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Monday, January 31, 2005

Dayton, Coleman less popular

Minnesota Senators Mark Dayton and Norm Coleman are losing their popularity in this state. Generally, people's opinions of both of them mirror the stereotypes: people see Coleman as a spineless tool of Bush, and they think Dayton is off in outer space many times with his words and actions.

Of the two, these numbers are more depressing for Dayton, since he is up for re-election next year and it is no surprise that he is one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the nation. Fortunately for him (and Coleman, depending on your point of view), many people still haven't formed an opinion of either of them, so there is still ample opportunity to improve those favorable ratings.

Dayton turned a lot of people off by closing his senate offices for what appeared to be pretty poor reasons. But despite what some people may think, doing things like coming out forcefully against Rice's nomination is going to help, not hurt. I think people generally respect people who take a strong, consistent stand on the issues, even if they don't personally agree with them. That is the main reason why Paul Wellstone won two elections and was on his way to winning a third. Dayton has a lot of beliefs that put him with the majority of Minnesotans, such as creating a workable Medicare prescription drug benefit and making sure this administration does the right thing in Iraq and around the world. If Dayton works on getting his message out, he can position himself much better for the election. It will still be a very tight race no matter what happens, however.

Local control of schools?

Republicans are an interesting bunch. One of their mantras is "local control" no matter what. As time has gone on, though, and Republicans have become entrenched in power in many states and the federal government, "local control" has fallen by the wayside. A couple of good examples at the federal level are the gay marriage amendment (can't let states decide for themselves what relationships to acknowledge) or attempts to prevent states from enacting tougher air pollution standards. There are a lot like these.

At the local level, a couple of Republicans from northern Minnesota want to take local control away from school districts by preventing them from starting school early. They are doing this, they say, to help the resort industry in their area.

That's all well and good, but why should summer resorts be the only beneficiaries? Why not extend winter and (early) spring breaks to help out our ski areas? Why not give a week off for deer or fishing openers? Lots of businesses would no doubt love to have the opportunity of a forced school vacation.

Let's leave school calendars to the schools themselves, shall we? U.S. students consistently test near the bottom when compared to the rest of the world, and while Minnesota students are better than average, I still think we should err on the side of more instruction, not less.

Pawlenty the enforcer

Governor Pawlenty came out today in favor of harsher sentences for sex offenders. His proposals would cost $100 million. No mention of where he would get the money from.

Sure, tougher sentences are fine. I have no problem with life in prison without parole for a second violent sex crime offense. But how are we going to pay for this when our prison population is already skyrocketing? Let's see this proposal partnered with another good idea: eliminating prison terms for possession of drugs. A compromise bill like this would do a lot for bipartisanship and would show everybody that Minnesota knows how to do things right.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Government salary cap

The State Auditor has called for the repeal of a law that limits the salaries of government employees to a certain percentage of the governor's salary. This silly law has been cleverly evaded more and more in recent years, since the governor's salary has not gone up and fewer local governments have been granted exemptions. It's time for it to go.

Conservatives love to say that government should be run more like a business. However, this apparently doesn't apply to salaries, since they support laws that prevent market forces from working in the salary realm. Local governments want the best people possible, but they don't want to pay them what they are worth. What a great plan.

Friday, January 28, 2005

I'm glad I live in Minnesota

Thanks to This Modern World, here's a picture of an enlightened Kentuckian's car. This really doesn't need much comment from me.

Smoking ban bill receives hearing in House

The propose smoking ban bill received a hearing yesterday in the Health Committee, where it was scaled back by Rep. Jim Abeler. The bill was stripped of everything except the ban on smoking in restaurants; in particular, it removed the ban from bars an, very odd to me, hotel lobbies. Why would hotel lobbies want to be full of smoke?

Abeler is one of those pretend moderates who likes to talk bipartisanship but isn't there when it counts, such as on this bill. If the carcinogen being banned were, say, asbestos, I doubt he would be offering an amendment to allow hotels to blow asbestos around their lobbies. But he did it here all the same.

Listen, it doesn't matter where it is: workers who work in smoke-filled environments are having their health endangered. We have worker protections for other harmful substances, we should have them for secondhand smoke.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Chamber of Commerce calls for higher taxes

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce gets it: in order to deal with our woefully underfunded transportation system, we are going to need to raise taxes. They are calling for a five cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, as well as dedicating at least 80% of the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax (MVST) to transportation and transit. Currently, much of the money from the MVST goes to the General Fund. They even have a list of projects they want to accelerate here, including things like a dedicated bus lane along 35W and much-needed expansions of 494 and 694 to three lanes in each direction.

Businesses realize that the transportation funding deficit has a real economic impact, and that money wasted in traffic is worse than paying more in gas tax. Will the governor go back on his "no new taxes" pledge to support this? I doubt it.

State tax burden

In a recent post, I mentioned that the highest earners in the state pay less as a percentage of their income in state taxes than the middle class. Well, today, the City Pages has a beautifully illustrated chart. The Minnesota Department of Revenue has always done a wonderful job of providing information on tax incidence, and this chart shows that the middle class is paying the most.

While the income tax is progressive, it does not make up enough for the regressive sales (excise) and property taxes. Clearly, the upper 10% can afford to pay a bit more in income taxes. While I think that the graph should have a slightly positive slope, it should at the very least be level across all income brackets.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Pawlenty Budget

Well, we knew what was coming based on his State of the State address and recent media reports; the only question was how bad it would be. Now we know the answer. Here are some roundups.

First things first: this budget will raise taxes. It will raise property taxes for schools. It will raise property taxes for health care. It will raise traffic ticket surcharges. It will delay scheduled tax sunsets. So, any way you look at it, Pawlenty broke his "no new taxes" pledge. However, he did not raise either income taxes or sales taxes, which are the only taxes that the Taxpayer's League care about, for some odd reason.

Second, this plan is full of gimmicks and shortsighted budget decisions that will hurt us in the long run. The casino revenue is purely a gimmick. In order to cut the budget deficit, Pawlenty is counting on a one-time licensing fee of $100 million. Fixing a permanent budget deficit with one-time money is like taking a cash advance on your credit card to pay the mortgage. That's not a winning strategy. As an aside, it's interesting to note that Pawlenty is selling out social conservatives, who oppose an increase in gambling, in order to placate the radical economic conservatives at the Taxpayer's League. He is taking right after Bush and national Republicans when it comes to that. When will social conservatives realize that they are simply being used by Republicans?

When it comes to health care, Pawlenty is shooting our state in the foot while taking away our insurance. He proposes drastic cuts in eligibility, to the point where you would have to make less than $600 a month in some situations in order to quality for assistance. This plan will not reduce the cost of health care. This plan will not prevent these people, many of whom work full-time jobs, many of whom have addictions, many of whom have mental health issues, from getting sick. This plan will simply force people to give up preventative care and wait until they were extremely sick to turn to the only options they have, the emergency rooms. Hospitals would be forced to pay for this uncompensated care, increasing property taxes and insurance rates.

Health care in this country is getting out of control. The Republican response is to do nothing that addresses rising costs. They think that providing health care savings accounts will magically create money that people can spend on increasing premiums. They also say that medical malpractice is out of control, even though it makes up less than 2% of all health care spending. Eliminate malpractice entirely, and at the rate health care premiums are going up, we would be back to where we started in less than six months. Pawlenty is following the exact same plan of inaction, choosing to pass up the opportunity to make some drastically needed changes in our health care economy.

So what do we do? Well, the 2001 property tax reform is officially undone with this budget. Those property tax cuts which did exist are gone. It is becoming more and more evident that we can't afford the tax cuts of 2001 and earlier. It's time to roll back some of those tax cuts, starting with rolling back the tax cut for people who make more than $200,000 a year. These people now pay less in state and local taxes as a percentage of their income than the hard-working middle class. There is nothing wrong with expecting them to pay their fair share.

To wrap up, I heard Pawlenty say, especially with regards to health care, that Minnesota is more generous than other states. And that is certainly true. But there's a reason for that. Minnesota didn't become the healthiest state by ignoring the health care needs of those people who work good jobs but don't get health insurance. We can't ignore those people in the shadows simply because a dozen people at the Taxpayer's League have a problem with them.

When people say that high taxes and government spending are no guarantee of prosperity, they are absolutely right. However, wise investment is. Minnesota has chosen to make wise investments in the health and education of its citizens, and we have reaped the benefits. Pawlenty doesn't want to turn us into a Mississippi, but he does want to make us average. He wants to replace "The Good Life" with "The So-So Life." Deep down, I don't think Minnesota wants this.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Senate passes bonding bill

Today the Senate passed their bonding bill at long last. Last year, the bill failed in the Senate when Republicans refused to vote for it (bonding bills need a 60% majority vote, meaning that neither the Democrats in the Senate nor Republicans in the House can pass i by themselves). Seeing the writing on the wall, Republicans supported it en masse this year.

House Republican leaders have said that they won't pass a bonding bill until mid-February, and it almost certainly won't be as big as the Senate's bill, which totaled almost $1 billion. Thus, a conference committee, and the need for compromise. Will they be able to do it?

Tomorrow is another big day, as Pawlenty unveils his budget.


Why do lots of people, including myself, believe that Norm Coleman is fake? Because many parts of him are.

Atrios has an important ethical question, but I have a question that's a little less serious: Is plastic surgery a good old-fashioned Minnesota value, or one of those decadent liberal Hollywood values?

Is obvious plastic surgery an appropriate topic with regards to elected officials? Normally, I would say no. But then I think back to all the "Botox: Yes or No?" questions of last year, and my guilt pangs go away.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

The media

On Minnesota Politics Discuss there is yet another argument over whether the media has a liberal bias. Anybody who pays attention to these things knows that the media doesn't have a liberal bias, it has a pathetic bias. Case in point: Johnny Carson died today, and channel 9 news, the local Fox affiliate, advertised that they would be talking to a boyhood friend of Carson, who now lives in Minnesota. Wow! Will the other networks respond in kind, maybe by interviewing somebody who once saw Carson on a plane?

Saturday, January 22, 2005

What to do about retirement and Social Security

This will probably be the last things I say about Social Security here. Having started the discussion, though, I will finish it.

So what should be done about Social Security to better its funding? Three things. First, means test benefits. Second, do away with the cap on the amount of income that is taxed (of the two payroll taxes, Social Security and Medicare, only Social Security is capped). Third, slightly raise the retirement age. These are all very simple things to do, and they would make Social Security solvent practically forever.

What about private accounts? Well, we already have private accounts. Too many, in fact. We have IRAs, Roth IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and 457s. There are probably more, but those are the big ones. Every single one is different, which complicates both people's planning and our tax code. Since I believe in tax code simplification, I think we can kill several birds with one stone by consolidating and simplifying these accounts.

My proposal is this: everybody will be able to open two kinds of retirement accounts (of course, they can open one or the other, or none at all; this isn't mandatory): a tax-deferred account (like standard IRAs and the 401(k) family of things) and a tax-exempt account (like Roth IRAs). There will be a combined yearly contribution limit, indexed to inflation in $500 increments. We could start it at $15,000, for example. Of that amount, up to $5,000 could go in the tax-exempt account, and that amount is reduced as your income goes up (Roth IRAs currently have an income threshold above which you are not eligible to contribute). Obviously, the total amount you can put in both accounts would be unchanged, so if your income was so high that you could only put $3,000 in your tax-exempt account, you could put $12,000 in the tax-deferred account.

You would open these accounts at any financial institution of your choosing. Your employer would be required to automatically set up electronic transfers to your accounts if you so desire. Contributions to the tax-deferred account would be done pre-tax, and contributions to the tax-exempt account after tax. Since you own this account, changing employers does not change anything. No need to worry about rollovers or similar garbage. You also aren't limited to the investment choices offered by your employer, which is how it works with 401(k) plans now. Employers could add to your contribution just as they can add to your 401(k)s now; I really haven't thought about whether employer contributions should count towards your limit or not. Details, details.

I think this would greatly simplify things and give people much more choice and flexibility in how they save for retirement. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Deficiency bill passed

The House passed a significant piece of legislation yesterday, the so-called deficiency bill, which covers projected shortfalls in this budget cycle for certain activities, such as state prisons and public defenders. As these things are basically required to be provided by the state, there was no choice but to pass the bill. The $30 million to pay for this will come out of the budget reserve.

The bill passed on a bipartisan 131-2 vote. While some are seeing this as evidence of a new bipartisan era in the House, I wouldn't be too sure. This was a fairly noncontroversial bill, and if House Republican leadership insists on carrying Governor Pawlenty's ridiculous budget, look for bipartisanship to end if they refuse to compromise.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Social Security

I normally don't post about federal issues, but since a Minnesota Congresscritter is gunning for first place in the distorting reality contest, I thought I'd make a cursory comment.

So the question of the day is, "Is this a crisis?" Let's put this into an argument we can relate to. Suppose you saw your future salary in a crystal ball. Let's say that your salary was guaranteed to go up each year by an amount higher than the median growth in wages, high enough to take productivity increases into account. Suppose these increases were guaranteed for about the next forty years, after which you will receive guaranteed 75% of your highest salary.

Is that a crisis? For many people who have seen their wages stagnate for the past few years, this sounds like a great deal. For other, it may be unappetizing, or inconvenient, but it's certainly nowhere near the end of the world, especially if you saw that in your crystal ball and made some small changes to adjust.

Listen, folks: benefits going to zero in five years and staying there for all perpetuity is a crisis. The state of Social Security is not. A good way to push it closer towards a crisis would be private accounts, which would be more expensive than leaving SS completely alone until 2061.


I have no problem with expanding gambling, but I certainly believe that local units of government should be able to say no to casinos if that's what they want.

We need to construct a few off-road trails for ATV users so they have the opportunity to enjoy their sport, but after this is done, ATVs should be kept out of state forests.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

State of the State thoughts

So Pawlenty gave his State of the State address today. I was wondering whether he would call for bipartisanship and have the guts to go back on his no new taxes pledge. There wasn't too much on the first subject, and he certainly failed to be honest on the second.

He put forward ideas, of course. A university in Rochester is a great idea, although it will probably take more than $3 million to get it going. No word on how to pay for its operation, no word on where the money would come from.

He wants to link student financial aid to students, not to higher education institutions. Great for private colleges and universities, bad for MnSCU and the U of M. The U of M is going to wane in importance under Pawlenty's watch if this goes forward, and that puts the economic health of the state at risk. Tuition has gone up more than 50% in a few short years. Any more of this, and the U of M will lose both top-notch faculty and students. That's a very bad idea.

He's pushing Health Savings Accounts again, which do nothing to actually make health care cheaper. He is also pushing for bulk purchasing. Say, how about leveraging the entire state as a buying pool? Or the entire nation? Naw, these kinds of "bulk purchases" are evil. It's much better to have small pools that don't include patients who consume more health care. These people will be left out in the cold even more so if he ends Minnesota Care, insurance for poor single childless adults. Of course, these people would still get sick, bankrupting public hospitals and driving up property taxes, but Pawlenty doesn't seem to care much about that.

His education proposals would also raise property taxes, but I've already gone over that.

Ethanol? I'm indifferent. I don't like many subsidies, and the environmental advantages of ethanol are not exactly fantastic.

He brought up something call "Turbocharged Truth-In-Taxation". This would allow people to have a kind of reverse referendum on levy increases. Gee, governor, how convenient: push programs that result in higher property taxes, then allow people to say no to those taxes so the programs are starved. You get all the credit for proposing them and don't pay any price for not funding them! I'm sorry, but I don't believe in these kinds of reverse referendums. If the public doesn't like property tax increases, they can vote out the school board, city council, or county commissioners at the next election. I have the same negative feelings towards any kind of initiative and referendum proposals.

Those crickets you hear represent Pawlenty's comments on transportation. Nothing there at all. Considering that the lack of transportation funding is one of the most important issues facing the state, that's one big oversight.

All in all, this was a disappointing speech. He puts forward some ideas but doesn't say how he will pay for them, and harps on some old conservative standbys (HSAs, reverse referenda) that will do nothing to actually solve problems in our schools, on our roads, in our criminal justice system, and in our health care system. He had a chance to be visionary, and he chose not to go that route. These don't sound like the policy ideas of somebody who is serious about working towards a common good.

State of the State

Today the govenor is going to give his State of the State address in Rochester. No text is available yet, so we can speculate on what he is going to say. I am looking for a call for bipartisanship, as well as an indication that he is going to break his "no new taxes" pledge. If these two items are missing, then it will be the same old same old.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

...I'm not the man they think I am at home

Forget politics for the moment and return to a simpler time, a more pharmaceutical time, a funky time. If you like Family Guy and watched its return tonight as I did, you saw Stewie perform Rocket Man following the direction of William F*@!&in' Shatner. Of course, you haven't lived until you've seen it live, and since it was recorded over 25 years ago, that means plenty of people haven't seen it. So take a look. I'm not paying for any psychological treatment necessary after watching it, though.

P.S. To whoever was in charge of the 1970s, what were you thinking?

Smoking bans III

There's no need to rehash things I have said here, but all the latest indications are that a bill will be passed by the legislature this year with bipartisan support. This is great news, but let's not forget that this issue was spearheaded last year by Rep. Ron Latz, a Democrat from St. Louis Park, who pushed for it unsuccessfully but was instrumental is demonstrating the popularity of such a ban. Persistence pays off at the legislature.

That Reagan SOB

Republicans have put forward a plan to rename the State Office Building (SOB) the Reagan SOB. Now while the epithet may be useful, the name isn't, for all the reasons I have posted about before: he didn't live here, he didn't win here, etc. I surely don't understand why Minnesota Republicans have an obsession with budget-deficit-blowing, Iran-Contra-scandaling Ronnie, but that's nothing new. Name a Superfund site after him, fine, but not the SOB.

Lori Sturdevant at the Star Tribune has another option, one which would be great. Ed Burdick has been associated with the legislature for more than half a century, and he has worked with Democrats and Republicans alike. Let's name our bipartisan SOB after somebody who is bipartisan too.

Friday, January 14, 2005

BBC documentary

As a rule I don't talk about foreign policy or other national issues, since that's not what this blog is about. However, I recently had this BBC documentary brought to my attention, and it is very, very good. It details the rise of both terrorism based on the distortion of Islam, as well as the neoconservative movement. There is plenty of blame to go around, and plenty of lessons we could have learned from if only we had paid attention. Either watch the documentary or read the transcript, it is well worth your time.

Toll lanes

Another one of Pawlenty's proposals for getting something without raising taxes was toll lanes. He sold this idea as one where tolls would build more lanes and new freeways in existing corridors without any taxpayer funding necessary. Private businesses would jump at the chance to construct these roads and collect the ensuing revenue, according to him. Better traffic, no taxes, and private businesses profit. A win all around!

Except that it won't work. Minnesota does not have the traffic densities to support this idea, and unsurprisingly, a study found that these lanes would not pay for themselves as promised. Now the question facing the Department of Transportation becomes whether to have tolls on lanes constructed with taxpayer money.

Once again, reality gets in the way of Pawlenty's no new taxes pledge. The state is facing a transportation funding shortfall of about half a billion dollars per year. If we construct these toll lanes without raising taxes, that means other highway projects are going to be delayed. There is only one answer to this: we need more money! First, let's adequately fund transportation and transit, then we can discuss the merits of toll roads. Unless we do that first, we are simply going to be robbing one project to pay for another.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

MNCare and mortality

Senator Linda Berglin, an outspoken opponent of cuts to medical care funding, said today that cuts to MinnesotaCare have resulted in an increase in mortality among childless adults. In 2003, the legislature imposed a cap on benefits for these people.

While I am as opposed to cuts as Senator Berglin, the statistics student in me says "correlation is not causation." Berglin did not provide any indication that the cap directly led to people's deaths through inadequate medical care. Until there is proof of this, it is not appropriate to blame people's death on the cap.

Pawlenty's education plan

Let's take a look at Governor Pawlenty's education plan, which was unveiled today. It follows a blueprint that is quickly becoming the norm for his programs: maintain the status quo while touting some peripheral new initiative as "reform."

First, the status quo. Pawlenty proposes raising funding by two percent a year for two years. This will put almost $300 million into the budget. However, when you factor inflation into things, and unlike the state government, schools can't legislate inflation away, this means schools will be either staying in place, or more likely falling even more behind.

Now, for the fake "reform." Pawlenty is pushing $60 million for districts that institute a merit-pay system for teachers. Those districts that do so, however, would have to entirely give up the current "steps and lanes" pay structure. Now, I am all for merit pay for teachers. It only makes sense to put some kind of market force into schools to weed out the bad teachers, and there are enough of them. But I have yet to find a way to measure success in an objective way. Test scores? Teaching to the test is already a huge problem, and the last thing our country needs are people who are adept at taking tests but have no practical knowledge otherwise. Student behaviour? How do you control for the fact that behaviour depends far more on things entirely outside the teacher's control, like home environment, than what happens in the classroom. Academic improvement? Well, improvement will be very different between taking a class of gifted kids and pushing them further, and taking a group of students who are slipping and starting to turn them around, but both are valuable. Furthermore, measuring that improvement is once again tricky.

Just about the only thing that may work is basing pay on parent and principal feedback, much like the rest of the business world. But that is completely subjective, not objective, and that doesn't seem to be what people want. Granted, getting an additional degree or taking additional classes don't necessarily make for a better teacher, but I don't know what else could work.

Finally, the bonus: since Pawlenty must realize that this low amount of money is inadequate, he is allowing school districts to increase property tax levies for things that should be paid for by the state, like special education. So, if schools want to get more funding, they would have to raise property taxes. Not only does this go counter to Pawlenty's "no new taxes" pledge, but it rolls back the great property tax reform of 2001, which was meant to take education funding off of the unfair property tax and shift it to other state taxes.

Once again, Pawlenty's pledge to the anti-government wingnuts has boxed him into a corner. Our schools deserve better.

Dangerous ignorance

When it comes to gay marriage, most ignorance is dangerous, but Republican Representative Dan Severson seems to have a bad case. As quoted in a St. Cloud Times article, he is all for the gay marriage ban. Why? Well, because "I think there is an education process that needs to take place that shows how gay marriage hurts traditional marriage, a fundamental institution for our society." Yes, because I've noticed how Massachusetts has turned into a hellhole, and how other countries in Europe have been razed with fire and brimstone since they legalized it. Will Canada be next to sink to the depths of Hell?

He also says , "I think (homosexuality) is a behavioral issue. If there was one place that showed it was genetic, I'd think about it more. ... It's not proven in the bible." Anybody who is using the Bible as a text on genetics is beyond belief. Look, I grew up pretty close to Rep. Severson's district, and I was educated in Catholic schools for 13 years. That meant a lot of study of the Bible, which I would dare say I know more of than Severson, but never did we use it for biology. We had real, you know, biology texts that talked about genetics, DNA, natural selection, all that scientific stuff.

It is scary enough when I read surveys that say a good chunk of people think that man lived with dinosaurs, or the world was created 6,000 years ago as it said in the Bible. It is even worse when our elected officials hold these beliefs. If we don't fix this scientific ignorance soon, we are going to be left way behind in this new century.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The budget

On Monday, the state reported that it took in $66 million more in tax revenue in November and December than forecast. While this sounds like good news, and it is, it is important to look at the context. Much of the money comes from corporate income tax refunds, which is notably volatile. This is not any indication of an increase in recurring tax revenue at all, as personal income tax withholding and sales tax receipts are still below forecast.

Despite the fact that this isn't an indication that Minnesota is out of the budget woods yet, some Republicans seem to think so. On Ray Cox's blog, he joins Governor Pawlenty in citing this as evidence that our state's economy is growing. He also says, "We also have more people working in Minnesota than ever before. Each one of those workers pays payroll taxes." However, as noted, payroll withholding is below forecasts.

Obviously, the state shouldn't turn down this money, but people shouldn't blow this out of proportion. The legislature is still going to face a significant shortfall, and there just aren't many areas left to cut.

What's going on today

A short and relatively pointless floor session was held at the House today. It is early, and these sessions are for introducing bills and sending them off to the proper committees for hearings.

One bill to be introduced in the Senate would legalize Texas Hold 'Em tourneys. A tourney was raided in Saint Cloud this summer because it is not currently allowed under the laws that permit other card tournaments like cribbage. This certainly isn't the most pressing issue facing the legislature, but it does make sense.

Also in the Senate, Alice Seagren won approval from the Senate Education Committee, as expected.

A new group has been formed to lobby against increased gaming in the state. It is a bipartisan commission that is receiving some funding from Indian tribes that currently operate casinos are could stand to lose money if more casinos, state-owned or otherwise, are opened. Some people are unimpressed by this fact, seeing a conflict of interest. I'm just unimpressed by the idea itself.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Cutting the size of the legislature

Mr. Anonymous, author of so many notable quotes throughout history, stops by my blog to ask what I think about a bill reducing the size of the legislature. Bills like this one, as well as bills for a unicameral legislature, are introduced just about every year, and so far we haven't see the size of the legislature reduced. I don't have an opinion one way or the other on the size of the legislature, although I do think we could have another kind of reform.

I would like to see the House be elected based on proportional representation. If we divided up the state into 8 districts mirroring our congressional districts, and set the size of the House at either 128 or 136 members, that would mean that each district would elect 16 or 17 members. These members could be divided up based on the percentage of the vote each political party received in the district. The threshold would be a bit over 6% depending on how many members are elected, which is reasonable.

Under such a system, it would practically guarantee that no one party had a majority in the House. It would also ensure that no party dominates any particular area of the state. For example, I don't think that there is a single Republican House member in all the House districts within the Fifth Congressional district, which consists of Minneapolis and a few close suburbs. Under this plan, there would certainly be some Republicans and probably some Green party members elected to represent the Fifth district in the state House. Districts that are primarily Republican now may see more Democrats elected. Coalitions and compromise would probably increase. The Senate could be left alone, preserving the plurality election system in Senate districts.

This plan has no more chance of being enacted as the plan to reduce the size of the legislature, but it is the plan I would most like to see.

Legislature 1/10

Today at the Legislature the House celebrated Ed Burdick, while the Senate confirmed some of Pawlenty's appointed commissioners. Not a terribly eventful day in terms of getting things accomplished, and certainly not a surprising day. Nobody expected the Senate to fire any commissioners in the way that they fired Cheri Pierson-Yecke last year, and from what I can tell there is no reason to. The Senate will soon take up the confirmation of former Representative Alice Seagren as Education Commissioner, and despite the fact that she is a Republican there is no reason to deny her confirmation either. Yecke was right to be fired, and Seagren is a much more palatable choice.

Thursday's session will probably be even shorter, and since next Monday is a holiday and neither body will meet, expect little to be done in the near future.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

A closer look at airport expansion

Several months ago the Governor endorsed an idea put forward by Northwest Airlines to expand the main terminal and reserve it for Northwest (and partner) flights only. Other airlines would be relegated to an expanded Humphrey terminal. I wasn't too impressed with the plan at the time, and today the Star Tribune takes a closer look.

Once again, it looks like government money will be shoveled at a private business in order to help them maintain their monopoly status. Northwest already controls 80 percent of the gates at the airport, and as a result we pay higher fares than average. Low-fare airlines have not been able to get a foothold in this market, to the detriment of competition.

Of course, Northwest and supporters of this plan say that it is needed to secure the 16,000 jobs Northwest provides the state. However, the airline industry is not a good place for investment. I don't have figures handy, but I believe that the cumulative profits of the entire airline industry from inception is below zero. Airlines have short boom cycles followed by long bust cycles where they hemorrhage money, and we are in one of those bust cycles. While I don't like the government playing favourites with any industry, putting money into an industry like the airline industry seems like a bad investment. Why not something like biotech or nanotechnology if we are throwing around tax- and fee-raised money? Why not invest in early education, which has one of the highest returns on the dollar of any kind of public investment?

I think it is time to say no to Northwest's plan to control our market even more tightly than it already does. Let's aim for competition, not giving more money to a monopoly business.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Prisons and drug crimes

This morning I heard a story on MPR about one of the early priorities in the legislature this year: criminal justice. The governor wants to expand two correctional facilities to help ease the shortage of beds in our prison system. For now, House Republicans seem to be opposed to this plan, preferring to send prisoners to a private prison in Appleton (they never do pass up an opportunity to privatize some critical function of government, like basic protective services). Senate Democrats seem to support the governor's expansion plans, but at least Senator Jane Ranum believes that we should take a look at how we deal with nonviolent drug offenders.

I'm about as opposed to the "War on Drugs" as anybody out there. I am tired of reading stories about how much we are spending on dental care for prisoners with "meth mouth" when little old ladies and young working adults have no dental care at all. The per diem costs of prisoners in the state prison system was quoted at $77 in the story (though this sounds a bit low to me). One quarter of the prison population is in prison for non-violent drug crimes (this number also sounds low). That's a lot of money for a lot of people who shouldn't be there.

There probably aren't many people around who share my view that drugs should be legally available at stores, taxed, and regulated like any other product. But the data clearly shows that drug treatment programs cost less and reduce the rate of recidivism. Throwing people in prison to look "tough on drugs" is a waste of money that we don't have. I think that the legislature should fund an expansion of prisons, but only if coupled with a program to treat these non-violent drug offenders instead of incarcerating them. We need some sanity in how we deal with addiction.

Indian gaming is back!

Governor Pawlenty met with three of the less prosperous Indian tribes to discuss a possible partnership between the state and the tribes in opening a casino in the Twin Cities area. These tribes have not enjoyed the same riches from gambling as other tribes in Minnesota, primarily due to their location, and they are looking for a piece of the ever-expanding gaming pie. The state, of course, is always looking for new money, and if you can get it from something other than a "tax" it is even better.

I've said this was a bad idea before, and I still think this is a bad idea. I have no problem with tribes opening casinos. I have no problem with the state allowing them to open a casino that is closer to populated areas (okay, I have a bit of a problem with the unfairness of this). I have no problem with the state deciding to allow a private, regulated gaming industry here akin to Nevada. But the state should not be a business partner in a venture like this. Frankly, I'm surprised that Pawlenty is pushing this so hard. This is a bad idea for conservatives for at least two reasons: it is the government operating in the private sector as a business entity, and it is the government operating in an "immoral" business. And yet he continues to push this plan.

I don't think the people of Minnesota want Las Vegas-style gambling here, with a gambling regulatory commission, taxation, and the whole nine yards. Personally, I wouldn't mind. What Pawlenty wants is to thread a course between those two ideas, to have his cake and eat it too: give the state more revenue without letting any other private businesses have the opportunity to compete. That door should not be opened.

First week of session

The first week of session is over, and so far there haven't been many surprises at the Legislature. Yesterday's floor session was quick and painless, designed for moving paper around to committees, which is what most floor sessions will be like until around March or so. Most of the new members are still learning how everything works, from committees to introducing bills to finding the thermostats in their offices.

The House's publication, Session Weekly, is a great place to go to read up on what is happening. The Senate also has a publication, but the Senate Briefly just isn't as good as the House's weekly news roundup.

It looks like the early priorities of the legislature will be the bonding bill and criminal justice issues. The budget, the main purpose of this odd-year session, appears to be in the background. Presumably this is because nobody is looking forward to dealing with another deficit. It won't go away, however, and how the legislature and the governor deal with this deficit will have a large impact on what happens in the 2006 elections.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

First day of session

The first day of session brought fireworks but few surprises. Steve Sviggum was re-elected speaker, but it was a 67-64 vote, barely enough to win. Sviggum lost one vote from Republican Bruce Anderson in protest, and two Democrats refused to vote for Matt Entenza presumably because they (Al Juhnke and Mary Ellen Otremba) are pro-life while Entenza is pro-choice.

After the election of the speaker, there were fights over staffing and committee makeups. Since the Republicans have but a two-seat majority in the House, it would be fairest if committees had a one-vote margin in favor of the Republicans. Of course, this isn't how it is. As for staffing, the Republicans should have more staff because being in the majority means more work running committees. However, the Republicans have far more staff people than is necessary for this task, or is appropriate for the two-vote margin. After the 2002 elections when Democrats lost a lot of seats, many Democratic staff people were laid off. Now that the tables are turned, Republicans are refusing to lay off their staff people.

The Democratic objections over committees and staffing did not go anywhere, as the Republicans kept control. The House will be back in session on Thursday relatively early. It looks like floor sessions will be quite busy this year.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Legislative session 2005

The state legislature reconvenes tomorrow for the start of the 2005 session. They have a lot of things to deal with, such as a bonding bill that wasn't passed last year, a sizable budget deficit, and miscellaneous issues like anti-gay marriage amendments, stadiums, health care...just about everything that wasn't dealt with last year, which is a lot.

Governor Pawlenty's political capital seems to be dwindling. Today, he put forth a bonding bill that is far more expensive than he or most other Republicans want to pay for. House Republicans stated that they wouldn't accept a bonding bill more than about $450 million, yet Pawlenty's bill is over $800 million. It will be fun to watch the Republicans battle over how big the bill will be. Evidently, people are tired of Pawlenty's "No New Taxes or Spending" message, and he is, shall we say, "massaging" his message. Or flip-flopping.

Speaking of House Republicans, Speaker Sviggum is another person who is watching his power dwindle. He only has a two-seat majority, and word is many House Republicans are seriously ticked off at Sviggum. Whether this will lead to any surprises tomorrow in the vote for speaker is anyone's guess, but it would only take two defections on the Republican side to do it. Also, watch for Democrats to strike out at Republicans for stacking certain committees with far more Republican votes than the 68-66 breakdown should allow for.

It will be a very interesting first day of session, and the next four and a half months should be just as entertaining. Stay tuned.