interviews and in internal communications with his staff. (Duluth News Tribune)

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