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Consumer groups not happy with colleges’ debit card deal

“God particle” help from the U; crop insurance impact; drownings rise with temperatures; golden retriever helps find boy; and more.

Private industry always does it better. Jenna Ross at the Strib reports: “Contracts like the one between the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and the private financial company Higher One are being questioned by consumer watchdogs. Students are given cards to access their financial aid — and invited to open a Higher One account. A recent report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group criticized college partnerships with Higher One, arguing that they push students into using debit cards with sneaky fees that ‘eat up students’ financial aid awards,’ said Rich Williams, the report’s author. But local campus leaders and some students say that Higher One offers a pretty good deal compared with other big-bank options or, for those who might not qualify, check-cashing spots. Plus, in a time of tight budgets, working with the company saves campuses money.”

And yes, there is a Minnesota connection to the “God particle.” Says a story up at Detroit Lakes On Line: “Researchers from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced earlier today that they have indeed observed a new particle. Whether the particle has the properties of the predicted Higgs boson remains to be seen. … The search for the Higgs boson escalated in 2008 with the completion of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Today, the LHC smashes protons together at close to the speed of light; particles created by these collisions are analyzed by physicists working on the ATLAS and CMS experiments. University of Minnesota researchers, graduate students and undergrads have been deeply involved in the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment since 1993 and have played a key role in the design and construction of the CMS detector.”

The Strib’s Jennifer Bjorhus continues an occasional series of Strib features on the finances of modern farming. In the latest, she writes about the effect taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance is having on the farm real estate bubble: “The government foots the bill for a large chunk of the nation’s enormous crop insurance program, which essentially guarantees farmers a profit. That, in turn, removes a lot of the risk from large rent commitments or bidding big for land at auction. While agricultural economists say they don’t think anyone has researched a connection among the program, farm rents and high land prices, some farmers and other observers say it exists. Commodity prices are the flames under cropland values, which have reached levels not seen in a century, even adjusted for inflation. But as 48-year-old farmer Darwyn Bach sees it, crop insurance is ‘throwing a little gas on the fire.’ “

Related … The Strib’s editorial board takes a rather enlightened view of the connection between the country’s politically driven farm subsidy bill and our very expensive obesity epidemic: “The bill promotes farmers’ markets. It expands block grants to states for vegetable and fruit development. It preserves funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, along with support for those making the transition to organic farming. Sadly, conservation dollars decrease by $6.4 billion in the Senate bill, in part because of the consolidation of some programs. But the bill rightly requires basic land stewardship measures from recipients of crop insurance benefits, which the Star Tribune Editorial Board has advocated. Unfortunately, it continues to reward big growers of corn and wheat, which are used to make some of America’s least nutritious food. The bill eliminates the outrageous direct payment subsidies given to farmers whether they need them or not, but it directs too much money to crop insurance programs that mostly benefit large operations. In other words, the economically fat will grow fatter.”

At the PiPress, Sarah Horner and Josie Clarey look at the rash of drownings in recent weeks: “The number of drownings this summer is one of the highest statewide in a decade, according to data through July 1 by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. So far in 2012, at least 25 people have died of non-boating-related drownings, including eight in the seven-county metro area. Last year, there were 13 statewide. … ‘We are way higher than years past,’ said Tim Smalley, boat- and water-safety specialist for the DNR. ‘There’s just been more exposure. It’s been a hot summer and an early hot summer, and when it’s hot, people go to the water.’ There has been talk that this year’s heat has caused more weeds to grow in lakes, increasing the number of swimmers becoming entangled in the vegetation, he said. Smalley doesn’t buy that. … What is happening are the same factors that have always been precursors to drowning: people who overestimate their swimming ability, mixing alcohol with water-related activities and not enough adult supervision of children in and around water, Smalley said. ‘Those are always kind of the big three you can point to,’ Smalley said.”

The Costa Concordia grounding, which killed a White Bear Lake couple, continues to spill information unflattering to the company. The AP reports: “An Italian newspaper reports the data recorder aboard the Costa Concordia, the ship that capsized Jan. 13 off Tuscany, had been malfunctioning in the days before the grounding that left 32 people dead. Corriere della Sera said investigators determined the ‘black box’ stopped recording at 11:36 p.m., well before the ship was evacuated. Costa officials insisted the equipment worked despite showing error messages. The newspaper cited emails from Costa’ technical director to the maintenance firm showing the recorder had a history of problems and that plans were to have it repaired Jan. 14. Corriere also reported that water-tight doors were left open and unauthorized maps were found in the bridge.”

You’ve probably already seen the heart-warming story of the golden retriever who found the little lost boy. Molly Guthrey’s PiPress piece says: “An 8-year-old golden retriever named Autumn was lauded as a hero on the Fourth of July when she located a missing 5-year-old boy near Prescott, Wis. ‘I think she knows that she was part of something special,’ said her owner, Jason Moser, of Ellsworth, Wis. Moser and his dog were among hundreds of professionals and volunteers who searched Tuesday and Wednesday for the missing boy. Scotty Meyer, who has autism and limited communication skills, wandered out of his family’s home south of Prescott around noon Tuesday. … His wife, Melissa, wasn’t sure if Autumn could join them. ‘She’s not trained as a search dog,’ Moser said. ‘She wasn’t sure if Autumn would be of any help or if you could even bring a dog. I said, ‘They asked for volunteers and I’m sure they won’t care if we bring some extra help with us.’ … ‘We headed back into the woods and after about five or 10 minutes, she started heading off in one direction and I followed her, thinking she knew where she was going. And then I heard a little whimper, a muffled kind of cry. I stopped to get my bearings and I heard that sound again; I started running. As I got closer to the sound, I could see him; he had no clothes on, and his diaper and bare skin stood out pretty brightly.’ ”

You know those times when you wonder what the story is with the guy in the car next to you? It could be something like this. The PiPress says: “The Wisconsin State Patrol says it arrested a St. Paul man on suspicion of drunken driving while he had three children with him in the vehicle. The State Patrol said a trooper stopped James Juan Catrone Parker, 34, for speeding at 5:41 a.m. Wednesday on eastbound Interstate 94 … Children ages 4, 6 and 16 were in the vehicle, according to a State Patrol news release, which didn’t detail Parker’s relationship to the minors. Parker was arrested on suspicion of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence as well as possession of marijuana and the synthetic drug Ecstasy. He was also allegedly driving without a valid license.”

You noticed it was hot, right? At MPR, Mark Seely writes: “Among weather records set today: Warmest minimum temperature for July 4th at MSP Airport with 82 degrees F this morning, breaking record of 80 F back in 1999. Highest maximum temperature for July 4th at MSP Airport with 101 degrees F, breaking the record of 100 F back in 1949. Tied the highest dewpoint for July 4th at MSP with a reading of 77 degrees F (tied with 1972). St Cloud set a new record high temperature for July 4th with 97 degrees F, and Eau Claire, WI also set a new high temperature record for July 4th with 98 degrees F. Heat Index Values around the region were also records, ranging from 102 to 118 degrees F across southern and central MN.”