Sunday, February 27, 2011

THE RED FLAGS ARE WAVING


On January 8, 2011, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson, Arizona.  A nation was horrified.  And, as a people, we resolved to bring about a new environment of civility.  Republicans and Democrats reached out to each other and vowed mutual respect.  Sadly, that effort has come to a halt.

Today, we have reached new heights of anger as a result of the struggle in Wisconsin.  What we fail to realize is that history has taught us to be careful about a herd mentality because once thoughtful restraint is abandoned, recklessness and harm takes over.

Just briefly look back to the sinking of the Maine and our immediate assignment of blame which launched us into the Spanish-American War.  Decades later we acknowledged that the explosion was internal and had nothing whatsoever to do with the Spanish.  But how do you undo a war?

Fast forward to events that were even more serious:  the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.  How we wish that we had exercised at least some reflective restraint before sending our fine young men and women into harm’s way and tearing our nation apart

Perhaps in Wisconsin we could pause and start to take a slightly different look at Governor Scott Walker’s legislation.

First of all, it may be well to actually review the bill before rendering judgment.  Overall, the proposed legislation provides for:

1—Limiting collective bargaining for state and local government units to the issue of wages
2—Limiting wage negotiations to the cost of living index and not exceeding that limit without a public referendum
3—Including all public unions except for police and fire.

Now let’s ask two questions:
1—If collective bargaining is an evil that inflicts considerable harm on the public, then why does the bill exempt fire and police?  Governor Walker assures us that it is not political and the fact that some of these public safety unions supported his candidacy had nothing whatsoever to do with his decision.  Ok.  If that be the case, then why the exception?

2—We all know about the extended phone conversation with a fake Koch brother.  But what we do not know is why that call was accepted while calls from legislative leaders were shunted aside.  The Koch brothers run a privately held energy conglomerate headquartered in Kansas.  They reside in New York City and Wichita, Kansas.  They are also large financial supporters of Governor Walker.  Now we are assured that the acceptance of the call does not reflect any form of favoritism.  If that were the case then should not the Governor tell us why he so eagerly accepted this out of state call and refused the calls of legislative leaders elected by the public?

What is perplexing here is that governors are usually sensitive to the needs of the minority party and attempt to engage in negotiations in order that public policy decisions can have broad support.  That is what governance is about.  Certainly there may well be a need to reform the collective bargaining process.   Therefore, why not try to negotiate reform rather than refuse to bargain, and ultimately, create a bitter divide that can cause the Governor harm down the road.

Further, there is a growing interest in another provision of the bill that is totally unrelated to collective bargaining.  Jill Burcum of the Star Tribune, and Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize winner in economics, and the New York Times are starting to focus on a provision in the bill that has to do with the sale of state-owned energy facilities.  The language reads as follows:  the department may sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount the department determines to be in the best interest of the state.

Certainly this empowerment should be disturbing to all particularly conservatives.   How is it in the public’s interest to give such extraordinary power to one person (the Governor) who can dispose of taxpayer-owned facilities without public hearings, without legislative review, and without competitive bids? 

In essence, publicly owned energy facilities can be sold like used furniture.

Now, it may be that this interpretation of that language is off base.  However, the involvement of the Koch brothers, their energy conglomerates, their heavy financial interests in Wisconsin political campaigns and the Governor’s relationship with them and the language in the bill should at least cause thoughtful people to pause until the public receives solid answers.


Friday, February 25, 2011

DICK STAFFORD - A TRUE PUBLIC SERVANT



The hardest part of writing about a friend who has passed away is changing the tense of the verb “is” to “was”.  On one hand it is so simple we can do it automatically.  On the other hand, it involves a person’s entire life and the impact that life had on so many others.

Dick Stafford, who passed away yesterday, gave definition to the phrase “public servant”.  By way of background he served for decades as Washington County’s Auditor, Treasurer and County Commissioner.  But holding various posts in government is not remarkable but Stafford’s service in those posts was remarkable.

I remember coming in as State Auditor in 1979 desirous of upgrading the quality of local government accounting and auditing and bringing the total system into the computer age.  It is one thing to want change and quite another to bring everyone on board.  Dick Stafford, as Auditor of Washington County, was a game changer.  He ran the updated model of what we wanted but he could have easily opposed efforts towards statewide uniformity.   We are all familiar with battles on local control.

But Dick Stafford quietly and persuasively brought county auditors on board.  He forged the partnership between local and state that allowed Minnesota to lead the nation in uniform accounting and develop programs to provide early warnings relative to debt, deferred maintenance, health care, etc.  In essence, accounting of the past was being used to plan for the future.   That is one of the reasons Minnesota has the truly exceptional level of quality in our local government.

These efforts of Dick Stafford and his colleagues were not headline grabbers but they formed the foundation of local government excellence.

How fitting it is that we reflect on the impact of a selfless public servant at a time when they are under attack.

 I just wish the rock throwers had a bit of the integrity and humility of Dick Stafford.  Dick, we will  truly miss you…..

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

ON SCRUTINY


One of my recent blogs dealt with the need for the national media to pay more attention to the actual records of Governors seeking the Presidency and less on what the candidates advance as their version.

This nation has a staggering deficit, an equally alarming rate of deficit growth, and a political system more concerned with posturing than with making courageous long-term choices.  The office of the Presidency has the capacity and, I would argue, the responsibility to lead with courage and with a commitment to the nation’s best interests regardless of the immediate political consequences.  To date, timidity is more apparent than courage and the 2012 elections more important than our long-term future.  So much of today reminds me of St. Augustine’s prayer of Lord make me pure but oh not yet.

The Presidency and the nomination for the Presidency must not simply go to the one who wants it the most or is willing to excel at pandering.  No, today more than ever, it must go to that individual who has the proven ability to govern and to lead, make the challenging choices, and place the well-being of the future over any temporary success.

Surprisingly, Molly Ball of Politico takes exception to this scrutiny of candidates.  It seems she has made the examination and concluded that they all merit a passing grade and anyone who disagrees is a “backstabber”.  How novel?  And here I thought journalism was all about free inquiry and truth.

Molly Ball’s defense covers the gambit of candidates from Huckabee to Palin.  Unfortunately, she fails to discuss what the electorate can discuss about the candidates since their past record is off the table.  I also have to wonder about whether President Obama’s record can be examined or will all those Presidential “wanabe’s” who are critical of the President be labeled “backstabbers”.

Further, she takes exception to criticism from the Governor’s home states.  In essence, those who know the candidate the best and who have lived under the policies of the candidate shall receive the least consideration.

I am fearful that Molly Ball is more desirous of keeping the controversy of politics alive while dismissing substance.  Name-calling among numerous candidates builds for easy sensational coverage.  Substance involves work and is less exciting.  Therefore, why not support the superficial culture of the loud and offensive?

Democracy is not only about dissent but also about holding accountable those in positions of power.  No one is considered to be above the law or above examination and review.  Our history is rich with examples of those who had the courage to stand tall in the minority and to hold firm in their belief that truth must prevail.  This was the role of our founding fathers all the way through Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.  All of us in our own way are a small part of that legacy and have a responsibility to be forthright and truthful.

No, anyone who holds himself up for public office must be scrutinized but always fairly and thoroughly and outside the realm of personal vindictiveness.

It is no secret that I have serious qualms about the candidacy of Governor Pawlenty and do not believe his claims of prudent financial management come anywhere close to the truth.   Hence, the scrutiny will continue……….

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How About Some Scrutiny for Presidential Candidates?

Several days ago, Susan and I were visiting with friends from other states and, of course, the conversation drifted toward politics.  What became increasingly apparent is how little we really knew about our presidential candidates, particularly Governors.  How odd it is that the single most important position in the United States and likely the world can go to someone who receives less scrutiny of past job performance than a school bus driver.

We first queried about Mike Huckabee, the former Governor Arkansas and none of us knew anything about his record other than his massive weight loss that brought him to the national stage and a more recent flare-up about a parole release that backfired

As it turned out, Huckabee came across well with his Will Rogers humor and folksy manner.  Now he has his own TV show and is a regular commentator.  But, we still know little of his Governorship and his Presidential candidacy continues with minimum scrutiny.

The same blankness appeared when discussing Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.  There is the knowledge related to his health care program and his leadership of the World Olympics.  Having been in the financial world I was aware of his performance at Bain and Company and would submit that his record there was stellar.

These are just two examples.  Add Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels and Sarah Palin to the list and the results are the same.  Their records as Governor may be exemplary or downright mediocre.   But the reality is that we, the people, do not know. And the reason is relatively simple:  the politics of competition is far more appealing and gains ratings as opposed to a meaningful examination of performance and substance.  But it is also a truly sad reflection on the national media.  What journalistic standard applauds ignorance?

In this kind of environment, officer holders can leap onto the national stage and be permitted to define their past as they wish it were tailoring it to fit any audience that is part of the party base.  There is an appalling indifference to quality performance and an almost zealous adherence to the politics of politics.

How many of these want-to-be’s have actually balanced their budgets without massive utilization of debt,  “fee increases” and accounting shifts?  How many truly were forces of creative change that the overall quality of life and managed toward a defined goal that reflected the best in our society?

When I came into office in 1991, Governors all over the nation were confronted with large deficits but due to leadership by Republicans like Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Democrats such as Roy Romer of Colorado, the focus shifted to reform.  States were seen as “laboratories of democracy” and they served as the incubators of welfare reform, health care innovation, long-term financial management, and educational choice.  The action was at the state level not in Washington.  Of equal importance was the fact that there was little finger pointing largely due to the fact that a crisis was seen as an opportunity for reform.

If we, as a nation, want to excel it is imperative that accomplishment and substance be our goal.  That is how a merit-based system works.  All the pizzazz in the world is as meaningless as a burp.  When truths and integrity are diminished in importance, Democracy is weakened.  We should remember that internal mediocrity is as much a threat as external terrorism.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cautious Optimism



            Politically, I find the national and state debates on deficits somewhat encouraging in that we seem to be finally facing up to the grim realities of financial discipline.  Now that Republicans are players both in Congress and the Minnesota State Legislature, they will be compelled to go beyond the slogans and deal with the painful realities of making hard choices.

            Nationally, the debate is all over the place without much focus and even less courage.  How interesting that virtually everyone is sidestepping the report from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform headed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.  Hopefully, after the political dancing subsides, both parties will realize that the public is light years ahead of its leaders and this may cause some forward motion.  Otherwise, an overseas economic event will instantly sober us up.  A $1.5 trillion deficit cannot be ignored.   The more serious Congress gets now, the less painful the decisions will be tomorrow.  The Bowles-Simpson report is where it’s at.

            On the Minnesota level, the state is confronted with a huge $6.2 billion deficit.  However there will likely be good news in the February forecast as we seem to be making more steady progress toward recovery.   Nevertheless, high unemployment is likely to persist and this will put pressure on social service expenditures.

            Assuming improved quality growth and the continuation of the $1.7 billion school shift, it is possible that the deficit could approach $3.5 billion.  But, that is just a guess.

            Relative to final settlement, both parties will have to make significant compromises.  It will not be enough for the Republican legislature to simply cut without proper attention to reform and dealing with the impact.  During the past eight years, property taxes escalated some 75 percent and fees skyrocketed as the state simply cut and transferred without understanding the ripple effects.  Democrats have a similar problem except on the revenue side. This legislature is going to have to be long on thoughtfulness and thoroughness if it is to succeed.

            Toward that end, the Dayton Administration has a tremendous opportunity to take the lead on bi-partisan reform and restructuring which could ultimately lead toward budget resolution.  I remain optimistic.