Daily Digest: Distracted driving, DHS and fraud, paid leave

Good morning. Time to get your Tuesday started with your Daily Digest.

1. House passes hands-free cell phone bill. The Minnesota House voted 106-21 Monday night for a bill that bans people from using hand held phones while driving. The law already bans motorists from emailing, texting and web browsing while driving. Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL- Minneapolis, the chair of the House transportation committee, is among those who want hand-held cell phones added to the list. “We know this bill saves lives. In the 16 other states and District of Columbia where this bill has been enacted there’s been an average of a 16 percent drop in fatalities,” Hornstein said. Under Hornstein’s bill, there would be exceptions for calls made in hands-free mode, for emergency situations and for the activation of one-touch functions on devices. Hornstein said the bill is a big step for improving safety. But he concedes that a hands-free requirement will not eliminate all forms of distracted driving. “The bottom line is: hang up and drive, don’t use your phone, two hands on the wheel, concentrate.” Similar bills have advanced in previous legislative sessions, but this was the first time that one reached the House floor. (MPR News)

2. Top DHS official on leave after legislative auditor’s report. The inspector general of the Minnesota Department of Human Services is off the job Monday on investigative leave following a Minnesota legislative auditor’s report last week. The report found a “serious rift” between Inspector General Carolyn Ham and investigators looking at fraud in the state Child Care Assistance Program. In an interview with MPR News, Ham took issue with the report, saying she is being treated as a scapegoat for problems in the department. The Office of the Legislative Auditor confirmed there is fraud in the $250 million child care program, but was unable to precisely pin down how much, concluding only that it was more than the $6 million the state has been able to recover from criminal prosecutions. The audit did not validate claims that the fraud approached $100 million or that some money was flowing to overseas terrorist groups. Reached by phone, Ham said agency higher-ups told her recently she was being placed on leave with pay in response to the audit. When asked her reaction, Ham said, “I told them I disagree.” (MPR News)

3. The split over paid leave. As Charles Johnson preps ingredients and fills orders at the Butter Bakery Cafe in Minneapolis, he’s got a lot on his mind. The 23-year-old cook is about to become a dad. “Any day now,” Johnson said during an afternoon shift last week. “I’m just anxious, excited and nervous.” One thing he won’t have to worry about is a paycheck as he gets to know his son. Johnson’s boss is giving him three weeks off — with pay — despite the fact the restaurant has no formal paid family leave policy and the owner said he’s proceeding on a case-by-case basis. Johnson said he couldn’t imagine being gone if it meant foregoing pay. His situation and others like it are the impetus behind a proposal in front of the Legislature to guarantee several weeks of paid leave for any worker upon the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a seriously ill family member. Backers say the stability it offers shouldn’t depend on where a person works. Major business groups oppose the plan, saying this type of benefit is spreading on its own as companies compete for talent in a tight labor market. (MPR News)

4. Behind closed-doors, tension among Democrats.  It was supposed to be a chance for Muslim and Jewish House Democrats to ease tensions and find common ground. It ended with one lawmaker in tears.  At a late-night meeting blocks from the Capitol, about a dozen lawmakers shared their raw experiences with bigotry and discrimination, hoping the stories would bridge the glaring interfaith divide. Suddenly, Rep. Dean Phillips, a Jewish Democrat, shattered a moment meant to be about listening and learning — not politics.  Phillips felt he had to address what had been unspoken for nearly two hours — the recent divisive remarks of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Muslim who suggested American supporters of Israel have an “allegiance to a foreign country.” Those kinds of remarks, Phillips said, represented “tips of the arrow” — small but devastating offenses that made Jews fearful of a rising tide of anti-Semitism. His words stunned the three Muslim Democrats in the room, as well as some other Jewish members and third-party participants. (Washington Post)

5. A sharp split emerges over re-naming U of M buildings. A standoff over a University of Minnesota push to rename campus buildings is escalating into a war of words pitting regents against top administrators, as well as student and faculty leaders. In a letter to the campus community, the U’s president and provost included a rare public rebuke of regents who sharply criticized a campus task force report, which called for stripping the names of former administrators from Coffman Memorial Union and three other buildings. Faculty leaders, a deans’ group and the U student government have echoed that critique, suggesting some regents were disrespectful to academics on the task force. Unchastened, regents have pushed back, with one, Michael Hsu, calling for an investigation into whether the task force members intentionally left out exculpatory evidence in making a case that the late administrators backed campus housing segregation and other racist practices in the 1930s and ’40s. (Star Tribune)


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