Improving Minneota’s Health Insurance Market With A “MinnesotaCare for All” Option

For Minnesotans who can’t get health insurance from an employer, Minnesota Republican legislators have been demanding improvements.

where-mn-get-insurance-donut-graphic-254x300_jpg__254×300_Out on the campaign stump, Republicans say they want more health plan options than are currently available. They want health insurance companies to feel more competitive pressure to keep a lid on premiums. They want consumers to have a broad network of health care providers available to them. They want assurances than there will always be at least one solid coverage option available to every Minnesotan, even when health insurance companies decide to pull out of the marketplace, as they have in recent years. Those are all good goals.

To achieve them, Republican state legislators should work with Governor Dayton to give Minnesotans a MinnesotaCare for All option.

Background

Currently in Minnesota, those who can’t get health insurance from an employer can get coverage from one of three sources:

  • TOP TIER. For Minnesotans who can afford premium costs, they can purchase coverage from nonprofit health plans – UCare, HealthPartners, Medica, and Blue Cross. (As part of the federal Affordable Care Act, about 60% of those buying from these companies through the MNsure online shopping tool are offsetting premium costs with federal tax credits, which this year are averaging over $7600 per year.)
  • MIDDLE TIER. For Minnesotans who can afford some, but not all, of the premium cost, they can purchase MinnesotaCare at a subsidized rate that varies depending on household income.
  • LOWER TIER. For the poorest Minnesotans who can’t afford any of the premium cost, they can get Medical Assistance at no cost to them. Medical Assistance is Minnesota’s version of the federal Medicaid program.

MinnesotaCare for All Option

Governor Dayton proposes to give those in the top tier an additional option.  He wants to give those consumers the option of buying into that middle tier — the public MinnesotaCare program.

Adding a MinnesotaCare for All option would achieve what Republicans say they want – more options for consumers, more marketplace competition to drive down prices, a guarantee that at least one plan option will always be available to Minnesotans, and consumer access to a broad network of Minnesota health care providers statewide.

A fact sheet from the Governor’s office elaborates on the consumer benefit:

Purchasing quality health coverage through MinnesotaCare is less expensive than buying coverage directly from a private insurer, because it leverages the buying power of more than 1 million Minnesotans enrolled in public plans.

Minnesotans who purchase MinnesotaCare would get high-quality health coverage for approximately $469 per month, on average. That is more than 12 percent ($69) less than the average statewide premium of $538 for private insurance in 2017.

Under the Governor’s proposal, families would spend on average $838 per person less in 2018 than in 2017 on their health insurance premiums.

After a one-time startup investment ($12 million), the cost of Governor Dayton’s plan would be funded entirely by the premiums of Minnesotans who choose to buy MinnesotaCare coverage. If the Legislature enacted this proposal by April 1, Minnesotans could purchase MinnesotaCare coverage as early as the 2018 open enrollment period.

Having this MinnesotaCare option would likely be very popular with Minnesotans.  After all, a national poll found that an overwhelming 71 percent of Americans support a similar Medicare for All option, while only 13 percent oppose the idea.

Let Consumers Choose

Why would Republicans not want this for Minnesota consumers? If the Governor’s claims about the MinnesotaCare option turn out to be accurate, many of the Republicans’ stated goals for the individual market would be achieved.

At the same time, if the Governor’s MinnesotaCare-related claims about lower prices and better health care network turn out to be inaccurate or inflated, Minnesotans will surely reject the MinnesotaCare option. If it is to their advantage, consumers will choose a nonprofit health insurance company, or a for-profit health maintenance organization (HMO), which the Governor recently agreed to authorize as part of a compromise with Republican legislators.

With the addition of the MinnesotaCare option, private, nonprofit and public options all would be available to Minnesotans who are shopping and comparing via MNsure. Then the politicians could get out of the way, and let the consumers choose the option that works best for them.

Trump Resistance Roadmap

For progressives aiming to win the hearts and minds of the 46% of American voters who supported Donald Trump in 2016, there is a  better and worse way to approach conversations and campaigns.
Trump roadmap chart Slide1

For messages about the Trump policy agenda, the villain needs to be Trump flip-flops, not Trump voters.  The focus needs to be on Trump not keeping his 2016 promises, not on Trump voters being stupid for being conned in 2016.

Trump voters need a face-saving way out of this, so avoiding polarizing “I told you so’s” is critically important.

Much of what I currently see on social media and progressive media is using the “Trump voters are dumb” approach to messaging.  We need to stop.  Believe me, I understand why people are going there.  It’s very cathartic to say “I told you so,” but you can feel it entrenching Trump voters more deeply and permanently into Team Trump.

The messaging nuance recommended in this chart won’t win every Trump voter, but it gives progressives a more hopeful shot at winning a modest subset of them, such as voters who were more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump.  If only a small slice of the 46% of 2016 Trump voters are angry at Trump congressional allies in 2018, the mid-term elections could deal a serious blow to the Trump agenda.  Winning in 2018 is worth taking a pass on cathartic “I told you so’s” over the next two years.

Banning Trump From Ballot Doesn’t Pass Smell Test

cursor_and_democrats_right_to_vote_-_google_searchWhen it comes to the Minnesota DFL’s attempt to bar Donald Trump’s name from appearing on Minnesota ballots, the party is making a mistake by focusing on the could versus the should.

Yes, banning Trump from Minnesota ballots could be possible. It appears as if the ever-bungling Minnesota Republican Party perhaps didn’t follow the letter of the law in nominating their presidential elector alternates. I’m no great election law mind, so I’ll let the Star Tribune explain the DFL’s legal argument:

The petition said the state GOP erred at its state convention on May 20-21 in Duluth, where delegates “at large” and from each of Minnesota’s congressional districts nominated 10 presidential electors but failed to nominate 10 alternate electors.

The petition quoted the law (the italicized type is the party’s) as saying, “Presidential electors and alternates for the major political parties of this state shall be nominated by delegate conventions called and held under the supervision of the respective state central committees of the parties of this state.”

The petition continued: “This language is clear and unequivocal: Alternatives ‘shall’ be nominated — not unilaterally by party leaders — but by ‘delegate conventions.’

It sounds as if they might have case.  But letter of the law aside, should DFLers ban Trump?  The spirit of the law is that citizens should get to a chance to vote for the candidate who prevailed in the nominating process, in this case Trump.   That’s what Minnesotans of all parties feel in their gut.  The practical effect of the DFL’s move is to effectively disenfranchise Trump voters in Minnesota, more than one-third of the citizenry. For a party that justifiably preaches keeping democracy open to all voters, effectively disenfranchising at least one-third of the voters just doesn’t pass the smell test. It will offend many voters, including some who would otherwise be DFL-friendly, and it will seed even more cynicism in an already dangerously cynical citizenry.  That’s not good for our democracy.

Beyond the disenfranchisement of it all, DFL Party leaders perhaps should be wary of unintended consequences. An April 2016 Star Tribune-sponsored survey found Clinton with 48% of registered voters, Trump with 35%, and 17% undecided. While that’s a four month old poll, the chances are that Clinton still holds a lead in Minnesota. So, absent Trump being banned from the ballot by the DFL, Clinton probably would win Minnesota the old fashioned way, by earning the most votes.

So, there probably isn’t a lot to gain Electoral College-wise by gagging Trump voters. However, what happens if Trump refugees and undecided voters coalesce around Libertarian Gary Johnson?  What likely would have been a blue state could become, I don’t know, the Libertarian Party color.  That’s probably a long shot, but the possibility exists after the DFL kicks the Trump hornet nest by taking away their ability to vote for their hero.

DFL electoral tacticians likely see it differently. They may think that if Trump isn’t on the ballot, discouraged Trump voters will stay home, which will help the DFL win down-ballot races.  They’re banking on Trump voters to stay home and sulk, and they may be right.  But what happens if Trump voters instead get outraged enough by the perceived injustice of the situation to turn out in record numbers to vote against the party that they feel stole their votes?

DFL leaders probably feel quite self-satisfied about this clever little “gotcha” game.  I’m one strong DFLer who just doesn’t like it.  It feels like a betrayal of one of the party’s most admirable values – defense of every voter’s right to vote for the candidate of their choosing.  In my opinion this is not the Minnesota DFL’s finest hour.

South Dakota: Imagine There’s No Parties

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… 

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

John Lennon

Cursor_and_amendment_v_south_dakota_-_Google_SearchWhen I heard about the constitutional amendment on the South Dakota ballot to make all
state elections nonpartisan, I thought of these lyrics.

Imagine there’s no parties?

Believe it or not, that’s sort of what South Dakota is debating this fall.   At first blush, it struck me as every bit as unlikely and impractical as what John Lennon sang.  But if Amendment V gets a plurality of votes from South Dakotans of all party affiliations this fall, every state office would become nonpartisan.

That means that in every election except for presidential contests there would no longer be separate primaries for the respective political parties, party labels would not be used on ballots, and citizens would no longer have their voting restricted due to their party affiliation, or lack of a party affiliation. Instead of party primaries, a single primary contest would be held, and the top two finishers, regardless of their party affiliations, would face off in the general election.

Cursor_and_nonpartisan_nebraska_-_Google_Search

“Imagine there’s no parties. It isn’t hard to do.”

Partisanship Pros

Except that it is hard for me. Very hard. While municipal and judicial elections currently don’t use party labels, I like having party labels on ballots. They give me helpful shorthand clues when I come across an unfamiliar name towards the end of the ballot.  For instance, if I want to avoid inadvertently casting my vote for someone who wants to underfund public services or weaken environmental protections, seeing that “D” next to a candidate name on the ballot reduces the chance that I will mistakenly vote for someone who doesn’t share my  values.

To be sure, party labels don’t tell you everything, but they give a pretty solid clue about a candidate’s likely positions. I support disclosure in government and governing, and requiring party labels has disclosure benefits.

If party labels weren’t on the ballot, I’d have to do more homework to avoid making voting blunders on the more obscure portions of the ballot.  On the other hand, with online resources that are now available, homework has never been easier.  By the way, this problem could be lessened if all state and local governments allowed citizens to use smart phones or other types of computers while voting. That’s an antiquated rule that needs to be changed.  I need to be able to use my spare brain in the voting booth.

Imagine A Nonpartisan System

Maybe the inconvenience and lack of disclosure associated with a nonpartisan election system would be worth it.  I am painfully aware of what extreme partisanship is doing to our politics. It’s making us mindlessly tribal. It’s causing legislators to substitute logic and analysis for blind loyalty to party leaders and their most powerful interest groups. It’s muting the voices of independent and moderate citizens who don’t identify with either of the major parties. It’s making compromise almost impossible.

Drey Samuelson, one of the founders of the South Dakota public interest group championing Amendment V, TakeItBack.org, feels strongly that the benefits of nonpartisan elections and offices greatly outweigh whatever disclosure-related benefits there might be associated with the status quo.

Imagine no closed door caucus scheming.  Samuelson says one of the most compelling reasons to keep party labels off the ballot is that it removes partisan control from the Legislature, as it has in Nebraska. Party caucuses don’t exist in the Nebraska Legislature, so policy isn’t made behind closed party caucus doors.

Party caucuses aren’t banned by Amendment V.  But Samuelson said that if the nonpartisan amendment passes in South Dakota this fall, there would be strong public pressure for South Dakota legislators to organize themselves in a nonpartisan way — without party caucus meetings and with party power-sharing — as Nebraska has done.

Imagine sharing power and accountability.  In Nebraska’s nonpartisan Legislature, legislators from both parties can and do become legislative committee chairs. Because they share power, they also share credit for legislative successes, and accountability for scandals. There is less time and energy wasted on blame games.

Imagine an equal voice for all.  TakeItBack.org also stresses that a nonpartisan system will give South Dakota’s 115,000 registered Independents an equal voice in the elections and government they fund, which they lack today.  This is particularly important in primary elections, where many of the most important decisions are made.

Imagine a popular Legislature.  A nonpartisan Legislature would also very likely be a more popular Legislature.

“People, by and large, don’t like the division, the bickering, the polarization, and the inefficiency of partisan government,” says Samuelson. “They find that nonpartisan government simply functions better.”

In fact, the nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature is nearly twice as popular as the partisan one to the north. A January 2016 PPP survey of South Dakotans found a 36% approval rating for the South Dakota Legislature, while a June 2015 Tarrance Group survey of Nebraskans found a 62% approval rating for the Nebraska Legislature.

A 62% approval rating should look pretty good to Minnesota legislators.  Minnesota DFL legislators have a 29% approval rating, and Republican legislators have an 18% approval rating (PPP, August 2015).

For my part, I’d be willing to give up partisan labels on the ballot if it would get us a less petty, Balkanized and recalcitrant Legislature.   If Nebraska is predictive of what Minnesota could become, the benefits of such a nonpartisan body would outweigh the costs.

Is South Dakota About To Lead An Anti-Gerrymandering Revolution?

I adore my home state of South Dakota, but I rarely find myself calling for my adopted state of Minnesota to copy South Dakota policies. On a whole range of issues from progressive state income taxes to a higher minimum wage to LGBT rights to dedicated conservation spending to teacher pay to Medicare coverage, I wish the Rushmore state’s policies would become more like Minnesota’s, not vice versa.

But if a majority of South Dakota voters embrace Amendment T at the polls this November, I may soon be feeling some serious SoDak envy.

gerrymander_-_Google_SearchOnce every ten years, all states redraw state and congressional legislative district lines, so that the new boundaries reflect population changes that have occurred in the prior decade. In both Minnesota and South Dakota, elected state legislators draw those district map lines, and the decision-making is dominated by leaders of the party or parties in power.

South Dakota’s pending Amendment T calls for a very different approach. If a majority of South Dakota voters support Amendment T this fall, redrawing of legislative district lines would be done by a multi-partisan commission made up of three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents.  None of the nine commission members could be elected officials.

South_Dakota_Amendment_TThe basic rationale behind Amendment T is this: Elected officials have a direct stake in how those district boundaries are drawn, so giving them the power to draw the maps can easily lead to either the perception or reality of self-serving shenanigans.

As we all know, redistricting shenanigans are common. Guided by increasingly high tech tools and lowbrow ethics, elected officials regularly produce contorted district maps that draw snickers and gasps from citizens.   Often, the judicial branch needs to intervene in an attempt to restore partisan or racial fairness to the maps that the politicians’ produce.

Gerrymandering and Polarization

There are all kinds of problems created by the elected officials’ self-serving gerrymandering.  Legislators in control of the process draw lines to ensure that the gerrymanderer’s party has a majority in as many districts as possible. This leads to many “safe districts,” where one party dominates.  In safe districts, the primary election is effectively the only election that matters. General elections become meaningless, because the winner of the primary elections routinely cruises to an easy victory.

In this way, disproportionately partisan primary voters, who some times make up as little as 5 percent of the overall electorate, effectively become kingmakers who decide who serves in legislative bodies. Meanwhile, minority party and independent voters effectively have almost no say in the choice of lawmakers, even though they usually combine to make up more than 50% of the electorate.

In other words, gerrymandering has given America government of, for and by 5 percent of the people.

Because these primary election kingmakers tend to be from the far ends of the ideological spectrum, gerrymandering has contributed to the polarization of our politics. It has created an environment in which elected officials live in fear that they will be punished in primary elections if they dare to compromise with the other party. As a result, bipartisan compromise has become increasingly extinct in many legislative bodies.

Gerrymandering and Distrust

Beyond political polarization, perhaps the worst thing about politician-driven redistricting is that it makes citizens cynical about their democracy.  Whether you believe problems are real or merely perceived, the fact that elected officials are at the center of redistricting controversies creates deep citizen-leader distrust.  When citizens become convinced that elections are being rigged by elected officials so that the politicians can preserve their personal power, citizens lose faith and pride in their representative democracy. When we lose that, we lose our American heart and soul.

So Minnesota, let’s commit to creating — either via a new state law or by referring a constitutional amendment to voters –our own multi-partisan redistricting commission that removes elected officials from the process. Let’s govern more like South Dakota!

Did I really just say that?

The Wrong Bernexit

So you, like me, voted for Senator Bernie Sanders for President. Now maybe you’re considering switching allegiances to the Libertarian presidential candidate, Governor Gary Johnson?

I respect your decision to shop around and do thoughtful research.  Here’s something to inform your decision.

Gary Johnson Bernie Sanders positions table2

(Source for Sanders positions here.  Source for Johnson positions here.  Source for estimate of Sanders spending increase total here.)

Yes, Governor Johnson would do some very smart and important things, such as scale back the war on drugs and be careful about entering military quagmires. But most of the centerpiece policies championed by Senator Sanders are vehemently opposed by Governor Johnson.

How DFL Legislators With Only 29% Voter Approval Could Win in November

Minnesota_Legislature_-_Google_SearchDFL state legislators are an awfully unpopular bunch. According to an August 2015 Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey of registered Minnesota voters, only 29% have a favorable view of DFL state legislators, while 49% disapprove. Not many candidates with 29% approval ratings get reelected.

Still, DFL legislators may manage to do well in the November general election, due to at least five factors.

More DFLers voting. First, DFL turnout should be much higher in this presidential election year than it was in the 2014 midterm election. Historically, presidential year electorates tend to be more favorable to Democrats than mid-term year electorates. That historical trend is somewhat in question this year, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton proving to be particularly uninspiring to her base in the primary season and Republican front-runner Donald Trump proving to be particularly inspiring to his base. But traditionally presidential elections have high Democratic turnouts, and Trump-fearing Democrats – particularly women, communities of color and new immigrants – have a particularly compelling reason to vote in 2016.  That should give a big boost to Democratic state legislative candidates.

No catastrophes. Second, DFL legislators haven’t imploded. So far, there are no big DFL-centered scandals, like Phonegate or leadership sex scandals. There also is no particularly controversial issue, like a large tax increase on the masses. The construction of the Senate Office Building probably still has some demagogic appeal, but that doesn’t seem like a significant political albatross at this stage.

Happy days are here again. Third, it’s the economy, stupid. Fortunately for DFL legislators, Minnesota’s economy is quite strong. Seasonally adjusted unemployment is only 3.7%, while the national rate is 5.6%. Under Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota had a steady stream of budget shortfalls.  Under DFL Governor Mark Dayton, Minnesota has enjoyed budget surpluses the last several years, while 19 states still have had budget deficits despite a relatively strong national economy. Republicans promised Minnesota voters that DFL proposals to increase taxes for the wealthiest and the minimum wage for the poorest would surely decimate Minnesota’s economy. That simply did not happen, robbing conservatives of their most compelling criticism of Democrats – that they can’t manage the economy.

Bully pulpit in DFL hands. Fourth, DFLers control the Governor’s bully pulpit.   A relatively popular Governor Mark Dayton (47% approval) can use the bullhorn and large audiences that come with his position to make the case for DFL achievements and legislators. So can other popular prominent statewide elected DFLers, such as Senators Al Franken (48% approval) and Amy Klobuchar (55% approval).   Governor Dayton is certainly no Tim Pawlenty out on the stump, but he is in a strong position to help drive a strong unified message about DFL legislators’ accomplishments.

Republicans are even less popular. Finally, and most importantly, DFL legislators’ 29% approval rating looks pretty awful, until you put it alongside GOP legislators’18% approval rating. Then it looks nearly stellar.  To put that 18% approval rating in context, a disgraced President Richard Nixon had a 24% approval rating when he was forced to resign due to the Watergate scandal. With 63% of Minnesota voters disapproving of the job being done by Republican legislators, the slightly less disrespected DFL legislators would seem to have a shot at winning some elections this fall.

Note:  This post was also featured in MinnPost’s Blog Cabin.

Caucuses: Democracy Of, For and By the Extroverts

minnesota_caucus_-_Google_SearchOn March 1, Minnesota’s two major political parties will select its presidential nominees with a caucus system.  Iowa will use a similar system in just a few days.  So maybe we should take a moment to consider who gets the most and least representation out of this system.

The caucus approach requires that party members gather in groups in various locations to debate issues and candidates before they vote.   If a citizen wants to be a party delegate, they must attend additional lengthy gatherings.

In contrast, with a primary system for nominating candidates, party members simply cast a vote and leave.

Who is Over-Represented?  

Ideological Extremists.  It’s pretty well established that the caucus system over-represents ideological extremists. As Brigham Young University researchers Christopher Karpowitz and Jeremy Pople  found:

“The average primary voter is not at the center of the spectrum either, but such voters tend to be center-left or center-right. Caucus-goers, on the other hand, tend to be much more ideologically extreme. In fact, in their issue attitudes, caucus attenders are indistinguishable from representatives currently serving in our polarized Congress.”

People With More Time. Beyond over-representing ideological extreme party members, the caucus system works best for those who have free time.  For instance, citizens who you have children or other dependents, travel for work, and/or work long hours are going to find it more difficult to attend a caucus than to cast a primary vote. The caucus system doesn’t work very well for them.

Extroverts.  But there is also a less obvious type of group that the caucus system inadvertently discriminates against – introverts.

Introverts have a preference for less stimulating environments over more stimulating environments, using the definition used by many psychologists. Obviously, bustling caucus meetings and conventions are significantly more stimulating than sedate voting booths, so the former is much more off-putting to introverts.

Sure, some introverts attend caucuses, but overall introverts are about as attracted to frenetic caucuses and conventions as extroverts are attracted to all-silent retreats. You could hardly design a better system for driving away many introverts.

Why Care About Introvert Non-Participation?

Introversion isn’t just any trait.  Psychologists say it is a particularly influential one. Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking describes it like this:

“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most aspect of personality — the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it — is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.”

Not A Small Group.  Experts estimate that between one-third and one-half of Americans are introverts who have a preference for less stimulating environments. So, depending on which estimate is correct, introverts are a sub-population that may be as large as many major religions, races and ethnic communities.

If political parties designed a nomination system that they knew drove away any of those groups, would we okay with that?  So, why are party leaders comfortable with an approach that many introverts will be strongly inclined to avoid?

If party leaders did a personality profile of party members who regularly sit out caucuses and conventions, it’s a fair bet that they would find that a disproportionate number of the non-participants are introverts. Extroverted party activists may think these introverts are so far outside the mainstream that they should be shrugged off, but the parties do pay a price for effectively driving away up to half of the electorate.

Important Perspectives.  Researchers describe a range of positive traits that introverts could be bringing to political party decisions. For instance, introverts are highly empathetic. They tend to be more spiritual and philosophical, and less materialistic. They notice subtleties that others miss. They like to think before they speak. These are not bad things for any political party to have in the mix.

Party leaders should be uncomfortable driving away the participation of introverts, given that people like Abraham Lincoln, J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, Laura Bush, George Stephanopoulos, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffet fall into that category.

I understand that this will strike many as a peculiar argument.  Contemporary society is much more inclined to divide the world by gender, race, ethnicity and income than by personality types. I also know this argument will particularly baffle extrovert party activists, who are so profoundly energized by caucus and convention gatherings that it can be almost impossible for them to comprehend that so many others could be repelled by those gatherings.

It’s awfully easy for extroverted party leaders to dismiss introverts as being an insignificant and odd minority that is flawed, lazy, or not civic-minded. But ignoring the strong preferences of up to half of Americans is pretty bull-headed and self-defeating for leaders who need attract every vote they can get.

Note:  This post was featured in MinnPost’s Blog Cabin.

DFL Shouldn’t Politicize Makeout-gate

news_conference_microphones_-_Google_SearchThe messenger is the message. If a professor delivers a message, it tends to sound objective, studied and evidence-based. If an elder statesman delivers a message, it tends to sound thoughtful, even-handed and rational. If a reporter of a credible news outlet delivers a message, it tends to sound legitimate, consequential, and relevant.

And if a political party leader delivers a message, it tends to sound one-sided, hyperbolic, manipulative and, obviously, political.

Maybe that is not always fair, but the messenger delivering the argument profoundly shapes how the audience processes the messages that are presented.

This is hardly a novel observation, yet it seems completely lost on Minnesota’s major party leaders. Often when political party leaders weigh in on an emerging issue, they inadvertently leave a slimy residue behind.  The message becomes “this is a political game being played, not a legitimate issue.”  At a time when survey research shows that a strong majority of Americans have an unfavorable view of both major political parties, pointing the spotlight to a partisan messenger can be the PR kiss of death.

Take the issue of whether or not two Minnesota state legislators should apologize to a suburban law enforcement officer.   The legislators initially called the officer a liar when the officer reported that the legislators were doing something in a suburban park that was a bit more intimate than the claimed “exchanging documents.”  The teen term of art “makeout” was used in the officer’s report, and, to the delight of the incurable gossips who inhabit the State Capitol campus, more racy details were included.

Subsequent news accounts reported that the officer documented the salacious details of the incident via email in near real time. Faced with this new reporting, the legislators in question reversed course.  As the Associated Press reported:

Two Republican lawmakers whom a park ranger cited for making out in a public park apologized Monday for accusing that ranger of lying and stepped down from a Minnesota House ethics panel in an apparent effort to head off a complaint from Democrats.

But that wasn’t good enough for DFL party officials.  Two days after the legislators had already apologized and resigned from the House Ethics Committee, the DFL called a news conference to ask the legislators to, I don’t know, issue a new and improved apology.

With reporters and law enforcement officials exposing the truth, and reporters continually seeking legislators’ reaction to each new revelation, why do DFL PR people feel the need pile on with self-righteous sermons? I’m sure partisan warriors surrounding DFL leaders were giving them high fives for continuing to criticize the Republicans, but their partisan finger wagging is starting to make the whole issue look like just another partisan pissing match, which many Minnesotans are conditioned to tune out.

In public relations, as in health care, the guiding credo should be primum non nocere, Latin for “first, do no harm.”  Party messengers especially need to realize the harm that their tainted voices can do.  Or as the country music classic put it, sometimes “you say it best when you say nothing at all.”

Why Aren’t The Best and Brightest Flocking to the Minnesota Legislature?

Both political parties are busily approaching new candidates to seek seats in the Minnesota Legislature for the 2016-2018 legislative session.   This is a noble cause.  For those of us who care about good public policy, this is an opportunity to recruit Minnesota’s best and brightest to elevate the level of discourse, analysis and decision-making that will guide our great state forward.  I’m thankful to all who do this work.

So if you know anyone who has the right stuff, encourage them to run!

HELP WANTED:

Help_wanted_retroBecome a member of our dynamic Minnesota House of Representatives team!  We are seeking candidates with deep professional experience, strong educational background, extensive community ties, impeccable personal ethics and morals, outstanding interpersonal skills, uncommon diplomatic acumen, stellar leadership qualities, deep policy expertise in several different areas, and a highly photogenic family.  Come associate your good name with an organization that has the approval of  a historically low 17 percent of your friends and neighbors.   Candidates must be willing to work round the clock, seven days per week, surrounded by often manipulative, self-serving colleagues and associates, many masquerading as friends.  Even the most talented employees should be expected to remain largely silent and powerless for several years, due to seniority rules that ensure that major decisions are shaped by senior committee chairs and caucus leaders from gerrymandered-safe legislative seats.  Employees will be constantly criticized by news reporters, snarky bloggers and anonymous Tweeters, often based on inaccurate or incomplete information. Employees shouldn’t be surprised if they are audited, scrutinized and prosecuted for partisan purposes. Even the most highly accomplished employees will be automatically fired every two years. However, employees willing to work round the clock may earn rehiring,  following thousands of job interviews conducted by hostile and lightly informed interrogators who are often basing their rehiring decision  on just one of the thousands of official decisions the employee has made over the course of their career.  To finance the rehirement attempt, employees will be expected to continually raise large sums of money from friends, relatives, neighbors, strangers and interest groups making shady demands.  The non-negotiable salary for this position is less than the average salary of a sewage worker, $31,141 per year.

I ask you, what thoughtful Minnesota citizesn wouldn’t jump at such an opportunity?

Note:  This post was republished on MinnPost.

The Problem With Political Untouchables

Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, among many others, have made the case that our contemporary politics are “vehemently adversarial.”  That’s not exactly breaking news, but their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” does a particularly good job of documenting the phenomenon. Even more than at most points in history, our leaders are clinging to their partisan corners, and rhetorically portraying Americans in cartoonish hero versus villain terms.

A lot of attention is given to the corrosive effects of partisans’ villainizing.  But in its way, the partisans’ hero worship is just as harmful.  Polarizing partisans have effectively created groups of Untouchables, constituency groups that are so celebrated by one or both of the major political parties that leaders fail to responsibly oversee and regulate them.

Both major parties have their Untouchables. With Democrats, government workers, teachers, and union workers are among the Untouchable groups often described like infallible heroes. Meanwhile, Republicans place business people, military brass, and religious leaders on unreasonably high pedestals.   Both parties compete to see who can slather the most flattery and government benefits on bipartisan Untouchables, such as soldiers, health care providers, and seniors.

Untouchable Teachers

Miss_BeadleAs a case study, consider how the left often treats teachers. Listening to Democrats talk about teachers, you would think that every last one of them is a cross between saintly Miss Beadle from the television series Little House on the Prairie series and life-changing John Keating from the film Dead Poet’s Society. Anyone who has spent time in the public school system understands that the reality is more complicated.  Teacher quality ranges the full gamut from excellent to poor, as is the case with every profession on the planet.

So what’s the harm with a little too much constituency group rah-rah? Can’t the world benefit from more positivity?  The problem is, this over-the-top hero worship leads to bad policy, where everyone in the worshiped group is treated as if they are all equally noble and skilled.

They aren’t. While teaching is a very noble profession, poor teachers obviously exist. Being a poor teacher doesn’t equate with being a bad person – I’m not a bad guy, but I would be a horrible teacher – but bad teachers are harmful to children. Ineffective teachers, even well-meaning ones, can do a lot of damage to students when they are allowed free reign to teach ineffectively.  The education reform group Students First explains:

Unfortunately, the reality is that many current policies treat all teachers as if they are interchangeable. These policies often cause highly effective teachers to be paid less than their least effective colleagues. And they fail to protect the best teachers—the ones who are most positively impacting student achievement—from layoffs. As a result, most districts have low retention rates and retain their best and worst teachers at similar rates.

Despite this, many Democrats universally treat even poor performing teachers like Untouchables. For instance, this year Minnesota again failed to enact a law that would allow teacher performance to be one of the factors considered in teacher retention decisions. During this debate, anyone who dared to say that teachers should be judged on performance – as happens in almost all other professions — were called names by liberals.  “Anti-teacher!”  “School-basher!”  “Right wing extremist!”   (By the way, about two-thirds of Minnesotans currently fall into this category.)

Untouchable Business People

GeorgeRepublicans also have many Untouchables that they fail to regulate responsibly. Listening to the right talk about business people, or ”job creators” as their PR gurus coach them to say, you would think that all business people will automatically turn any type of tax break into great-paying jobs.  You would think that every last one of them is some combination of the job-creating genius Henry Ford and the Main Street humanitarian George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life.

Obviously, the reality is that some businesspeople do use tax breaks to invest in ventures that create good jobs, while others will use their tax savings to amass personal wealth, expand their operations in other countries, make poor investment decisions, or invest in purchasing a plutocracy that will deliver still more tax loopholes to them.

Yet anyone who objects to giving more tax breaks to business people is labeled by Republicans as “anti-jobs,” “anti-business” or “socialist.”

The world is just not that black and white.  No group of Americans is 100% virtuous, or 100% worthless, and public policies have to recognize that.

While it may be unpopular to say in the partisan cheering sections, the truth is that some health care providers are unethical, greedy and/or insufficiently skilled, and need to be regulated.  Some government workers are incompetent, unqualfied, and/or lazy, and allowing them to continue offering sub-par job performance hurts taxpayers and vulnerable citizens they are supposed to be serving. Some seniors are wealthy enough that they don’t need to be lavished with government benefits at the expense of more vulnerable Americans. Some military leaders are too trigger happy or myopic, and therefore need to have their arguments carefully scrutinized or rejected.

When partisans blindly apotheosize political Untouchables, important oversight and regulation goes undone. Untouchable constituencies lead to unaccountable policies.  A leader fighting for accountability among Untouchables shouldn’t be shouted down with simplistic name-calling. They are merely doing their job as responsible public managers, regulators and legislators.

Progressives Should Be Proud To Protect Outstanding Young Teachers

young_teacherAnybody who has followed my lunatic rantings knows that I’m an unabashed wealth redistributin’, Wall Street regulatin’, minority rightsin’, carbon tradin’, Keynesian spendin’, Medicare-for-Allin’, tree-huggin’, consumer protectin’, Pentagon cuttin’, infrastructure rebuildin’, union supportin’, monopoly bustin’, education investin’ liberal.

But the moment I support allowing younger teachers to have their classroom achievements considered as one factor in firing decisions – the same position supported by more than 90% of Minnesotans, the liberal Obama Administration and two-thirds of younger Minnesota teachers with less than 20 years experience — you’d think I’m the second incarnation of Michele Bachmann.   “Teacher basher!!!”

LIFO_teacher_seniority_firing_mapA talented young teacher who is successfully improving kids’ learning automatically should be mandated to be the first to be fired? That’s putting kids first? That’s pro-teacher? That’s pro-education? That’s respecting the teaching profession?  That’s helping struggling low-income school districts, who have a disproportionate share of younger teachers?  That’s liberal?

I’ve listened. I really have. But on this issue, the teacher’s union, for all the good it does, is simply wrong.  Any progressive should be proud to fight for the rights of outstanding young teachers and the kids benefiting from them.

When Discussing New Legislative Office Space, Why Not Desegregate Partisan Ghettos?

This week state leaders are discussing office space arrangements in a new legislative office building and a soon-to-be renovated State Capitol building. So maybe now is the time to desegregate their longstanding partisan ghettos.

In a recent interview, I asked Duane Benson, a former Senate Minority Leader (R-Lanesboro), how to reduce partisan polarization in the Legislature. One suggestion the legislative veteran made was to stop segregating legislative office space according to party affiliation:

duane_benson_headshot_2It sounds simplistic, but I think it would help a lot if legislators had their offices together, so that every other office was a different political party. They’d come out and talk to each other. In the House it’s a floor separating them.

The whole place is run on communications, but I guarantee I can go over there and find people who haven’t met all their colleagues yet.   I think officeing near each other is a kind of a simple fundamental thing that could happen to help people get to know each other. Then I think you start to respect each other…

Policymakers in both major parties agree that it is destructive when citizens are institutionally segregated based on race or ethnicity. They have seen that such ghettoization causes people to dehumanize, misunderstand and discriminate, which erodes the health of our communities and democracy. No contemporary Minnesota politician publicly advocates for mandatory segregation.

But when it comes to Legislative office space, segregation has long been accepted with no questions asked. Republicans get this partisan ghetto. DFLers get that partisan ghetto. They argue over the respective size of the ghetto, but there is bipartisan agreement about the need to segregate.

bipartisan_segregation_water_coolerWould having Democrats and Republicans in every other office automatically lead to a grand new era of bipartisan peace, love and understanding? Nope.  But it would almost certainly lead to more hallway conversations: “What are you doing this weekend?” “How’s your family?” “Can we borrow a chair for an hour?” “Cold enough for ya?  “How about them Twins?”

Over time, maybe initially awkward conversations build a little commonality, commonality builds a little trust, and trust makes bipartisan cooperation a tiny bit more likely.  Maybe?

Partisan desegregation of state legislative office buildings is no panacea. It may even be a total waste of time.  But there really is no reason we shouldn’t give it a try, unless fostering partisan polarization is the intent.

– Loveland

Note:  This post was also republished by MinnPost.

Where is The Vision of “Progress” From Minnesota Progressives?

Can someone please tell me what Governor Mark Dayton, Al Franken and the DFL Legislature plan to do with another term in office?  Because I have no earthly idea.

I know what they have done in the past, and it’s impressive – an improved economy, health care system, and fiscal outlook.

franklin_roosevelt_new_deal_campaign_button-_Google_SearchBut progressives are also supposed to lead the way forward.  The dictionary says a “progressive” is “a person advocating or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas.”

Where is the “new” part?  Where is the “advocating” part?

It’s entirely possible that I’m not paying close enough attention, because this campaign season is putting me to sleep.  But I can’t discern where these top DFLers propose to take Minnesota.

  • ACHIEVEMENT GAP PROGRESS?  For instance, the education achievement gap is a morally shameful and economically perilous problem.  What specific solutions does the DFL offer that are sufficiently bold to at least narrow that persistent gap?
  • CLIMATE CHANGE PROGRESS?  Climate change is the most urgent problem of our times, and Minnesota remains hopelessly addicted to dirty coal-fired power plants and cars dependent on environmentally destructive fracked petroleum.  I know the DFL supports more renewables and less fossil fuels, but how exactly are they going to realign financial incentives to make that more of a reality, and not just rhetoric.
  • COLLEGE AFFORDABILITY PROGRESS?  College is increasingly important for earning a good living, and increasingly out-of-reach for middle- and lower-income families.  What progressive ideas does the DFL offer to address this important challenge?
  • RETRAINING PROGRESS?  Many unemployed and underemployed workers lack the career skills to thrive in a fast-changing economy.  While increasing the minimum wage and funding job-creating bonding projects are great steps, what specific education and training help does the DFL offer to help those workers adjust to our economy’s new normal?

Does the DFL have a “secret plan” for more progress on any of these issues, like the secret plan President Nixon promised to end the Vietman War?  If so, why is it secret?    I just finished watching the PBS televention series about the Roosevelts, and I was reminded that Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor reaped political rewards by fearlessly advocating for bold solutions to society’s toughest problems.

Again, Minnesota DFLers  have earned reelection.  They have a strong record of paying back schools, implementing reforms that have a record 95% of Minnesotans with health insurance,  improving tax fairness, increasing the minimum wage, passing marriage equality, funding job-creating infrastructure improvements, delivering all-day kindergarten, and balancing the budget on-time, in a fiscally responsible way.  That’s very impressive work, at a time when extreme Tea Party-backed Republicans have offered only mindless obstructionism.

But we live in an impatient “what have you done for me lately” world.    To prevent an electoral setback a few weeks from now, DFLers need to fire up their progressive base enough to get them to vote at higher rates than they typically do in non-presidential year elections.  And in terms of a bold new progressive way forward, Minnesota DFLers haven’t offered much to fire them up.

– Loveland

Note:  This post also was also published by MinnPost.

Will Bakk Building Put DFL Back Out of Power?

While Minnesota DFLers controlled state government the past two years, they have done some very constructive things:

  • TRULY BALANCED BUDGET.  Unlike their GOP predecessors, DFLers balanced the budget without relying on irresponsible gimmicks and shifts, and they paid back public schools for the money the GOP shamefully “borrowed” from them.
  • TAX FAIRNESS.  The DFL also restored a bit of tax fairness to an unfair system, by increasing taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans who were paying a lower percentage of their income in taxes than other citizens.
  • 5 G’s.  Importantly, DFLers didn’t get bogged down with issues associated with “the five G’s” — gays, guns, gambling, God and gynecology — which tend to dominate under GOP control.  DFLers enacted marriage equality swiftly and efficiently — a very historic and important achievement — then moved on to other important non-G business.
  • ALL-DAY K.  DFLers passed universal all-day kindergarten.  While that’s not the first education investment I’d prioritize, it is a constructive move, and a publicly popular move.
  • JOBS AND INFRASTRUCTURE.  The DFL authorized and funded a long list of needed capital improvement projects that are rebuilding Minnesota’s deteriorating infrastructure and putting long-suffering construction workers back to work.
  • NO DELAYS OR SHUTDOWNS.  Finally, the DFL got its work done on time, and didn’t shut down state government, as the previous GOP-controlled Legislature did. DFLers mostly governed like grown-ups.

That’s a very nice body of work for the DFL to showcase to voters.  They should be proud of it.

If DFLers lose control of all or some of state government, it likely will have had to do with environmental factors they can’t change , such as low DFL constituency turnout in a non-presidential election and an unpopular Democratic President.  Their policymaking performance will not be their biggest political problem.

Minnesota_Senate_office_buildingBut there is at least one policymaking unforced error that is making things a bit more difficult for the DFL — the DFLers authorization of a new Senate office building.

The new Senate office building project is nowhere near as wasteful as Republicans claim.  It also is nowhere near as necessary as Senate DFLers claim.  But one thing is indisputable:   The political optics of the project are bad for the DFL during the election season.

Attack_mailing_PDF__1_page_Most voters won’t do a comprehensive financial analysis of whether DFL leaders are doing a good job stewarding their tax dollars.   They will judge fiscal stewardship based on an isolated example or two.  Republicans are working overtime to make sure that the Senate Office Building is the example voters use to make their judgement.

The Senate office building works well for the GOP on a political level.  First, the building is built for legislators by legislators.  On its face, that seems self-serving and arrogant to many voters.  Minnesotans don’t take kindly to self-serving and arrogant.

Second, this is not a pole building, and therefore can be made to seem extravagant.  The building renderings strike me as modest, responsible and utilitarian, but demagogues are making the Senate office building seem like something akin to Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea.

The issue is obviously being overblown by Republicans.  This project represents only a small fraction of the entire state budget, and the argument for the building is strong, if you actually take the time to study and consider it.  But at-a-glance, voters perceive the building to be self-serving and extravagant, and Republicans realize most will voters only consider the issue at-a-glance.

In what is likely to be a close non-presidential election with little room for error, the DFL legislators can’t afford many unforced errors.  Choosing this year to build the new Senate office building is one very big unforced political error.

– Loveland

Duane Benson Interview: Reflections on Caucuses, Clowning, and Cancer

Duane_Benson_ballcapDuane Benson is leading an interesting life.  As a football player, he made the unlikely leap from the MIAC’s Hamline Pipers to the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Oilers.  As a member of what was then called the Independent Republican (IR) Party, he served as Minnesota Senate Minority Leader.

Since retiring from politics, he has served as the Executive Director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, Executive Director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), Commissioner on the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) and Trustee of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), among other duties. All the while, he has operated a ranch near Lanesboro, Minnesota.

But this has been a particularly poignant time of life for Benson. In the middle of overseeing a massive higher education system and a billion dollar stadium project, Benson’s brother died in a tragic house fire, his beloved dog died, and he was diagnosed with tonsil cancer.  He has a lot on his mind.

Benson is a fount of wisdom and humor, so I recently sat down with him over a Grain Belt at O’Gara’s in St. Paul to pick his wry, interesting and mischievous brain.

Q.  You recently had surgery for tonsil cancer. How are you feeling these days?   A.  I’m feeling good. I’m still having a little trouble with excess saliva that effects my speech, but I’m managing that better. I was real lucky early on, and I think my speech is getting better. I still have a little weight to gain back, but I have no complaints.

Q.  How did you discover it?   A.  A dentist said “you have a lump in your jaw.” I went to the family doctor, they took it off. The guy said it’s benign, salivary gland, but I’ll send your stuff over to Mayo. He sent it over there, and they wanted to run a PET scan. They found cancer on my right tonsil. So, they removed the tonsil and the lymph nodes on the right side. You know when you have something like this, you learn of all kinds of people who have had something like this go wrong. They kind of come out of the woodwork. And I can’t think of anyone who has come out of it better than I have. No chemo so far, no radiation, and very little restrictions of anything I do. Yeah, I’ve come out of it well.

Q.  The Legislature recently adjourned, and I know you still follow things at the Capitol. How has the tone of legislative discussions changed since you left office? A.  Well I think, it’s a little bit like religions for me, organized religions. We have 320 Christian denominations in this country, and that doesn’t count Judaism and Muslims and everyone else. We spend all of our time on how we’re different. Political parties have become that way. We’re spending all our time on how we’re different. To get back to the analogy of religion, a lot of people believe in God, but they spend all their time talking about how they’re different instead of the same. I think the party organization has had a lot to do with manipulating people in politics. I’m encouraged that in recent times Mike Hatch broke the mold and said to his party “I don’t want your endorsement.” Mark Dayton came along and said “I don’t want your endorsement.” In fact, the guy running for Senate (Mike McFadden) said he wouldn’t abide by the party endorsement, which would have been the death knell in the past.  And they endorsed him anyway!  So I’m encouraged that the whole religion stuff might be dying down. Maybe it’s going back to more about the greater good than “I don’t like you.”

Q.  What factors have caused the change in tone? A.  I think it’s the focus on how we’re different. I don’t want to harken back to some good old day or something. You should have differences, on four or five really big issues – taxes, could be education delivery, a few others. But now it’s everything. And so I think that partisanship got intensified.  But as I said I’m kinda encouraged that I think there’s a little bit of hope that you don’t have to go through the purification process in order to get (on the ballot), which means maybe the greater good will come to the front. When Roger Moe and I were in office, the political parties would come to us as caucus leaders and say “we need money.” We’d write ‘em a check, and say don’t ever darken my door again.   Now, political parties come and say “we’ve got the money, and you better be beholden.” That’s very different.

Benson_quote_officesQ.  What do you think could be done to improve inter-party legislative relationships? A.  It sounds simplistic, but I think it would help a lot if legislators had their offices together, so that every other office was a different political party. They’d come out and talk to each other. Right now for instance with the Senate and that new building, it’s a block from the other side. In the House it’s a floor separating them. And the whole place is run on communications, but I guarantee I can go over there and find people who haven’t met all their colleagues yet.   I think office-ing near each other is a kind of a simple fundamental thing that could happen to help people get to know each other. Then I think you start to respect each other, and do all these other things.

Q.  What else has changed? A.  A lot of these ethics laws that needed to be passed did change things.   Before, you had to go to these damn (interest group-sponsored) receptions. And you’d go out in front of the Capitol and you’d get in a car, and you didn’t know who in the hell was in it. You know, it would be Democrats and Republicans. You got to know each other. They don’t do that now. None. They’re physically apart.   Things got a little overboard ethically in those days, but to some extent there is a chilling effect of going so far in the other direction.

Q.  Well, they could grab a beer with each other on their own dime. Do you think that would help? A.  Well, sure it would. You know they used to say that Gallivan’s, down on Wabasha in downtown St. Paul, they say most of the laws were written there. (laughing)

Q.  How was it working with former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe? A.  I did an interview about Roger Moe and the interviewer said “Roger told me you were the only friend he ever had in the Legislature.” And I said “He was the only friend I had.” They got along pretty good, the bodies, and they didn’t need us. So we had to interject ourselves from time to time. And then Roger was the master of co-opting me and everyone else. He was pretty damn good at it. I’d get our group of people in our caucus all fired up, ‘let’s go get ‘em, it’s an election year.’ They’d look at me and say “Roger appointed me the Chair of some council on seniors, or some damn thing.” (Laughing) Okay, check him off. Before you know it, I’ve got about two supporters left.

Q.  You and Senator Moe must have gotten angry at each other during the heat of battle. When that happened, how did you smooth it over so you could move forward?   A.  I think both of us, if we were wrong, we apologized to each other right away. Or he would be mad, and I’d say “we gotta get this behind us.” So we didn’t let it fester. You know it didn’t hang around and hang around.

Q.  Is that because the kind of people each of you are, or is it because that’s what you had to do that to get your jobs done?   A. Umm, I don’t know. You know, Roger is a Norwegian. (laughs)  The old adage about the Norwegian who loved his wife so much he almost told her, which is kinda true. You know, they don’t say shit. So, we would go to see (DFL) Governor Perpich together. First time. You know, I was so excited, I wanted to know about the squirrels and the windows. Roger doesn’t say a word the whole time. Second time I’m in there. We sat for a half hour. None of us said a word. Walkin’ out and I says to Roger, “That was sure fun.” He says “We actually made a lot of progress.” (laughing)  To him, that’s progress. That’s Roger. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

Q.  So, he thought the progress was just that you were establishing a relationship with the Governor? A.  Yep. Yep. And the other thing Roger did, and I still use it today, is that he would never sweep the table. Don’t take the crumbs. Given them something. And that year when we had like 41% of the Senators, I set out as our goal to get 41% of everything that went through there. And in the crime bill, we probably got 85%, taxes probably got 40%, health care we got 60%. Roger didn’t sweep the table. (laughing) That’s not the game now.

Q.  So why do you suppose he didn’t ‘sweep the table?’ A.  He wanted to stay in the majority. He didn’t want to piss anyone off. Boy he was masterful. I couldn’t wake the sleeping giant with a shotgun. He put (the Republican caucus) to sleep.

Q.  When you served in the Legislature, which of your colleagues made you laugh the most? A.  Oh my God. Clarence Purfeerst. We all have misnomers. You know, I’d keep track of them on paper. And they were subtle. I think I had five pages of them written down. Clarence Purfeerst. He was the Senator from Fairbault. Very effective. He carried the para-mutual betting bill. Living will. Never read ‘em. Never read the bill. Had no idea what was in them. But he’d say “if we could dispense the debate and get to the crotch of the matter.” (Laughs) And he had a hundred of those, and he never knew he said them. And we all said ‘em. Gene Merriam, one of the brightest guys who I ever served with, read every bill, carried the Superfund legislation. Room 15 was just packed. So somebody said, “Senator Merriam, what is pollution.” He says, “well it starts with an orgasm.” (laughs) The place was up for grabs. He turned red. Christ, they couldn’t get control of the place for another 5, 10 minutes. Someone says “you want to try that again?” “Yeah, really what happens with pollution is that it starts with an orgasm.” They adjourned the meeting. (laughs) People would come over to me and ask in a down moment “can I see your list (of misnomers).” Clarence had most of ‘em. But the rest of us, we did alright too.

Benson_teams_quote_3Q.  Did it help to get things done, to be able to laugh together? A.  Oh I think so. With all that’s happened to me recently with my brother dying, my dog dying, my cancer, and everything else, it kind of gave me a chance to think about what is that I like to do. And I like teams. For whatever reason, I’ve been the captain of everything I’ve played on in sports — in high school, college, the Raiders.  It’s because I like teams. I like  when you become somewhat invincible as a group, but weak as shit alone.   And so, it’s pretty hard not to have an ally if you laugh together. It’s pretty hard to stay mad about something. And that’s what the Legislature is. To get a majority, you need a team.

Q.  So, it’s interesting that you think of both your caucus and the entire Legislature as your team, not just your caucus. Is that right?   A.  Yeah.

Q.  That’s different now? Uh yeah, they had their caucus and we had our caucus. But make no mistake about it, they had more votes than we did. And so to get some of the things that we think are important, with 41% or whatever, (DFL legislators) had to be part of the team. You didn’t have enough votes to cram it down their throats.

Q.  What do you think DFLers misunderstand about Republican philosophy? A.  I don’t think the electorate is too warmed up to “who did this and who did that.” It’s“how can you fix it?” “Can you make it work?” I would say that  what Democrats fail to understand about Republicans is that Republicans want government to work better. Now some of them want less of it, to the point of none of it, but overall they want to fix it.

Duane_Benson_laughing_quoteQ.  What’s the most important thing your time in football taught you about life? A.  (long pause) I think to have fun. Gene Upshaw, Hall of Famer, used to stand up on the table and say “All you f***ers who just want to go out there and think this is fun, you’re not going to get a check. Head out there. Not you Benson, the rest of ‘em.” The game was fun. Politics is fun. I think people who have fun are productive.

Q.  These days you divide your time between meetings with very powerful people and meetings with cattle and horses out on your ranch. Where do you get more answers? A.  More out there (on the ranch). Being alone. I’ve been running for about 55 years. I average about 20 miles per week. Or I’m on a horse. I find myself thinking about goddamnest stuff that I just love. And I don’t have anyone to tell it to. But I don’t give a shit.

Q.  Superbowl Sunday 2018. Would you rather be in a luxury suite in the new stadium you are working so hard to oversee as a member of the Stadium Authority, or spending time on the ranch?  A.  I won’t be at the Super Bowl. Remember the great Duane Thomas from the Dallas Cowboys? He was goofier than hell. He never talked to a reporter all year. Never. So, then they get to the Super Bowl, and none of the reporters are going to talk to him. So, some cub reporter from Davenport or something sticks a mike in front of him. “Oh Mr. Thomas, isn’t this the greatest game ever. Aren’t you so excited. Can you believe this? Isn’t this the greatest game ever?” And he finally talked, first time all year. “No, they’re going to play another one next year.”  And that’s kind of how I feel about the Super Bowl. I don’t enjoy watching that much, and that one is going to be so full of hoopla. The game has changed a lot, and I don’t like all of that commotion. Madden called it hoopla.

Q.  How has battling cancer changed your outlook on life?  A. With my brother’s passing and things that were happening at the same time, you come closer to the realization that nobody gets out of this deal alive. I was thinking “so what is it that you really enjoy.” I’m kind of an isolated, not lonely, but I’m kind of to myself. But I just love the hell out of this team concept stuff. That doesn’t make sense. Kind of an isolationist that liked the team culture, establishing the culture, being part of that. You look at teams and why are some better. It’s the culture. I’m still wrestling with the cancer thing. You know, I’m fully aware that I could go back to the doctor in August and they’d take off a leg or whatever. But either way at some point, the Grim Reaper comes to see you. When I was in a couple training camps, they keep 40 guys and cut 100 guys. Really brutal. (laughing) So in the mornings, you’d hear the kid walking down the hall of the dorm we’re all staying in. “Knock, knock, knock. Breakfast.” “Knock, knock, knock. Breakfast.”   “Knock, knock, knock. Breakfast, bring your playbook.” And then you’d hear all the rest of the players holler: “Grim Reaper!” (laughing) Well, that’s one I haven’t finished resolving.

– Loveland

Note:  This post was also featured as a “best of the best” in MinnPost’s Blog Cabin.

1,300 DFL Activists Aren’t More Important Than Hundreds of Thousands of DFL Primary Voters

Democrat_convention_hatAs is their custom, Minnesota party leaders are spending their summer scolding candidates and primary voters who dare to disobey the endorsement of a relatively small group of party activists who attend their state conventions.

For instance, yesterday DFL Chairman Ken Martin, a good guy who seems to be doing a good job, had this to say about  fellow DFLer Matt Entenza, who is challenging the DFL-endorsed State Auditor Rebecca Otto:

Although he was a one-time House DFL leader, Matt Entenza has a history of running in DFL primaries. His last-minute filing is an insult to the hard-working DFLers he has to win over.

Okay, I’m a DFLer.   On rare occassions, I work hard.  So I loosely fit Chairman Martin’s description of people who matter.   But I am not one of the 1,300 people who endorsed Ms. Otto, and I didn’t delegate my democratic decision to them.

I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of hard-working DFLers who instead vote in primary elections, and I am far from “insulted” that Mr. Entenza wants to make his case to me and other primary voters.  Primary voters should get to choose between whichever candidates want to make their case to them, and they should have party leaders who support their right to choose.

In the primary of 2010, the last non-presidential primary, about 435,000 Minnesota DFLers stepped forward to make themselves heard at the ballot box.  There were well over 300 primary voters for every convention delegate.  Though fewer will vote in the primary this year, we can assume that hundreds of thousands of DFLers will vote in this year’s primary.  Those primary voters deserve to have their say every bit as much as the 1,300 DFL convention delegates deserved to have their say last weekend

I don’t begrudge the party activists their antiquated convention parlor game.  As someone who grew up in a primary-only state, the caucus system has never made sense to me, but whatever.  But I do resent  the delegates’ and party leaders’ elitist, anti-democratic assumption that the opinion of the 1,300 should automatically outweigh the opinion of the 435,000.

I’ll probably end up supporting the DFL-endorsed Otto, because she seems to have done a good job, not because she was endorsed by 1,300 folks in donkey hats.  But primary challenger Matt Entenza has every right to take his case to me and hundreds of thousands of other DFL primary voters.

– Loveland

Note:  This post was featured in Politics in Minnesota’s Best of the Blogs and MinnPost’s Blog Cabin.

Campaign Finance Reform En Vogue…Better Get This Marty Started

Democratic Pollster Stan Greenberg thinks one way for Democrats to mitigate their traditional midterm election setbacks is to stump for limits on the influence of big money on politics and policymaking.

In the wake of a couple of unpopular Supreme Court decisions that greatly increased the power of über-wealthy donors in elections, a recent Greenberg poll finds that campaign financing reform is very popular.  Greenberg tested support for the Government By The People Act (GBP), which would encourage small in-state contributions by establishing a capped 6-to-1 public financing matching program, and giving a tax credit to small donors.

Among the Democratic base that progressive candidates desperately need to turn out in 2012, this proposal is supported by a nearly 5-to-1 margin.  Among the Independent swing voters Democrats need to sway in the 2014 election, it enjoys a 3-to-1 supportive margin.

campaign_financing_poll_supportThanks to Senator John Marty (DFL-Roseville) and others, Minnesota has better campaign financing laws than most states.    But Minnesota’s campaign finance system could be improved, and this research shows this is an opportune time to propose improvements.

It’s too late for DFLers to pass campaign financing law improvements in 2013, but it’s not too late to inject the issue into the 2014 election debate.  This would be a great time for Marty to propose GBP-type rewards for small donors, and for DFL candidates to embrace them.  It’s the right thing to do substantively, and politically.

– Loveland

Minimum Wage “Indexing”: DFL Political Marketing At It’s Worst

pay_raiseGetting an “annual pay raise” is pretty awesome, especially if you’re a minimum wage worker.   Fist pumpingly awesome even.  So is getting a pay “bump,” “bonus,” “boost” or “hike.”

But having your wage “indexed” for inflation is underwhelming and/or confusing.

When a politician has an opportunity to legitimately claim credit for a guaranteed annual pay raise, that’s political gold.  So why are Minnesota DFLers marching around the State Capitol continually yammering to Minnesotans about their desire to “index” the minimum wage?  After all, the outcome of indexing is an annual pay raise, unless there is deflation, which is relatively unusual in the United States.

So why not call the DFL’s proposal what ordinary people would call it, an “annual raise?”

“The DFL is fighting to increase the minimum wage increase now, and build-in an annual pay raise for years to come.”

Voters would understand that much better than the current language being used:

“The DFL is fighting to adjust the minimum wage, indexed to the rate of inflation.”

When most minimum wage recipients hear the term “index,” they don’t think “an annual raise.”  They think one of two things:   1) Huh? or 2) The  part of the book that everyone skips because it’s too boring.  Either way, no fist pumps.

Mere wordsmithing, you say?  Republicans invest heavily in wordsmithing, and it has proven very effective for them.  They hire consultants like Frank Luntz, the author of “Words That Work:  It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” and many an Orwellian moment.   Luntz famously convinced  Republicans to shift from “inheritance taxes” to “death taxes.”  Luntz understood that “inheritance” sounds unearned and aristocratic to the masses, while “taxing death” sounds outrageously insensitive and unfair.  When Republican leaders followed Luntz’s advice, the level of support for inheritance taxes among non-wealthy citizens dramatically decreased.

But that’s not all.  Luntz convinced Republicans to march in lockstep from “oil drilling” to “energy exploration,” “health care reform” to “government takeover of health care,” and “corporations” to “job creators.” Luntz showed Republicans that words can work against you or for you.  Those seemingly minor shifts have helped Republicans win over many lightly engaged citizens.

So, my fellow liberals, what do you think the great political pied piper Luntz would have to say about Democratic politicians’ love affair with the term “indexing?”

“Indexing” is hardly the Democrats only jargon problem.  There is the coded term “single payer” instead of the instantly understandable “Medicare for all.”  There is the emphasis on the abstract move to “address the achievement gap” instead of on the more understandable push to  “fix failing schools.”  There is the sterile push for something called a “sustainable environment” instead of a push for something more tangible and visceral, such as “clean water, land and air.”

Ever-earnest Governor Dayton is trying to fix this through executive order.  The Plain Language Fact Sheet that he issued notes, plainly:

Using Plain Language to communicate will: 1) reduce confusion for citizens; 2) save time and resources; 3) improve customer service; and 4) make state government work better for the people it serves.

It will also improve DFLer’s chances in elections.  You go, Guv.

Republicans seem to be much more thoughtful and disciplined about campaign communications than Democrats.   Republicans will read Luntz’s talking points, and dutifully execute them day after day.  “Death tax, death tax, death tax.”  Meanwhile, self-serious Democrats  turn up their noses about what they regard as superficial “spin,” and cling to their beloved Wonkspeak to impress the think tankers.

Then, come Election Day, the Democrats wonder why voters don’t appreciate their accomplishments.  But as I watch the DFL speak in code about “indexing,” I don’t wonder.

– Loveland

Note:  This post was featured in Politics in Minnesota’s Best of the Blogs and MinnPost.