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.

Republicans Extremely Unlikely To Impeach Trump

Cursor_and_trump_impeachment_-_Google_SearchThere’s a popular theory among the chattering classes that Trump will be impeached fairly soon.  It goes something like this: Republican members of Congress are getting very sick of Trump, because of his incompetence, conflicts-of-interest, Putin slavishness, and overall lunacy. Long-term, they worry that Trump will hurt their brand with the non-extreme swing voters they need to win elections.

So, the theory goes, congressional Republicans will eventually latch on to an impeachable offense, such as a blatant violation of a court order, which would spark a constitutional crisis. Congressional Republicans will then join with Democrats to impeach Trump, knowing all the while that doing so will empower one of their own, Vice President Mike Pence.

To congressional Republicans, Pence, a former member of Congress and Governor, is a comfortable old shoe.  He has extremely conservative positions on social issues that won’t sit well with American swing voters.  But he has at least been to charm school, and is competent, administratively speaking. So, the Ryans and McConnells of the world would be relieved to have Pence in the Oval Office instead of Trump.

Anyway, that’s the widely discussed theory.

Not Going To Happen

I find it very unlikely. Here’s why:

Yes, Trump is committing impeachable offenses.  Yes, most Republican congressional leaders worry about Trump, and much prefer Pence.  That part of the theory makes perfect sense.

But more than anything, congressional Republicans care about winning elections and holding onto their power. That is their lifeblood. To hold on to their seats and their majority, they need to a) survive Republican primary challenges in deep red gerrymandered congressional districts and b) have their hardcore Trump-loving base turn out to vote in general elections.

I believe it is highly likely that a significant slice of the Trump loyalists would stick with Trump, even after an impeachment, and maybe especially after an impeachment.  A significant proportion of the Trump voters will never stop being loyal to him.

After a historically bizarre and controversial campaign season, Trump is currently going through a disastrous transition and first couple of weeks in power.  He has criticism coming at him from all directions, including from prominent conservative leaders.   At the same time, Republicans no longer have the demonized Hillary Clinton to cast in their “lesser of two evils” narrative, which helped them win moderates in the Presidential election.

Despite all of that working against Trump, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey recently found that 95 percent of Trump voters still approve of the job Trump is doing, even though only a 47 percent minority of Americans approve, a historically low level for a President in his honeymoon period.  After all of that, 95 percent of Trump voters still approve of his performance.

Clearly, Trump voters are exceptionally loyal to him.  Still, as the Trump-generated outrages continue to pile up, and Trump fatigue sets in, some of that support will die off. Eventually, I could foresee as many as half of the Trump voters changing their mind about Trump.

But even if only half of Trump voters remain loyal to Trump after an impeachment proceeding, the remaining impeachment-inflamed Trump diehards – stoked by the unrepentant pro-Trump messaging machines like Breitbart, InfoWars, and many others — could wreak havoc on incumbent Republicans who supported impeachment. In general elections, a sizable number of post-impeachment Trump loyalists – enraged by the spurning of their hero — could stay home and cause otherwise safe congressional Republicans to lose in November 2018.

None of this is lost on congressional Republicans, who are hyper-sensitive to the Trump voters.  At the end of the day, most Republican Members of Congress seem to care much more about preserving their political power than they do about saving the republic from a crooked, unstable authoritarian. Because of that, and because Trump’s hard core loyalist voters will stick with him through just about anything, I just can’t see the current Republican majority ever agreeing to impeach Trump.

In other words, unless Trump steps down on his own, I think we’re almost certainly stuck with Trump for four years.

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.

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?

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.

Whatever Happened to the GOP Extremists in Legislature?

carnival_sideshow_vingate_signThe antics of Republican members of the Minnesota State Legislature used to be a reliable source of gasps and guffaws. Over recent years, Republican legislators have been obsessed with regulating gay couple’s love lives and straight citizen’s sexual health. They continually attempted to have their narrow religious views dictate the governance of a pluralistic society. They compared poverty stricken families to wild animals who shouldn’t be fed, and backed up that ugly rhetoric with deep cuts in human services for those families.  They shut down of state government in an attempt to make services in Minnesota more Mississippi-ish

These were not Republicans in the mold of Elmer Anderson, Al Quie, Arne Carlson, Duane Benson or David Jennings. These were Republicans in the mold of Bradlee Dean, Michael Brodkorb, Wayne LaPierre, Cliven Bundy, Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh.

But in the 2015 legislative session, Republican legislators were an unusually controlled bunch. They did boring and constructive things, such as changing how nursing homes were reimbursed. They even proposed modest k-12 education funding increases, and ultimately accepted the much larger funding formula increases promoted by DFLers.

Yes, Republican legislators still did some things that don’t make any sense. For instance, they ran for election in 2014 on the need to fix a long list of deteriorating roads and bridges, then inexplicably opposed the revenue increases necessary to get the work done. They still want to weaken minimum wages, despite the most pronounced income disparity since the 1920s and the lack of any evidence that last year’s minimum wage hike is damaging the economy.

Michele_Bachmann_hiding_at_gay_rights_rallyBut to my knowledge, there were no legislators hiding in the shrubbery at gay rights rallies this year. There was no legislator-fueled politicizing of the morning prayer with hateful castigations of the President and gay people. There were no throwback campaigns to enact a state currency or Confederacy-style nullification laws.

At a time when Republicans at the national level could scarcely be more absurd, Minnesota’s Republican leaders seem to have at least temporarily kept the most extreme elements of their fragile coalition – religious fundamentalists, fiscal libertarians, paranoid gun enthusiasts, bedroom cops, and hyper-partisan jihadists – quietly mumbling to themselves instead of in the headlines.

For the sake of Minnesota’s collective future, let’s hope that’s a trend that continues. With a dangerous achievement gap,deteriorating infrastructure, and a lot of families finding upward mobility out of reach, we have a lot of work to do.   But for the sake of humor-dependent bloggers, hear’s hoping the silence of the extremists is short-lived.

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.

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!

What Happened To GOPers Looking To The Market To Set Prices?

price_is_based_on_what_the_market_will_bear_-_Google_SearchOne of the things that you can usually expect Republicans to be consistent about is faith in market forces. They’re continually reminding us that we should trust market forces to allocate resources, as opposed to having politicians arbitrarily setting prices and picking winners and losers.

In the personnel marketplace, this means that if salaries are set below what the rest of the marketplace is bearing, we can expect to attract a smaller pool of talent willing to work at the below-market price. In a market economy, the theory goes, you get what you pay for. If you offer less salary, you attract less talent. If you attract less talent, you get worse personnel.  If you get worse personnel, you get incompetent enterprises and poor outcomes.

For Republicans, this trust in markets is a not just any old belief. This really is their core, their bedrock. But it all goes out the window when there is a juicy demagogic opportunity in front of them.

For a politician, the most tempting political opportunity of them all is the chance to get self-righteous about a government pay increase.   For demagogues, a government pay increase is as delicious a target as there is. One doesn’t have to be a particularly skilled, bright or courageous politician to score political points this issue. Jihadi John probably could get a standing ovation from Americans if he proclaimed his support for lower government employee salaries.

But again, political opportunism aside, what happened to Republicans’ bedbrock belief in trusting the market price? The Star Tribune has reported on the market price for state government Commissioners and found:

Before smaller raises in 2013 and 2014, agency heads had seen no increase since 2000. A recent analysis by Minnesota Management and Budget showed that before the raises, 14 of 15 commissioners were paid at or below the 50th percentile compared to commissioners in other states; eight were below the 25th percentile. The raises push Minnesota salaries above the median.

Dayton noted in his letter that mid-level managers at many Minnesota companies earn more than his commissioners, who after the increases are earning between $140,000 and $155,000 a year. DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, for instance, manages a $17.7 billion budget and will now make about $155,000.

Dayton also pointed out that even after the raise, the state education commissioner is still earning about 80 percent of the yearly salary of superintendents at a number of larger Minnesota school districts. Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius had been making $119,000 before the raise. By contrast, the head of Minneapolis schools earns about $190,000.

In other words, senior executives in Minnesota state government had been earning well below the market price being paid peers from other jurisdictions and states. Moreover, I would argue that Commissioners in Minnesota should be paid well above the 50th percentile, since Minnesota is a relatively high income state, ranking 11th highest in the nation.

What do Republicans – stalwart champions for trusting the market to determine prices – think about this market snapshot? The Star Tribune reports:

Republicans scoffed at the argument that Dayton would struggle to attract and retain talented commissioners without the pay increase. Plenty of talented people would serve as Dayton’s commissioners, “at the old price,” said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston.

In this case, Republicans effectively are insisting that we ignore the market prices, and instead let politicians set the price and pick winners and losers.

Why the inconsistency?  The marketplace argument gets pushed aside in this case for three primary reasons.

First, with legislators earning a ridiculously low salary of $31,140 per year, everything looks extravagant. As I’ve argued before, legislators need a large pay raise to attract a better talent pool, and until they get it, legislators are going to be tempted to pay government employees below what the market is bearing, simply out of jealousy and spite.  When they are being paid less than the average sewage worker, I can’t blame them for being bitter, but their own demagoguery is what prevents the problem from getting the problem fixed.  In any event, legislators’ low pay is an important undercurrent in this debate.

The second reason market arguments gets ignored by Republicans in this debate is that many honestly have no problem making government less competent. At their core, Repulbicans want government to become smaller. Lower paid commissioners lead to less talented commissioners, which leads to less competent government, which leads to less faith in government, which leads to more political support for shrinking government. Score!

The final reason market arguments get pushed aside by Republicans in this debate is the most obvious.  There are cheap political points to be scored. You can bank on the fact that the pay increase will be showing up in endless campaign ads during the 2016 elections.  And when you’re only making $31,000 per year, sometimes the adrenalin rush that comes from scoring cheap political points is the best pay available.

– Loveland

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

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.

Daytonomics Drags MN to Disastrous 3.7% Unemployment Rate

DaytonomicsOver the last several years, Minnesota business leaders and conservatives like Tom Emmer and Jeff Johnson have predicted that Governor Dayton’s combination of 1) asking the wealthiest citizens to pay their fair share of taxes, 2) increasing the minimum wage and 3) refusing to enact Pawlenty-style government spending cuts would lead to disaster for the state’s economy.  This has been their war cry for years.

Minnesota business leaders are now here to tell us that their prediction has proven correct.

Following Dayton’s implementation of those three pillars of Datyonomics, Minnesota currently has a 3.7 percent unemployment rate.  Meanwhile, the Twin Cities metropolitan area has a 3.2 percent unemployment rate.

Minnesota’s 3.7 percent unemployment rate compares very favorably to the nation’s 5.8 percent rate.  It also looks strong next to the 6.0 percent unemployment rate corporate darling Mitt Romney boasted he could achieve by the end of 2016 if Romnomics polcies were enacted.  Conservative Romnomics –tax cuts for the wealthy, no mininum wage increase and massive government spending cuts — essentially would have been the polar opposite of Daytonomics.

While a 3.7 percent unemployment rate in the wake off Daytonomics may look like proof that conservatives and business leaders were incorrect about the destructive impacts of progressive policies, Twin Cities Business reports that Minnesota business leaders disagree. While they acknowledge that high unemployment under Daytonomics would have been bad news for the economy, they now stress that low unemployment under Daytonomics is also bad news for the economy.

“…some business leaders around the state had previously expressed worries about a cooling economy this winter, citing a potential labor shortage as the unemployment rate drops.”

To summarize, if the unemployement rate under the DFL Governor’s progressive policies would have remained at Pawlenty-era peaks (8.3 percent), that would have been proof that Daytonomics was hurting the state economy.  But now that unemployment under Dayton policies is low (3.7 percent), that is also evidence that Daytonomics is hurting the economy.

In other words, progressive Daytonomics simply cannot be considered a success. Just ask Minnesota business leaders and conservatives.

– Loveland

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

News Flash: GOP Activist Reveals That Veteran GOP Consultant Is Supporting A GOPer for Governor

Tom_HornerMinnPost reporter Cyndy Brucato is breaking the blockbuster news that 2010 Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner is, gasp, crossing party boundaries to support Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson!  The reporter breathlessly reports:

Another leader in the Minnesota Independence Party is gravitating toward support of a Republican statewide candidate.   Tom Horner, the Independence Party candidate for governor in 2010, is meeting this week with GOP candidate for governor Jeff Johnson to discuss joining his campaign.

Wow, if that happens, that does sound like huge news!

Unless you pay close attention to politics.

If you do pay close attention to politics, you know that Tom Horner is a long-time Republican staffer, supporter, consultant and pundit.  Before Horner spent one year as a right-leaning Independence Party candidate for Governor, he was the head staffer for Republican U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger, has advocated for Republican candidates like Norm Coleman his entire adult life, has long counseled Republicans, and served for many years as the Republican voice on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and other news outlets.

In short, for decades Horner has been one of the most visible Republicans in Minnesota. Reporter Brucato is aware of this because she was a lead staffer for Republican Governor Arne Carlson and Norm Coleman.  But she mentions none of Horner’s GOP bona fides in the article.

In other words, the real headline here is actually a wee bit less newsworthy.  It’s more like:

GOP Activist Reveals That Veteran GOP Consultant Is Supporting A GOPer for Governor

Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

I like and respect Tom Horner a great deal.  Though we disagree on many policy issues, Tom is intelligent, has integrity, and Mr. Johnson is lucky to have his policy and PR counsel.    But let’s get real.  This hardly qualifies as the blockbuster news the reporter makes it out to be.

I support MinnPost relying on a ex-staffers of politicians for opinion pieces. That’s an appropriate role for an ex-staffer.  But they shouldn’t rely on ex-staffers from either party for news reporting like this, because their advocacy background naturally calls their objectivity into question.

While  the lede was blown way out of proportion, I did find a few things intriguing about the article that left me hungry for deeper reporting.  On taxes, Horner says:

 “I wasn’t opposed to raising more revenue, but the way the governor went about it is not in the best long-term interest of Minnesota. Just adding fourth tier only reinforces a tax system that isn’t suited to a global market. Maybe we need more revenue but tilt the policy much more to tax consumption and more to reward investment.”

And on health care, Horner says:

“MnSure is where Republicans could play an effective role. It’s good that we’re expanding access and covering children and have a more robust marketplace.  Now how do we control the underlying drivers of health care?”

The fact that Tea Party-backed Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson may be bringing in a pro-tax, pro-Obamacare consultant for policy advice raises additional questions that were not posed by the reporter:

  • Does Horner think tax increases were only needed in the past, or does he think that more may be needed in the future?  If so, which taxes would he favor increasing?
  • Which parts of health reform would Horner favor retaining?  Medicaid expansion?  Tax credits?  The insurance exchange system?  Pre-existing condition reform paired with the insurance mandates?  Other?  How would Horner propose Mr. Johnson could better control health care costs?
  • Does candidate Johnson share Horner’s opinions on taxes and health reform?
  • What do key Tea Party-friendly supporters of Johnson think of bringing in Horner to advocate for these positions?

The answers to those questions would have been informative, and would have qualified as actual news.

– 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.