Wednesday, March 30, 2011

RESOLUTION VERSUS STALEMATE

Governor Mark Dayton’s March 28th letter to Republican legislative leaders was less about a negotiated budgetary settlement and more about framing the debate after he vetoes their budget proposal.  From a strategic perspective it was masterful.  It was clear, intelligent, and firm.  Assuming legislative Democrats remain firm, the Governor will have the upper hand.

In any type of struggle involving a Governor versus the Legislature, a Governor will almost always prevail.  First of all, a Governor is the sole leader of a vast statewide management system; can move with speed and flexibility; and has the ability to instantly communicate to the media and the public.  Secondly, he has the full muscle of the veto.

Governor Dayton’s letter suggests that he fully understands the powers of his office and is prepared to use them.

The Legislature, on the other hand, is designed to be slow moving and cumbersome with power divided among 201 members and two separate chambers, House and Senate.  Even caucus leadership is divided thereby making it very difficult for any one leader to speak for all.

The specific situation as it pertains to Republicans and their control of both houses has additional burdens including:

1—They are locked into their own campaign rhetoric which railed against any form of “revenue enhancement” and this includes debt.

2—The expectations held out by their leaders during the campaign – Emmer--Pawlenty--Sutton—to the effect that either there are no deficits or that they will be easy to manage.

3—The increasing pressure from Tea Party supporters demonizing “revenue enhancement” and all the tools normally employed by political systems to resolve conflict such as compromise, negotiating, or even meeting with the other side.  In Minnesota, this pressure increases as Michelle Bachman’s presidential campaign gains strength.

All these forces are designed to push legislative Republicans away from a negotiated settlement and more towards a stalemate that would close government.  There can be no doubt that the Republican Party will be split between those willing to govern and the new far right which will not compromise.

Frankly, legislative Republicans deserve a more favorable destiny.  Many truly believe in reducing the size, scope, and costs of government.  But this approach cannot be successful in a slash and burn budgetary environment.  Roughly, 85 percent of state monies end up in local districts.  Inflicting harm, particularly when it is perceived to be extreme, is a sure path to political defeat.

However, closing the legislative session with a compromised budget situation and an agreement to work with the Governor on a reform agenda designed to review concerns of affordability along with size and scope of government has enormous appeal.  Minnesotans care deeply about quality of life issues and it is important that Republicans once again identify with those concerns.

This approach to governance helps both parties in that it brings intelligent bi-partisanship into play and embraces the middle of the political spectrum which is where most Minnesotans reside.  Perhaps of greatest importance is that it focuses positively on building a more promising future.

Let’s hope....

Monday, March 21, 2011

Another Republican Loyalty Test


Last month, Minnesota GOP chair, Tony Sutton, wrote a very public letter to Republican lawmakers warning them not to violate what he terms are the “principles of the Republican Party” with a sharp focus on any form of “revenue enhancement” including “raising taxes, raising fees, expanding gambling, expanding the sales tax, or any such schemes that not only violate our principles but are also bad politics and bad public policy.”

This represents a remarkable turn from his sturdy defense of these very same practices when Governor Tim Pawlenty was leading Minnesota. Come to think of it, he branded anyone who challenged Pawlenty’s financial management as “traitors” and banished them to non-Republican exile.

Just look at the record that Tony Sutton so vigorously defended:

Borrowing:         
$1 billion – tobacco settlement fund
$2.3 billion – federal stimulus funds
$1.4 billion – K-12 education           

Taxes raised:               
Sales tax in Hennepin County for new Twins Stadium                                                    
$400 million - Health impact fee (75 cents/pack cigarettes)

In addition, a variety of significant fee and tuition increases occurred along with shifts to local governments.  The Star Tribune estimated that property taxes during this period rose by 75 percent.  Further, Pawlenty “borrowed” hundreds of millions of dollars from the Health Care Access Fund.

But what is most disturbing about Tony Sutton’s vigorous defense of poor financial management was his ignoring the repeated warnings of Moody’s which go back to 2003, long before the recession of 2007.  From 2003 through 2010, Moody’s warned of “non-recurring fixes” which were the hallmark of Minnesota’s budgets from 2003-2010.  Even Moody’s lowering of our credit rating did not disturb the GOP party chair.

There is no way for anyone with an IQ approaching room temperature to maintain that Tony Sutton’s turnabout is anything short of 180 degrees.  The question then becomes, why now?

I think the answer lies just east of Minnesota and the rapidly rising star of Governor Scott Walker as a very possible GOP standard bearer. In his budget speech, he drew the same rigid lines as Tony Sutton and criticized past governors – Republican and Democrat – of “one-time fixes, accounting gimmicks and tax increases” and proceeded to take aim at the various borrowing practices similar to those utilized in Minnesota.

The simple fact is that this latest loyalty test of Sutton and Walker is an extension of what has been developing in New Jersey, Indiana, Florida, Ohio and other states where Republican governors are drawing a very hard line on debt and “revenue enhancement”.  These governors, who include likely Presidential contenders such as Christie of New Jersey, Daniels of Indiana, and now Walker of Wisconsin,  are increasingly separating themselves from the financial management practices of the older set of governors who also aspire for the prize including Huckabee, Romney and Pawlenty.

As a matter of fact, while writing this blog, a Reuter’s poll came out listing Walker as having a greater favorable rating than Huckabee and Romney as potential GOP Presidential nominees.

Again, why the sudden reversal by Tony Sutton?  Perhaps, he recognizes changing wind patterns and, like so many leaders, is trying to catch-up with his followers.

But this is precisely what is wrong about today’s politics.  It is more about personal gain than good public service and more about ambition than substance.    Sadly, this damage to democracy is cloaked under the guise of higher virtue such as loyalty and divine power.

Political parties in a two-party system should be wide and broad reflecting and respecting the positive role of diverse and dissenting opinion.   Now we are witnessing the irony of  an older set of leaders who were so quick to impose loyalty when they reigned becoming victims of a new and more demanding standard.  Apparently, the Republican Party has not learned a fundamental lesson of the French Revolution of 1848 and, that is, leaders who impose loyalty tests will soon find themselves branded disloyal and their necks in the guillotine.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

WHEELOCK WHITNEY - A MINNESOTA GIANT


In 1929, Ole Rolvaag wrote Giants in the Earth, depicting the trek of Norwegian immigrants and their families coming to the upper Midwest and instilling their values of hard work, perseverance, community, vision, sacrifice, and a love of God and their new land.  They were truly giants.

Now fast forward to March 6th and the annual gathering of MOFAS (Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) and the honoring of another Minnesota giant, Wheelock Whitney.  On this date, he was being lauded for his efforts in founding MOFAS along with my wife, Susan.

But like most giants, his fingerprints are on virtually all efforts that define Minnesota’s quality of life ranging from bringing big-time sports to Minnesota to his leadership in the arts and education.  However, in chemical dependency there is hardly a program that does not reflect Wheelock Whitney’s vision and personal commitment.

What I have always appreciated about Wheelock was his ability to think big and radiate optimism.  For instance, in 1976, the 200-year anniversary of the freedom of our nation, Wheelock thought it a good idea to celebrate freedom from the confinement of chemical addiction by bringing everybody to Met Stadium in Bloomington.  At first blush, the idea of attracting over 45,000 to an outdoor stadium to celebrate sobriety seemed impossible.  But it wasn’t.  The stadium overflowed.  Freedom Fest became a national event, and Dick Van Dyke, who came to Minnesota for treatment, returned as Master of Ceremonies.  That is a Grand Slam in any park.

Due to Wheelock’s efforts, Minnesota became the world’s leader in chemical dependency treatment and many of those providers and recipients of treatment were there to simply say “thanks.”  Among those were Governor Mark Dayton who personally expressed his gratitude for the impact that Wheelock Whitney had on him and his family.

It should be noted that it is impossible to be in a room with Wheelock without humor and laughter.  But the surprise was the quick and delightful banter between Dayton and Whitney.

More than anything else, it is nice to know that giants did not pass away with Rolvaag’s book.  No, they live on and we are truly blessed……