Daily Digest: University confronts its history

Good morning, and happy Thursday. Here’s the Digest.

1. Task force says some names should be taken off university buildings. The names of four former University of Minnesota leaders should be scrubbed from Twin Cities campus buildings, according to a U task force appointed by President Eric Kaler. A 125-page report made public Wednesday morning says the four men, who promoted racist policies at the U, were not simply a product of their times. The task force, chaired by law and history professor Susanna Blumenthal and liberal arts dean John Coleman, explained in its report: “Our recommendations to remove the names from these buildings do not deny that these individuals operated within structures and systems that imposed constraints on what they saw as possible ways of carrying out their official duties. But neither do we believe they were without choice, particularly given the power and discretion they exercised in their administrative roles. Other choices were often being made at other institutions, and significant levels of community and campus activism, protesting University policies and practices at the time, showed that other ways of thinking were powerfully present.” Kaler intends to make his own recommendations on the building names at the Board of Regents meeting in March so that his successor, Joan Gabel, doesn’t have to deal with it. The buildings and namesakes at issue are: Coffman Memorial Union, which is named for Lotus Coffman, president from 1920-1938, who illegally barred black students from the Pioneer Hall dormitory and closely monitored an increase in black and Jewish students at the U. Coffey Hall, the St. Paul administrative building named for Walter Coffey, president from 1941-45. The former agriculture dean supported the creation of the International House, a blacks-only student residence, and worked to keep Pioneer Hall a whites-only dorm. Middlebrook Hall, a dormitory on the Minneapolis campus named for William Middlebrook, comptroller from 1929-59, who established the U’s dorm system and supported segregated housing for undergraduates and nursing students. Nicholson Hall, the Minneapolis classroom building named for Edward Nicholson, dean of student affairs from 1917-41. He spied on students and faculty in service of the Republican Party, labeling numerous black and Jewish students as Communists. (Pioneer Press)

2. Walz wants $700,000 for outreach. Gov. Tim Walz’s first spending proposal includes a $700,000 increase in his office budget to hire more staff to field questions and concerns from Minnesotans. The Democratic governor’s two-year spending proposal recommends the 10 percent hike to create an Office of Public Engagement to handle constituent outreach and deliver on the “One Minnesota” promise that served as a cornerstone of his campaign. Walz said the goal of the new office is to make government more accessible and “better serve Minnesotans by helping them navigate the state system and proactively reaching out to make sure their voices are heard.” “In a word: Seriously?” said Rep. Tony Albright, the assistant Republican leader in the House. “I find it a bit surreal that the governor is proposing a budget that raises taxes and he can’t find in his own budget what other administrations have found in theirs: The ability to take care of constituent services, because that’s what it is.” The Prior Lake Republican said that the governor should “find the capacity to respond to constituents within the budget” he already has. (Star Tribune)

3. Higher fees for EV and hybrid drivers proposed. Minnesota lawmakers are considering higher annual fees on the owners of electric cars and new fees on hybrid vehicles. Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, is sponsoring a bill which was heard Wednesday by the Senate Transportation Committee that would raise annual fees for electric vehicles from $75 to $250. Hybrid owners would pay a new fee of $125. The aim of the measure is to offset lost gas tax revenue, which is used to fund highway projects. Howe said electric vehicle owners need to pay their fair share of the gas tax. “Hybrids and these electric vehicles are actually doing more damage to our roads than standard vehicles,” Howe said. Sandy Neren, a lobbyist representing the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the trade group would not oppose a “reasonable increase” in the existing fee for electric vehicles. But Neren said the proposal would make Minnesota’s fee the highest in the nation. “We would look forward to working with Sen. Howe to possibly reduce the proposed fee that he has in here, so it is more in line with what other states have,” Neren said. Brendan Jordan, vice president of the Great Plains Institute and a leader of the Drive Electric Minnesota initiative, noted that electric vehicle owners already pay more in sales taxes and registration fees. “The last thing EV owners want to get pegged with is being free riders or freeloaders, and they do believe they are paying their fair share today,” Jordan said. (MPR News)

4. Walz will need votes from rural Republicans to pass his budget. Gov. Tim Walz’s first budget contains lots of things that leaders from outside the Twin Cities area have been seeking — more money for schools, local governments, highways and rural broadband to name just a few. But the new Democratic governor’s chances of delivering on them will depend on whether he can find enough support among GOP senators, who come mostly from outside the Twin Cities metro area and generally oppose the tax proposals that would fund his spending initiatives, such as a 20-cent gas tax hike. Senate Republicans expanded their narrow majority with a special election win this month, gaining a little extra cushion for standing firm. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Wednesday that he doesn’t think he’ll have trouble keeping his caucus united against tax increases, even though Walz’s budget includes many proposals that could help their districts. Even if the final forecast on the budget surplus comes in next week lower than the $1.5 billion projected in November, he said that’ll be enough for a “good budget that meets the needs of all of Minnesota” without raising taxes. “We’re going to fight to say, ‘Let’s live within the resources we have,’” he said. (AP)

5.  Lawmaker seeks to up penalties for false hate crime reports.  A Minnesota legislator said Wednesday that he would introduce a proposal to toughen the penalty for falsely reporting hate crimes, citing a high-profile attack on a gay black actor in Chicago that was recently called into question. Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, described the measure, expected later this session, as “a reasonable step to help deter individuals from filing false police reports and to make sure that we devote law enforcement’s limited resources to investigating and prosecuting legitimate bias-motivated crimes.” Zerwas said he was motivated to bring the issue forward after recent reports that police believed “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett may have staged a January attack by two masked men shouting racial and anti-gay slurs. Smollett has denied that claim through his lawyers. In recent days, Zerwas has written about the case in multiple posts on Twitter, describing it as part of a “recent rise in fake victimization” and a symptom of media bias. (Star Tribune)

The Digest will take Friday off to dig out from the last snowstorm and stockpile provisions for the next one. 

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