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.

Will Minnesotans Elect Another Grumpy Gus Governor?

grumpy_governorsA steady stream of candidates for the 2018 gubernatorial race will soon be emerging. Often “past is prologue” in politics, so we might want to consider the type of leader Minnesotans have preferred in our recent past.

Over the last quarter century, Minnesota general election voters have chosen Mark Dayton, Tim Pawlenty, Jesse Ventura and Arne Carlson to govern their state. While there are many differences between those men, I would submit that the psychographic common denominators for those successful gubernatorial candidates are:

  • They were all a bit cantankerous
  • They all stressed fiscal management
  • All but Ventura were policy wonks

(They also were all white dudes, but that’s a different post.)

Surly Fiscal Manager seems to have been the job title that Minnesota general election voters have tended to have in mind.  They chose a Grumpy Gus in green eyeshades to manage state government. Their most recent pick — a former State Auditor who has never been known for being cuddly or a stemwinder on the stump — certainly fits that profile.

Meanwhile, the narrow group of DFL caucus fetishists tend to swoon for politicians who have a very different kind of profile. They get energized by partisan cheerleaders/jeerleaders who pledge fealty to unions and other lefty interest groups and  propose significant expansion of government services.  While DFL caucus goers gravitate toward a firery cheerleader – “the next Wellstone” — general election voters seek a comptroller, someone to hold the extremists at bay and ensure state expenditures and revenues are prudently managed.  That may have been why Mark Dayton decided in 2009 to bypass the DFL caucuses and go to the much broader base of primary voters.

There are no ironclad political rules that will never be broken, and this is just a trend, not an ironclad rule.  But this tendency of general election voters does seem like something that should be pondered by DFL kingmakers.

Tim Pawlenty: “Health Care Policy All-Star?”

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is being featured as a “health policy all-star” by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. No, I’m not kidding.

Cursor_and__28___mnleg_-_Twitter_Search

The University event is celebrating the accomplishments of a 2008 Healthcare Transformation Task Force that happened during the Pawlenty years.   Governor Pawlenty is the keynote speaker.  The invitation portrays the Pawlenty years as a time when there was less intense partisan disagreement. Again, not kidding.

Health care policy has generated intense partisan disagreement over the past 5 years. The acrimony has been a sharp departure from Minnesota’s long tradition of collaboration among Democrats and Republicans and across the business, non-profit, and public sectors.

I’m not all that familiar with the Task Force’s work, but I’m sure it made excellent health care policy contributions.  It’s very worthwhile to recognize and reflect on that work, and I applaud the University’s Humphrey School for doing that.  If you’re interested in health care policy, I’d encourage you to attend the event.

But perhaps the Humphrey School should also invite the community to reflect on some of the big picture differences between health care in Minnesota under the Pawlenty-era policies versus health care in the post-Pawlenty era.  Minnesotans should reflect on the dramatic health care improvements that have happened despite Governor Pawlenty, rather than because of him.

The Good Old Days

Ah 2008, those certainly were the good old days of Pawlenty era health care in Minnesota, back when the rate of health uninsurance was 9.0 percent. In contrast, in the post-Pawlenty era, the rate of uninsurance under Governor Dayton has declined to 4.9 percent, the lowest point in Minnesota history.

This happened largely due of the success of the ACA reforms that Governor Pawlenty persistently and bitterly opposed.  For example, in 2011 Governor Pawlenty revved up a Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) audience with this simplistic barn burner:

The individual mandate in ObamaCare is a page right out of the Jimmy Carter playbook. The left simply doesn’t understand. The individual mandate reflects completely backwards thinking. They, the bureaucrats, don’t tell us what to do. We, the people, tell the government what to do!

We’re blessed to live in the freest and most prosperous nation in the history of the world. Our freedom is the very air we breathe. We must repeal Obamacare!

Do you see how much less “intensely partisan” health care policy was five years ago under Governor Pawlenty?

hqdefault_jpg__480×360_Oh and then there was that super nonpartisan time when Governor Pawlenty, who was preparing to run against President Obama, enacted an executive order to ban Minnesota from accepting any Obamacare-related Medicaid funding to provide health care coverage for 35,000 of Minnesota’s most vulnerable citizens. As the Star Tribune reported at the time, even Pawlenty-friendly health industry groups reacted to the highly partisan and punitive Pawlenty ban with unified expression of strong disapproval.

In a rare and unusually sharp statement, heads of Minnesota’s most influential medical associations said Pawlenty’s step contradicts his earlier embrace of state health care legislation. “The governor’s decision just doesn’t make sense for Minnesotans,” the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, the Minnesota Hospital Association and the Minnesota Medical Association said in a joint statement late Tuesday.

The Post-Pawlenty Health Policy Era

When Governor Dayton took office, he promptly reversed this Pawlenty ban to ensure that 35,000 low-income Minnesotans could get health care coverage.  Governor Dayton took a lot of heat for that decision, but this move started the process of driving down the state’s uninsured rate, a trend that has continued throughout the Dayton era.

Cursor_and_chart_rate_of_uninsured_minnesota_by_year_-_Google_Search

In more ways than many citizens realize, Minnesota has benefited enormously from the ACA reforms that Pawlenty politicized and obstructed.  According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services:

  • 64,514 Minnesotans have gained Medicaid or CHIP coverage
  • 1,465,000 Minnesotans with private health insurance gained preventive service coverage with no cost-sharing
  • Over 2 million Minnesotans are free from worrying about lifetime limits on coverage
  • As many as 2,318,738 non-elderly Minnesotans have some type of pre-existing health condition, and no longer can have coverage denied because of that condition

Yes, those Pawlenty years, when the Governor was fighting to keep Minnesotans from enjoying all of these ACA benefits, certainly were the good old days of health care policy.  “Health care policy all-star” indeed!

Minnpost_Blog_Cabin_logo_3_small

Note:  This post also was published as part of MinnPost’s weekly Blog Cabin feature.

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.