Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bedford Falls or Pottersville….


At this time of the year, many of us replay the marvelous Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.  It is a lovely and meaningful story about the impact of a community oriented focus versus the selfishness of accumulating personal wealth.  The choice is between a vibrant inclusive community of Bedford Falls where everyone is important and realizes the value of the big “we” as opposed to “Pottersville” which represents a decadent and dying town ravaged by one individual’s greed.

The choice is simple:  everyone loves Bedford Falls and the wholesomeness of its community.  In so many ways, it is the realization of the American Dream

The power of that message was not only appropriate for the 1930’s and 40’s when this country was rebuilding itself from a devastating depression while fighting World War II.   No, this was the essence of the “Greatest Generation” that provided this nation with superb leadership well into the 1990’s.

Today, we must decide whether we want to build a Bedford Falls or a Pottersville. Increasingly, this is becoming the debate.

Here in Minnesota, we recently witnessed the decline and fall of Tony Sutton as the Republican Party chairman and the announcement that the party is broke and attempting to manage a massive debt approaching $600,000.  Many people have asked me if I was delighted by this failure of the “new Right”.

My answer is an emphatic “no”.  I would argue that the party has moved in the wrong direction and it is no surprise that the administrations of Governor Tim Pawlenty and Tony Sutton have left behind crushing financial messes.   Yes, the Republican Party went from moderate to what I call “the new Right”.  But it was more than a shift in political philosophy.  Leaders like Sutton and Pawlenty and numerous others saw the party as representing not only a different and more narrow philosophy but also as having the power to rigidly enforce that philosophy on its elected members.  Orthodoxy prevailed over representativeness and the result has been that cooperative governance with Democrats, Independents and Republican moderates is not possible.  It is either the way of the “new Right” or not at all.

Politics is no longer a contest of competing ideas with respect for dissent but increasingly the imposition of an authoritarianism that all too often is cloaked in patriotism and religion.  In this environment, the party and its beliefs are paramount and elected officials serve the party.  Any deviation is defined as “traitor”, “Rhino”, “disloyal”, etc.

However, my memory of Republicanism in Minnesota goes back to a party that was always building a better community with leaders like George Thiss, Rhoda Lund, Bob Forsythe, Chuck Slocum, Nancy Brataas and others who clearly understood the role of parties in seeking candidates who represented the “best and brightest” and were committed to governing for the well being of the whole.  So many of our leaders came out of the progressivism of Harold Stassen while still committed to the conservative virtues of prudent financial management.  Policies ranging from consumer and environmental protection to human rights to metropolitan governance bore the fingerprints of an endless array of community oriented GOP Governors from Elmer Andersen to Harold LeVander through Al Quie and on. 

In addition, Republicans produced an endless array of truly talented legislators from all over Minnesota who came to our capital city to govern and always with an eye to the future.  Simply put, Republicans, like their counterparts, the Democrats, felt that good politics stemmed from the competition of good ideas that produced quality governance.

And in this mix, leaders from every walk of life and every profession from medicine to agriculture participated.  There seemed to be a sense of obligation to give something of oneself in order to build a better community for our children.

In so many ways, the competition between Republicans and Democrats produced not only outstanding national leaders from both parties but it also drove our passion for a high quality of life.  Excellence was always the goal.

Yes, there was ambition but advancement was based more on merit and that is the way it should be as opposed to the current climate that rewards raw ambition and a blind adherence to a confining party agenda.

The Republican Party both in Minnesota and nationally has a choice to make.  Does it want to build a true Bedford Falls with a commitment to the well being of the whole or does it want to lead us to “Pottersville” where the quality of life rests with the privileged few?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Minnesota…A Great State to Get Sick In


For decades, Charlie Boone and Roger Erickson dominated our airwaves with humor and commentary on Minnesota life.  There was no better way to start out the day than with a cup of coffee and the Boone-Erickson show on the radio.  My favorite episodes tended to be “Minnesota Hospital” and they would always add something like “Minnesota, a great state to be sick in”.

I recently learned how true that was when I was admitted to the Fairview Southdale Hospital with a stomach ailment.  Two doctors and their team worked together, ran tests, utilized the latest technology, and did all that could be done to determine the cause.  They asked me exhaustive questions and, in the end, they found the source.

But this is not where the story ends.  Rather, in my time there I realized that this hospital had only one goal and that was to serve the patient and do it professionally, thoroughly, and with a sense of compassion and humor.  From a patient viewpoint, this was a team coming together to solve a medical problem and restore health to a patient. Orderlies, housekeepers, technicians, nurses, doctors were marvelous examples of teamwork and they all took pride in their work.

By the time I left, the nurses and I were laughing as we went to leave.  I knew I had been part of something extraordinary and that is that people love their job when they are part of a meaningful human endeavor and there can be none higher than protecting human health.

If there is a basic lesson here it is that those institutions that most clearly identify with their customers tend to the most successful while those who are more self-serving suffer from dysfunction.  Witness Congress.

Thank you all at Fairview Southdale Hospital; you are a shining example of the best.

PS This coming Monday night, Charlie Boone and Roger Erickson will be reading the Christmas Carol at the Old Log Theater.  Susan and I will be there.  This is a special Christmas event that you will not want to miss.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Denny Sanford…. Another Minnesota “Great”


Recently, on a flight back to Minneapolis, I was reading the Delta magazine and came across a special feature on South Dakota.  The centerpiece focused on the extraordinary generosity of Denny Sanford who endowed a major breast cancer research and treatment center.  Appropriately, it was named after his mother, Edith Sanford, who died from the devastating cancer when Denny was only four years old.

With this major gift and numbers of others including those to his beloved University of Minnesota, Denny joins the list of the wealthy who have used their assets to make transformational donations that have a lasting impact on all of us.  We are truly blessed to have Denny Sanford join Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, et al.  They are all pointing the way to responsible and meaningful wealth leadership.  Having come from modest backgrounds they know the value of giving to a society that gave them opportunity.  What a marvelous example of civic virtue.

But reading this story about Denny Sanford does not end here.  Rather it brings back some of my fondest moments when I arrived in Minneapolis to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota and serve as a counselor at the Chi Psi Fraternity in 1958-59.  Denny Sanford was a member of that group of some fifty young men who had a lasting impact on me.

Their academic talents ranged from average to exceptional.  That would be normal for a large state university.  But what was not normal, at least from my perspective, was the number of students working their way through school, managing all the activities at the fraternity and still participating in meaningful college activities.

It slowly dawned on me that this was a group that truly understood the value of higher education and were willing to work hard to achieve their goals.

Now, as I look back, their entrepreneurial success was no surprise; they were living it every day at the University.  There was no cocooning:  just hard work, perseverance, and teamwork.

Out of that group came some remarkable successes including the founder of a major advertising agency, the world’s leading high-rise architect, doctors, professors, lawyers, dentists, business leaders, developers, and another architect who has achieved local fame for his innovative work in urban design along with a notable federal jurist who established the highest standards in ethics, common sense, and legal knowledge.  One member was an academic All American while starting on Minnesota’s 1960 National Championship football team.  He went on to a highly successful career in law and real estate.

They played lead roles during my service as Governor ranging from developing workers compensation reform to the funding of the arts.  In a sense, they defined the meaning of being a good citizen.  I think it fair to say that all of us learned from the experience of living together, working together, and ultimately, helping each other.  I know that I could never have achieved any political success without them.

But I wonder if all this were not made possible due to an affordable tuition policy at the University of Minnesota.  So many of those extraordinary students came from very average backgrounds and were able to make ends meet by working and frugally managing their finances along with the rigors of academic challenges.

I think we owe that same opportunity to our children so we can benefit from the future Denny Sanfords, etc.

Is that not what American exceptionalism is all about?
























Friday, November 18, 2011

The Stadium…. Just a Thought


Last week, I was interviewed by two excellent radio journalists, Dan Barreiro of KFAN and Gary Eichten of MPR, and, obviously, the issue of the Vikings stadium came up.

The issue of sport stadiums has been around for the past 50 years creating all the normal divisions among the public and its political system.  Some believe that the state should keep the Vikings at all costs and some take strong issue with any form of governmental assistance.

To make matters even more complicated is the fact that the conditions of yesterday are not the norms today.  The middle class has been slowly losing ground and is seriously questioning whether the American Dream will be available for their children.  The public knows we need more scientists and engineers to compete globally and not more right tackles.

While this may change the flavor of the debate, it does not deal with the possibility that we could lose the Vikings.

Our first determination has to be whether or not we consider the Vikings a state asset.  My answer is “yes”, just as I consider the Mayo Clinic, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Duluth Port to be Minnesota assets.  They all help define our unique quality of life.

However, the times dictate a different approach.  In December, the state will announce another budgetary shortfall ranging anywhere from one-half billion to a billion dollars.  This will instantly remove the Vikings from top priority and, possibly, move the subject to 2013.

In addition, Zygi Wilf, while wealthy, is a bit light when compared to other sports owners.

Both sides would benefit from developing a true business partnership.  With that in mind, I would suggest that Wilf consider adding some Minnesota partners which would give the Vikings more capital and a Minnesota flavor which would be most helpful in easing the concerns of Minnesotans.

The Vikings have been advertising the team as a community asset.  Partial Minnesota ownership comparable to the Twins, Wild and Timberwolves will excite a broader base of Minnesotans about a true partnership.  Names like Glen Taylor, Jim and Bob Pohlad, Ralph Burnet, Stan Hubbard, Bob Naegele, are respected and known in the Minnesota communities.  The Vikings are in need of this vital ingredient.

Further, this partnership should extend to the creation of a permanent Sports Facilities Commission with not only management authority but also the responsibility for negotiating with the teams.  Since this requires legislative approval, the Governor may want to consider creating a negotiating team now with solid business and finance leaders and a minimum from the political world.

This recognizes the reality that continuing the political collisions will jeopardize success.  A buffer group of highly competent business and financial leaders would assure the public of a responsible business deal that will protect their investment as well as assist the Vikings. 

But it is important that the Governor focus on picking the best talent in order to insure a quality outcome.  This can become the blueprint for future public-private partnerships.  I would suggest the following be part of the negotiations:

1.   When the Vikings are next sold, the profits attributable to the stadium and its lease become part of the partnership assets and be divided according to contribution level.  This way the taxpayers share in the profits.

2.   There be full transparency.  I suspect that the state would utilize its bonding capacity and look toward special revenues to assist in the payments.  This may well include taxes on liquor,  tobacco,  and stadium admissions, etc.

The Vikings should also make clear where their share would come from in order to avoid any surprises.

3.   Naming rights should belong to the partnership.

4.   The issue of the possible imposition of pay TV for NFL games should be dealt with in order that the taxpayer partner not be harmed.

The overall goal is to recognize the Vikings as a statewide asset and not the responsibility of any local entity.  On the other hand, it brings the Vikings more closely into the Minnesota community.

Again, just a thought.




Friday, October 21, 2011

We, the People....


In his new book, The Price of Civilization, Jeffrey Sacks outlines his concerns about the sharp rise in poverty (100 million Americans in or near poverty), the weakening of the middle class, and the increased distrust of government as practiced in Washington.

While all this is deeply disturbing, what truly got my attention is our failure to concern ourselves with our future.  “We are paralyzed, rather by a shared lack of serious attention to our future”, he observes referring to both political parties.

Further our own satisfaction levels have not increased over the past 35 years while other societies have moved past us placing the United States in 19th place according to Gallup polls.

It is difficult to discuss this subject without sounding pessimistic but the reality is that we, the adults, owe our children much more than what we are now giving them.  It may well be time for us to look at ourselves, take ownership of the moment, and remind all institutions that they work for us, the people, and not the other way around.

Last week, I spoke to a group at the Church of the Good Shepherd in south Minneapolis and explored some of the reform possibilities.   The very first reform is to do precisely what this community church is doing and that is bringing people together and broadening our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

There is no magical potion that will eliminate our anxieties, our sense of powerlessness, or restore the American Dream.  It will come about when communities of people come together and decide to restore the word “public” to “public service” and remind all of our leaders – private, public and non-profit, that no one achieved success without the aid and support of others.  It is this sense of togetherness that represents our very first step towards balancing our democracy.

With this in mind, it is imperative that we again and continuously recognize that all elected and appointed officials work for us.  They are our employees.

This may sound simple but it will be a serious challenge to bring back the more traditional role of public service.  Huge blocs of monies have engulfed our political system and these monies have defined interests that may be contrary to the public good.  Currently, their power well exceeds ours.

As a result, an increasing number of people feel powerless.  Individually, I would argue, we probably are powerless.  But, as a community we have the power of the ballot box.  We have to recognize that power and use it.

Over the next several blogs, I will outline some specifics but in this one I am going to deal with some very basic approaches that we should insist be implemented by Congress on a bi-partisan basis.

I.   Adopt the bi-partisan report of the Bowles-Simpson Debt Reduction Commission.  It has significant advantages possessed by no other plan.

      a.     It is bi-partisan, well researched and has passed all examinations by experts.
      b.     It clearly represents a “share the pain” effort.  I truly appreciate the philosophy that we are all in this together and, therefore, must share in the sacrifice.
      c.     It inflicts minimum pain and most of it is inevitable, e.g., raising the age of social security retirement, some loss of mortgage interest deduction, etc.
      d.     It meets financial targets that bring us within reach of balancing the budget.
      e.     Time is now an enemy and this plan will do a lot to stabilize the markets and help prevent more deterioration.  It is ready to go.

II.   When a war is declared, an automatic tax is imposed to pay for that war.  We cannot continue to ship these costs to a future generation and then display bumper stickers toting our patriotism.  We must pay our way.

III.  As in Number II, upon a declaration of war, a draft is instituted.  We have placed an unbearable burden on too few and no burden on the many.  War becomes all too acceptable as long as someone else fights it and pays for it.

IV.  Eliminate the automatic pay raise for members of Congress.  This is a privilege that too few in our society enjoy and is clearly out of line in this economy.  They can tighten their belts in a way that matches their rhetoric.

V.   Eliminate the “franking privilege” whereby members of Congress can send us their political propaganda at our expense.   Further, they have the audacity to  exempt these mailings from campaign limit laws.

It is my hope that we put aside our more narrow partisan concerns and advance proposals such as these that are relatively simple, make sense, and restore power to the people.  Once we recognize our power then we have the obligation to exercise it responsibly, starting now.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Eleanor – a Pistol


On October 5, we celebrated the life of Eleanor Mondale.  As expected, her marvelously outgoing personality was portrayed with stories, insights, laughter, and music.  By all accounts, she defined life leading her brother, Bill, to observe that it was Eleanor’s world and that we were lucky to be part of it.

What a marvelous tribute.  Later at the reception at the Walker Art Center, Susan and I chatted with Walter Mondale and reminisced about her joy of life.  At the mention of “joy”, Mondale’s face was a full laugh and he declared, “She was a pistol.”

This was a father’s sentiment of love and appreciation.  Every family needs a “pistol” because their presence is priceless.  They are the welcoming sunshine and the huggers with the ability to rise above the petty and the pomp.  They bring out the best in us.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind but that Eleanor was a large part of the glue that kept this family so alive and vibrant.

And so while there was celebration, there was also a deep hurt at this loss to Walter, Joan, Bill and Ted.  Thank you for allowing all of us to share this moment with you.

You are Minnesota’s First Family because you are the finest in public service and decency.

Boone & Erickson – Minnesota’s Best


On October 3, Susan I went to the Old Log Theater to see Boone & Erickson recreate their beloved radio show.  But, in reality, none of us in the audience came to see a show but rather to share in a past that we truly loved and respected starting with their special take on World War II.  With music of the era provided by Reuben Ristrom and his band and the superb singing of Diane Ristrom, we remembered a better time:  A time when our nation was united and everyone pitched in.

But the evening was more.  It was a delightful trip down memory lane covering the 40 plus years of a love affair involving us and these two magnificent artists of the radio.  In all those years, they allowed us to laugh at ourselves without any edge or tonality of the nasty or off-color.  They reflected true wholesome Minnesota humor and with human insight.  They loved us and we loved them.

Thank you Charlie and Roger for embracing us and thank you Don Stoltz and the Old Log for introducing generations of Minnesotans to  the best in comedy and good taste.

You are all Minnesota treasures.




Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The 2012 Election Question may well be ….do you want to be represented by Michele Bachmann? - Part One


Since taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January of this year, Republicans have brought the nation to the brink of a government shutdown three times.  The overall result has been a continued loss of confidence in our ability to govern ourselves in a stable and predictable fashion.  Both global and domestic markets reflect this instability and the consequences are being felt in everyone’s retirement accounts as well as a diminished reputation overseas verified by a serious downgrade in our national credit.

When analyzed in a political science sense, it goes back to the midterm elections of 2010 and the increased influence of the Tea Party.  No matter how you look at it, their impact far outweighs their numbers.  The House has 435 members with Republicans numbering 242.  Of this, 56 are part of the Tea Party caucus organized by our own Michele Bachmann.  That means the Tea Party caucus possesses less than 25 percent of the Republican vote in the House but yet dominates the agenda.

Yes, their tactics include demonizing compromise and cooperation with Democrats.  But that does not explain their disproportionate influence relative to their numbers.  The sad reality is that others created a vacuum and the Tea Party stepped in.

I would contend that it started with President Obama’s failure to accept and endorse the report of the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Reduction Commission.  By all standards of competence, it was a solid bi-partisan effort.  Its recommendations if pushed by the Obama administration would have put the United States on a more successful path to recovery while protecting the integrity of the entitlement programs.  Nothing since has been proposed that matches Bowles-Simpson in quality and bi-partisanship.

Once the President ignored that report, the Tea Party stepped in and filled that void.  They have controlled the debate ever since.

Following the President’s inaction on Bowles-Simpson, the challenge fell to House Speaker Boehner and the House Republican majority.  However, instead of building a governing coalition with moderate Democrats, Boehner opted to surrender to the uncompromised demands of the Tea Party.  Their prime goal was not to govern but rather to make certain that Obama was a “one-term President”.  That type of goal casts aside all commitment to governance and quality of public policy and substitutes a new version of brutal partisan politics including questioning the loyalty and nationality of the President.  In their eyes, the only loyalty that counts is their loyalty.

The overall result is that the Republican Party is now being absorbed by the Tea Party and all GOP Presidential candidates with the exception of Jon Huntsman have surrendered large parts of their philosophy and intelligence to the Tea Party.  Climate change has now become a scientific fiction.  Lower taxes for business accompanied by far less regulation is the only panacea for economic recovery for an economy that soured after the Bush tax cuts and the failure to regulate Wall Street.

The ultimate oddity is that small minorities of Tea Party members of Congress now control the House and believe that they have the power to dictate American politics regardless of the will of the Senate and the President.  They literally have no concept of shared governance and are willing to sacrifice the well being of the nation in order to have their way.

However, this is not without consequences.  When Republican members of Congress yield their vote to the Republican caucus and that caucus is controlled by the unyielding Tea Party members then it stands to reason that they should be held accountable for the consequences.  After all, the tail cannot wag the dog without the dog’s consent.

I would submit that this subservience to the Tea Party will only strengthen the hand of the President and make Republican members of Congress appear to be weak and so intimidated that they cannot or will not represent the best long-term interests of their district.  In essence, they have become agents of the Tea Party and the result may well be that they will bear responsibility for even the most outrageous views of the extreme Right.

In 1950, when Richard Nixon sought the Senate seat in California, he compared the voting record of his opponent, Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas with that of an alleged “communist” House member, Vito Marcantonio.  The campaign slogan was essentially  “should California send Vito Marcantonio to the U.S. Senate.”   Although the comparison was grossly unfair, the voters chose Nixon.

Similar comparisons may well take place here and with some justification.  Michele Bachmann as a congressional Tea Party leader may well find herself in many Democratic ads with the question:  “Do you want our District to be represented by Michele Bachmann?”

You judge.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Budget Deficits – A Time for A Growth Strategy

With the advent of fall comes football, back to school and an early focus on the next legislative session.  The latter is as welcome as a trip to the dentist.

The reason is simple and that is the reality that weak economic growth and declining income spell trouble for state budgets dependent on income and sales growth.

Currently, Minnesota will likely face a deficit of approximately $1.9 billion for 2013-14.  This figure does not include any inflation or payback of the $2.1 billion from K-12 education.  But the real surprise will be on the revenue side.  If my recollection is correct, the February forecast pegged projected economic growth at 3.2 percent.  That is turning out to be highly optimistic.  Two percent or less is more likely.  This means that revenue expectations will be considerably lower and we can expect a shortfall to be announced in the November forecast.

Rather than being surprised in November, it would be more prudent to plan for another deficit now.  Further, I would contend, this should give our leaders the opportunity to do it right.  By that I mean putting an end to the rolling deficits that have been the norm for the past nine years and produce an integrated budget that is pro-growth and projects out revenues and expenditures for at least four years with inflation included on both the revenue and expenditure side.

When I use the phrase “pro growth” I mean tilting our expenditures and tax system toward long-term job growth.  This means investments that will advance growth and a tax code that entices growth.  The simple reality here is that we cannot cut or tax our way to success.  We must grow the economy.

The true opportunity here is that we as a state have an enormous number of talented people from both the private and public sectors that can put together a pro growth strategy.  Political leadership should be modest enough to know that they cannot do it alone.

The process really starts with the Governor and Legislative leaders having a free ranging conversation with leaders from groups familiar with this area such as the Itasca Project, the Economic Club, the Citizens League – past and present and some solid financial minds including the University of Minnesota and former state government Finance Commissioners.

The prerequisites are simple:  a commitment to make it work.

From here, the group can formulate a process that leads to comprehensive legislation.  But the key in the opening conversations is that they should take place in a comfortable and relaxed environment with privacy respected.   The goal here is to grow the economy not the partisan feud.

A successful product will give all of us a sense of success and a better future for our children.  It will also restore our pride in the quality of our governance.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

INTUITIVE LEADERSHIP


On June 26, 1963, President John Kennedy stood in Berlin, looked over the sea of people and declared:  “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner.)

Twenty-four years later standing by the Berlin wall, President Ronald Reagan challenged the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.

In each of these instances, the President understood the power and scope of intuitive leadership.  They owned the uniqueness of the moment and gave it significance.

That is precisely what leadership is about particularly in a democratic society.  Leaders seize the moment.

Time and time again during the administration of President Harry Truman an endless array of challenges arose and each and every time he allowed his leadership instincts to guide him.  We are familiar with the big decisions like dropping the atom bomb, closing the war, establishing the containment of the Soviet Union, and conducting the Korean War.  But how about the other ones like dealing with steel, transportation and coal strikes while trying to guide America from a wartime to a peacetime economy that could absorb the millions of returning veterans and deal with the needs of employment, housing and transportation.  On top of that, he had to make highly unpopular decisions like firing General Douglas McArthur.  He took a beating, but he still led.

In 1948, the Democratic Party was torn apart when former Vice President Henry Wallace led the “Progressives” out of the party and Strom Thurmond formed the southern Dixiecrats and stormed out of the convention.  Truman did not whine.  No.  He went out and campaigned with abandon.  He knew the soul of America and touched it.  His stunning upset victory was all about intuitive leadership rather than endless polls, political consultants and special interest money.

A different kind of intuitive leadership came on the eve of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1945, immediately following General Eisenhower’s order to launch the invasion the following morning.  He clearly understood the enormity of the task, its’ complexities, and the risk of possible failure.   What guided him was not fear but rather full confidence in this “Great Crusade” when he declared to all allied troops that the “tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!”

This was a summons to greatness – a clear example of intuitive leadership.

Several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell published a book entitled Blink which perfectly encapsulated this whole concept of trusting intuition which is the processing of the sum total of all our life experiences.   For instance, that is why some art critics can simply look at a masterpiece and immediately determine its authenticity or a conductor can listen to a few notes played on an instrument and conclude brilliance.

Leadership is about using that instinct and knowing the importance of these historical moments.

Unfortunately, this quality seems not to be present in President Obama.  On Monday of this week, we waited for the President to speak – to rally us – to summon us to a higher mission – to instill in us and the markets a sense of confidence.  We, as a people, believe in American exceptionalism and are committed to the belief that we must give to our children more opportunity, more chances for success than we had.  We further believe our leaders embrace the furtherance of that commitment.  If the President calls upon us to sacrifice for the greater good, we welcome that challenge.

However, when the President spoke, there was no call to action, no special session of a vacationing Congress, no summit of political and financial leaders.   Simply put, it was a small talk for a big occasion.

Now, this Presidency can still recover.  Yes, it needs more vibrancy, more openness, more coalition building.  But, it also needs a new sense of resolve that firmly places the Presidency in charge of protecting and enhancing the long-term common good.  Toward this end, it cannot waiver. 

Remember, we, as Americans, want our leaders to succeed.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Please No More Gossip

Today’s (August 7, 2011) Star Tribune contained an excellent analysis of the financial problems of the United States as well as a broader understanding of the downgrade by Standard and Poor’s.   In addition Eric Wieffering’s column (Tribune article) on the deficit is a must read.  This is journalism at its best.

But then we see a large spread on the personal life of Ted Mondale written by a person known as “CJ”.  It is little more than gossip and fiction and is not subject to any journalistic standards.  More importantly it makes no known contribution to the public good.  Instead it reinforces the fear capable people have of entering public service.

Below is an excerpt of a letter I wrote on April 29, 2010, to Mr. Michael Klingsensmith, publisher and CEO of the Star Tribune.  Sadly, I have a yet to receive a response.

During the era of John Cowles, Jr. the Star and Tribune (both separately and combined) defined so much of the progress that made Minneapolis and Minnesota so successful.  Their outstanding leadership and talent was a large driving force in coalescing business, labor, community, and political leadership to come together and work toward common goals.  Political parties were challenged to offer their best and brightest and the agenda always drove towards the center.  Just look at how this coming together of leadership built Minneapolis and Minnesota and, ultimately, was rewarded when Governor Wendell Anderson was on the cover of Time Magazine with adage about Minnesota being a state that works.  The Nicollet Mall, major theater, the arts, the Guthrie, Walker Art Museum, major league sports, metropolitan governance, transit, environmental protection, national leadership in health care, equitable school funding, improving the quality of higher education, and on and on is a testimony to the greatness of that partnership and the fingerprints of the Star Tribune are all over it.

Their “gossip” columnist was Barbara Flanagan who was a perpetual advocate for every exciting and creative project in Minneapolis from building design to sidewalk cafes.  She understood the people part of projects and always pushed for livability.  There should be a statue of her on the Mall.

But it does make a point and that is a quality newspaper gives a positive meaning to community and appeals to the very best in people.  That is your challenge.

Simply put, you are in the integrity business and there is no way you can be successful in preaching integrity from the pulpit while operating a bordello on the side.

I pray that you will drive the Star Tribune back to greatness and I will do all in my power to assist.

I think the public has a stake, a very vital stake, in how it gets its information.  As a society, we give special status to the media both in terms of taxes and certain protections from slander and libel.  But when that privilege is abused, we have the right to protest and insist that journalistic standards be explained and applied.

It is not too much to ask the Publisher about journalistic standards and whether he is willing to allow his personal life and the personal life of his family to be publicly reviewed in the same fashion he permits CJ to examine the lives of others.

A public dialogue is clearly warranted and, preferably, a true change made.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

THE HUSTLE AT AMES


On August 13, 2011 in Ames, Iowa on the campus of Iowa State University, the nation’s first political test for the Republican Presidential nomination will take place.  It has been billed as “important” and as a “bell weather” event.  Over 250 media outlets are expected to be on hand.

In many ways, the Ames Straw Poll is simple.  The GOP State Central Committee of Iowa has determined that the names of nine Presidential candidates will be placed on the ballot.  This includes the six who reserved space and the three who did not.  The latter includes Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney.  Missing entirely will be the name of Governor Rick Perry of Texas who has not yet announced.

On the face of it, the Ames Straw Poll would appear to be a slice of Americana with Iowans 18 years of age and older visiting the Iowa State Campus and casting their ballot for the candidate of their choice.  One does not even need to be a Republican to participate.

But upon examination there emerges a much darker picture.  It is not about an open nomination process but rather a shabby large-scale fundraiser for the state party disguised as an exercise in democracy.  Look at the facts:

1-Candidates in order to participate purchase booths in the poll area for a minimum of $15,000.  Ron Paul paid $31,000 for his better location.

2-People desirous of voting must pay $35 per ticket which entitles them to vote, hear the six Presidential candidates who paid, and enjoy a variety of foods and beverages.

3-the Iowa GOP brings in over $900,000 for sponsoring this event.

Further, candidates will buy those $35 tickets for their supporters and they will bus them into the event at no cost.  But there is a huge cost to candidates.  For instance, in 1999, George W. Bush and Steve Forbes spent over $2 million apiece on tickets and activities according to Conservapedia (http://www.conservapedia.com/Iowa_Straw_Poll).   The same source reports that Romney spent up to $1,000 per voter in 2007.

And then we have the attendance factor.  Iowa has a registered voting population of approximately 2 million with the following breakdown:  Democrat – 710,017, Republican – 607,567 and No Party – 772,725.  The total number of people who participated in the Ames Straw Poll in 2007 was 14,302.  That is approximately .7 percent of the eligible registered voting population in Iowa.

Now, others have used words ranging from “shakedown” to “bribery” to describe this process.  There can be no doubt that it is more reminiscent of Al Capone than Abraham Lincoln.

But that is not my point.  The real issue is whether this is the image of democracy that we want to teach our children?  Is this the picture of America that we want to project abroad?

The sad reality is that this ugliness survives because we and the national media assign value to it.   But the truth is that this petty hustle warrants our disdain and little else.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Budget Correction


Steve Chapman, a respected Chicago Tribune columnist, recently wrote a column praising Tim Pawlenty’s financial management as governor of Minnesota and declared that Pawlenty held the rate of annual spending growth “to less than 1.7 percent”.

That is not accurate.  Here are the final growth numbers from Governor Pawlenty’s office of Management and Budget (Minnesota historical spending growth).  

General Fund
2004-2005                  +5.6%
2006-2007                 +11.9%
2008-2009                  +7.5%

From the same office when you calculate all funds:

2004-2005                 +7.3%
2006-2007                 +8.4%
2008-2009                +11.0%

The state of Minnesota does not prepare annual budgets but rather operates on a 2 year cycle with the fiscal year ending on June 30th of each odd-numbered year.  The final audited budget numbers for Governor Pawlenty’s last budget (2009-2011) are not yet available.

Mr. Chapman may also want to read the annual reviews prepared by Moody’s and their criticism of the heavy borrowing which caused them to downgrade Minnesota’s credit rating under Governor Pawlenty.  Further, it should be noted that property taxes rose $2.5 billion under Governor Pawlenty compared  to $716 million for the prior eight years which was largely due to the shifts to local government.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Happy Birthday George

Years ago, my youngest daughter wrote a grade school paper on the early development of democracy in Greece.  What caught my attention was the part about citizen participation and the expectations of good citizenship.  The emphasis was on giving to the well being of the whole and intelligent participation in civic affairs.

In so many ways, George Pillsbury is Minnesota’s model citizen.  He is always there, always participating, always contributing.

Take a moment and revisit Frank Capra’s marvelous film It’s a Wonderful Life and then think about all the meaningful improvements we have made in Minnesota since the close of World War II.  We became a national showcase for our efforts in education, the arts, business civic participation, human rights, the environment, political governance, etc.  Simply put, Minnesota was recognized as the state that works.

Continuing as a part of this exercise start to think about the impact of George’s involvement.  He and his truly magnificent partner, Sally, have been part of virtually all facets of what defines our quality of life from endowing scholarships at the University of Minnesota to growing the arts.

A war veteran (marine officer during World War II), business leader, philanthropist, and State Senator, George Pillsbury has always represented the best in Minnesota.  And he does it with grace, intelligence, and a deep sense of decency.

George, thank you for being you.

Happy Birthday!

Susan and Arne

P.S.  Read Lorie Sturdevant’s recently released book entitled The Pillsbury’s of Minnesota.  It is very well done.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A ROSE IS A ROSE…

As we head into the final days before a state government shutdown, there will be increased proposals for settlement and more speculation on what will likely transpire.  The June 22nd Star Tribune contained an interesting editorial essentially suggesting that the healthcare provider tax be increased and that this increase be regarded as a surcharge and not labeled a tax increase thereby saving face for legislative Republicans.   Ultimately, this surcharge would produce some $600 million in new revenue which would come from state providers and the federal government.  The benefit would not only be the additional money but, more importantly, the preservation of MinnesotaCare and keeping some 85,000 to 140,000 people on the insured rolls.  Further, it would prevent thousands more from being disenrolled from Medicaid.  Overall, it is a huge step forward.

However, relative to the overall settlement it still leaves the Republicans and the Governor approximately $1 billion apart.

In terms of politics, the editorial is disturbing.   Allowing disagreements to be settled in a way that saves face is as American as baseball and the hotdog.  But saving face is considerably different than the perpetuation of a fundamental untruth.

It has to be said once and for all that a variety of taxes were increased under Governor Pawlenty and no amount of camouflage can mask that realty.  As a matter of fact his “borrowing” of some $400 million from the health care access fund has helped precipitate this crisis.

 In addition, the current Republican budget proposals contain some $400 million in property tax increases (http://www.scribd.com/doc/55548698/5-16-11-Compromise-Budget) on top of a variety of other cost increases.  It should also be noted that Republican legislators (Sen. Julie Rosen-Fairmont and Rep. Morrie Lanning-Moorhead) are the authors of legislation to provide public funding for the building of a Vikings stadium in Ramsey County.  This increase in the sales tax in Ramsey is a tax increase just as Pawlenty’s support for a Twins stadium was a tax increase in Hennepin County.

It should also be remembered that when oil company executives testified in Congress against the removal of public subsidies for oil, many Republican leaders declared that any withdrawal of subsidy funding would constitute a tax increase.  If that is to be the case, then what about the thousands of Minnesotans thrown out of healthcare and told to go on “vouchers” to pay for policies that are beyond the financial reach of low-income people?   Is that not a tax increase?  How about the student losing state support from institutions of higher learning and having to pay higher tuition?  And what about the rest of us who will pay higher healthcare premiums to accommodate the costs of the uninsured receiving emergency care?  One must also add to this list of growing tax increases the likely wage losses that would be suffered by public and private sector employees who are laid off as a result of the shutdown.

Frankly, this debate could use a lot more honesty and far less propaganda.  The bottom line is that both budget proposals contain revenue enhancements or tax increases.   It is not a question of labeling, it is a question of who pays and how

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

TRAPPED BY THE PAST

National and state media have been uniformly critical of Governor Pawlenty’s failure to confront Governor Romney on health care in last Monday’s debate.  Well, make room for a dissent.  I would contend that Pawlenty had no choice but to avoid any mention critical of Romney’s Massachusetts plan.

It appears from a recent blog by Jo Loveland (http://thesamerowdycrowd.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/the-beginning-of-the-end-for-pawlenty/) that on November 14, 2006, Pawlenty was effusive in his praise of Romney declaring he is an unbelievably bright and nimble and gifted public policy leader.   He went on to endorse mandated universal health care coverage by declaring:  In Minnesota, as to the access issues, I believe we should move toward universal coverage.  Everybody should be in a health plan of some sort.  How we get there becomes important.  I think a mandate by itself is potentially helpful, but it’s not the answer by itself.  Pawlenty seems to be suggesting that we should go beyond mandated coverage.   Loveland also wrote that this tape was likely making the rounds into Iowa and, hence, available to both Romney and Michele Bachmann.

This again has Pawlenty tripping over his past.  On Sunday, during his FOX appearance, he felt comfortable going against Romney and linking his health care plan to Obama’s.  I suspect he thought the 2006 comments would not come to the public’s attention.  After all, that position had been expressed more than four years ago and well before the national emergence of the Tea Party movement.  He also was probably not aware that Minnesota blogger, Andy Aplikowski, had a tape recording of his 2006 sentiments about Romney.

Had Pawlenty launched his attack on Romney’s healthcare plan, it is possible that Bachmann would have retaliated with an instant right that would have put Pawlenty on the canvas and, possibly, out for the full count.

Bachmann’s candidacy now prevents Pawlenty from being able to gloss over his Minnesota record and his numerous position changes including global warning, cap and trade, gay rights, deficits, light rail, and mandatory health care, etc.

By trying to be acceptable to all groups within this right-wing coalition, Pawlenty may be finding his tendency toward philosophical flexibility a serious, if not fatal, hindrance.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Can We Learn From The Past?


Over the past year, we have lost two of our finest business and community leaders:  Win Wallin and “Pinky” McNamara.  Their lives were similar in that they rose from modest circumstances, were enormously successful in business, and gave generously to create opportunities for others.  They dearly loved Minnesota and fully embraced the University of Minnesota.

Perhaps as we look at the current budget impasse, we can learn from them.  They knew how to put together a deal and make everyone feel good about it.  This was due to their ability to see opportunity when others could only see failure and to turn disadvantage into success.  Why not apply this attitude toward our state budget.

Since Wallin and McNamara understood the value of opening doors for the young, it may be well for the ultimate budget to do the same.  This vision covers wider concerns from education to creating an innovative growth-oriented economy.

Why not broaden the current debate from taxes (both party budgets call for sizeable tax increases but disagree on who pays) and focus instead on growing our economy and maximizing opportunities for the young.

Imagine bringing together community, academic, and business leaders in the mold of Wallin and McNamara and working towards an agreement that represents opportunity rather than political advantage?

After all, it was this focus that gave us these two remarkable men.

Monday, May 23, 2011

THE PRESIDENCY: A BIT SHORT IS PAWLENTY

One thing is certain about Monday’s Presidential announcement by former Governor Tim Pawlenty:  he will not bring up the fact that he presided over one of the larger tax increases in Minnesota’s history.  Yes, that is quite correct.

During his two terms as Governor, property taxes rose a stunning $2.5 billion – more than the previous 16 years combined (see note below).

To further amplify this enormous growth consider this fact:  in the 8 years prior to Governor Pawlenty, property taxes rose some $716 million.  Compare this to the $2.5 billion increase during the Pawlenty years.  That is an approximate 250 percent increase.

But this data also illustrates the close relationship between state and local spending in Minnesota.  All too often, state budget cuts simply translate into increased local costs.  This is particularly true when considering school financing and local government aids.

It would be a bit akin to President Obama announcing that he will cut federal funding for highways.  This would reduce the federal budget by over $40 billion and may produce some solid conservative sound bites.  But, unfortunately, the cost of those highways does not disappear.  Rather, it will show up in strained state and local government budgets.

Without reform, spending cuts all too often reappear as cost increases elsewhere.  The sad and tragic reality is that this is what happens when politics and simple slogans become the prime concern rather than quality long-term budgeting.

Further evidence of this can be seen in the fact that from 2003 to today, Minnesota has been rolling from deficit to deficit and in spite of warnings from Moody’s concerning the folly of short-term fixes, Governor Pawlenty continued to achieve budget balance by employing the following:

Borrowing over $1 billion from the tobacco settlement – money designated for health care.
Taking over $2 billion from the federal stimulus funds.
Borrowing over $1.4 billion from K-12 education funding.
Borrowing over $400 million from the Healthcare Access Fund for low-income families.
Accelerating tax payments.
Delaying bill payments.
Engaging in accounting shifts.

In the process, Moody’s lowered Minnesota’s bond rating.

And, much of this activity preceded the recession of 2007 and no borrowed monies have been paid back thereby leaving Minnesota with a $5.1 billion deficit – the 7th most severe in the United States.

It is my belief that the President we elect in 2012 should have compelling leadership skills and a demonstrated background of financial excellence.  This requires not only an appreciation of America’s financial problems but also a willingness to place the nation’s long-term well being ahead of short-term political gains.

Unfortunately, Governor Pawlenty falls short of this expectation.  There is nothing personal in my assessment.  He is smart and pleasant.  I appointed his wife to a state judgeship and I supported his first run for Governor.

However, I come from the more traditional wing of the Republican Party and truly believe in fiscal discipline and that the office of the Presidency should go to our nation’s best and brightest and not its most ambitious.

Note:   Property tax numbers trail by one year – hence Pawlenty’s years total 7 years since the 2011 figures are not yet in.

Friday, April 29, 2011

No More “Happy Budgeting” – Please


With the firm declarations from the Republican leadership in the House and Senate summarily dismissing any and all revenue increases, the prospects for a government shutdown clearly increase and should now become part of the overall political discussion.

However, before a principled stand can be taken, the budget presented by the Republicans must fully comply with those principles.  This means a balanced budget without any revenue increases and one that is truly in balance.  This would be in keeping with the repeated rhetoric suggesting government waste, abuse, fraud, etc.  As a matter of fact, during the campaign there were public declarations by gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and Governor Pawlenty that there actually was not a deficit but rather a surplus.

Hence, from the prospective of the current legislative Republicans, the task of balancing the budget based solely on spending reductions should be relatively easy.  Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

While the budgets from the House and Senate are not identical, they are roughly comparable.  For instance, both budgets start out with an agreement to continue borrowing $1.4 billion from K-12 education.  This borrowing constitutes some 28 percent of the solution, but hardly meets the standards laid out by the “principles”.  A debt represents an acceptance of spending but delays the payment. 

I would submit that the validation of the spending and the delay of repayment is a deferred tax increase.  For those who would suggest that it could be a future budget cut, I would simply note the lack of courage and integrity to do it now.  Why should we always expect the future to have the courage to do what we refuse to do now?

To continue, the proposed GOP budgets violate any accepted standards of budgeting integrity when they book over a billion dollars in savings that cannot be verified by either the state’s Department of Revenue or Department of Management and Budget.  This speculative piece of the budget constitutes over 20 percent of the total budget so its importance should not be understated.

Suggesting cost savings reforms is excellent but booking them as budgetary savings is wholly unacceptable particularly when the two state departments warn against it.
For instance, what happens if the anticipated savings is realized to the extent of 80 percent and that would be a generous assumption.  The answer is a $200 million deficit and another struggle between tax increases and spending cuts with all the attendant political charge and counter charge.  And again, Minnesota’s already diminished credit rating will be reviewed for another reduction.

It should be remembered that “happy budgeting” is precisely what got us into this mess in the first place.  Go back to the “Big Plan” presented by Governor Ventura in 2001 which called for property tax reduction on one side and a sales tax expansion on the other.  The legislature decided to accept the tax reduction and eliminate the revenue increase to pay for it.  This absurd act of foolishness had bi-partisan support but Senate Majority leader Roger Moe and Senate Finance Chairman, Larry Pogemiller joined with Finance Commissioner Pam Wheelock, in strongly opposing the measure while House Majority leader, Tim Pawlenty, pushed for its adoption.

The oddity here is that the more liberal leaders were actually fiscally conservative while conservative leaders were liberally reckless.

From that point on, Minnesota rolled from one deficit to another even during the high growth Bush years from 2002-2007.  Every tool was brought into play in order to avoid a “tax increase” including massive multi-billion dollar borrowing, accounting shifts, “fee” increases, reserve depletion and transferring costs to local government.  State governments even rewrote the basic laws of economics by allowing for inflation on revenues but not on expenditures.  It ignored repeated warnings from bond rating agencies and suffered the loss of our prestigious AAA bond rating from Moody’s.

As a more traditional Republican, I would suggest that the Republican cause would be better served if the focus were to shift from partisan “principles” which appear not to be working to a higher standard of governance which involves respect for differing opinions and the recognition of placing service to the people over party loyalty.  

When the greater good is served, political leaders win.  Republicans would be well advised to share governing responsibility with the Governor and put together a compromised budget for this biennium and then be part of a bi-partisan alliance to eliminate the ongoing structural deficit via long-term reform.