About Joe Loveland

I've worked for politicians, a PR firm, corporations, nonprofits and state and federal government. Since 2000, I've run a PR and marketing sole proprietorship. I think politics is important, maddening, humorous and good fodder for a spirited conversation. So I sometimes hang out here when I need a break from work and life.

Estate Tax Exemption Spotlights Minnesota Republicans’ Twisted Priorities

In the first year that Minnesota Republicans took full control of the Minnesota Legislature, they elevated Minnesota’s millionaire heirs and heiresses to the very top of their fiscal priority list.  Representative Greg Davids (R-Preston) says the wealthiest Minnesotans should be able to “keep more of what their mothers and fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers have earned,” so Republicans significantly increased the’ estate tax exemption for millionaires.

To be clear, we’re talking about filthy rich grandfathers and grandmothers,  After all, only the very wealthiest Minnesota estates pay any estate tax.   According to the Minnesota Public Radio:

“Up until now, your estate would have to be worth more than $1.8 million before the Minnesota estate tax kicked in, but that changed during this year’s legislative session.

The tax bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and reluctantly signed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton increases the taxable estate value from $1.8 million to $3 million over the next three years. The top tax rate remains at 16 percent.

Minnesota is among 14 states that impose their own estate tax. Farms and family-owned businesses worth up to $5 million are already exempt.”

So, we’re not talking about the four-, five- or even six-figure inheritance you might get from Aunt Gertie.

All of this is being proposed by Republicans at at time when wealth inequality has reached grotesque proportions, as illustrated by this stunning video:

This is how intergenerational privilege perpetuates: Millionaire heirs and heiresses – having done nothing more than winning the birth lottery by being born into a wealthy family — are exempted from taxation, including for wealth that has already avoided taxation because it is unrealized capital gains.

And on it goes, generation after generation. This is how we get the Donald Trumps and Donald Trump, Jr.’s of the world, entitled scions born inches from home plate crowing about their home run.

To state the obvious, because it apparently is no longer obvious to everyone, this is not in keeping with the American value of “all men are created equal,” which used to be all the rage in America. America was founded in defiance of the British system of aristocracy, which gave power to a small, wealthy privileged “ruling class.”  Abolishing aristocratic forms of inheritance was a primary way the founding fathers went about furthering American equality.

While today’s Republican Tea Partiers don Revolutionary War-era tri-corner hats while asserting that the estate tax is “Marxist,” the truth is that the estate tax has been strongly supported by a number of founding fathers.

Remember Thomas Jefferson, the guy who penned “all men are created equal,”  America’s “immortal declaration?” He promoted the egalitarian values of America’s founding fathers by arguing against the passing of property from one generation to the next:

“The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural.“

Jefferson was hardly alone in this opinion. Similar sentiments were expressed by Adam Smith, the hero of conservative free market advocates, as well as Republican Party icon Theodore Roosevelt.

“The absence of effective state, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.  The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is passed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in … a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”

You might guess that someone like Bill Gates, Sr. would be all-in when it comes to increasing the estate tax exemption. But he eloquently explains why the wealthy people need to pay back the community that supported them:

“No one accumulates a fortune without the help of our society’s investments. How much wealth would exist without America’s unique property rights protections, public infrastructure, and academic institutions? We should celebrate the estate tax as an ‘economic opportunity recycling’ program, where previous generations made investments for us and now it’s our turn to pass on the gift. Strengthening the estate tax is important to our democracy.

Consider all of the other alternative ways Minnesota Republicans could have used the $357 million that they are giving to Minnesota’s wealthiest heirs and heiresses over the next two bienniums. They could have used it to improve our transportation or broadband infrastructure,  help vulnerable children access early learning programs to close our dangerous achievement gaps, or expand clean energy capacity.  Those kinds of investments would have paid benefits for all Minnesotans far into the future.

Instead, Republicans made their top priority lavishing more enormous tax breaks on the small number of ultra-wealthy Minnesotans who least need help.

Governor Dayton has already signed the Republicans’ estate tax exemption, so at this point he has little if any negotiation leverage. But if Democrats take control of state government in 2018, this should be one of the first policies they reverse in 2019.  In the meantime, at every campaign stop they should spotlight this outrageous Republican giveaway to the wealthy elite.

It’s Good To Be Zygi

In 2011, taxpayers gave billionaire Minnesota Vikings owner Zygmunt “Zygi” Wilf quite a gift, an even bigger gift than some realized at the time.

Taxpayers invested about half a billion public dollars to help Mr. Wilf construct his $1.1 billion business headquarters, U.S. Bank Stadium.  The State contributed $348 million, and another $150 million came from a Minneapolis hospitality tax. (While it’s often reported that Mr. Wilf paid the remainder, much of the remainder was paid by private interests — the NFL, personal seat license holders, and U.S. Bank.)

This was an extraordinary taxpayer subsidy for any business owner, much less a controversial one worth $5.3 billion who has been found liable by a New Jersey court for breaking civil state racketeering laws.

But Mr. Wilf’s gift from taxpayers went well beyond that $498 million.  State leaders also allowed the billionaire to keep 100% of the increased business value that he has realized since his publicly subsidized business headquarters was authorized.  It turns out, that’s quite an increase.  According to a Forbes magazine estimate, in 2011, the year before the approval of the stadium, Wilf’s business was worth $796 million.  The most recent Forbes estimate puts the value at a breathtaking $2.2 billion.

That’s a tidy little increase of about $1.4 billion, with a “b,” over just six years.

Not all of that $1.4 billion gain is due to the new $1.1 billion stadium and its income-generating capacity, but much of it is.  It’s now clear that if the billionaire owner had financed his business’s building the old fashioned way — without taxpayers footing half of his bill — he would easily have recouped the full amount of his business investment, and then some.  Clearly, Mr. Wilf did not need us.

In 2011, many predicted that Minnesota taxpayers would be making a very rich man substantially richer.  But it’s still breathtaking to watch the money flooding in.  Skol Zygi.

A Policy Agenda For Minnesota’s Next Progressive Governor

In 2018, progressive Governor Mark Dayton will be retiring, and Minnesota voters will be selecting a new chief executive.  To retain control of the Governor’s office in 2018, Minnesota Democrats need a compelling policy agenda. It goes without saying that they also need a compelling candidate, but this discussion is about policy.

What constitutes a compelling policy agenda? First, it’s bite-sized. It can be quickly consumed and remembered by casually engaged voters. It’s more like five proposals, not fifty proposals. That doesn’t mean leaders should only do five things as a governor, but it does mean that they should only stress and repeat five-ish policies as a candidate, so that the agenda can be remembered.

Second, a compelling policy agenda delivers relatively bold change. It’s not merely about protection of the status quo from the bad guys, or small incremental improvements (see HRC campaign). It’s aspirational, and not limited to ideas that currently have the necessary votes to pass. If a candidate has to scale it back after elected, so be it. But they should run with a bold vision.

Third, a compelling policy agenda needs to have popular support beyond the political base. After all, a campaign agenda is about winning votes.

Fourth, it’s is easy to understand. Few have the time or inclination to study the intricacies of a 15-point tax reform plan, so candidates should stick to things that most can easily grasp and embrace.

Finally, a compelling policy agenda must be directed at Minnesota’s most pressing problems. It shouldn’t merely be about kowtowing to the most powerful interest groups, as is so often the case. It must actually be about the problems that most need fixing.

What fits those criteria? In no particular order, here’s my recommendation for a progressive gubernatorial candidate’s agenda.

  • MinnesotaCare for All Option. Allow all Minnesotans to buy into the MinnesotaCare public health insurance program. This will put competitive pressure on private insurance companies to keep premiums down, and ensure Minnesotans will always have a coverage option, even if health plans pull out of the market.
  • Transportation Jobs Fund. Increase the gas tax by a nickel per gallon — one penny per gallon per year over five years — and put the proceeds into an untouchable fund that will put Minnesotans to work improving the state’s roads, bridges and transit system. This will lift up the portion of the workforce that is struggling the most, and ensure Minnesota has a competitive economy and quality-of-life into the future.
  • Achievement Gap Prevention Plan. Ensure every child under age five has access to a high quality early learning program, starting with the children who can’t afford those programs on their own. This will prevent low-income children from falling into Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps, gaps that opens before age two, lead to lifelong inequity and pose a grave threat to our economic competitiveness.
  • Fair Share Tax. Create a new, higher tax bracket for the wealthiest 10% of Minnesotans.  During a time when income inequality is the worst it has been since  just prior to the Great Depression (1928), the wealthiest Minnesotans are paying a lower share of their income in state and local taxes.   Adjusting the state income tax is the best way to remedy that disparity.
  • Super-sized Rainy Day Fund. Increase the size of the state’s rainy day fund by 25%. This will control taxpayers’ borrowing costs and help keep Minnesota stable in the face of 1) an economy that, after the longest period of economic expansion in history, may be due for a downturn and 2) a federal government that is threatening to shift many fiscal burdens to states. Bolstering the rainy day fund will also communicate to moderate voters that a progressive will be a level-headed manager of their tax dollars.

Yes, worthy issues are left off this agenda.  But we’ve seen time and again that when Democrats try to communicate about everything, they effectively communicate about nothing.  Long, complex “laundry list” policy agendas may please the interest groups who are constantly lobbying the candidates and their staffs, but they are simply too much for busy voters to absorb.  As legendary ad man David Ogilvy preached, “the essence of strategy is sacrifice.”  To be heard, many things must be left unsaid.

This kind of progressive gubernatorial policy agenda would be simple enough to be understood and remembered, but not simplistic.  It would be relatively bold and visionary, but not pie-in-the-sky.  It would be progressive, but swing voter-friendly.

This agenda would put Republican opponents in a political bind, because these progressive proposals are popular with moderate swing voters.  The partial exception is the Transportation Jobs Fund, where swing voters are conflicted.   Surveys tell us that gas taxes are somewhat unpopular, particularly in exurban and rural areas, but the transportation improvements that would be funded by the higher gas tax are very popular with voters of all political stripes, as are jobs programs.  On that front, one key is to guarantee that tax proceeds could only be spent on improvements, something many skeptical voters seem to doubt.

If such an agenda were sufficiently repeated and stressed by a disciplined candidate, fewer Minnesotans would be lamenting that they “have no idea what Democrats stand for.” Most importantly, this agenda also would go a long ways toward fixing some of Minnesota’s most pressing problems.

Why Have DFL Progressives Stopped Pushing For Progressive Tax Reform?

Every year, we hear the State Legislature endlessly debate “water cooler” issues, such as Sunday liquor sales and legislator pay. Meanwhile, we hear almost nothing about more fundamental issues of governance, such as whether we have a taxation system that treats Minnesotans fairly.

When you look at Minnesotans’ effective state and local tax rate — the proportion of income paid in combined state and local taxes – it’s clear that we don’t have a progressive system. That is, we don’t a tax system where the rate of taxation increases, or “progresses,” as income increases.  This chart based on Minnesota Department of Revenue data paints a pretty clear picture:

Note: Department of Revenue study authors point out that “effective tax rates in the 1st decile are overstated by an unknown but possibly significant amount.” If you want to know why, there’s an explanation on page seventeen of the study.

However, even disregarding that first bar for the purposes of this discussion, we can certainly say that Minnesota has a state and local tax system that is not very progressive. That is, it is not taxing Minnesotans according to relative ability to pay.

As you can see in this chart, local taxes in Minnesota are particularly regressive.   Compared to other income groups, the wealthiest Minnesotans are paying the smallest share of their income in local taxes.  So if state lawmakers want tax fairness for Minnesotans, and they can’t rely on local officials to reform local taxes, then they need state taxes to be more progressive to offset those regressive local taxes.

Before my conservative friends trot out their tired old “socialism” rhetoric, they should read the words of Adam Smith, the father of free market economic theory who conservatives worship, on the subject of progressive taxation:

“The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess … It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

Republicans should also keep in mind that the nation’s first progressive income tax was enacted when the revered father of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln signed the Revenue Act of 1862.  A few decades later, Teddy Roosevelt carried on this Republican tradition when he strongly advocated for progressive taxation:

I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in . . . a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, . . . increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.

The fact is, until relatively recently Republicans were comfortable with much higher top income tax rates than they are today. While the top rate under Democratic Presidents Obama and Clinton was 40%, the top rates were 91% under Republican President Eisenhower, 70% under Republican President Nixon and 70% under Republican President Ford.

So, to my right wing friends, you’re embarrassing yourselves when you call progressive taxation “Marxism.”  For more than a century, progressive taxation was mainstream Republican thought.  Don’t let the uber-wealthy interests who seized control of the Republican Party in more recent years blind you to that fact.

To my friends in the center, spare me the “be reasonable” lectures you deliver every time progressive taxation is proposed.  Unless moderates also view Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford as wild-eyed extremists, you need to stop characterizing progressive taxation proposals as being somehow “radical.”

Finally, to my progressive friends, show some courage and leadership.  Don’t get so obsessed with shiny objects, like the Sunday liquor sales issue.  Don’t shy away from fighting to make our state and local taxation system more fair.  It’s time for DFLers who are “progressives” in name to become more progressive when it comes to substance.

Opioid Abuse Crusader To Crack Down On Safer Opioid Alternative

The Affordable Care Act repeal, which will lead to 23 million Americans losing their health insurance protections, isn’t the only way the Trump Administration is endangering Americans. It’s proposal to ban patients from getting relief from cannabis-based medicines is just as ill-informed and cruel.

Trump’s states rights-loving Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked Congress to restore the federal government’s ability to crack down on state-authorized medical cannabis businesses. Since 2014, Congress has prohibited the federal Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute these state authorized businesses.

In a letter to Congress, Sessions made his case:

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

I can’t think of a delicate way to say this. This is moronic.  Trump and Sessions say they are making battling rising opioid addiction a high priority, but this move would prevent pain patients from transitioning from highly addictive and dangerous opioid pain relievers to much less addictive and dangerous cannabis-based pain medicines.

Before you bust out your best adolescent weed jokes or Reefer Madness paranoia, give some serious consideration to recent peer-reviewed medical research on this topic, as summarized by Scientific American:

A 2016 survey from University of Michigan researchers, published in the The Journal of Pain, found that chronic pain suffers who used cannabis reported a 64 percent drop in opioid use as well as fewer negative side effects and a better quality of life than they experienced under opioids. In a 2014 study reported in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association, the authors found that annual opioid overdose deaths were about 25 percent lower on average in states that allowed medical cannabis compared with those that did not.

Marijuana can be habit-forming, at least psychologically, but the risks are not in the same league as opioids. A 20-year epidemiological review of studies concluded that more than nine out of 10 people who try marijuana do not become dependent on the drug. The review paper, published in 2014, said the “lifetime risk of developing dependence among those who have ever used cannabis was estimated at 9 percent in the United States in the early 1990s as against 32 percent for nicotine, 23 percent for heroin, 17 percent for cocaine, 15 percent for alcohol and 11 percent for stimulants.”

Also, unlike the case with opioids, it is virtually impossible to lethally overdose on marijuana—because a user would have to consume massive quantities in a prohibitively short time. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says such a fatal result is very unlikely. Meanwhile, heroin-related overdose deaths have more than quadrupled since 2010. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that from 2014 to 2015 heroin overdose death rates increased by 20.6 percent—causing nearly 13,000 deaths in 2015.

This is no longer coming from some guy in a Grateful Dead t-shirt making vague anecdotal claims. This is now coming some of the foremost medical authorities in the nation.  For many people, cannabis-based medicines can ease their pain without the level of addictiveness and nasty side effects that unfortunately come with opioid pain relievers.

Beyond pain relief, cannabis-based medicines — often with the intoxicating component of cannabis oil (THC) removed when it isn’t medically necessary — also are helping Minnesota patients who have been diagnosed with a variety of diseases, such as cancer, Glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Epilepsy, Tourette Syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis, ALS, Crohn’s Disease, and terminal illnesses.

In Minnesota, most patients with those ailments who have been using cannabis-based oils, tinctures and capsules report to officials at the state Department of Health that they are experiencing substantial benefits from using cannabis-based medicine. On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is “no benefit” and 7 is “great deal of benefit,” nearly two-thirds (64%) of patients chose a 6 or 7.

Meanwhile, no patients report being hospitalized with complications from the cannabis-based medicine, something that cannot be said for opioids and many other FDA-approved medications. Minnesota’s Commissioner of Health, Dr. Ed Ehlinger, looked at this data and concluded:

“Based on this evidence from the first year, Minnesota’s approach is providing many people with substantial benefits, minimal side effects and no serious adverse events.”

For years now, Americans have seen patients benefitting from medical cannabis, and an overwhelming number of them like what they see.  A February 2017 Quinnipiac University survey found that 93 percent support “allowing adults to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it,” including 85 percent of Republicans.  Only 23 percent of Americans, and 36 percent of Republicans, support “the government enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana?”

All of this leaves me wondering, what exactly are Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump smoking?

 

Note:  I’m a public relations consultant who has in the past done work for one of two medical cannabis businesses licensed by the State of Minnesota.  I no longer work with that company, and this post reflects my personal views.

Minnesota GOP’s Tobacco Tax Cut Is A Killer, Literally

There is a lot to dislike about the Minnesota Republicans’ tax cuts that were recently signed into law. For instance, increasing the estate tax exemption from $2 million to $3 million is an unnecessarily lavish gift to about 1,000 Minnesotans who won the birth lottery by being born into a relatively wealthy family.  Overall, the Republicans’ tax cuts will compromise Minnesota’s future fiscal stability by reducing state revenue by more than $5 billion over the coming decade. This is a particularly reckless move at a time when President Trump and his Republican congressional supporters are proposing to shift billions of dollars in future costs to states.   The next time Minnesota has a budget shortfall, remember the Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts.

But the stinkiest of the Republicans’ tax cut stink bombs was their tobacco tax cut, because in the coming years it will cause suffering and death.

Think that’s hyperbole?  A mountain of research shows that every time tobacco prices increase, tobacco consumption decreases. The corollary is also true – tobacco consumption increases when tobacco prices decrease.

This is particularly true when it comes to price-sensitive young Americans.

Here’s why that matters:  When tobacco consumption increases, tobacco-related suffering and death increases. Though we don’t hear about it as much as we used to, tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable diseases and death in America. It causes a variety of deadly cancers, lung diseases, and heart diseases, among other serious health problems.  If you’ve ever seen anyone suffer from one of these illnesses, I promise you will never forget it.

If you don’t believe the legion of public health and economic researchers about tobacco taxes decreasing tobacco use, listen to the tobacco industry executives themselves. In a previously secret document that got disclosed during lawsuits, an executive from Philip Morris, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, said:

“Of all the concerns, there is one – taxation – that alarms us the most. While marketing restrictions and public and passive smoking [restrictions] do depress volume, in our experience taxation depresses it much more severely.”

Likewise, an executive from RJ Reynolds, makers of Newport and Camel cigarettes, came to the same conclusion:

“If prices were 10% higher, 12-17 incidence [youth smoking] would be 11.9% lower.”

So if Republican legislators think their tobacco tax cut is doing a favor for Minnesota smokers, they couldn’t be more wrong.

Yes, financially speaking, the tobacco tax is regressive. That is, the higher costs of tobacco products that result from tobacco taxes disproportionately impact the pocketbooks of poorer Minnesotans.

But that’s not the end of the story, because the reduction in tobacco-related suffering and death that comes from higher tobacco taxes is progressive. That is, the life-saving health benefits associated with higher tobacco taxes disproportionately flow to poorer Minnesotans.  And by the way, the millions of dollars in savings from not having to pay as much to treat those tobacco-related diseases flow to Minnesota taxpayers and health insurance premium payers.

The bottom line is that cutting tobacco taxes, as Minnesota Republicans did this year, has two major impacts. It causes tobacco executives to profit more from increased sales, and it causes our family members, friends, and neighbors to suffer tobacco-related diseases.

Therefore, when it comes to tobacco taxes, Minnesotan leaders have to be cash cruel to be clinically kind. If the DFL Party wins control of the Minnesota Legislature in 2018, increasing tobacco taxes must be at the very top of their agenda.

This is Not Mark Dayton’s Finest Hour

TCursor_and_Constitutional_fight_escalates_between_Dayton__Legislature_-_StarTribune_comhis is going to sound awfully school marmy, but I expected more from you, Mark Dayton.

I’m speaking, of course, of the spat over Dayton’s defunding of the legislative branch of government in retaliation for the Republicans planting a legislative stink bomb in their unwise tax cut bill.

Admittedly, poor Mark Dayton suffers from my high expectations. During his career of public service, he’s usually been a thoughtful and mature leader who has shown great respect for our constitutional democracy.  For that reason, I just expect a lot more from him than I do from Republican state legislators, who have, in recent years, had more of a track record of recklessness and immaturity.

So, I’m disappointed with Dayton’s gamesmanship in this case, because it is probably unconstitutional and certainly childish. Mind you, this criticism is coming from someone who hates the Republicans’ tax and budget cuts, and dislikes many of their policy changes, but is also all too aware that, heavy sigh, elections have consequences.  That means that the party that won control of both chambers of Legislature in 2016 unfortunately gets to win a lot.

Someone who respects our guiding principle of separation of powers should never use their executive power to defund a coequal branch of government. Regardless of what the courts decide about the strict constitutionality of Dayton’s fiscal trickery, the question of “should” still ought  to matter to defenders of democratic principles, not just the question of “can.”

When it comes to the playground “they started it” defense that Dayton and his DFL allies are using, I can’t disagree on factual grounds.  At the same time, I’m with old Mahatma Ghandi on this one: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

In these dangerously politically polarized times, “adults in the room” are in desperately short supply. I’m grateful that Governor Dayton has played that thankless adult role many times during his career. Unfortunately, this time, our frustrated Governor has joined Republican legislators on the puerile path, just when we needed him most.

Is Minnesota GOP Sabotaging The Individual Health Insurance Market By Rejecting MinnesotaCare-for-All Option?

Minnesota Republican legislators spent their 2016 election campaigns expressing grave concerns about whether private health insurance companies in the individual market* have sufficient competitive pressure to keep prices down, and whether Minnesotans who live outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan region will have at least one solid coverage option available to them in coming years.

Those are legitimate concerns shared by both parties. But after Republicans won control of the Minnesota House and Senate, they have been unwilling to do one very important thing that that could achieve those two goals. They have been unwilling to give those Minnesotans the option of buying into MinnesotaCare health coverage.

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Governor Dayton’s proposed “MinnesotaCare-for-All option” would allow any individual market consumer to buy into the state government-run health plan that has served over 120,000 Minnesotans since 2006. An unsubsidized version of MinnesotaCare would be an available option for all Minnesotans.

In other words, MinnesotaCare for all would be a Minnesota-specific “public option” that would always be there for Minnesotans. MinnesotaCare wouldn’t be able to abandon individual market consumers the way corporate insurance companies can and do. Moreover, MinnesotaCare’s presence in the marketplace will pressure private insurers to offer more competitive prices, because MinnesotaCare’s prices don’t have to account for corporate salaries and profits.   Representing the buying power of about a million public plan consumers, the large MinnesotaCare plan should also have leverage to negotiate consumer-friendly reimbursement rates with health care providers, which helps keep premium costs more affordable.

In fact, Governor Dayton’s office estimates that Minnesota families who purchase MinnesotaCare coverage would pay on average about $838 per person less in 2018 than they pay for private coverage in 2017.  To secure those long-term annual savings for Minnesota families, a one-time taxpayer investment of $12 million – a relatively tiny drop in the State’s $39 billion annual budget — would be required to establish the option. In subsequent years, no additional taxpayer funds would be needed to keep the lower costs flowing to Minnesotans. The MinnesotaCare-for-All option would be self-sustainable.

If you believe that government-run operations are always less efficient and customer-friendly than corporations, here’s your chance to prove it. If that’s true, comparison shopping Minnesotans will “vote with their feet” by rejecting it en masse. But if it’s not true, Minnesotans in the individual market will finally have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that at least one coverage option will always be there for them and their loved ones.

Given that 71% of Americans support having a similar Medicare-for-All option, a MinnesotaCare-for-All option is likely popular with Minnesotans.  Still, Republican state legislators killed the proposal this year.

Minnesota Republicans can’t have it both ways. They can’t reject the MinnesotaCare-for-All option and then turn around blame others if competition is insufficient in some parts of Minnesota, or if corporate insurers’ prices prove to be unaffordable to many Minnesotans. No one can know for sure if this idea will work, but if Republicans are unwilling to give things like this a try to help vulnerable consumers, then Minnesota voters should hold them accountable for their obstructionism.

*(Note: The “individual market” is made up of the 10 percent of Minnesotans who a) can’t get insurance through their employer and b) whose incomes are not low enough to quality for either of Minnesota’s two publicly subsidized health insurance plans — Medical Assistance (Minnesota’s version of Medicare) for very low-income citizens or MinnesotaCare a subsidized option for the working poor. Last year, about 250,000 consumers bought coverage in Minnesota’s individual market.)

Strib Poll Uncovers Dark Clouds For Republicans

Cursor_and_minnesota_republicans_-_Google_Search 2As the 2017 Minnesota legislative session heads into the home stretch and President Trump is creating a constitutional crisis, the news for Minnesota Republicans in the recent Star Tribune survey is not  great.

To recap, most Minnesotans are…

Digging Dayton. An overwhelming 62% of Minnesotans approve of the job being done by Minnesota Republicans’ primary antagonist, DFL Governor Mark Dayton. Less than half as many Minnesotans (29%) disapprove of the job Dayton is doing.

  • Implication:  He’s grumpy, boring, wonky, and unabashedly liberal, but Governor Eyeore remains quite popular with a strong majority Minnesotans.  Despite Republicans’ best efforts to frame Dayton as being metro-centric and out-of-touch with Greater Minnesota, a majority in every region of the state approve of the job he is doing.  As high stakes budget and policy negotiations between Dayton and legislators begin, Dayton is in a relatively strong position to push his progressive agenda.

In the Dumps About Trump. Only 40% approve of the Republicans’ national leader, President Donald Trump. This marks an all time historical low-point among Presidents, at a time that is supposed to be a President’s “honeymoon period.” For context, eight years ago, during dire economic times, the newly elected President Obama had a 62% approval rating.

  • Implication: To state the obvious, “all time low” is not good.  Republicans who remain steadfastly loyal to their party’s unpopular President could be more vulnerable in the upcoming 2018 mid-term elections. While the conventional wisdom would be for Republican incumbents to distance themselves from the toxic Trump, it’s difficult for them to do so, because Trump remains popular with the narrow band of Trump diehards.  Republican incumbents need those voters on their side in order to survive 2018 primary and general elections. With Trump this unpopular, Republican incumbents are in a political bind.

Swooning for DFL Senators. In comparison to Trump’s 40% approval rating, 58% of Minnesotans approve of DFL Senator Al Franken, and 72% approve of Senator Amy Klobuchar.

  • Implication: Franken and Klobachar remain popular as they relentlessly criticize Trump and his policies, which should embolden other DFLers to do the same. Also, Klobuchar looks difficult for Republicans to defeat in 2018, and both Franken and Klobuchar should be helpful surrogates for down ballot DFL candidates in 2018.

Cursor_and_Minnesota_mexico_wall_-_Google_SearchNot Feeling The Mandate. Trump mandate?  What mandate?  Most Minnesotans don’t like Trump’s policies any better than they like him personally. About two-thirds (65%) oppose Trump’s signature campaign issue – building a Mexico wall. Only 29% support that idea.  The survey also found that Minnesotans oppose Trump’s proposals to accelerate deportations, and his Muslim travel ban.

The only ray of hope in the survey for President Trump was that 70% of Minnesotans support his drive-by Syrian missile strike, proving once again that Americans still love military actions, as long as victory can be declared within a matter of days.

  • Implication. It turns out those “real Americans” at the Trump rallies who cheered wildly about the Mexico wall and Muslim ban are not very representative of most Minnesotans. Therefore, stressing those issues would seem to hurt Republicans more than help them, at least with moderate swing voters. However, the one thing that perhaps could make Trump more popular is a quick, easy military victory.  Don’t think for a moment that a drive-by war has not crossed Trump’s compulsively self-promotional mind.  In other words, it’s probably not a good time to plan a vacation to Grenada.

Nyet On Russiagate Coverup. Republicans steadfastly maintain that no one cares about the Russian controversy. But even prior to the disturbing Comey firing, a majority of Minnesotans (55%) indicated that they would like to see an independent investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, while 39% say there should be no such investigation.

  • Implication: If Republicans continue to cover up and downplay the Russia controversy, it will not pass the smell test with a majority of Minnesotans.

All Aboard On Trains. By a strong twenty-point margin (54% support to 34% oppose), Minnesotans support building two extensions of light rail transit (LRT), from Minneapolis to the southwester suburbs and Minneapolis to the northern suburbs.

  • Implication: Republicans should think twice about making LRT their poster child for wasteful spending.   Despite Republican operatives and talk radio jocks aggressively bashing LRT over many years, most Minnesotans, including plenty of voters in swing suburban districts, support LRT expansion.

Cursor_and_minnesota_tea_party_-_Google_SearchOkay With O’Care. Then there is Obamacare. Republicans seem supremely confident that Obamacare is wildly unpopular.  But a narrow plurality of Minnesotans actually is okay with it. Forty-nine percent of Minnesotans say Obamacare has been “mostly good,” while 44% say it has been “mostly bad.” This issue polled better for Republicans than most other issues, but this finding isn’t very encouraging for Republicans who are dead set on repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a Trumpcare plan that offers many fewer patient benefits.

  • Implication: As Republicans prepare to replace Obamacare with something that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says will erases all of the Obamacare coverage gains, these numbers spotlight the political risk that Republicans are taking.  Republicans are beginning to learn that the only thing many Americans hate more than Obamacare is lack of Obamacare.

Loving Local Control. By a whopping 34-point margin (60% oppose, 26% support), Minnesotans oppose the GOP-backed proposal to prevent Minnesota towns and cities from passing work-rule ordinances, such as minimum wage increases.   In every region of Minnesota, a majority oppose limiting local control.

  • Implication:  This is another loser issue for Republicans.  How in the world did the party that constantly preaches about the need for “local control” end up on this side of the issue?

Wrong Tax Cuts. Inexplicably, the Star Tribune apparently didn’t poll on what seems like the overarching question of this legislative session: What should legislators do with the state budget surplus? That is, should they spend it, cut taxes or save it for a rain day (i.e ask about “all,” “most,” “some,” or “none” for each category). Instead, the Star Tribune only asked how to cut taxes, as if tax cutting were the only thing being debated.

Even within that narrow fiscal category, the news wasn’t great for Republicans. Republicans propose tax cuts targeted to narrow constituencies — smokers, farmers, retirees, people with student loan debt, business owners and others. But most Minnesotans (45%) would rather just cut income taxes for all, perhaps because it’s simple and broad-based. Less than 20% of Minnesotans support the Republican-recommended constituency-by-constituency approach, while the rest support Jesse Ventura-style rebates (30%).

  • Implication: Tax-cutting remains the Republicans’ bread-and-butter issue, and it should be a pretty easy sell. Still, Minnesota Republicans can’t even seem to do that right.   They somehow managed to find the most unpopular way to cut taxes, which might somewhat limit the electoral benefits they stand to gain from the tax cuts.

Political tides ebb and flow, so today’s viewpoints could be very different at election time18 months from now. But as it currently stands in the dawn of the Trump era, Minnesota Republicans are not exactly winning so much they’re tired of winning.

Five Reasons Democrats Should Push A Medicare-for-All Option

As the next iteration of Trumpcare/Ryancare is finalized by warring conservatives, it’s fair to demand that Democrats share their post-Obama vision for health care.

Yes, Democrats need to be fighting efforts to repeal and replace the increasingly popular Obamacare/Affordable Care Act (ACA) system with Trumpcare/Ryancare. Though the ACA is the spurned love child of the Heritage Foundation, Orin Hatch, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, it’s much more humane than Trumpcare/Ryancare, which would cause at least 24 million Americans to lose their Obamacare health coverage, and many more if states choose to further weaken protections.

Cursor_and_medicare-for-all_jpg__360×216_But for the long haul, Democrats need to set their sights higher than Obamacare. They must become full-throated champions for allowing Americans the option of buying into the Medicare system.  Here are five reasons why:

Reason #1. Medicare is popular “government run health care.” For decades, Republicans have robotically vilified “government run health care” and “socialized medicine,” presuming that Americans agree with them that government will screw up anything it undertakes.  And Democratic politicians have cowered in fear.

However, Medicare is a notable exception to that rule. While the private sector-centric Trumpcare/Ryancare has 17% approval and Obamacare has 55% approval, Medicare has the approval of 60% of all Americans, and 75% Americans who have actual experience using Medicare.  It’s not an easy thing for a health plan to become popular, so Medicare’s relative popularity is political gold.  Democrats need to tap into it.

Reason #2. Medicare is better equipped to control medical and overhead costs than private plans. Medicare has a single administrative system, while dozens of health insurance corporations have dozens of separate and duplicative administrative bureaucracies.  That decentralized approach to administration is expensive.

Also, for-profit health insurance corporations have to build profits and higher salaries into their premium costs. For instance, the insurance corporation United Health Care, to cite just one of dozens of examples, pays it’s top executive $33,400,000.   That’s 135 times more than the not-for-profit Medicare system pays its top executive, about $247,000.

Medicare also is large enough that it has a great deal of negotiating leverage.  It could have even more if Congress empowered Medicare to more effectively negotiate pharmaceutical prices.

Because of all of that, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities finds:

Medicare has been the leader in reforming the health care payment system to improve efficiency and has outperformed private health insurance in holding down the growth of health costs…  Since 1987, Medicare spending per enrollee has grown by 5.7 percent a year, on average, compared with 7.0 percent for private health insurance.

So, if Democrats want to better control health care costs to help the economy and struggling Americans, the Medicare model offers the best hope for doing that, not the corporate-centric model that we currently are using.

Reason #3. A Medicare-for-All option is very politically viable. Most Democratic politicians understand that a Medicare-for-All option makes good sense policy wise, but shrug it off as politically infeasible. They’re dead wrong.

By a more than a 5-to-1 margin, Americans support having a Medicare-for-All option. An overwhelming 71% support it, while only 13% oppose it. If you won’t try to sell a proven progressive idea that is supported by a 5-to-1 margin, you have no business being in progressive politics.

While “government-run health care” has been a weak brand for brand for Democrats, they have a clear path for rebranding their agenda.  Medicare brand equity is right there waiting for Democrats to take advantage it, if they’ll only open their eyes to the opportunity.

Reason #4. A Medicare-for-All option will expose private health corporations as uncompetitive. Right now, one of the Democrats’ biggest political problems is that too many Americans have been brainwashed by conservatives into believing that the private sector is always more efficient and effective than the public sector. In other areas that don’t involve “public goods,” that is true, but not with health insurance.

The best way to bust that “private is always best” myth is to allow Medicare to sit alongside corporate health plans in the individual marketplace. If American consumers choose Medicare over private plans, because Medicare proves itself to be the cheapest and best option, then the conservatives’ “private is always best” myth finally will be busted.

Reason #5. A Medicare-for-All option can serve as a bridge to the best health care model – a public single payer system. The research is clear that countries who have single payer health care financing have better and cheaper health care than the United States has with it’s substantially private sector based health care system. For example, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Commonwealth Fund finds:

Even though the U.S. is the only country without a publicly financed universal health system (among 13 high-income countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States), it still spends more public dollars on health care than all but two of the other countries. …despite its heavy investment in health care, the U.S. sees poorer results on several key health outcome measures such as life expectancy and the prevalence of chronic conditions.

Obscure research reports like this aren’t proving persuasive to American voters. But when younger Americans are able to see for themselves through their shopping that Medicare is cheaper and better than private health insurance options, Medicare will build a bigger market share.  After Medicare earns a larger market share, Americans may ultimately be much more open to shifting from a Medicare-for-all option to a Medicare-for-all single payer system that the United States ultimately needs in order to compete in the global marketplace and become a healthier nation.

It’s not enough for Democrats to only expose the reckless Trumpcare/Ryancare model and defend Obamacare status quo.  They must also promote a Medicare-for-All vision for moving America forward. With the current President and Congress, a Medicare-for-All option obviously can’t pass.  But aggressively promoting over the coming years will improve the chances that this Congress and President will soon be replaced and that a Medicare-for-All option can be enacted in future years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mainstream My Ass

Cursor_and_Trump’s_foreign_policy_goes_mainstream_-_POLITICOAfter a few TV-friendly bombings this week, many in the mainstream media and pundit-o-sphere are falling all over themselves to declare President Trump mainstream. That’s right, it seems our Muslim-banning, emoluments-pimping, Russia-colluding, climate change-denying, serial-lying President is now pretty much equivalent to Obama, the Bushes, the Clintons, Reagan and Ford.

For instance, Politico’s headline is “Trump’s Foreign Policy Goes Mainstream,” and it reports:

“(T)he substance of Trump’s decisions in his first 79 days in office reveals a surprisingly conventional approach, with personal quirks layered on top, according to a half-dozen foreign policy experts.”

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal headline readsFive Big Players Steer Trump’s Foreign Policy Towards the Mainstream” and National Public Radio (NPR) offers “Trump’s Flip Flops on Economics Move Toward the Status Quo.”

Okay, so the President recently has said a few sane things, such as NATO shouldn’t be defunded after all and Russia really should stop enabling the gassing of innocent children. Super. But before we throw the President a ticker-tape parade, let’s remember it was utterly outrageous that a presidential candidate or President ever took the opposite positions in the first place.

ann_schrantz_horton_-_Facebook_SearchLet’s also remember that in the same week the media declared Trump mainstream, we learned that a federal judge found probable cause that Trump’s campaign may have colluded with the Russians to undermine American democracy, and that the President threatened to withhold lifesaving assistance from poor people if Democrats don’t back his extremely unpopular Trumpcare plan to take health coverage from 24 million Americans. We also read the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Rolling Stone, and Wall Street Journal reporting and opining about the President’s unprecedented level of lying.

Yeah sure, but did you hear that the President failed to publicly praise his most empowered white nationalist? Moderate!

How does this happen? Former top aide for President George W. Bush David Frum explains:

“As President, Donald Trump benefits from two inbuilt biases of mainstream pundits:

“Bias 1 favors fair-mindedness: the wish to offer tips of the hat along with shakes of the finger. This bias exerts itself extra strongly with a bad actor like Trump. The worse he does, the more eagerly the pundit seeks something to praise. We’ve all experienced this. ‘There has to be something good to say about Trump. Even Hitler liked dogs!’

“Bias 2 is the bias in favor of surprise and novelty. Pundits don’t want – bookers won’t book – endless repeats of ‘He’s a liar & a crook.’ How much more interesting to say: “He’s a liar and a crook, but …” How boring to insist that the first part must always overwhelm the latter.

“And so TV punditry flits from one seemingly clever (but actually deeply false) pivot to another, chasing insight & missing truth.”

Say it with me people:  This presidency is lightyears away from normal.   An American President who bans people from entering a country that was founded on the principal of religious liberty because of the deity they worship…who empowers white nationalists that the neo-Nazis and Klansmen cheer…who praises murderous, democracy-hacking dictators as “strong” role models…who appoints his business-operating family members with no relevant experience to the most sensitive positions in the world…who covers up his tax returns so he can profit from policy positions and accept foreign bribes without Americans knowing it…and who lies at a rate that we have never seen in national history is not normal, moderate, or mainstream.

We have to judge presidents based on their overall body of work. And when a very high percentage of a President’s body of work is utterly outrageous and dangerous to the republic and world, we can’t give anything close to equal billing to the low percentage of his actions are not outrageous.  This week’s shamelessly fawning news coverage aside, Donald J. Trump remains the mother-of-all-abnormal Presidents.

Fixing The Massive Leak In America’s Transportation Funding System

Imagine you discovered your salary was going to be steadily declining in the coming years, making it impossible for you to fund future needs. Would you shrug off this news, and passively accept the associated damage, or shift to a more stable source of income?

When it comes to the funding needed to build and maintain the nation’s roads and bridges, policymakers are facing a similar threat, and most of them are shrugging it off.

The Problem

Currently, we finance much of our transportation infrastructure with a state and federal gasoline tax, where the more gasoline we use, the more we contribute to building and maintaining the transportation infrastructure.  For a long time, the gas tax has served us well.

Cursor_and_hqdefault_jpg__480×360_But the gas tax is becoming obsolete. Here’s why:  Between 2008 and 2014, the average fuel efficiency of new cars increased by 22%. In coming years, new fuel efficiency regulations and technological improvements will accelerate that progress. As as result, by 2040 the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that fuel sales will decrease by between 34% and 45%.  The less gasoline we use, the less we have for building and maintaining our transportation infrastructure.

“Just raise the gas tax,” you say?  Well, a paper recently written by transportation finance expert Ed Regan estimates:

“If governments want to still generate equivalent revenue to keep up with future travel levels, gas tax rates will need to be increased to as much as $1.16 per gallon to overcome the effect of future fuel efficiency.”

Given how politically difficult it has proven over the years to increase the gas tax by even a few pennies, an increase of that magnitude would seem to be politically impossible.

Even if passing such a huge increase were somehow politically feasible, we would be left with a grossly unfair system where some can avoid, quite legally, paying their fair share for funding roads and bridges.  (By the way, as someone who has driven a gas-electric hybrid for a decade, I’m one of those people unfairly benefiting from the gas tax status quo.)

If we don’t enact a steep gas tax, Regan has alarming numbers for policymakers and citizens to ponder:

By 2025, just 8 years from now, increasing fuel efficiency may cost state and federal coffers as much as $20.8 billion per year in fuel tax revenues.

Twenty-one billion dollars is a lot of road and bridge projects.  Clearly, stubbornly clinging to the gasoline tax status quo would dramatically impact our safety, global competitiveness and quality-of-life.

Yes, the Trump administration is proposing to roll back fuel efficiency standards. But many experts believe this will have only a limited effect on the trend toward greater fuel efficiency and use of non-gasoline powered vehicles. CNBC reports:

Trump’s bid to ease fuel efficiency rules will be tough and likely limited, experts say:

The White House’s attempts to alter the Obama administration’s plan to raise federal automobile fuel standards could be a slog and ultimately yield little change, experts say.

The Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency will revisit rules finalized under President Barack Obama that would keep automakers on pace to manufacture vehicles that get more miles per gallon. But experts say it will be difficult for President Donald Trump to meaningfully relax the rules under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, or CAFE.

Whether driven by consumer demand, regulations or both, the march towards greater fuel efficiency seems inevitable.  The Trump fuel efficiency changes may slow the march, but they won’t stop or reverse it.

The Solution

The most logical solution to this increasingly urgent problem is to charge users based on distance traveled rather than gasoline used. Under such an approach, transportation funding would be much more adequate and stable than it is with the gas tax.

Cursor_and_410132__1600×1067_But in the stodgy world of transportation finance, old habits die hard. Charging based on distance requires a very different type of revenue collection system, and such a change is proving to be mind-bending for many policymakers.

Fortunately, at the state level various approaches are being piloted, evaluated and refined. For instance, one approach being tested with 5,000 volunteers in California gives users a range of choices for collecting a “Road User Charge.”  Volunteers can choose to track distance by using 1) a small electronic device, called a “dongle,” plugged into their vehicle, 2) a smart phone photo of their odometer sent to authorities on a monthly basis, or 3) other more low-tech tracking methods.

Moving to this type of distance-based system won’t come without headaches or expense. But everything is relative, and accepting the hassles associated with this transition is a small price to pay for avoiding a transportation infrastructure meltdown.  With as much as $21 billion in transportation funding about to disappear over just the next eight years, and much more about to disappear in the coming decades, policymakers can no longer afford to shrug off this problem.

Note:  I have done public relations work on this issue for an academic client, but the views expressed are my own.

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.

Trumpcare’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

America currently has a health reform model that has given it the highest rate of health insurance coverage in history, covering more than 20 million of its most difficult to insure citizens.  It has helped those 20 million Americans avoid having their lives ruined by crushing medical bills, or shifting those costs onto other Americans.

Gallup_uninsured_chartAnd despite years of heavily-financed and relentless attacks on the model, most Americans now have a favorable impression of it.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) system isn’t perfect.  Yes liberals, a Medicare for All system would be much more effective and efficient than the current ACA system. Yes conservatives, this ACA needs adjustments, though, to borrow from Mark Twain, the reports of its death spiraliness have been greatly exaggerated.

Fact Check:  Obamacare Is Not In A Death Spiral

“You could, I think, relatively simply address the issues that the exchanges have,” said Dan Mendelson, president of Avalere Health, a health consulting firm, noting that other major programs including Medicare have been tweaked repeatedly since their creation.

Now President Trump and the Republicans want to blow up the ACA model — the one that covered the most Americans in history — in favor of a model that will cause an estimated 6 million to10 million Americans to lose their coverage. Their alternative particularly hurts the low-income, rural and elderly.  To add insult to injury, it shoehorns in a grotesquely large tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, at a time when we have the worst inequality in incomes since the 1920s.  The alternative is vehemently opposed by doctors, nurses, hospitals, seniors, conservatives, and liberals. And Republicans promise to pass it within three weeks, without cost estimates if necessary, after complaining about the ACA being “rammed through” over 13 months.

This is the political and policymaking genius that is Trumpcare.

Will Rogers said, “this country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.” Never has that been more true than now.

On Marijuana Prohibition, Minnesota Legislators Are Not High On Substance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boot the Mute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 that there will always be at least one solid coverage option available to every Minnesotan, even when health insurance companies decide to pull out of the marketplace, as they have in recent years. Those are all good goals.

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

Background

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

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

MinnesotaCare for All Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Consumers Choose

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

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

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

Trump Resistance Roadmap

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

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

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

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

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