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Capitol Chatter: Minnesota lawmakers protest bird flu-joking legislator

ST. PAUL -- It was a bizarre moment on the Minnesota House floor, a place more often home to boring hours of policy minutiae and occasional political drama. Rep. Ron Erhardt, an Edina Republican-turned-Democrat, spoke into his microphone while we...

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Rep. Ron Erhardt holds up a jar of what appears to be candy labeled "bird flu vaccine" in the Minnesota House Tuesday, may 5, 2015. He later apologized for making light of bird flu, which has killed more than 5 million turkeys. (Image from Minnesota House television)



ST. PAUL -- It was a bizarre moment on the Minnesota House floor, a place more often home to boring hours of policy minutiae and occasional political drama.

Rep. Ron Erhardt, an Edina Republican-turned-Democrat, spoke into his microphone while wearing a doctor's lab coat and putting a stethoscope around his neck. The financial planner claimed he became sick with the flu after eating a turkey dinner, and said he had bird flu vaccines (which looked like candy and air freshener) that could help others who may have become sick after eating at a just-concluded grilled turkey burger giveaway in front of the state Capitol.

At first, fellow lawmakers appeared stunned at what the back-bencher was saying. Then rural lawmakers began interrupting him to appeal to the speaker that Erhardt's allegations of getting sick from turkey were not true.


Eventually, Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, adjourned the House session for the day as Erhardt shouted that he still had a right to talk.

The suburban lawmaker later apologized for his comments and said Health Department officials had convinced him turkey was safe in this time of an avian flu outbreak.

"I apologize for making light of this serious issue and I support immediate passage of legislation that will adequately fund a response to the avian flu crisis,” Erhardt said in a statement released by the office of House Minority leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis.

Thissen himself criticized Erhardt, but not by name: "This is a serious issue for farmers and for all Minnesotans. No one should make light of it."

Reps. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake; Dave Baker, R-Willmar; Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg; and Jeanne Poppe, D-Austin, all rose to tell fellow lawmakers that they objected to Erhardt's actions and later filed a "letter of protest and dissent" as allowed under the state's Constitution.

They claimed that Erhardt "caused further damage to Minnesota family farmers" and "we request that in the future he be more respectful to the citizens of Minnesota in the business of the House."

Their protest was entered into the official House Journal publication, but there was no other action taken against Erhardt.



Derailment draws reaction

Reaction to Wednesday's North Dakota oil train derailment seemed to begin at about the same time as firefighters arrived on the scene.

Minnesota legislative Democrats immediately took to Twitter to blast Republicans' lack of a firm plan to avoid derailments (while Republicans said they expect something soon). The early comments, before any real information was known, were political.

Later, members of the Minnesota congressional delegation began looking at the policy impacts of derailments.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., joined colleagues in pressing federal transportation officials to enact stronger disclosure requirements on railroads about shipments of highly flammable North Dakota Bakken crude oil.

“We call upon you to issue an emergency order that improves the process for providing detailed information on crude-by-rail movements and volumes to first responders, shifts the onus for information sharing onto the railroads and not communities, and allows for the continued public availability of broader crude-by-rail data on movements and routes,” Franken and other Democratic senators wrote to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Federal officials opted to reduce public information about oil train routes, which upset some legislative Minnesota Democrats. They sent a letter to BNSF Railway Co. renewing a request for the company's emergency response plans around where oil trains travel, especially near the Twin Cities, St. Cloud, Moorhead, Winona and Red Wing.

The state lawmakers also asked how much insurance BNSF carries to help recover from disasters.



Rural leaders worry

The Minnesota legislative session is about to wrap up, and greater Minnesota leaders are concerned their areas are being left behind.

“Since January, we’ve been saying that this is a unique session in that we have a large state surplus at a time when greater Minnesota’s needs have really been thrust into the limelight,” said Heidi Omerza, an Ely City Council member and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. “Now that the session is winding down, it’s time for our rural legislators to grab this opportunity to accomplish important things for Greater Minnesota communities and businesses.”

Omerza and President Gary Evans of the Greater Minnesota Partnership say they are concerned at lack of support for state aid paid to cities, broadband Internet expansion, environmental regulation reform and funding for some transportation programs.


Wood decision a start

U.S. Sen Amy Klobuchar stood in a Twin Cities Home Depot store one day in 2009 saying that she wanted to make wood products safer after she became convinced that formaldehyde was present in a self-assembly cabinet she bought when she first moved to Washington.


The Minnesota Democrat spearheaded an effort that led to a new law the following year to set wood products' formaldehyde standards.

But problems remained. So she was happy with the recent announcements that Lumber Liquidators and Lowes would stop selling Chinese-made laminate wood flooring products that appeared to contain formaldehyde. But she did not have good words for the Environmental Protection Agency.

"There is no excuse for the EPA to continue slow-walking the implementation of the bill I passed to protect families against toxic levels of formaldehyde in wood products, and I’ll keep holding the agency’s feet to the fire until they finish the job," Klobuchar said.


Mary Murphy a veteran

Mary Murphy, D-Hermantown, is one of the long-timers in the Minnesota House.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, mentioned that on the House floor, saying the 20-term lawmaker was on her "14,000th day of service to this great state."



Davis covers Minnesota government and politics for Forum News Service. Read his blog at http://capitolchat.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @CapitolChatter.

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