NEWS DAY | Defending the public good / Home prices down – and up / Somali youth update / Shrinking skyways

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Defending the public good Eric Black points to a Minnesota Supreme Court order and opinions denouncing the $100 increase in lawyer registration fees necessitated by the short-changing of the judicial system by the legislative and executive branches last year. The issue is not just a fee on lawyers, but a failure of the legislature and governor to fund essential services through general revenues.

Some of the justices voted against the fee increase, saying it is a tax and that the court does not have the authority to levy a tax. The majority, however, voted to impose the fee increase on lawyers and judges, while noting that it pays for services that should be part of the general budget.

Justice Paul Anderson, a moderate Republican, votes for the increase, but wrote a 10-page opinion, explaining why this is the wrong way to fund public defender programs, detailing specific consequences of the underfunding on people and on the courts right now, and denouncing the anti-government ideology that applauds funding cuts:

By underfunding public defenders and leaving it up to our court to procure financial support from lawyers, the Governor and Legislature have failed to meet one of their fundamental responsibilties. The crisis faced by public defenders and the resulting need to impose fees ona specific professional group are the result of an unfortunate impasse which affects how the citizens of Minnesota create and maintain a civilized society. …
Some people, both at the national and state level, are so bold as to welcome this turn of events by clearly articulating their goal to shrink government down to a size so small that it can be drowned in a bathtub. The problem with this approach is that when you continuously put the government’s head under water, it is not the government that drowns — real people drown. Floodwaters breach levees and people drown. Bridges collapse and people drown. I have little tolerance for this anti-government rhetoric given the adverse consequences that result to real people, especially the least advantaged among us, when this myopic approach to governing actually gets translated into policy. I believe that government does have a proper, even an essential role to play in creating and preserving a civilized society. Meeting constitutional mandates is part of that role.

Both Black’s article and the thoughtful analyses by Anderson and the rest of the Supreme Court justices are worth reading in full.

Home prices down – and up The Star Tribune reports that median home prices fell across the country during the third quarter of 2009, compared to the third quarter of 2008, despite rising home sales. The median price nationwide was $177,900, about 11 percent below 2008 third quarter prices.

But the numbers tell several different stories. Reporting on the same National Association of Realtors survey, CNN notes that home prices rose from the second quarter of 2009 to the third quarter of 2009. So, while prices are lower than a year ago, they are higher than a couple of months ago.

CNN also breaks out the data by metropolitan area. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington area, home prices fell by 9.9 percent in third quarter 2009, compared to third quarter 2008. That meant a median Twin Cities home price of $184,800 in the third quarter of 2009.

NAR attributed much of the recent increase in home prices to the government’s first-time homebuyer tax credit, which has helped revive home sales from a deep slump.

“We can’t underestimate just how powerful a catalyst the first-time homebuyer tax credit has been for the housing sector,” Yun said.

The homebuyer tax credit has been extended into 2010.

Somali youth update Is an arrest in the Netherlands connected to the departure of 20 Somali youth from Minnesota in 2007-2008? The Star Tribune reports that “Special Agent E.K. Wilson of the Minneapolis FBI office confirmed Tuesday that the man was arrested in connection with the ongoing counterterrorism investigation that began here when young men began disappearing in 2007.”

The man’s age – 43 – has been released, but his name has not. According to the Strib report, Dutch officials say “U.S. prosecutors suspect the man of bankrolling the purchase of weapons for Islamic extremists and helping other Somalis travel to Somalia in 2007 and 2008,” but U.S. prosecutors won’t comment.

While much of the story of the Somali youth remains shrouded in mystery, four people have pleaded guilty to some charges connected to the events, and six of the youth have died in Somalia. Suspicion of a local mosque seems to have lifted, as the Star Tribune reports:

In another development Tuesday, Mahir Sherif, an attorney for Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmad, of the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in south Minneapolis, where many of the missing Somali men were known to socialize or worship, said Ahmad was taken off the federal “no fly” list in the past month.

Shrinking skyways
MinnPost picked up on the skyway shrinkage story in St. Paul yesterday:

[A complaint served on Mayor Coleman] notes that the city skyways are required to be 12 feet wide, to easily accomodate pedestrian and wheelchair traffic, but in rebuilding some office space for Cray Inc. — the supercomputer maker that is moving into the downtown building — the skyway was narrowed without getting proper permits or variances.

Seems that developers are nibbling away at the publicly owned space, appropriating the public property for private use. Cray benefited to the tune of 124 square feet, but it isn’t the only culprit – Galtier gave away 500 square feet of skyway to private parties, some 10 years back. John Manillo, a downtown building manager, thinks that building owners should cough up the rent they collect on that footage, maybe into a fund for skyway improvements.

But rent isn’t the only issue. City law requires skyways to be 12 feet wide, in order to allow free passage of, well, anyone who wants to use a skyway, including people in wheelchairs. The latest incursion means that the skyway has narrowed to eight feet near Cray. Disability advocates say that just isn’t right, and express concern that if one building gets away with narrowing the skyway, others will follow suit.

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