Standardized state websites saving state money, Burgum says

BISMARCK (FNS) — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced Wednesday, Nov. 6, that the state has saved more than $1 million by creating a standard platform for state websites. The platform gives agencies a roadmap to refresh their websites, according to a news release.

The task of standardizing back-end technology and user interfaces began in 2017 as part of a larger strategy to improve the state’s online presence.

The state also plans to deploy a statewide photo and video digital asset management system to facilitate media posting for employees.

“North Dakota citizens deserve a consistent, user-friendly experience when interacting online with state government, and these improvements deliver on those expectations while also saving taxpayer dollars,” Burgum said.

Lawmakers press Gallion on commerce audit

BISMARCK (FNS) — A state lawmaker and a department head questioned North Dakota state Auditor Josh Gallion’s methods during an audit of the state Department of Commerce on Wednesday, Nov. 6, at a meeting of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee. Gallion said they are getting ahead of themselves.

Rep. Mike Nathe (R-Bismarck) and Commerce Director Michelle Kommer said the audit put department employees in a challenging, unfair position by prompting a formal investigation.

Gallion began by presenting the audit, which asserts the department charged more than $850,000 to the wrong two-year budget cycle and improperly classified workers on the state’s re-branding effort and new “Be Legendary” logo as independent contractors instead of temporary employees.

As required by state law, the possible violations became the subject of an investigation by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, however Stenehjem asked a third-party investigator from the South Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation to take on the task. No charges against employees of the department have been filed.

Kommer said the audit’s findings and ensuing investigation have put undue stress on her and other employees of the department. She said the department made “an honest mistake” in charging funds to the wrong biennium but that it should not rise to the level of criminality. She became emotional, saying that it was difficult to work under the cloud of an investigation.

Kommer said she has hired a personal lawyer in case charges are filed, but other department employees would have to hire lawyers to defend themselves.

The most contentious back-and-forth came when Nathe said Gallion acted outside of his role and made the determination that the possible violation was a criminal act. Gallion said his office does not levy criminal accusations and it was his legal obligation to refer any possible violations to the attorney general.

At issue are payments made as grant reimbursements to Grand Forks County for construction work done by Grand Sky, an unmanned aerial systems park. More than $850,000 in payments, which were approved by the Legislature in 2017, were supposed to be made before the end of June in 2019, but poor weather caused a delay in construction. The payments were made after the end of the budget cycle, but the department still counted them toward the previous cycle.

Kommer, who had not yet joined the department, said the error may have o

Minnesota businesses take $632M hit from ongoing trade wars

ST. PAUL (FNS) — Minnesota farmers and manufacturers on the front lines of ongoing U.S. trade wars on Wednesday, Nov. 6, put a number to the financial damage to their businesses inflicted by U.S. tariffs on imports and split on the best path to eliminating them.

Executives from two Minnesota manufacturing companies as well as two farmers said tariffs on Chinese imports and retaliatory tariffs placed on exported Minnesota goods had hit their bottom lines. And they called for an end to the taxes on imports and retaliatory tariffs on exports as part of ongoing trade deals.

Since the trade wars began more than a year and a half ago, Minnesota businesses have paid an additional $632 million due to the import tariffs, according to a tariff tracker from the Tariffs Hurt the Heartland campaign. And of that, $60 million came in August alone.

The campaign and the Trade Partnership derive that figure from import and export data published by the U.S. Census Bureau as well as export data from the U.S Department of Agriculture. The figures run through September and are the most recent available.

Minnesota manufacturers and farmers that export their goods also faced another hurdle as other countries placed $343 million in retaliatory tariffs on American goods. Taken together, the tax burdens have hit hard, Dan Digre, CEO of MISCO Speaker Company, said.

“This is real money that adds up for a small business,” Digre said. “It doesn’t make sense for us to pay a 25% tariff on a product we can’t even get in the US.”

While competitors in the speaker industry opted to move their manufacturing offshore to save money, Digre’s 70-year old family business stayed in Minnesota. And in the last 18 months, that’s meant the company has to pay the 25% tariff on a part it imports from China, one that isn’t currently made in the United States.

The panel of Minnesotans hit by the trade war gathered in the MISCO warehouse to urge the Trump administration to negotiate trade deals that could end the tariffs.

White House trade officials have been in closed-door negotiations with the Chinese for months and Congress has lagged in ratifying a new trade agreement set to replace NAFTA. Democrats, along with some farm and labor groups, have raised concerns about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement in its treatment of workers’ rights, prescription drugs and environmental provisions.

As the efforts to advance those deals continue, farmers need to keep making the case for themselves and highlighting the pain the tariffs are causing, Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said.

“Nobody’s in the ‘give up’ phase but we’re running out of time,” Paap said. “We have got to have something we can move forward with.”

Paap, Digre and others said they’d reached out to elected officials daily to strike a deal and drop the tariffs, or at least to consider pulling certain products from the categories hit by the additional taxes.

But another farmer at the discussion said the only way to resolve the trade issues was to vote a new administration into office.

“I think there’s two simple words what we can do,” Mark Brown, a St. James farmer and treasurer for Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, said, noting he was a Republican. “I think dump Trump is what we need to do. It’s driven from the top on down, tariffs, and it’s not good for our country. It’s terrible.”

But Digre warned that voting out the president wouldn’t prevent another administration or official from pursuing tariffs in the future.

“It doesn’t matter necessarily what happens next November if whoever is in the White House or whoever is in the USTR believes that tariffs are the right way to negotiate a trade deal,” Digre said. “That’s why I think we need to keep talking about it and letting everybody know what a serious problem this is.”

Lawmakers, trade groups talk recreational pot at Minneapolis panel

ST. PAUL (FNS) — Minnesota could generate billions in new tax revenue over the next five years by legalizing recreational marijuana, according to one Denver-based pot consultancy and research firm.

By the Marijuana Policy Group’s estimate, legalization would also create approximately new 27,000 jobs. That might not be reason enough to legalize cannabis outright, lawmakers and lobbyists said Thursday, Nov 6., but it’s at least worth talking about.

“Cannabis by itself is not going to fix the financial woes of any state,” said Sal Barnes at Thursday’s cannabis symposium in downtown Minneapolis.

But in states like Colorado that have legalized the drug for recreational use, he said, it can at the least provide a new source of funding for municipal governments and local schools. Barnes, the firm’s strategy director, said the catch is in regulating pot to a point where businesses still have a fair shot to break into the market for it but not so loosely as to inadvertently create an illegal market for it.

He cited Texas as an example, where he said licensing fees for medical cannabis-related businesses were high enough to prevent many who wanted to start them from doing so. Texas only allows marijuana to be used for certain medical conditions, and only in the form of oil with low levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical compound found in pot.

On the other hand, he said that the abundance of legally cultivated marijuana in Oregon — where recreational use is legal — has led to it appearing in the black market.

Lawmakers present at Thursday’s summit were noncommittal about the prospect of legalizing recreational marijuana in Minnesota, whose medical marijuana program is said to be the most restrictive in the country. State Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, said that while he doesn’t believe the state is ready for legalization, he would support the creation of a task force dedicated to the study of legalization.

Sens. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, and Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, agreed that the Legislature needs to discuss legalization more seriously. Franzen said Wednesday that a failed bill on recreational marijuana that she authored in March was “meant to be killed,” and was intended to foster such a conversation before it was blocked by a Senate committee.

Hayden and Jensen were critical of the way the bill was killed, with the latter saying she had been “ambushed.”

“The committee did everything they could to squash it,” Jensen said.

The three agreed that the effect legalization could have on intoxicated driving rates, as well as its purported impact on youth brain development, need to be hashed out further. The three also signaled their support for efforts to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana as well as the expunging of criminal records for those who were previously convicted of the crime.

Hampering the expansion of the marijuana industry at large are the regulatory differences between states and the illegality of the drug at the federal level. The uncertainty, Minneapolis attorney Kevin Riach said Thursday, is substantial enough for banks and insurers to withhold their support for cannabis-related businesses.

Concerns over the amount of THC in industrial hemp, said Barnes, are among the most pressing to the industry today.

‘American Pickers’ star spotted in Wadena

WADENA, Minn. (FNS) — It didn’t take long for word to spread around Wadena after the Antique Archaeology van pulled up to a home at Second Street and Emerson Avenue on Wednesday, Nov. 6.

Traffic steadily increased in the neighborhood as “American Pickers” star and creator Mike Wolfe was spotted that afternoon. Wolfe could be seen at one point out walking a dog. Around 2 p.m. a caller to the Wadena Pioneer Journal stated that moving vans and a camper pulled up the to site.

The cast and crew of the History network show were focused on one home in particular, the home of former Wadena resident Ed Blazek, who passed away in 2018. Blazek was an avid antique collector.

While crew members could not share details of the reason for picking the home, unit production manager Cody Holland said viewers of the popular series should watch for the home to be featured on TV in 3 to 4 months.

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