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Veterans honor guards face challenges; members are aging, dwindling

Members of the MN Army National Guard Honor Guard escort the casket of Corporal James Sund past an Honor Guard of Minnesota Veterans groups at Faith Lutheran Church in Goodridge, MN (Herald Photo by Eric Hylden)

Minnesotans thanked veterans Friday, but one of their most-desired honors needs an act of the Legislature and younger blood.

Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito said that many ex-military personnel have two major requests: a bronze marker at their grave denoting their veteran status and an American flag on their casket.

Honor guards, which handle flag duties, were endangered when state officials forgot to include continued funding in their budget requests, so Gov. Mark Dayton and Shellito found the needed funds on a temporary basis. Now, they pledge to ask the Legislature to appropriate honor guard funding so it is more stable.

Honor guards from veterans organizations, such as the American Legion, receive only $50 per burial, but Shellito said it still is important. The money, for instance, helps buy ammunition used in rifle salutes.

With 10,000 Minnesota veterans dying annually, finding an honor guard sometimes is tough, in a large part because those active in military organizations are aging and find it harder to be part of the honor guard. Many honor guard members are at least 80 years old.

Some have not been trained in the details of working in an honor guard, and it can show at the graveside. But the commissioner said that is changing, with National Guard members providing training.

Also, Shellito said, more Guard members are becoming involved in honor guards themselves, offering hope that the activity will continue with a younger generation. "They are stepping forward."

While traditionally, honor guards include a bugler who plays taps for the fallen soldier, instrumentalists are hard to come by these days and for the past few years, bugle-looking electronic devices often are used.

Shellito said taps recordings have not been embraced because the music sounds so perfect. But, now, recordings have changed enough that it appears to be better accepted.

Election spin cycle

Democrats and the Minnesota teachers union say that success in Tuesday school levy votes means that people will pay to make sure education is adequately funded.

They blamed the Republican-controlled Legislature for shortchanging schools.

"By approving the vast majority of levies ... Minnesotans demonstrated that they know the state is failing to provide necessary, basic funding for schools," said President Tom Dooher of Education Minnesota, the teachers union.

A third of the state's school districts either asked voters to continue an existing tax or increase property taxes for ordinary school expenses. More than two-thirds of those requests succeeded.

"In the absence of education leadership from Republicans at the Legislature, voters stepped up to the plate ... to give our schools and students a vote of confidence," said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. "With 70 percent of levy referendums passing, Minnesotans made clear that a quality education is a vital priority for our state's future."

Dooher said schools now must look ahead: "It's time for us to convince state lawmakers to step up and provide equitable, sustainable, predictable and sufficient funding for all Minnesota schools."

Drug bill support

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder supports U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's bill banning synthetic drugs.

"I think that the legislation is clearly needed, and we will work with you to try to get it passed," Holder said.

Klobuchar, D-Minn., and senators from Iowa and New York are leading an effort to ban the drugs that have become popular across Minnesota.

"These new designer drugs are taking lives and tearing apart families in Minnesota and across the country, and we must take swift action to give law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on this growing epidemic," Klobuchar said. "This legislation has overwhelming bipartisan support, and its passage cannot and should not be delayed any longer."

Why stadium now?

Gov. Mark Dayton said he strongly supports the Legislature dealing with a new Vikings football stadium in a special session before the regular session begins Jan. 24.

It would be easier to pass in a stadium-only session, he said.

Issues get mixed together in a regular session, he added. "Everything slides to the end and gets traded off for something else."

Penn State bill

In light of the Penn State University sex abuse controversy, a state lawmaker wants to clarify and expand Minnesota's reporting requirements.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, plans to introduce a bill doing that in the legislative session beginning Jan.24. He wants it clear that coaches and others who deal with youths must report improper contact to police.

"The current law is ambiguous at best and contains dangerous loopholes at worst," Winkler said. "There is no more heinous crime than robbing the innocence of a young child. We need to ensure that this law is clear and fulfilling its purpose of protecting children."

Winkler's bill would require anyone who knows or should believe that a child is being abused or neglected to report it. Under current law, only some professionals must report.

Rural vet help

Rural veterans do not get a fair shake in the federal health-care system, Sen. Al Franken says, so he has introduced a bill to change that.

The Minnesota Democrat's bill would require the federal Veterans Administration to develop a plan to recruit VA health care workers to rural America, ensure timely care and make other changes.

"Too often, veterans living in rural communities in Minnesota and across the country face a profound shortage of medical providers and facilities and must travel great distances for care," Franken said. "With 40 percent of all veterans in the VA health system living in rural areas, we have to ensure that these men and women have access to the health care they've earned."

His announcement comes on the heels of one in which federal funding will allow the state to establish Web sites and telephone hotlines to enable veterans and other Minnesotans to arrange transportation to appointments.

Cravaack for road

A road could be built near the Grand Marais airport under a bill by U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn.

The congressional bill is needed because part of the airport land that is not needed remains under federal development restrictions. The bill would lift those restrictions and allow Cook County to buy and land and build a road.

Seeking slots

The lesser known of Minnesota's two horse-racing tracks is putting on a push to be allowed to install slot machines.

A petition with more than 1,500 signatures from residents near the Columbus harness track just north of the Twin Cities encourages state lawmakers to support the "racino" as a way to help fix the state budget problem. Racino is more closely associated with Canterbury Park, a southern Twin Cities track.

"It's time for our legislators to join their constituents and support Running Aces, its 550 employees and the hundreds of local residents who support the track," said John Derus, Running Aces Harness Park spokesman.

Racino backers claim that racino could provide the state $100 million a year.

In recent days, racino has been discussed as a method to fund a new Vikings football stadium, but it faces strong legislative opposition.

Davis is the Minnesota State Capitol Bureau correspondent for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.