The Free Press of Mankato, March 25
Drone regulations filled with pitfalls
The use of drones is about to explode.
Small drones are being developed to fly over farm fields to measure germination rates and health of plants. Drones are being used for aerial photography and videography, allowing people to imagine what the view would be like from a proposed building tower in Mankato. Journalists are looking at drones to get images of forest fires, accidents or structure fires. Law enforcement is contemplating their use in everything from border control to tracking criminals.
Lawmakers across the country, including in Minnesota, are beginning to look at how to regulate the unmanned flying units. It's a needed discussion that's fraught with danger.
The first order of business in the minds of most citizens is to prevent abuse of drones by law enforcement and other government agencies. Most want legislation that would require law enforcement officials to be granted a warrant before using drones in investigations.
While there is general agreement on requiring warrants, even limits on government use can have unintended consequences. Washington state lawmakers passed a bill that limits government use of drones, but also limits the public's right to government information. The law says images taken from a government drone must not allow the disclosure of "personal information" that "describes, locates or indexes anything about a person."
That would mean that a government drone taking images of a wildfire couldn't be shown to the public if a car or person or private property might be identifiable, even though those same images are currently public records if the government shoots the images from a helicopter flying over a wildfire. Such limits on the public's right to access government information is unacceptable.
But the real complexities and pitfalls in drone regulation will be in the commercial and private sector. Even the current use of drones for commercial purposes is in flux. The FAA has taken the stance hobbyists can legally fly drones, but not those who use them for paid commercial use. But a federal judge this month ruled that commercial use of drones is legal. Either way, the FAA is to have guidelines in place by next year for commercial use — mostly related to the air space issue.
More controversial will be any laws limiting the use of drones by individuals or businesses. Some privacy groups and lawmakers say the government needs to ensure drones aren't invading privacy. To be sure there will be privacy issues galore as drones are put into widespread use: Private investigators tracking people, drones peering down into yards and onto private property, and activists using them to expose problems, to name just a few.
Some states are looking at serious restrictions. Texas legislators proposed a bill to ban aerial photography from remote vehicles, and privacy groups have petitioned for every drone flight to require FAA approval.
Such laws would be unworkable, overreaching and stifle the huge potential in commercial and private drone use. How, for example, can a law require people to get permission before taking images of private property?
Google Earth has already mapped and made available close-up images of most every square inch of the world via satellite and travelling ground-based cameras. Businesses have for decades flown planes over farms and other property taking photos and selling them.
As lawmakers fashion regulations they should be highly skeptical of imposing restrictions on commercial and private use of drones. There will undoubtedly be gaps to fill in drone legislation in the future, but for now the industry needs to find its potential even though the growth will bring new problems and challenges.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, March 25
A boost for MnSCU's reform work
The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system last week announced an affirmation of its vision to better serve students in a time of tightening resources and changing demographics.
The boost came from an influential force in higher education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. MnSCU will join 11 other state higher education systems in a reform effort backed by the foundation, the Pioneer Press reported.
Selection as "one of the systems on the leading edge" is welcome recognition, Chancellor Steven Rosenstone told us.
MnSCU -- the fifth-largest such system in the nation, serving more than 430,000 students -- is poised to join the effort with work under way on a plan to increase collaboration and boost efficiency across the system. The initiative, "Charting the Future," was approved by MnSCU's board late last year.
On the practical side, Rosenstone said, joining the "learning network" means working with other systems around the nation that are "wrestling with some of the same challenges."
Systems will be able to learn from each other and compare best practices. "If we can find something that's working well in another system, let's grab it, use it and put it to work much faster," Rosenstone said.
Also significant, the work with the foundation will play out in a relationship over multiple years. "Their support will allow us to move Charting the Future forward much more expeditiously," he told us.
An initial meeting will take place in early May, and the foundation has provided a grant of $200,000 to help begin MnSCU's participation, Rosenstone said. Gates has not announced a timetable or other details.
"There is great alignment between the work students, faculty and staff did on Charting the Future and the concerns of the Gates Foundation," Rosenstone told us. Included is a focus on meeting the needs of low-income students. The first of the plan's six recommendations calls on MnSCU to "dramatically increase the success of all learners, especially those in diverse populations traditionally under-served by higher education."
A college education is the gateway to the American middle class, the foundation says on its website, but low-income students are 28 percent less likely to finish college than those in higher income brackets. The U.S. economy will need an estimated 22 million new college grads by 2018, but will face a shortfall of at least 3 million.
The point of Charting the Future is "to improve student success, reduce costs, improve affordability and do a better job of serving communities around the state," Rosenstone said. "Everything we're going to be doing in our partnership with the Gates Foundation and the other systems is going to be designed to drive those goals forward and to do it better and more effectively."
Recommendations, for example, include policies governing credit for prior learning. Finding a way for students, when appropriate, to get credit for one course would mean tuition savings and a faster trip to "the finish line" for their certificate or degree.
"If you do the math on the tuition savings alone, not to mention the speed-to-degree and wages they'd be getting by joining their career or profession earlier, it's huge," Rosenstone said. "That one little thing would be huge."
Current work on the plan includes forming and launching teams that will implement the recommendations. Four will begin work in May, another four in September.
In its proposal to the foundation, MnSCU also included examples of work already under way, including shared business services and joint purchasing to save "literally millions of dollars," Rosenstone said, helping "make sure we have more dollars on the academic side of the house."
The pull of the status quo is strong, especially in a system as big and complex as MnSCU, with 31 colleges and universities on 54 campuses in 47 communities.
With the Gates Foundation and reform models from other innovative institutions, MnSCU could be better positioned to execute its blueprint for change, and deliver the workforce Minnesota needs.
New Ulm Journal, March 27
Sunday liquor sales not exactly a hot-button issue
Sen. Roger Reinert (DFL) of Duluth has apparently been a longtime advocate of allowing Sunday liquor sales in Minnesota. On Wednesday he had a little success toward that end, getting the Senate Commerce Committee to approve three of his proposals that are "baby steps" in that direction.
One would allow brewery taprooms to make Sunday sales. The second would allow craft brewers to sell "growlers," 64-ounce containers of beer, and the third would allow small brewers and brewpubs to refill any growler on a Sunday.
There is no provision for full retail sales of liquor on Sunday in the bill, but Reinert is confident voters will be pushing hard for it. According to the Associated Press, Reinert issued a warning to his colleagues in the House, who are all facing re-election in the fall:
"Constituents are going to demand their representatives take a stance on this," he said.
Really? We don't see this as being a hot-button issue, not like medical marijuana, or the Vikings stadium, or the gay marriage law last year. We can't imagine town meetings or candidate forums where groups of grim faced voters are waiting for their legislative candidates to declare where they stand on Sunday liquor sales.
It may garner a collective "Meh" from constituents, but not much more.