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Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, offered an unsuccessful House omnibus transportation bill amendment to strip out a $3 million liability cap for railroads sharing corridors with light-rail trains. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, offered an unsuccessful House omnibus transportation bill amendment to strip out a $3 million liability cap for railroads sharing corridors with light-rail trains. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: Railroad liability; internet privacy; student press

Railroad liability: The GOP House is poised to cap at $3 million the damages freight railroad operators would face should a disaster take place along a corridor it shares with light-rail commuter trains.

Democrats are upset by the provision, which they say would limit liability even if the freight hauler was at fault. The public, they say, would be on the hook for damages above $3 million.

The liability cap is included in House File 862, the omnibus transportation bill that passed by 76-54 on March 31. The Senate version—which does not include the railroad liability cap — passed 39-27 on April 4.

During the March 31 House floor debate, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, offered an amendment to strip the cap from the bill. He said his concerns were sparked by 2013’s deadly Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in Quebec, where an estimated 47 people were killed.

That train carrying crude oil derailed in a downtown area, killing scores of people and destroying more than 30 buildings.

Hornstein said that the hauler involved was not carrying adequate liability insurance, leaving the Canadian public on the hook for more than $1 billion in damages.

“What happened in Canada really is the signal that we have to do something about this,” Hornstein said in an interview.

His amendment failed 51-77.

As passed, the House bill says that in a shared-corridor accident where freight and light-rail trains collide, the hauler’s liability limits would be the same as those provided under Minnesota statute to municipalities.

In some cases, that would be set at $1.5 million. Where a hazardous substance—oil for example—is involved, the cap could double to $3 million. Payouts equal to the amount of liability insurance the freight company carries would also be possible.

Hornstein said that among its problems, the bill codifies current state policy allowing railroad companies to keep secret the amount of liability insurance they carry. The concern, he said, is that freight rail companies would not carry insurance above the damages cap.

“And who foots the bill? The taxpayer,” Hornstein said. “That’s fundamentally unfair.”

The policy would have its most immediate effect along the Kenilworth Corridor where light-rail service operates alongside Twin Cities & Western freight service. However, Hornstein said, it also would apply to other shared corridors should light-rail service continue developing in the Twin Cities.

The bill’s author, Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said that Twin City and Western has operated safely in the Kenilworth Corridor since 1998. He added that the line carries liability insurance though he did not say how much.

He defended the cap, saying that when light-rail was added to the corridor the freight line’s risk exposure dramatically increased. “We are protecting this freight rail from a very unusual situation where they could be sued completely out of existence,” Torkelson said.

Torkelson said the bill was suggested to him by the freight hauler. “It looks to me like a real issue,” he said.

Differences between the two bills will be worked out in conference committee sometime after this week’s Easter break.

Internet privacy: The Senate had a rare moment of near-unity while considering its omnibus Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy bill on March 29.

That came when Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, introduced a data-privacy amendment to the bill, a change that was approved by a whopping 66-1 vote.

Latz said his amendment was sparked by a recent congressional resolution. It repeals federal rules requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to seek permission from customers before selling their web browsing histories, internet purchases and other private data. President Donald Trump signed it on April 3.

The Latz amendment would prohibit ISPs and other telecommunications providers doing business in Minnesota from selling such data without written permission from customers.

The amendment was nearly killed on a technicality. Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, challenged it on grounds that it had not been heard in committee and that there was no fiscal note attached to outline its budgetary impact.

Latz countered that there was no time for the bill to be heard in committee or to prepare a fiscal note, because Congress had only acted earlier that week.

“We are reacting to some very recent developments,” he said. “I don’t know that we have time to go through the additional process that Senator Osmek is suggesting might be necessary.”

GOP Senators Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, among others, sided with Latz. Nonetheless, Senate President Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, ruled the amendment out of order.

Latz challenged that ruling, and prevailed when it was overturned 34-33. Only Limmer sided with Democrats to overturn Fischbach’s ruling.

Debate on the amendment then commenced. “If this data is available to anybody for purchase, that means law enforcement or anybody else could get this without a warrant,” said Sen Dan Schoen, DFL- St. Paul Park. “This is abhorrent to our privacy.”

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Nelson, admitted she was uncomfortable considering the provision without prior review, but was more concerned by congressional action negating consumer privacy.

“With the information I have in front of me tonight I am concerned that our strong data privacy laws will be in jeopardy,” she said.

The amendment passed with only Osmek voting no. The entire omnibus bill later passed with a 58-9 vote. At the time of this writing, the bill was still being considered by the House.

Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, hopes her bill to clarify students’ press rights will get a hearing next year. The bill’s central aim is to discourage school districts from censoring embarrassing articles in the student press. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, hopes her bill to clarify students’ press rights will get a hearing next year. The bill’s central aim is to discourage school districts from censoring embarrassing articles in the student press. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Student press rights: It never got a hearing this year, but Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, hopes that her bill guaranteeing students’ First Amendment rights will get a shot next year.

Her House File 1501 carries no penalties. It is meant to clarify the rights of student journalists in grades 7 through 12, as well as those attending postsecondary institutions.

Its main aim, she said, is to convince school officials not to censor stories in the student press simply because they embarrass administrators. “Students couldn’t be told not to publish,” Youakim said.

School districts still would have broad discretion on what to publish, however. The bill would not force them to allow students to publish material that is slanderous, libelous or “disruptive of a school day,” she said.

“I don’t think districts would have a hard time finding that bar if they wanted to,” she said.

The bill also would require schools to instruct student journalists according to accepted journalistic standards, such as the ones published by the Minnesota High School Press Association.

Youakim said the bill was suggested to her by two high school journalism teachers. One of them, Lori Keekly of St. Louis Park, was named the National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year by the Dow Jones News Fund in 2016.

Youakim said she had hoped the bill might be given an informational hearing during the interim after session to allow students to tell their stories about press freedoms, but now doubts that will happen. Its best hope now is a possible resurrection next session, she said.

She thinks that if the bill ever becomes law, it will be a win-win. Students will have a better sense of their responsibilities as journalists. School administrators might learn to look at their students as future community leaders, not simply as kids, she said: “And maybe they won’t always be afraid of letting them have a little freedom.”

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