Daily Digest: Ides of March edition

Good morning, and welcome to the first Friday since we sprang forward. Let’s take a look at the Digest.

1. Dairy farmers face a disaster as heavy snow leads barn roofs to collapse. The Minnesota Legislature  passed legislation unanimously Thursday to help farmers repair buildings damaged by heavy snow. The bill expands a disaster recovery loan program to cover damage related to winter weather. The Milk Producers Association has asked state lawmakers to approve at least $30 million in assistance for farmers to offset costs during a tough time. The group also plans to consult with farm experts and insurance companies in the next few months to think about how they can prevent future barn collapses. “Just having something this big and this stress-inducing has been pretty hard on people,” said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association. His organization tracks barn collapses and counts at least 45 across the state. Historically, there are only one or two in a typical winter. Sjostrom said several factors are contributing to the problem, from the excess volume and weight of the snow this year, to the advanced age of many barns, to building designs that are open and airy to promote ventilation. Most of the collapses have involved milking barns. Sjostrom said those farmers face an immediate challenge because their surviving cows need to be milked at least twice a day or the animal’s health will decline quickly. “It may mean the end of their life if something doesn’t happen fast,” he said. (MPR News)

2. University says sports ticket ‘scholarship’ fees shouldn’t be taxed. Season tickets to marquee University of Minnesota sporting events come with the expectation of a donation to a school-run scholarship program. Now, the state is planning to take a cut, too — unless the university and its boosters can convince lawmakers to step in. The move is prompted by a decision by the Minnesota Department of Revenue to count memberships, licenses and other required donations associated with athletic events as part of the admission price. The charges can run into the hundreds or thousands per seat per year, depending on the sport and the location of seats in the venue. Under a notice issued in December, all those add-on costs — even if collected separately — would be taxable.  The university says it diverts the ticket-related assessments to an athletic scholarship program. In 2017, the university advised its season ticket holders that they can no longer deduct those donations from their income taxes under the federal tax overhaul. The more recent Minnesota sales tax notice applies similarly to add-ons at theaters and performance halls. But because of a special exemption, the license fees people pay for the right to buy Minnesota Vikings season tickets aren’t hit with the tax. Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, said that’s not fair. “We’re allowing the exemption to happen for professional teams and we’re looking at it — that’s a good idea to be taxing student scholarship dollars? That’s where I have a problem,” Anderson said. (MPR News)

3.  Hennepin County won’t prosecute some marijuana offenses.  Someone caught with a small amount of marijuana in Hennepin County will no longer be prosecuted, County Attorney Mike Freeman said Thursday. Freeman said he forged the new policy in response to a flaw in Minnesota’s marijuana law. Currently, if a person possesses up to 42.5 grams — an amount about the size of a sandwich bag — the crime is punishable only by a fine of up to $300, a petty misdemeanor. But at 45 grams, a person can be charged with a felony. Because he believes such a penalty is grossly inappropriate and produces racial disparities, Freeman said, his office won’t charge anyone who possesses or sells under 100 grams of marijuana. Instead, the defendant will be considered for a diversion program, community service or a sentence that will be dismissed after certain conditions are met. Hennepin now is the first county in Minnesota to have a low-level marijuana drug policy, which Freeman started to develop more than a year ago. Ramsey County recently implemented a no-charge policy that only deals with amounts under 42.5 grams. (Star Tribune)

4. Could marijuana help people stop using opioids? Many Minnesotans in pain are using medical marijuana to leave behind highly addictive opioids, which can have grave consequences. It is not just happening here — states like New York and Pennsylvania have recognized marijuana as an alternative to opioids. But some doctors are skeptical of the science behind the switch; opioids have been tested and approved by regulators, while medical marijuana in most cases has not. Plus, there is little research to back up its supposed health benefits. In Minnesota, medical marijuana is available only in the form of processed pills, liquids and vaporizable oils. These drugs are costly and not covered by insurance. Prescription opioids, on the other hand, are affordable and easy to get. But they can be deadly if abused. There were nearly 400 opioid overdose deaths in Minnesota in 2016, and about half of those came from prescription abuse. There are more than 15,000 patients in Minnesota’s medical cannabis program. Almost two-thirds of them use the drug to treat intractable pain. A Department of Health survey of some intractable pain patients found that 64 percent of those who were on opioids when they entered the program were able to reduce their intake or wean off them after six months. “A large proportion of patients report that they find a relatively high degree of benefit,” said Dr. Tom Arneson, research manager for the Office of Medical Cannabis. “But we still don’t know very well what exactly we’re doing. … There needs to be a heck of a lot more research.” (Pioneer Press)

5. Senate committee approves bill restricting abortion. A Minnesota Senate panel on Thursday voted to outlaw abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, paving the way for the proposal to advance in the Legislature. The bill would ban abortions on women who are past 20 weeks in their pregnancy except in cases of possible death or serious physical harm. Risk of substantial and irreversible psychological or emotional conditions would not be included. Those who perform the procedure or attempt to perform it would be guilty of a felony under the proposal. And the woman who had an abortion, as well as the father of the unborn child, would be able to bring a civil lawsuit against the provider. Supporters said the bill was needed to prevent a fetus from feeling pain during an abortion procedure and hoped to take up a debate about abortion in Minnesota after other states approved bills allowing abortions to take place later in pregnancy. “These unborn children can feel pain, they are in many circumstances treated as a separate patient from the mother and as a society,” bill author Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said. “We need to start deciding when we want to protect human life.” The bill is not likely to move in the House. (Forum News Service)

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