Inattentiveness At Minnesota State Legislature Isn’t Gender Or Race Specific

Cursor_and_Minnesota_House_DFL_leader_Melissa_Hortman_calls_out__white_males___won_t_apologize__VIDEO____City_PagesWhen it comes to the kerfuffle about Minnesota House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brookly Park) calling out the “100% white male card game in the retiring room” during a House floor debate, most would probably guess that I would be cheering on Hortman.  After all, I’m a committed liberal, and a strong believer that white male privilege has unfairly benefited me and is a significant problem in all aspects of our democracy and society.

But Minority Leader’s Hartman’s self-righteous speech didn’t sit right with me. In that particular case, the use of “white male” felt gratuitous, an over-the-top attempt to inject race and gender as a partisan bludgeon, because the opposition party is increasingly made up of whites and males.

The core objection at that moment was inattentiveness, so why make it about race and gender?  When race and gender get shoehorned into partisan zingers, I worry that it cheapens more legitimate criticisms of serious race and gender discrimination.

Don’t get me wrong.  As a white male, I certainly didn’t feel discriminated against by Representative Hortman, or in need of an apology, as oh-so-wounded Republican legislators apparently do.  That’s silly.  I just thought the “white male” part of Hortman’s speech was extraneous to the legitimate core criticism.

More importantly, though, the charge felt hypocritical and selectively applied. Anyone who has spent time at the State Capitol has watched all types of legislators being inattentive during proceedings, often quite brazenly and rudely. Legislators are engrossed in their social media monitoring. They’re giggling over whispered inside jokes. They’re dozing. They’re gossiping in the hallway or back of the room.

Last year about this time, I penned a humor piece entitled “The Five Anthropological Certainties of Minnesota Hearings,” and two of the five were dedicated to legislator inattentiveness.

#2. The iPhone Prayer.  The reason legislators continually have their heads bowed is not because they are prayerful or otherwise contemplative. It’s because of smart phones.

The hearing observer will quickly notice that legislators much prefer their smart phone to their smart constituents. Therefore, visitors should expect to mostly see the crowns of legislators’ heads, as they stare down smirking at their latest epic text or tweet.

You see, the State Legislature is like high school, with its complex network of cliques constantly angling to mistreat each other. But the environment is actually much more toxic than high school, because unlike high school, unlimited smart phone use is permitted in class.

#3. The Extras. Visitors will notice that the least relevant person in the committee room is the lowly testifier. The person delivering testimony is an extra, a volunteer who is cast by legislators to create the illusion of information gathering and democratic participation.

Seemingly unaware of the ruse, many testifiers spend hours earnestly preparing their thoughtful, fact-filled remarks.  But they quickly discover that committee members have much more pressing needs to attend to, such as epic texts and tweets.

You’ll notice that the anthropologist’s observation was not limited to any one gender, race, party or ethnicity, because the observation applies to just about every single legislator in the building. If you ever have occasion to attend a legislative committee hearing or floor debate, I guarantee you will see plenty of non-white non-males among the inattentive herd.

So, Minority Leader Hortman, thank you for speaking out about the problem of legislators being inattentive during legislative proceedings. That’s a worthwhile cause.  I’d encourage you to look at systemic approaches to making the place more respectful of democratic debate and citizen input, such as asking party leaders to be more vigilant and consistent about insisting that their colleagues at least pretend to pay attention during legislative proceedings, or maybe even closing or repurposing the “retiring room.”

But you lost me when you tried to portray the problem of inattentiveness as something that is specific to a subset of legislators. Because inattentiveness at the Minnesota State Capitol is endemic to all parties, races and genders.

With a Budget Surplus, GOP’s Across-the-Board Cuts Is Not “Kitchen Table Budgeting

Cursor_and_kitchen_table_budgeting_-_Google_SearchRepublicans — ever eager to show they are in touch with the values of ordinary Minnesotans — are very fond of drawing analogies between household budgeting and government budgeting. Former Governor Tim Pawlenty was especially keen on talking about the virtues of “kitchen table budgeting.”

In front of the camera’s, Pawlenty would play the well-rehearsed role of Stern Daddy, saying things like, “when Minnesota families are sitting around the kitchen table making their budgets, they make the tough cuts to balance their budget, and the Legislature needs to what those Minnesota families do.”

Actual Kitchen Table Budgeting

There are a lot of things that are silly about the Republicans’ “kitchen table budgeting” analogy, foremost among them that many families don’t balance their family budgets.   The dirty little secret is that we ordinary families are not quite as financially virtuous as the pandering pols make us out to be.  This from Bloomberg news:

Household borrowing surged in March at the fastest pace since November 2001 as financing for automobiles picked up and Americans’ outstanding credit-card debt soared.

The $29.7 billion increase, or an annualized 10 percent, exceeded the highest estimate in a Bloomberg survey and followed a revised $14.1 billion gain the prior month, Federal Reserve figures showed Friday. Revolving credit, which includes credit-card spending, posted the biggest annualized advance since July 2000.

Political rhetoric aside, the data show that families are borrowing at record rates rather than balancing their budgets.  So ordinary families may not be the right role models for our leaders.

Across-the-Board Cuts?

This year, Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature are proposing to slash state government spending, by 10 percent across-the-board.  This is not the way ordinary families budget at the kitchen table: “Okay sweetie, here are all the bills. Just lop off 10% of what we pay next year for the mortgage, car, RV, boat, snowmobile, cabin, cable, cell phone, utilities, health insurance, groceries, medicines, vacation fund, the college fund, the retirement fund, rainy day fund…”

Instead, families set priorities and cut accordingly. They say things like, “Well, we gotta keep the household running smoothly, and have a household safety net in case of an emergency, so we can’t cut these things.  Sending the kids to college is really important to us, so we can’t skimp there. But I guess we can do without a vacation, a car for the teenager, and premium cable.”  In other words, they reflect on their values, set spending priorities accordingly and cut spending surgically, not across-the-board.

Non-Crisis Family Budgeting

Cursor_and_Price_of_Government_as_of_End_of_2014_Legislative_SessionMore to the point, families typically don’t cut the family budget — across the board or otherwise — when the family finances are stable or improving. I promise you, this is not heard at very many kitchen tables: “Okay sweetie, we’re financially comfortable and stable right now, but let’s cut the household budget deeply anyway!”

The State of Minnesota is not in a crisis.  Our finances are currently sound, with a $1.65 billion budget surplus for the next two years. In contrast to the Pawlenty-era, when budget shortfalls were the norm, Governor Dayton required the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes, and the state has been on solid fiscal footing ever since. Moreover, the “price-of-government” — Minnesota state and local government revenues as percentage of personal income — is currently relatively low.

So, why cut state spending at all? Did we suddenly come to the realization that Minnesotans need 10 percent less education?  Compared to the past, do we really think Minnesotans need 10 percent less roads, transit, human services, public health protection, environmental protection, economic development, and public safety? If not, then why in the world would we slash all of those vital services by 10 percent, at a time when we have a large budget surplus and the price of government is lower than historic averages.

After all, it’s certainly not what Minnesotans would do at the kitchen table.

On Marijuana Prohibition, Minnesota Legislators Are Not High On Substance

Cursor_and_Support_increases_for_marijuana_legalization___Pew_Research_CenterI recently wrote to Minnesota legislators to ask them to end marijuana prohibition, as many states have recently done. The responses I’ve received have been disappointing, not because they disagreed with me, but because they were utterly vacuous.

In matters of political debate, I’m a big boy. For more than thirty years, I have worked in and around bare knuckle politics. I grew up a liberal in a deep red state (South Dakota), so I am very accustomed to losing arguments. Still I value a good substantive discussion, because that’s how attitudes change over time.

But what I got back from Minnesota legislators was birdbrained political handicapping, not substance. I sent them a note with this evidence-heavy blog post, and expected at least a somewhat substantive rebuttal to my arguments.

Instead, I got responses like this from Minnesota legislators (excerpted):

“…it is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future that the Minnesota Legislature will take such a step.

Numerous concerns have been expressed about the negative impact legalization would have on public safety, and the incidence of addiction.

Nonetheless, please know should any proposals related to marijuana come before me, I will give them the thoughtful consideration they merit.”

Blah, blah, blah. I don’t use marijuana, but reading these responses made me dumber than any drug ever could.  Every response I received had a similar cavalier shrug of the shoulder, political handicapping, “some people say…” passive aggressiveness, and refusal to state a personal position or respectfully rebut mine.

In my misspent youth, I spent a few years drafting such responses for a U.S. Senator.  So I’m a bit of a connoisseur of this dark art.  My liberal former boss always insisted on providing his mostly conservative constituents with his evidence-based arguments.  He felt he owed them that, that it was a sign of respect.  I got nothing of the kind from Minnesota legislators.

Obviously, the chances of overturning marijuana prohibition under a GOP-controlled Legislature, U.S. Department of Justice, Congress and White House are nonexistent.  But I took the time to contact legislators because I wanted to educate them, compare notes and move the conversation forward.  I know that popular opinion on this issue is changing rapidly, and that election swings change political calculations overnight, as we saw with marriage equality. So I sincerely wanted to gain a better understanding of how Minnesota legislators were processing the issue.

If Minnesota legislators really believe that marijuana is more addictive than alcohol, show me your data.  If they really believe that marijuana laws aren’t being used to disproportionately punish people of color, show me your data.  If they really believe that marijuana kills more people than alcohol, or causes more health problems, show me your data.

And if you concede the accuracy of all of the data that I’ve supplied, explain the logic of continuing prohibition of marijuana, while expanding the availability of much more destructive alcohol products.

That type of disagreement I can respect. That kind of disagreement moves the democratic dialogue forward. But using “it’s not going to pass” and “some interest groups say…” deflections as a substitute for substantive debate is for pundits, not policymakers.

Boot the Mute

Cursor_and_Minnesota_gets_D-_grade_in_2015_State_Integrity_Investigation___Center_for_Public_IntegrityWhen Republicans took over the Minnesota House of Representatives, they got their chance to show Minnesotans their preferred style of governing.

Think of all of the things Republicans could have done to strut their stuff for voters. They could have enacted reforms to improve Minnesota laws regarding public access to information. They might have reformed Minnesota laws related to legislative accountability, ethics enforcement or state pension fund management. After all, the Center for Public Integrity gives Minnesota — a state that often can’t stop congratulating itself about how ethical it’s government is — an “F” grade in all of those areas.  DFLers didn’t improve governnance in those areas, so Republicans could have showed them up.

But instead, Republicans leaders have, I kid you not, installed a “master mute” button in the House chambers to shush debate that discomforts them.  MinnPost’s Briana Bierschbach  explains the scene when Minnesota’s first learned of the button’s existence:

On May 22 (2016), with less than an hour to go before a deadline to finish work for the 2016 legislative session, the bonding bill landed on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, standing at the rostrum in front of the chamber, quickly readied the nearly $1 billion package of construction projects for a final vote, but Democrats in the minority weren’t happy. Several members picked up their microphones and shouted in protest, saying there wasn’t enough time to read the entire bill, much less make any changes to the proposal.

Then an odd thing happened: For those watching the chaos on the House chamber’s livestream video feed, the shouting abruptly stopped. Then it started back up, until suddenly voices were cut off again, some midsentence. Daudt, who is shown in the House video standing at the rostrum, pushes something off to his right on the desk several times.

It turns out Daudt was utilizing a new feature installed in the Minnesota House chambers ahead of the 2016 session: A “master mute” button.

News_about__mnleg_on_TwitterThe reality of the mute button is pretty horrifying. Regulating debate should continue to be done with the traditional, predictable, and ever-civil Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, not the impulsive flick of a politicians’ index finger.  Mason’s doesn’t need a mute.

But as bad as the reality of the mute button is, the political optics is worse. Keep in mind the national context for this Minnesota action. At the national level, we have a Republican Congressman bellowing “you lie” in the middle of a President’s State of the Union Address. We have a Republican U.S. Senate Leader  censoring and scolding a Senator for daring to quote a civil rights leader’s assessment of a nominee tasked with enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws. We have a Republican President who cuts off anyone who questions him with a loud and dismissive “quiet,” “no you’re the puppet,” “you’re a nasty woman,” “go back to UniVision,” “wrong, “get em outta here,” and “knock the crap outta them.”

With that as Minnesota Republicans’ ignominious national backdrop, you would think they would be working extra hard to show that they are as civil and transparent as Minnesotans demand. But if you wanted to showcase a party’s insecurity, hubris, and disrespect for free speech, you could not come up with a more outrageous prop than a “master mute” button. It feels like something out of an over-the-top Saturday Night Live or Monte Python skit, not something a state party would do to prove that it isn’t as rude and authoritarian as it’s historically unpopular national leader.  Minnesota Republicans are absolutely tone-deaf on this issue.

The Minnesota House’s mute button is obscene and an attack on our free speech values. So legislators, let’s immediately vote to remove it, apologize to Minnesotans, snip the wires, patch the shameful podium scar, and move forward with blissfully raucous democratic debates about improving ordinary Minnesotans’ lives.

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.

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?

Every Vikings Ticket Carries a $72 Taxpayer Subsidy?

Cursor_and_vikings_suites_-_Google_SearchAre Minnesota Vikings season ticket holders effectively government-dependent welfare queens?  After all, a state legislator’s analysis finds that every Vikings ticket benefits from a taxpayer subsidy of over $72.

If that analysis is correct, it would mean that over the next decade a season ticket-holding family of four will be benefiting from about $29,000 in subsidies from Minnesota taxpayers.  Over the three-decade life of the stadium, the 24 corporate benefactors sipping chablis in the Valhalla Suite will be benefiting from a government subsidy of about $521,000.

And we’re worried about poverty-stricken families on Food Stamps? 

Those figures are based on an analysis done by Minnesota State Senator John Marty (DFL-Roseville).  Senator Marty calculates that the entire taxpayer burden for subsidizing our new People’s/U.S. Bank Stadium is over $1.4 billion.  I’m not a public finance expert, but Senator Marty is a bright guy with access to public finance experts, and he seems to have done a lot of homework to develop this estimate.  He shows his homework in the spreadsheet provided below.

For purposes of the estimate, Senator Marty assumes that the Vikings will sell about 19.5 million tickets over the next 30 years.  While other non-Vikings events will also be held in the facility, Marty’s analysis only looks at Vikings tickets.

From there, it’s a simple calculation: $1.4 billion in subsidy÷19.5 million tickets=$72 subsidy per ticket.

Cursor_and_Subsidy_per_ticket_-_calculated_May_15_2012_pdf__page_2_of_2_Critics may quibble with the specifics of the Marty analysis.  But specifics aside, the undeniable fact remains that Minnesota taxpayers are on the hook for an enormous subsidy that looks to be much larger than the $498 million figure typically quoted during legislative debates.

Cursor_and_Subsidy_per_ticket_-_calculated_May_15_2012_pdf__page_1_of_2_

Is Zygi Claus As Generous As Local News Coverage Makes Him Out To Be?

zygi_wilf_shovel

Billionaire Vikings owner Zygi Wilf is Minnesota’s Santa Claus. That’s essentially the message local news and sports coverage has hammered into Minnesotans’ heads over the last couple of years.

There has been a steady string of positive headlines promoting the Wilf’s stadium-related generosity: Twin Cities Business magazine: “Wilfs Commit $19.5 million More to New Vikings Stadium.”  Minnesota Public Radio:  “Vikings add 19.7 million to stadium contribution.”  WCCO-TV:  “Vikings, Wilfs To Commit to Additional $14M To New Stadium.”  The Saint Paul Pioneer Press:  “Vikings’ Zygi Wilf to increase stadium contribution.”  The Star Tribune:  “Vikings pony up $49 million for stadium accessories.”

Legendary Star Tribune sports columnist Sid Hartman regularly preaches about how fortunate we Minnesotans are to have the Wilfs lavishing us with additional stadium-related toys out of the goodness of their hearts.  For instance, under the homer headline “Vikings Stadium Will Be Spectacular,” a typical Hartman column tells Minnesotans to “take your hat off to the Wilf family,” and then essentially turns his column over to Vikings executive Lester Bagley’s pro-Wilf spin:

“The Wilf family has put in an additional $95 million since the bill passed the Legislature, because a lot of teams and communities get to this point and they start to cut things [and] we don’t want to cut things. We want to add things and make sure this is the best stadium in the league.

The Legislature had us agree to $477 million in team/private dollars and since the bill passed, on top of that $477 million, the Wilfs have agreed to contribute an additional $95 million and counting.”

In addition to his newspaper columns, Mr. Hartman even more frequently carries the same kind of Wilf cheerleading to the powerful radio airwaves of WCCO-AM.  KFAN-FM and 1500-ESPN also do their fair share to promote Zygi’s stadium contributions to their listeners.

The cumulative effect of all of this has been to paint a portrait of jolly old Zygi Claus and Lester the Elf continually delivering millions of dollars of new stadium toys to Minnesota’s football loving girls and boys.

I don’t blame reporters for those headlines.  The budget increases happened, and reporters need to cover developments like that. Moreover, I’m glad that the Wilfs are paying the extra costs.  It’s better than the alternative.

But as Mr. Wilf prepares to cut the ribbon for his new business asset later this summer, and have even more adoration heaped upon him by Mr. Hartman and others, it’s important to look at the broader context.

Others Paying “Owner’s Share”

Remember that the owner has had lots of help paying the so-called “owner’s share” of the stadium. The Vikings are getting hundreds of millions of dollars from a number of outside sources, such as a NFL loan program, seat licenses paid by fans, and enormous naming rights payments coming from U.S. Bank customers.  As Minnesota Public Radio reported:

“If the team gets the NFL loan, sells naming rights and charges for personal seat licenses according to these estimates, it would have about $115 million of the original $427 million pledge yet to pay. Compared to the upfront price tag on the stadium of $975 million, the amount left is about 12 cents on the dollar.”

Note that this April 2012 MPR analysis was done prior to the Wilf’s increasing their stadium contributions by an additional $95 million or so.   It also was done without solid numbers related to these three types of funding sources.

But details aside, the larger point remains:  What the owner is actually paying is only a small fraction of what is described in news coverage as “the owner’s share.”

Star Tribune sports columnist and 1500ESPN radio analyst Patrick Reusse also wrote an excellent 1500ESPN blog post asserting that about $450 million of the Wilf’s share will be paid by someone other than the Wilfs.  Reusse’s analysis was titled “Quite a Bonanza For Our Stadium Martyr.”  However, the radio station appears to have removed the post.

“Worst Deal From Sports Team”

Mr. Wilf is the generous one?  Really?  Minnesota taxpayers are bearing a heavy burden for the stadium, because the Wilfs insisted on it, during a decade worth of legislative warfare.  In naming the Twin Cities one of “5 cities getting the worst deals from sports teams,” MarketWatch asks:

“How do you get taxpayers to chip in $500 million on a more than $1 billion stadium when only one city, Indianapolis ($620 million), has ever paid that much?”

MarketWatch also notes that Minneapolitans “will end up paying $678 million over its 30-year payment plan once interest, operations and construction costs are factored in.”

I’m not informed enough about every stadium deal in the nation to say whether MarketWatch is correct that Minnesotans got one of the worst deals ever.  But it is important to understand that Minnesota taxpayers are being extraordinarily generous to the Vikings owners, not the other way around.

Wilfs Are Takers, Not Givers

By any reasonable analysis, the Wilfs are the big takers in this scenario.  They are not, as much of the news and sports coverage has implied or asserted, the big givers.  After all, this luxurious new taxpayer subsidized stadium won’t make taxpayers’ wealthier, but it is already making the Wilf’s much wealthier.

Forbes magazine estimates that the Vikings franchise, which reportedly was purchased by the Wilfs for about $600 million in 2005, was worth $796 million in 2011, the year before the stadium subsidy was approved.  By 2015, after the taxpayer subsidy was approved by the Minnesota Legislature and Governor Dayton, Forbes estimates the value of the Wilf’s business had spiked to $1.59 billion.

That’s a remarkably quick appreciation going to Zygi Claus’s bottom line in the post-stadium approval era.  Add what the owners will be pocketing due to large increases in stadium-related revenue in the coming years, and it’s pretty clear that the Wilfs are making out like bandits.

Precise analysis is pretty much impossible on this subject, because executives are not nearly as forthcoming about details related to the loan, seat licenses and naming rights as they are about contributions. However, this is roughly what it looks like to me:  Zygi Claus is investing something in the neighborhood of $200 million to see his business valuation increase by at least $800 million, and probably quite a bit more over time.

None of this is illegal, or all that unusual.  But it also is not Santa Claus.

But Wait, There’s More! For No Additional Cost, We Also Are Including Tweets…

For those who enjoy tweeting and getting twitted at, I’m @jloveland.  Small sample of the available awesomeness:

Tweet_transgenderCursor_and_Joe_Loveland___jloveland____TwitterJoe_Loveland___jloveland____Twitter

Relief Needed In Minnesota’s Food Deserts

I don’t understand why food deserts — areas in which it is difficult to buy affordable fresh food — happen. Why wouldn’t the free market law of supply-and-demand dictate that grocery stores would locate wherever food-consuming human beings are located?  It’s especially difficult to understand how food deserts happen in densely populated urban neighborhoods.

map_fooddesert_jpg__500×351_But food deserts definitely do happen, particularly in low-income and rural areas.  When they do, Minnesota’s most vulnerable fellow citizens – those with the least economic ability to travel far distances to do their regular grocery shopping – suffer the most.  Too often, they’re forced to eat what is available in their neighborhood, which is relatively expensive and unhealthy junk food from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. 

This phenomenon is contributing to an obesity epidemic in those neighborhoods that is threatening Minnesota’s quality-of-life, and driving huge medical costs.  For the sake of our food desert-stranded neighbors and taxpayers who will bear much of the brunt of the resulting medical costs of these food deserts, something needs to be done.

So, what’s the solution?  We normally can depend on market forces to solve resource allocation issues like this.  But when market forces aren’t working, and the breakdown causes public problems and expenses, governments need to intervene.  

This year, the Minnesota Legislature is considering establishing a Good Food Access program.  Under the proposal, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture would provide $10 million per year for loans and grants to support or create grocery stores, or even mobile grocery stores.

Some may say that government supporting grocery stores is inappropriate.  But clearly, the market is not working in this case, so government does need to fill in the gap to bring badly needed oases to Minnesota’s food deserts.

The Five Anthropological Certainties of Minnesota Legislative Hearings

hearing_room_2Now that state legislators are creating better public spaces for visitors in the new Senate Office Building and renovated State Capitol Building, here’s hoping there will be more ordinary citizens coming to legislative proceedings. The Minnesota Legislature is extremely insular and clubby, so it could benefit from fresh observers and participants.

When I’m traveling to an unfamiliar new place, I like to do research into the inhabitants’ culture, so I’m at least somewhat familiar with their ways.  In that spirit, I’m offering a few amateur anthropological observations about what visitors to the new Capitol campus digs can expect to see during legislative hearings.

Outsiders will observe at least five repetitive behavior patterns characteristic of the native inhabitants of the State Capitol campus:

#1.  The 75% Rule.  During the first witness of the hearing, legislators serving on the committee will, in rapid succession, launch a long series of rhetorical questions, speeches, irrelevant personal stories, and/or “jokes.”  Remember That Kid in school who always needed to be heard?  Well, there are about a dozen of Those Kids in this classroom, they all have a desperate need to be heard, and there is no teacher present to restrain them.

Therefore, the legislator-centric grandstanding during the first witness typically takes roughly 75% of the allotted hearing time.  During the remaining 25% of the time, the legislators who have been talking ad nauseam will shift to scolding the long list of scheduled testifiers about the need to be brief.  After all, busy legislators don’t have time to waste.

cultural_anthropology_quotes_-_Google_Search#2. The iPhone Prayer.  The reason legislators continually have their heads bowed is not because they are prayerful or otherwise contemplative. It’s because of smart phones.

The hearing observer will quickly notice that legislators much prefer their smart phone to their smart constituents. Therefore, visitors should expect to mostly see the crowns of legislators’ heads, as they stare down smirking at their latest epic text or tweet.

You see, the State Legislature is like high school, with its complex network of cliques constantly angling to mistreat each other. But the environment is actually much more toxic than high school, because unlike high school, unlimited smart phone use is permitted in class.

#3. The Extras. Visitors will notice that the least relevant person in the committee room is the lowly testifier. The person delivering testimony is an extra, a volunteer who is cast by legislators to create the illusion of information gathering and democratic participation.

Seemingly unaware of the ruse, many testifiers spend hours earnestly preparing their thoughtful, fact-filled remarks.  But they quickly discover that committee members have much more pressing needs to attend to, such as epic texts and tweets.

#4.  The Mind-Melding.  The confident looking people in the hearing room who dress like they earn significantly more than $31,141 per year are not legislators. They are lobbyists.

This native species will be furiously scribbling, typing, texting, hand signaling and whispering. This elaborate display is to justify spending 99% of their work day sitting through legislative testimony that is being 99% ignored by the legislators.

Interesting side note: Lobbyists have mind-melding powers, derived from their political action committees (PACs).

#5. The Civil Sandwiches. Hearing tourists will also notice that legislators have a very peculiar and predictable speech pattern, which linguists have dubbed The Civil Sandwich.

Here’s how it goes:  Legislators begin and end statements by saying something superficially civil. Then sandwiched between the civilities is a juicy layer of petty savagery. For instance, a typical Civil Sandwich might sound like this:

“I greatly appreciate the fine work of my good friend, and thank him for bringing forward these ideas.

However, moron, your bill would obviously lead to the collapse of Minnesota’s economy, the moral decay of society and, very possibly, leprosy. This proposal proves you are even more stupid and corrupt than I suspected, and are clearly doing the bidding of evil-doers intent on world domination. And by the way, the fiscal note for this bill is as nauseating as your very homely spouse.

But again, Representative Jensen-Carlson, I sincerely appreciate and respect the hard work you have done on this issue.  I look forward to collaborating with you to improve on it, because that’s just the kind of fella I am.”

Yes, I’m exaggerating for effect.  It’s the satirists’ disease.  The truth is, many individual legislators are bright, thoughtful, and decent people who sincerely care about Minnesota. In fact, I’ve often made the case that legislators should be paid much more than $31,141 per year, because their job is important, time-consuming and difficult.

But individuals aside, when it comes to the collective culture of legislative hearings, my level of exaggeration here is not as extreme as you might hope.  But by all means, go judge for yourself.  Enjoy your excursion to an upcoming hearing in legislators’ spacious new habitat.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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

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.

Where’s Our Achievement Gap Urgency?

The Minnesota Legislature is crisis driven. It has a brief amount of time to address a long list of requests, so every year it tends to prioritize relatively small number of issues that legislators view as being most urgent. Those prioritization decisions are the most impactful decisions they make in any given year.

So, what should the Legislature’s top priority be for the brief 2016 session? Job-creation? Crime? Homelessness? Social issues? Health improvement? Economic competitiveness? Reducing the cost of government to ease tax burdens?

Each legislator has different priorities, but the one issue that will profoundly impact all of those issues for decades to come is Minnesota’s education achievement gap. If we can narrow the achievement gap in our increasingly diverse schools, it will go a long way to making progress on all of the issues just mentioned.

EdWeek summarizes Minnesota’s situation when it comes to the achievement gap:

Overall, Minnesota is a high-performing state academically, but it has some of the highest achievement gaps in the country between white minority students, and between low-income students and their more affluent peers. Those gaps have caught the attention of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who in a January 2011 speech to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce criticized the state for its “lack of urgency” and its stalled progress in raising the achievement of disadvantaged students.

Well guess what, Arne? Five years later, I still don’t feel that sense of urgency.

Sense of Urgency, Anyone?

For example, we know that retaining effective teachers, and removing ineffective ones, is one of the most important things that can be done to improve student performance. Yet Minnesota is one of a very small number of states that continues a policy of retaining k-12 public school teachers based on seniority, instead of measured effectiveness. This “last in first out” policy makes it makes it difficult to retain high performing young teachers, who disproportionately work in schools serving low-income students.  Though a huge majority of Minnesotans agree this policy should be changed, the teacher’s union’s insistence on protecting the seniority-driven status quo prevails at the Legislature year-after-year.  That doesn’t sound like a state with a sense of urgency about the achievement gap.

Equity_and_equality_graphicWe also know that research shows that education achievement gaps can be measured in children as young as 9 months old. So, clearly the most vulnerable children need help very early in life, not just at age 4.  To catch up, low-income children need extra help as early in life as possible.  Yet, some state education leaders recommend heavily subsidizing pre-k services for parents of 4 year olds who can already afford services before we help the thousands of low-income kids under five who currently can’t afford high quality home visiting and early learning programs.  If narrowing the achievement gap was truly driving education policymaking, we would be helping those most at-risk kids first and fully.

More k-12 funding is also needed to fund gap-narrowing strategies, such as intensive remedial tutoring.  But leaders aren’t acting with sufficient urgency on this front either.   As of FY 2013, Minnesota ranked an underwhelming 21st among states in inflation-adjusted spending, at $11,089 per student. Oh to be investing at the level of even sixth ranked Wyoming, which is at $15,700 per student.  If Minnesota could just be a little more like Wyoming, we could use the additional $4,600 per student to better support our most gap-vulnerable students.

More Rhetoric Than Reform

I’m not saying that Minnesota is ignoring the achievement gap.  It is mentioned ad nauseam at the State Capitol, by people of all political stripes.  Discussing the problem is a necessary first step, but it has to lead to reform of the status quo.

Leaders who are truly feeling a sense of urgency about the education achievement gap don’t continue to fire effective young teachers in low-income schools, ignore the plight of its youngest and most vulnerable children, and remain complacent with middle-of-the-pack investments.  Both the political right and left can do better.

If we don’t start getting more serious about addressing the k-12 achievement gap, Minnesota won’t have the highly educated workforce it needs to compete in the global economy. As Minnesota’s workforce become less competitive, jobs will be less plentiful and will pay less.  When that happens, our state and local revenues will decrease, and our state and local government costs will increase. The resulting fiscal squeeze won’t just hurt those “other people” from different races, ethnicities and neighborhoods; it will hurt all Minnesotans, and our collective future.

That’s why the k-12 achievement gap can’t be considered “just another issue” on a long laundry list of issues. An issue of this magnitude needs to be treated like the Legislature’s top priority. Legislative initiatives to narrow the achievement gap should attract the most intensive focus, the best thinking, the most thoughtful and courageous leadership, the most bipartisan cooperation, and necessary resources.  If we don’t get more serious about the achievement gap soon, the state known for an education-driven “Minnesota Miracle” in the 1970s could become known for an education-driven Minnesota Meltdown in the not too distant future.

Note:  This post was also selected for MinnPost’s Blog Cabin feature.

Disclosure: In addition to being a blogger expressing personal opinons, the author is a communications consultant. Among many other clients, he works with a nonprofit that advocates for income-targeted investments in pre-k early education.  As with all blog posts, this reflects solely the author’s personal opinion.

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.

Who Negotiated That Stadium Deal Again?

Vikings PR people like to tell Minnesotans that the team’s owner, billionaire Zygi Wilf, is paying about 60 percent of the ever-growing $1.2 billion stadium cost.  The truth, as Star Tribune/1500ESPN columnist Patrick Reusse pointed out back in May 2012, is that something like $450 million of the Wilf’s share will be paid by people other than the Wilfs. For instance, season ticket holders will be making exorbitant seat license payments to the Wilfs, the National Football League will be paying a subsidized “loan” to the Wilfs, and U.S. Bank will be making naming rights payments to the Wilfs.  All of this will offset the Wilf’s stadium costs by about $450 million.

Taking all of that into consideration, Mr. Wilf looks to be shelling out more in the neighborhood of  $250 million of his own money, or 21% of the cost of the $1.2 billion total, not the 60 percent the Vikings claim.  It’s difficult for an outsider to come up with precise numbers, but that seems like a pretty fair, pardon the pun, ballpark estimate.

Meanwhile, state and local taxpayers are paying about half a billion dollars for the Vikings’ stadium, or about 40 percent percent of the stadium cost.  In other words, taxpayers are paying significantly more than the billionaire owner.

Despite being the majority investor, taxpayers have no say in the name of the stadium, and will be getting 0 percent of the estimated $10 million per year of corporate naming rights payments that U.S. Bank will be paying over the next two decades.  The billionaire Wilfs will be getting 100 percent of the $220 million in naming rights payments.

Formerly_People_s_Stadium

mao_tiananmen_squareIt’s bad enough that U.S. Bank looks to be getting more corporate visibility than Chairman Mao demanded for himself at Tiananmen Square. To add insult to aesthetic injury, taxpayers aren’t getting a single penny for putting up with U.S. Bank’s excessive corporate graffiti.

And so ladies and gentlemen, I give you U.S. Bank Stadium, formerly billed to skeptical taxpayers as the “people’s stadium.”  State leaders should be doing some retrospective soul-searching about how they got so thoroughly fleeced by the Wilfs on this deal.

Dear DFLers: This is Minnesota, Not MinneSweden

These are very heady times for Minnesota DFLers. Governor Mark Dayton and DFL legislators had the courage to raise taxes, increase long-term investments, and raise the minimum wage.  In the process, Minnesota Republicans were proven wrong, because the economic sky did not fall as they predicted it would.   In fact, liberally governed Minnesota, with an unemployment rate of just 3.7 percent, has one of the stronger economies in the nation.

And the subsequent coverage from the liberal echo chamber has been positively intoxicating for DFLers:

“This Billionaire Governor Taxed the Rich and Increased the Minimum Wage — Now, His State’s Economy Is One of the Best in the Country” (Huffington Post)

“The Unnatural: How Mark Dayton Bested Scott Walker—and Became the Most Successful Governor in the Country”  (Mother Jones)

“What happens when you tax the rich and raise the minimum wage? Meet one of USA’s best economies” (Daily Kos)

Comparative_Economic_Systems__SwedenHigh as a kite from these clippings and the vindication they represent, DFLers run the risk of over-stepping, of pushing Minnesotans further than it they are comfortable going. As much as DFL politicians fantasize about bringing the social welfare model of a Scandinavian nation to a state populated with so many Scandinavian immigrants, a recent survey in the Star Tribune provides a harsh reminder that Minnesota, politically speaking, is not MinneSweden.

In the wake of a $2 billion budget surplus, only one out of five (19 percent) Minnesotans wants to “spend most to improve services.” Among the Independent voters that DFLers need to persuade in order to win elections and legislative power, only one out of four (24 percent) supports spending the entire surplus.

At the same time, two times as many Minnesotans support the predictable Republican proposal to “refund most to taxpayers” (38 percent support). Their refund proposal is also the most popular option among the Independent voters that Republicans need to win over in order to have electoral success in 2016.

The Star Tribune also reported that their survey found that Minnesotans are not too wild about the gas tax increase the DFLers propose.  A slim majority (52 percent) oppose “Governor Dayton’s proposal to raise the wholesale tax on gasoline to increase spending on road and bridge projects?”  A healthier majority (62 percent) of Minnesota’s’s Independents oppose the gas tax increase.

I happen to agree with the DFL on the merits.  Minnesota has a lot of hard work to do in order to remain competitive into the future, so I personally support investing almost all of the budget surplus, with a healthy amount for the rainy day fund, and a gas tax increase. However at the same time, I’m enough of a realist to recognize that sustainable progressive change won’t happen if Daily Kos-drunk DFLers overstep and lose the confidence of swing voters in the process.

DFLers who want to win back the trust of a majority of the Minnesota electorate would be wise to enact a mix of sensibly targeted investments, a resilient rainy day fund and targeted tax relief.  That kind of pragmatic, balanced approach won’t turn into St. Paul into Stockholm, but it might just put more DFLers in power, so that the DFL can ensure Republicans don’t turn Minnesota into South Dakota or Wisconsin.

Dirty Job Dayton Dusts Himself Off

Dayton_dirty_2Governor Mark Dayton is Minnesota’s political version of Mike Rowe, the star of the Discovery Channel television show “Dirty Jobs.” Rowe’s show is all about him taking on difficult, disrespected and grotesque jobs that others avoid, such as being a sewer inspector, road kill scavenger, worm dung farmer, shark repellent tester, maggot farmer, and sea lamprey exterminator.  Who knew that worm dung needed farming?

Dirty Job Dayton

Governor Mark Dayton may not be farming worm dung, but consider just a few of the filthy tasks Dirty Job Dayton has already embraced in his five year’s in office.

Taxing Most Powerful Minnesotans.  Before Dayton, non-partisan analyses were showing that the wealthiest Minnesotans were not paying their fair share of taxes.  So Dayton ran for Governor unabashedly championing tax increases on the state’s most wealthy citizens, which earned him some very powerful enemies. At the time, progressive political consultants considered advocating almost any kind of tax increase political suicide for candidates. But Dayton ran on a platform of large tax increases, won a razar thin victory at the polls, and then promptly passed the tax increases into law as promised.

Implementing Unpopular Obamacare.  Dayton wasn’t done there. One of his very first acts of Governor was to champion Obamacare, which many politicians were extremely nervous about at the time. In contrast to his fellow Governors in neighboring Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota, Dayton embraced Obamacare’s Medicare expansion to cover 35,000 of the most vulnerable Minnesotans.   The Governor had Obamacare protesters shouting him down in his announcement news conference, but he let them have their say and stuck to his principles without looking back.  As a result of taking on a number of controversial Obamacare implementation tasks, Minnesota now has the second best rate of health insurance coverage of any state (95%).

Resolving Vikings Stadium Quagmire.  Then there was the Vikings Stadium debate that had been festering for almost a decade before Dayton came to office. Despite polls showing that subsidizing the stadium was unpopular, Dayton provided active backing for legislation to publicly subsidize the Vikings Stadium.  While noting that he is “not one to defend the economics of the NFL,” he plugged his nose and embraced a job he didn’t welcome, but felt was necessary to keep the Vikings in Minnesota and boost a then-suffering construction sector.

Cutting Coveted Social Safety Net.  Early in Dayton’s tenure as Governor, he even made significant cuts in state safety net programs, which is one of the very worst jobs any progressive can ever get.  Faced with a large budget shortfall, he proposed cutting $950 million in planned spending, told agencies to cut their budgets by up to 10 percent, and cut the state workforce by 6 percent.  That work had to leave even Dirty Job Dayton feeing grimy.

Love these positions or hate them — and Dayton himself didn’t relish many of them — no one can accuse Dayton of political timidity.

Dirtiest Job Yet

But this winter, Dirty Job Dayton finally met his Waterloo. With no political allies in sight, he attempted to push through salary increases for state agency commissioners, who are making less than their peers in many other states.   Dayton said he “knew there would be negative reaction,” but, as is his habit, he plugged his nose and pushed forward anyway.

How did that go for him?  Well, in the last few weeks Dayton learned that attempting to raise bureaucrats’ pay makes shark repellent testing look like a walk in the park.

Fresh off that experience, one might expect that Dayton would now stick to clean, safe, and easy jobs for the remainder of his time in office.  But if you believe that, you obviously don’t know Dirty Job Dayton very well.

Next Up:  Slinging Asphalt

After the salary increase shellacking Dayton endured, he has already found a new thankless task to champion – fixing Minnesota’s deteriorating roads and bridges.  While Republicans want a modest short-term fix funded out of the current budget surplus, that would be much too easy for Dirty Job Dayton. Dayton is attempting to put in place an ambitious decade-long $11 billion solution. Such a long-term fix necessitates a 16 cent per gallon (at current prices) increase in the gas tax. Not surprisingly, the polls are looking a little rough at the moment.

But Dirty Job Dayton doesn’t care. Like Mike Rowe, if the assignment stinks, scares, or stings, he’s in!