Monday, August 4, 2014

It’s A Question of Priorities

A longtime friend and a retired legislator has an expression that forms the basis of this blog:  “Minnesota does not have a money problem, it has a priorities problem”.  How true.

For instance, tonight some 2,000 young people in the metro area will search for shelter. Statewide that figure is nearly double. Some will find bed space with friends and acquaintances. Most will sleep in their lean-tos, tents, or cardboard boxes.  Those with minimum wage jobs will use the bus system, walk, or bike to work.   Their hot meal will come at night when various shelters provide food, Internet service, a hot bath and some donated clothes.

Janet Entzel, another former legislative colleague, recently gave me a tour of Hope 4 Youth in Anoka.  This homeless shelter is just off of downtown Anoka near transportation lines. Various churches in the area provide funding and an endless stream of volunteers who represent the finest of our religious tradition of service to others. The staff is professional, dedicated and truly know how to work with children and young adults.

The building owner is State Representative Jim Abeler who is also a candidate for the Republican nomination for the Unites State Senate.  He is described in glowing terms with words like generous, always helpful, caring, etc.

The overall visit left me with a sense of gratitude that so many committed and competent people are serving homeless children. On the other hand, there is a deep sense of sadness that these alert and resourceful children will still sleep the night in a tent, lean-to or whatever.

As a state, we are blessed with the presence of many facilities comparable to Hope 4 Youth and served by countless volunteers who give so much of themselves. Further, I know that state and local governments are helping both in terms of leadership and funding.

In spite of all of this human goodness, the fact remains that next February when it is 10 degrees below zero these children will still be sleeping outside and then be expected to attend school and keep up with their studies.

I remember bivouac in the Army during the winter and I can attest to the total discomfort of sleeping in a tent, compelled to dry shave and eat cold rations.  And we were far better prepared to handle the cold in terms of clothing and transportation.

Clearly progress from a governmental viewpoint is being made.  However, I would term it a modest priority.

But then what constitutes a major priority?  Certainly, it is the usual:  education, transportation, social services, public safety, etc.   As part of our overall quality of life we also enjoy sports and entertainment and our symphony, theater, and sports teams are essential to a vital and successful community.  In recent years, one of our major priorities has been what is generally referred to as the “stadium issue”.  However, the relationship between private enterprise and taxpayer financial participation has always been tenuous and properly so.  In the case of building a new Vikings stadium, it was always understood to be roughly 50-50 with the Vikings owners and taxpayers sharing the financial load.  Currently, it appears to be closer to a ratio of 90 percent taxpayer and 10 percent owner.

I think it is fair to say that at every turn, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, and his team of attorneys, accountants and lobbyists have run circles around the negotiators representing the state and city of Minneapolis.  The tragic result is that today, we, the taxpayers do not know the full extent of our financial exposure because embarrassed public officials are keeping their distance from any meaningful stadium discussion and, all too often, are delaying legitimate requests for information. It should be noted that no public official has taken responsibility for the financial package.

Let’s consider the following:

1 – Top state leaders publicly expressed surprise when notified of a 20-year old lawsuit that was in the New Jersey courts. Mr. Wilf was ultimately found liable for   civil “organized-crime activities” with fines and legal fees exceeding $100 million.

2 – Top state leaders again expressed surprise when Mr. Wilf decided to impose a seat tax on season ticket holders. Overall, this was expected to bring in over $100 million on the Wilf side of the ledger.

3 – To this day, we do not know the full details of how the funding of bonds, costs, etc. will be handled.  We have been promised that no general fund monies would be used but that may not be true.  Consider the observations of Doug Grow, a former Star Tribune reporter and current columnist for MinnPost:  by sessions end, that plan (the Governor’s Plan) turned out to be using one-time funds from a special cigarette tax and ongoing funds created by closing a corporate income tax loophole.  Clearly, this backup plan is dedicating general fund monies to the stadium in contradiction to the promises made. Overall, the estimate is a draw of some $20 million per year.

Any fair analysis would conclude:

1) The state’s “due diligence” on the finances of Mr. Wilf was virtually nonexistent. The reality is that people of average incomes are subject to more financial scrutiny when they borrow for a car purchase than Wilf was in a transaction involving hundreds of millions of dollars;
 2) When top leaders expressed surprise at Wilf’s imposition of a seat tax that is further acknowledgement of their ignorance about the very financial package that they were selling to the public.

3) We have not seen any accounting that makes certain that the state’s financial contribution to the stadium and related infrastructure is being monitored to ensure that the cap of $348 million of state spending is being honored. For instance, we know that additional skyways are being built and that the Minnesota Sports Facility Commission is purchasing the Downtown East parking ramp. However, lacking full financial disclosure we do not know the full extent of the state’s contribution.

As if this series of state blunders were not sufficient, we now have Minneapolis leaders rushing to pour more monies into a deal already overloaded with taxpayer funds. I have written a previous blog (December 10, 2013) detailing the rush by the Mayor and City Council to pass a financial package that they knew all too little about. Secrecy and a lack of deliberation are the enemies of competent public policy and that adage holds true here.

State law limits Minneapolis’ contribution to the stadium project to $150 million. Since the city has pledged $150 million to the stadium itself, how can they issue another $65 million in General Obligation bonds without going over the legal spending limit?

A second and more potentially harmful element is the question of anticipated revenue versus costs when it comes to financing and operating parking ramps and the park.  First of all, by now it should be abundantly clear to anyone with an IQ approaching room temperature that if there were profit to be made in operating a parking ramp or park, Mr. Wilf would have seized that opportunity.  He has successfully cornered the market on profit and is leaving the risk to the taxpayer.

For instance, the ramp will be built at an anticipated capital cost of $30,000 per stall.  Interest payments and operating costs are in addition.  Further, the agreement calls for 1,418 spaces to be “ provided for Vikings patrons and MLS (soccer) patrons at no charge to the MSFA or the Vikings.” How do you make money when you give away your revenue?

In addition, the General Obligation bonds are spread out over 30 years with the developer providing a subsidy starting at $2.75 million and rising to $4 million per year for the first 10 years.  After that, bond payments are dependent on that limited revenue stream.  Then the taxpayer is on the hook and that explains the city’s stonewalling of requests for detailed spreadsheets.

And then we have the “Park” or “Yard” as it is often described.  This is land that was purchased by the city from the Star Tribune Company with the intention of serving as a stadium plaza and public park. It was also thought that the Vikings would have exclusive use for game days expected to be 10 a year. Now, after analyzing the agreement, it turns out that if the Vikings bring in a professional soccer team (which they will), the number of days for professional sports usage will go up to 100. Considering that we have at least a five month winter, the Vikings will control the usage of the park for nearly one-half of its usable time. In addition, they have a liquor license and free use of the park.  That leaves all costs including maintenance to be borne by Minneapolis taxpayers.  According to the Star Tribune (August 2, 2014), Park Board officials “expect the cost of operations and maintenance to approach $3 million a year.”  That would be some $90 million from the city over the life of the lease.”

Even former Mayor Rybak who rushed the agreement through the City Council last December is now “shocked” and suggested that this “should deeply concern the public.”  Well it does.

In spite of all these missteps and the raising of legitimate financial concerns, the State Auditor has refused a request to get involved.  Few people like controversy but we expect our political leaders to always have the courage to do right.

Certainly, it is unsettling to challenge large interests who have gained so much from this deal. Likewise, no one wants to call one’s political allies to accountability.  However, the State Auditor is the people’s financial watchdog and that expectation cannot and must not be compromised.  After all, if the State Auditor will not protect us, who will?

During the course of preparing this blog, I have been working with Paul Ostrow, former President of the City Council of Minneapolis and currently a County Attorney in Anoka.  He has been a truly outstanding and courageous leader.  His summary on the stadium issue is that  “the real legacy is a betrayal of the public trust by public officials wanting to fund the Vikings stadium while keeping the real costs and choices hidden from the people they are sworn to represent.”

The goal here is not election politics but rather confronting a problem that will harm us over the long-term unless we act decisively now.

One reality that must govern any future actions is the realization that the demands for more public money will not end. The demands will be with us through the life of the lease.  Witness just in the past week the articles on the glass and its impact on birds and the Minneapolis Park Board’s refusal to take over the “Park” project. Further, notice that all discussions on costs revolve around the taxpayer and not the owners of the Vikings.

With this in mind, I would submit the following proposals:

1 – That the Governor declare a “hold” on all pending taxpayer expenditures involving the stadium project. This includes Minneapolis as well as all state agencies and commissions. It is imperative that the bleeding stop.

2 – That the Governor work with the State Auditor and Legislative Audit Commission (it is bi-partisan) to create a joint audit team for the purpose of reviewing and enforcing the stadium spending limits imposed by the Legislature on state and local governments. This team should also be empowered to make recommendations relative to cost savings including shifting more of the burden to the beneficiaries (the Vikings owners).

The Governor, State Auditor and the Legislative Audit Commission should assume oversight responsibility. It may sound improbable for a Governor, State Auditor and Legislative leaders on a bi-partisan basis to work together during a highly competitive political campaign. However, I am persuaded that voter pressure will keep everyone in line.

3 – That candidates for Governor, State Auditor, and the Legislature discuss during their campaigns the role of pubic financing in public-private partnerships.  Perhaps they can agree to 1) appoint people to vital posts based on merit and not political friendship. This means selecting people with a demonstrated competence in business and administration commensurate with the talents of those representing the private sector.

It is equally imperative that all fully abide by not only the open meeting law but also the intent behind it. Openness is an enormous asset when making public policy.

We have the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes of the past and start building agreements toward restoring our traditional priorities  which always reflected a balanced commitment to our quality of life.  Central to that should always be our concern for our children - all our children.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Jim Oberstar…Congress’ Best and What an Ally

Without question, Jim Oberstar will long be honored as one of Minnesota’s most effective members of Congress. He had an uncanny ability to get things done and never shied away from what may have appeared to be an impossible mission.

Early in my administration, we were beset with the problem of a takeover of Northwest Airlines and a subsequent request for the state to lend money in return for some long-term commitments. This came on top of trying to deal with a multi-billion dollar deficit and passing a highly controversial wetlands protection bill. Believe me, we needed friends, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle.

And help came. Shortly after the Northwest Airlines takeover, we reached out to Congressman Jim Oberstar because it affected his district and no one in Congress was more versed on transportation issues. He responded and came onboard with full enthusiasm and an endless array of solutions. Never once did he raise a partisan concern. No, he folded up his sleeves, joined the team, and made the ultimate package a bi-partisan effort.  What was impressive was his knowledge of the issues as well as the players involved. But at all times, his focus was on keeping the 20,000 plus jobs in Minnesota and preserving Minnesota as a hub. He was the Lou Gehrig of our lineup.

Later, in visiting Washington, I got to know him more as a person. He was a genuine renaissance man.  His education and intellectual curiosity was first rate. After graduating from St. Thomas University in St. Paul, he received his M.A. from the College of Europe in Belgium and was fluent in six languages including French.  But he was also a top-flight historian.  I suspect he had a hard time making a career choice being torn between teaching at a University or serving in Congress. From my experience, I can tell you he did a lot of both.

One day, he took me on a tour of Congress and pointed out where various historical debates occurred, the contents of the debates, and the colorful stories that surrounded those historical moments. I was dazzled by his brilliance and his retention of history.

Jim Oberstar was a superb example of the best in public service. He understood that partisanship and political competition was a means to attaining office but that the end goal was to develop good public policy.  To achieve that end, he was willing to reach across the partisan divide. I was honored to be his partner.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Nancy Brataas – Leader - Pioneer – Definer of Democracy

How many times have we mused about the “good old days” when our political system understood the role of compromise and measured success in terms of the positive impact it had on the common good.

Those days did not come about by accident but rather by truly hard work on the part of so many citizens who committed to the values of community espoused by the “greatest generation”. In Word War II, everyone pitched in from front-line fighting to kids collecting tin cans. It was “our “ war and hence “our” responsibility. That philosophy carried over into the life of leaders such as Nancy Brataas and we were the benefactors.

State Senator Nancy Brataas, who passed away this week, was a pioneer in building what became a broad-based and highly successful Republican Party from the 1960’s into the turn of the century. Many will remember her progressive record as an early leader in civil rights, the passage of the ERA, budgetary prudence and defining the role of government in environmental concerns. Others will recall the marvelous role she played in representing Rochester with her tireless pursuit of a University of Minnesota branch and building a strong relationship between the state and the Mayo Clinic.

When she passed, I received a lovely email from an old and dear friend, Mahlon Schneider, who led the fight on behalf of business for workers compensation reform. His observations of Nancy Brataas are meaningful, “Despite her party’s minority status for her entire 17 years in the Minnesota Senate, she was enormously effective because no one was better prepared on issues, consistently sought allies on the other side of the aisle and was passionate in her commitment.”

With the efforts of leaders like Mahlon Schneider of Hormel, Senator Nancy Brataas (R-Rochester) and Representative Wayne Simoneau (DFL-Columbia Heights) our administration was able to gain passage of this bi-partisan achievement. Those leaders knew how to move mountains.

But if I were to choose her most significant contribution it would be when she chaired the Republican Party and initiated a program known as “neighbor-to-neighbor”. This was an interesting approach whereby local Republicans organized on the precinct level and rang doorbells around their neighborhood seeking donors and identifying voters.  Everyone was involved from business executives to students. It was truly grassroots democracy at its best because it ultimately broadened the party and built the party from the bottom up. It made the party more responsive and caring for the well being of friends and neighbors.

Politically, this new party enjoyed enormous success. It was not just the victories it enjoyed on the state level with GOP governors from Elmer Andersen to Al Quie and into my administration nor the successes on the Senate side including Dave Durenberger and Rudy Boschwitz, but heavily democratic areas like the city of Minneapolis even had a few Republican dominated City Councils.

Compare this approach of broad-based participation to today’s heavy reliance on bundled monies from the very few most of whom live nowhere near the candidate’s district and the resultant purchasing of public policy.

Nancy Brataas understood that the essence of democracy involved everyone having a stake in it with the expectation that candidates would be elected on the positive quality of their ideas and their genuine commitment to the well being of their community. This impacted not only the Republican Party but the Democratic Party as well because it compelled both parties to compete for the best and the brightest. It was that sense of purpose that allowed elected officials to work together to achieve positive and intelligent results for the people they served.

Nancy, thanks.  We all owe you a lot.

Friday, January 31, 2014

All Roads Lead to Christie…

As US Attorney, Chris Christie had the opportunity to witness the rough and tumble of New Jersey and New York politics. This territory is the former home of boss politics including the Hague machine of New Jersey and Tammany Hall in New York City. They were synonymous with patronage and corruption.

And while the big names of corruption are long gone, the remnants and memories linger.

I suspect Chris Christie understood the lessons of the past and applied them well. As US Attorney he went after those politicians who misused the public trust and rapidly became the Elliot Ness of New Jersey politics. Clearly, he was going to do what no predecessor could and that was to wipe out political corruption.

This became his path to the Governorship and he continued his aggressive pursuit against what he called “shadowy governments” – citadels of government power where unelected officials could dispense money and power with little accountability. The pursuit of justice expanded to include government unions and bureaucrats using abusive power over the public purse.

But, unlike Elliot Ness, Christie was neither modest nor retiring in his manner. No, he was the bull elephant who trampled the peoples’ enemies and took regular wipes at anyone including reporters or citizens who dared ask questions that he deemed inappropriate.

Was he a bully? Absolutely, but he was our bully and he was matching the power of good against the power of evil.  So it’s all right. To many, he was the resurrection of Theodore Roosevelt.

Immediately, he became an immensely popular political figure and his style was fully embraced not just by the political faithful including an increasing number of democrats but also by the national media housed in New York and Washington. He was their hero as well and he was a Republican.

This element of the media feeds daily on the politics of politics and what could be more attractive than a national collision between two giants – Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton.

But while Christie was dazzling the pundits with the bluster of his right hand, they failed to notice what he was doing on the left.  And therein lies the Christie problem. While going after the smaller “shadow governments”, little attention was being paid to the biggest of them all:  the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. With a budget exceeding $7 billion of federal and state monies it had not only money and power but it lent itself to easy control and operated in the shadows of public scrutiny.

By way of background, this was also the former home of Robert Moses who almost singlehandedly developed New York City and was said to have more power than the Mayor or Governor.  He was truly an appointed czar.

It is curious that so few paid attention to Governor Christies’ highly political appointments to the Port Authority nor to his veto of legislation requiring more financial and policy transparency.   After all, if he did not like the reform bill, where was his proposal?

Nor was there much attention when episodes of abuse were revealed including the firing of a prosecutor who indicted one of his political allies, the closing of a TV station that ran an unfavorable story, or the elimination of funding for a project favored by a University professor who ruled against Christie’s reapportionment plan. Even serious questions of mismanagement of Sandy funds were pushed aside.

No, the politics of politics was way more important than the substance of governance and that is why the national media focuses and advances the show horses of politics rather than the diligent and purposeful efforts of the work horses.

In this environment, Christie could thrive. The Port Authority rapidly became his political playground and the governance system had the one ingredient that is the milk of corruption – very, very little oversight.

While the Governor’s office dazzled the public at the capitol, they were also dealing with development projects at the Port Authority dripping with money and endless potential for campaign contributions which are so vital to the launching of a Presidential bid.

And what setup could be better? The Governor appoints the Chairperson as well as members to the Board.  Further, the organization legitimatized conflicts of interest.  How is it that a reform Governor would appoint a prominent New Jersey attorney as chairman of the authority knowing full well that his law firm regularly lobbied the authority for development monies on behalf of its clients?  Anyone with an IQ approaching room temperature knows this is a blatant conflict of interest. But for an anti corruption crusader to not only make such an appointment and then pack the Port Authority with his political operatives strongly suggests incompetence or dishonesty.

But like all scandals, this did not occur in a vacuum. It was clearly an event waiting to be discovered. Christie did not invent the murky environment of the Port Authority nor did he create the centralization of power concentrated in the Governor. That all preceded him and likely was home to considerably prior abuse by both parties.

Nevertheless, how could such a system of concentrated authority not draw more attention much earlier? Here we have a Governor empowered to appoint the Attorney General – the chief legal authority of the state and have virtual control over this immense Port Authority.

Where was the independent financial oversight for both the federal as well as state monies? Where were the legal checks and balances?

Where was the Governor of New York and his appointees to the Authority?

And there will be an increasing number of questions involving the Hurricane Sandy money. Where was the federal financial oversight relative to the hundreds of millions of dollars given by national taxpayers?

Why is it that we were doused with endless pictures of a GOP Governor embracing a Democrat President with a huge supply of federal hurricane dollars and endless campaign rhetoric of bi-partisan cooperation but not one word about the legitimacy of how that money was spent?

In all instances – state and federal – where was the oversight – both in terms of financial as well as management?

As to the balance of the scandal, it will no doubt widen and steadily become increasingly apparent that that all roads lead to money and power and, ultimately to Christie. Will he fall?  That is most likely.

But that is neither the sole tragedy nor the end of the story. The latter will only come when we respect and insist on competency over celebrity and insist on the imposition of honest standards of management in public service.


The vast sprawl of the federal government has not had a major overhaul since the Hoover Commission was formed by President Harry Truman. This bi-partisan effort involving two Presidents helped open the door of cooperation between Presidents and is one of the key examples cited in the widely acclaimed book, The President’s Club.

Today, we are very much in need of bi-partisan cooperation at the very highest level and we are also in need of serious management overhaul of government. This would be a perfect time for President Obama to reach out to former Governor and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney for the purpose of heading a similar type of commission. Frankly, we need Romney’s management skill sets and we need the President to restore trust in the competency of government.

If the Christie scandal is to have any meaning it is that we must enhance at all levels of government an appreciation of divided power, true transparency and oversight, and an appreciation for the quality of leadership over the celebration of sizzle.

Leadership can make it happen.

Gopher Football - Reason for Optimism?

          With the advent of Fall, our attention turns to football and the joy of speculating. The media is all over the Vikings but it is t...