Grow: A Mother’s Last Wish

Doug Grow Star Tribune
Wednesday, April 19, 2000
This was going to be one of those sweet stories. On her deathbed, a mother urges her daughter to carry out one task. The daughter, of course, attempts to carry out that last wish.

In this case, the mother was state Sen. Janet Johnson, a DFLer from North Branch. Hours before slipping into a coma caused by a brain tumor, she urged her daughter, Jessica Roe, an attorney, “to make sure that pesticide bill is passed.” Roe vowed she’d carry out her mother’s wish. Johnson died Aug. 21. She was 59.

The status of that last wish that I wrote about in late November? It’s muddled up in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

“Sometimes I wish she would have given me something easier to do,” Roe said. “It would have been nice if she’d have said, ‘Keep your dishes clean.’ ”

The pesticide bill, originally written by Johnson, seems so noncontroversial. It would require schools to notify parents about applications of highly toxic pesticides. Several states have passed similar legislation because more studies are raising concerns about impacts that some of the more toxic pesticides might  have on children.

For a second successive year, the measure, known as the Janet Johnson bill, has sailed through the Minnesota Senate with bipartisan support. But, for the second successive year, the Republican majority in the House is standing against it. Republicans are offering a bill calling for further study of whether parents should be notified of the pesticides used in schools.

The dispute surrounding this simple notification bill has included the staples of Minnesota government these days: double-dealing, personality disputes and ineptitude.

For example, in a recent meeting with Gov. Jesse Ventura, Roe said he told her he supported her bill. But . . .

“As I was being walked to the door [by one of the governor’s staff members], I was told that I might not really have the governor’s support,” Roe said. “This was seconds after the governor himself told me I did have his support.”

She has talked with Rep. Kathy Tingelstad, R-Andover, who is the sponsor of the further-study bill. Roe said that in one of those meetings, Tingelstad told her that if any legislator but Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, was sponsoring the pesticide bill, Republicans might embrace it.

Tingelstad doesn’t deny making the comment about Wagenius.

“I don’t want to say anything bad about her,” she said. “She’s, ummm, considered more of an environmentalist. If a more moderate legislator was involved, it wouldn’t have the red flags on it that Wagenius brings.”

Wagenius’ response?

“That excuse is lamer than her bill,” she muttered. “What I can’t understand is what could possibly be a more conservative position than parents being told what’s happening to their children.”

Tingelstad said Tuesday that Wagenius isn’t the only reason House Republicans are again opposing the bill.

“I think if this was a funding year [in the Legislature] it would have passed,” Tingelstad said. “But here you have a school issue and an unfunded mandate. That’s the kiss of death.”

Tingelstad said her bill, which calls for a study spearheaded by the Department of Agriculture, would put legislators in a better position to know what steps need to be taken in the future. Her rationale is that Ag would take the lead on the study because it is the responsible governmental agency for all pesticides.

Wagenius said there are no costs associated with her bill. Under terms of the legislation, school districts could include the pesticide notification with any other notices the district sends to parents.

“I have to say it’s interesting they want Ag involved,” Wagenius said. “This bill is about pesticides and children. Ag knows cows and pigs. It doesn’t have one standard regarding children.”

Wagenius and Roe suggest that House Republicans are listening to the large farm chemical companies, not their constituents. Republicans, of course, deny such dastardly implications.

And on it goes.

The Senate’s Janet Johnson bill and the Republican’s further-study bill are now in a conference committee. And it’s looking as if neither will become law this year.

Roe, who has tirelessly pushed for the pesticide bill, is disappointed — but far from defeated.

“How naive I was,” she said.

“When I started I didn’t think it would be hard. I’d just go to the Capitol and say, ‘Look at this great idea.’ I’ve been amazed at the games that are played. But I guarantee you, I’ll be back. They haven’t seen the last of me.”