April 2008

Klobuchar calls for lower gas, drug prices

Monday, April 28th, 2008

A report from Washington correspondent Conrad Wilson:

WASHINGTON – Sen. Amy Klobuchar got busy writing letters last week calling for not one, but two investigations.

In a letter sent Thursday to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the Democratic senator called for the creation of an oil and gas market task force to investigate the increasing price of fuel.

Klobuchar noted that state attorney generals and energy market experts have told Congress that the high fuel prices can’t be explained my market forces.

“In my state of Minnesota, farmers are paying record-high prices for fertilizer and fuel,” Klobuchar wrote in her letter. “The timber and chemical industries are suffering from the rising cost of natural gas. And families are being forced to make increasingly difficult budget choices — for example, between filling prescriptions and heating their homes.

“These are choices no family should have to make.”

On Friday, Klobuchar wrote the Federal Trade Commission urging officials there to look into possible price gouging by OVATION Pharmaceuticals.

A drug called intravenous indomethacin, a.k.a. Indocin I.V., is important for premature babies and has increased in price 18 fold since OVATION got the rights in 2005, according to Klobuchar’s office.

The drug helps infants with a heart condition called patent ductus areriosis (PDA). A release from Klobuchar’s office notes that OVATION owns the rights to intravenous ibuprofen, the only other drug that the Food and Drug Administration has approved to treat the condition.

This raises “questions whether the company’s purchase of Indocin I.V. and pricing structure is a move to corner the market for available drugs to treat PDA and will eventually lead to a monopolization of nonsurgical treatments for PDA,” the release argues.

OVATION said that Klobuchar’s critiques betray a lack of understanding.

Before OVATION purchased Indocin I.V. in 2005 the product was often unavailable, leaving a costly surgery as the only alternative, said Sally Benjamin Young, vice president of communications for OVATION.

The market for PDA is small, with about 30,000 babies affected.

Young also noted that the patent for Indocin I.V. expired in 1981. “Any generic could come in at any time,” Young said. “There’s been no patent protection for this product.”

As for the price increases – which occurred two years ago – Young said that many of the upgrades were necessary and mandated by the FDA.

“This company is exploiting a life-saving drug to engage in price-gouging at the expense of vulnerable, premature babies,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “Even though it’s an American company, the price they charge in the U.S. is actually 44 times higher than what they sell it for in Canada. Nothing can justify that kind of huge price disparity.”

Young responded: “No baby that we know of have gone without this drug. No child has been denied treatment because of these price increases. … Nobody else is paying attention to PDA; it’s a very small market.”
-Conrad Wilson

Local heroes

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

Veteran environmental reporter Greg Breining offers this charming and valuable essay about the local food movement in the new issue of Minnesota Monthly. (And here’s a podcast where he expands on his theme.)

Breining and his wife, Susan, spent a couple of weeks eating mainly local foods, including some they’d procured as hunters. Meantime, Greg researched and scrutinized many of the broader claims of “eat local” advocates — claims, for example, that by restricting ourselves to local diets we would benefit the local economy and the environment while enjoying fresher, more nutritious food.

Breining liked much of the local food he ate, but found the bigger virtues attributed to local eating harder to swallow. To wit:


A superdelegate’s work is never done

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Superdelegate Nancy Larson’s 15 minutes of fame just won’t quit, much to her amazement.

After agonizing over whether to support Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, Larson finally came down on the Obama side, making her final decision last Saturday.

End of agony, right? Wrong.

After calling Team Clinton on Saturday to tell them of her decision, Larson said she got a return phone call from Clinton’s national campaign manager, who pushed hard to get her to switch back. Larson politely declined.

But it didn’t stop there. About 10 p.m., she said, “my phone rings.” On the other end was Chelsea Clinton, wanting to know what could she do to bring Larson over to her mom’s side.

“I was a little flabbergasted,” Larson said on Monday. “It was awkward, really. It really puts you on the spot to tell a daughter why you don’t support her mom.”

Larson’s no newbie. A one-time lieutenant governor candidate, lobbyist and longtime DFL activist and lobbyist, Larson has been through the delegate dance before, when John Kerry’s adult children called with similar pleas.

“They all think their moms and dads are the greatest,” Larson said.

Sunday night it was Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack on the line, asking her to reconsider.

“It’s really kind of relentless,” Larson said.

McCollum seeks end to death penalty

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., introduced an amendment to the U.S. Constitution Wednesday to end the use of the death penalty.

Her proposal comes on the same day that a U.S. Supreme Court decision will likely restart executions in the United States after a six month hiatus, and as Pope Benedict XVI, who she called “the most high-profile death penalty opponent in the world,” pays his first visit to America.

“Criminals who are found guilty of committing heinous acts should be sentenced to life in prison as a punishment and for the well-being of society,” McCollum said. “The death penalty, by contrast, does not serve society’s interests – it is damaging and harmful. Fighting crime, achieving justice, and elevating human dignity are all damaged by state-sponsored executions.

“We know the death penalty is more expensive to implement than regular sentences, it does not reduce crime, and it imposes a shared societal responsibly for killing another human being on behalf of a justice system that is clearly not perfect.”

Other than the press release, there was no formal announcement of this initiative. It remains to be seen whether any of the House’s Democratic leaders, now facing an election year, will want to take up McCollum’s death penalty challenge.

What political huffing and puffing can and can’t do about the housing mess

Monday, April 14th, 2008

The Congressional Budget Office offers this new, enlightening discussion of the mortgage-finance mess and the formidable difficulty of doing much about it.

The study is timely, with politicians nationally and locally scrambling to do — or to appear to do — something or anything to stop the soaring of foreclosure rates and the plummeting of house prices.

The gist of the analysts’ thinking is stated pithily (well, by CBO standards) in the introduction, where the report suggests that government intervention may be able to achieve some objectives but probably can’t achieve others.

New government interventions to aid distressed homeowners and/or their lenders could succeed in rescuing some home buyers who were led astray by predatory lending practices, the report says. But in the bargain they would almost certainly bail out many others who simply over-reached, got caught up in the speculative fever, or had a notion of making a quick killing themselves.

Intervention could help prevent an excessive downward spiral in house prices, which — like a speculative bubble in reverse — threatens to take prices well below their rational level, the CBO believes.

But government action isn’t going to save us from a continuing and discomforting decline in home prices — from their bubble level to a more rational level. What’s more, the report notes, in the unlikely event that policy could slow this necessary adjustment, it would be harmful, delaying the inevitable and prolonging the pain.

Question: Given this witches brew of dangers, is the political response likely to be too little, too much — or just right?

Erhardt just visiting at DFL event

Monday, April 14th, 2008

Two scenes played out on Saturday, almost simultaneously, that vividly portray ideological divides in Minnesota.

Tax protesters at the State Capitol carried signs encouraging the defeat of the six Republican House members who voted to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a $6.6 billion transportation bill earlier this session. The targeted lawmakers included Edina Repbulican Rep. Ron Erhardt.

Across town, at the Wayata Middle School, the most partisan of DFL activists were endorsing a candidate for the Third Congressional District when who should walk through a side door but Erhardt. He was introduced to the audience and received a standing ovation for the same vote that provoked calls for his outster at the tax rally.

Erhardt, serving his ninth term in the House, was denied the Republican endorsement for his own House race and will run without it in the primary.

Erhardt stuck around for more than an hour at the DFL convention, saying he was there to support long-time friend Terri Bonoff in her congressional bid. (She lost to Ashwin Madia.)

But his presence stirred speculation about whether Erhardt was being recruited or was considering switching parties.

Asked if he was bolting to the DFL, Erhardt deadpanned: “Not yet.”

The Atlantic: Franken in ‘protective custody’

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

According to The Atlantic Monthly, reporters covering Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race this year shouldn’t count on getting a lift from Al Franken.

That’s one of the amusing bits arising out of a largely flattering piece in the May Atlantic on Franken, considered the favorite to secure the DFL Party endorsement to run against incumbent Norm Coleman this fall.

The theme of the story by Atlantic senior editor Joshua Green is that Franken, who has built a wildly successful career out of being both funny and confrontational, needs to convince Minnesotans that he’s as serious and somber — and presumably dull — a candidate as any of the rest of them.

One of the ways for the Franken campaign to do this, according to Green, is to limit face time for reporters with the candidate as much as possible, to avoid the chance that he will make an unguarded remark that will explode into the headlines the next day.

Green found this out when he wasn’t allowed to ride along with Franken and his staff on a campaign swing in February through St. Paul, the suburbs and Isanti County.

“To project a more senatorial air,” Green writes, “Franken is trying hard to watch what he says, and his staff has placed him in a kind of protective custody: journalists are not allowed to ride along, as is standard campaign practice, lest they overhear and report an undignified remark.”

So, Green adds, he spent most of the day in a rental car chasing the Franken hybrid SUV.

It didn’t take long for the Coleman campaign to state its claim that the senator is always available for questions and has, in fact, already conducted a ride-along interview “with one of the state’s larger newspapers” (it wasn’t us).

“Given a strategy of isolating Franken from the Minnesota press,” writes Coleman spokesman Tom Erickson in a statement, “the phrase ‘Where’s Franken’ may soon become one of the state’s most often asked questions in the campaign.”

Franken spokesperson Jess McIntosh said the campaign doesn’t have any kind of ironclad policy keeping reporters out of the candidate’s car.

“I wasn’t on that trip, so I don’t know why [Green] wasn’t allowed a ride-along,” McIntosh said. “We have granted ride-alongs in the past and I’m sure it will happen in the future. The last time I didn’t grant one was because Al was making fund-raising calls in the car and we didn’t think it was fair to the other person on the line.”

According to Andy Barr, Franken’s campaign manager, Green was kept out of the campaign vehicle that day because Franken was calling state legislators and wanted to keep the conversations private. McIntosh points out that Green was given ample opportunity to observe Al at his Minneapolis townhouse and talk with the candidate over raspberry pie after his campaign appearances.

Erickson fails to highlight other parts of the article, which note that Franken has built an enviable grassroots machine with one of the most impressive political fundraising operations in the country, and that Coleman “may be the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbent.”

Green writes that although Franken’s “short fuse will become a liability” should he get DFL backing to run against Coleman — St. Thomas professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer is running hard to head him off at the state convention in June — he is “a ferocious policy wonk” who has especially inspired “broad and enthusiastic support” among young voters.

Ventura: ‘I already beat Norm Coleman once.’

Monday, April 7th, 2008

Author Jesse Ventura, the ex-Navy Seal and Minnesota governor, had nothing nice to tell a national CNN audience Monday about the leading Senate candidates in his home state – suggesting that he might just have to take matters into his own hands.

Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican who supported the initial invasion of Iraq, got branded a “chicken hawk” by the Vietnam-era veteran and politically independent governor. As for DFLer Al Franken, the former pro-wrestler slammed the former Saturday Night Live comedian as a “carpetbagger.”


Taking time out from his surfing studies in Mexico, where’s he’s learned that Americans aren’t very well liked, Ventura is now riding the TV circuit to promote his new book, “Don’t Start the Revolution Without Me.” But he reports that he’s not too busy to give a Senate run some consideration, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the filing deadline doesn’t pass until July.

“I’m thinking about it,” he said. “I already beat Norm Coleman once.” (For governor in 1998).

But the operative phrase was “I don’t know,” suggesting that the tantalizing prospect of a three-way Senate race in Minnesota might conceivably be related to the equally tantalizing prospect of selling a bunch of books.

But who knows? Ventura has defied expectations before.
A week ago, CNN’s Larry King pimped the book tour with a teaser about Ventura as a possible presidential candidate. That has given Ventura even more to think about on the beach, and he did little to dispel the notion by telling Blitzer that “none of the above” might be an intriguing presidential ballot choice as well.

“You would see ‘none of the above’ occasionally win,” he said.

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