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Hoppe backs judicial retention election constitutional amendment

State Representative Joe Hoppe (R-Chaska) has signed on as a co-author on H.F. 1083 that would fundamentally change the way judges are selected and elected in this state.  The bill would place a constitutional amendment before voters asking them to replace traditional judicial elections, where candidates can challenge incumbent judges, with judicial retention elections.  How would a judicial retention election work?

  • Incumbent judges would be subject to a yes-or-no retention vote at the end of their six-year term on the bench.  
  • Winners of the retention vote would get another six-year term; losers of the retention vote would lose their spot on the bench at the end of their term.
  • The governor, selecting from a pool of candidates vetted by a bipartisan merit selection commission, would appoint a replacement.  The replacement would face a retention vote in the first election occurring more than one year after they were appointed.  (For instance, if a judge were appointed in 2015, they would face a retention vote in 2016.  A judge appointed in 2016 would face a retention vote in 2018.)
  • A Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission would be established with the purpose of providing feedback to voters on the judge’s performance — assigning them to one of three categories (“Well-qualified”, “qualified”, or “not qualified”).  Evaluations would be completed and published at the midway point of the judge’s six-year term as well as in the year of their retention election.

Supporters of the bill point to the fact that about 90% of judicial elections are unopposed today, meaning that even “unqualified” judges may be getting a free pass to another term on the bench.  They also suggest that retention election will work to get money out of judicial elections, lessening the possibility of moneyed interests essentially buying a judgeship.

Opponents of the bill point out that in some ways, judicial elections lessen accountability by putting selection of judges solely in the hands of the governor.  Additionally, there are concerns about the standards to be used by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.  The bill specifies the following as criteria to be used:  “knowledge of the law, procedure, integrity, impartiality, temperament, respect for litigants, respect for the rule of law, administrative skill, punctuality, and communication skills.”

What is excluded from these criteria include measures of a judge’s quality of work.  The language of the bill specifically excludes looking at measures like how often their opinions are overturned by higher courts or statistical studies of how their sentences compare with sentencing guidelines.  Such data is readily available and should be included in any comprehensive evaluation of judicial performance.

Local judicial activists have indicated preferences for candidates (legislative and judicial) who are opposed to retention elections.

I’m inclined to agree with the opponents of judicial retention elections.  Retention elections do not create accountability and transparency to the extent supporters claim they do — in fact, on net, they tend to limit public input on judges.  Being able to directly challenge an incumbent judge — even if rare and even if rarely successful — is important and shouldn’t have additional layers of bureaucracy placed in between the people and their preferences.  Minnesota has campaign finance law that has been reasonably effective in limiting the influence of moneyed interests from influencing judicial election results and the political parties themselves have exercised restraint in turning these elections into partisan sideshows.

(Additionally, it should be pointed out that this yet another example of Rep. Hoppe backing yet another constitutional amendment while claiming not to like legislating that way.)

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Highway 212 expansion bill introduced and other happenings

Here’s a roundup of some of the happenings around the area:

  • A bill has been introduced in the State Legislature (chief authored in the House by Rep. Ernie Leidiger and in the Senate by Sen. Julianne Ortman) to expand U.S. Highway 212 to four lanes from Jonathan Carver Parkway to County Road 43 in Dahlgren Township.  Also included in the bill is $8 million for construction of an interchange at US-212 and County Road 140 in Southwest Chaska.  This bill would be a critical next step in making sure that US-212 is built out to four lanes to Norwood-Young America.  Additionally, the CR-140 interchange is critical to the success of the Southwest Chaska Master Plan recently ratified by the City Council.  This is a good bill and I hope it will be included in the omnibus transportation package this year.
  • State Representative Joe Hoppe submitted his year-end campaign finance report on February 25, some three-and-one-half weeks late.  Of note in Hoppe’s report is that he collected over $1,700 in “special source” funding in 2012 that he was forced to return.  “Special sources” include lobbyists, political party units, and political action committees.  Additionally, Hoppe’s penchant for filing late in 2012 cost him over $2,600 in late fees with the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.  Some fiscal responsibility…
  • The City of Chaska City Council meeting tonight has been cancelled.
  • The Chaska Hawks girls basketball team (ranked #7 in Class AAA) will play Richfield (ranked #2 in Class AAA) on Thursday night with a berth in the State Tournament on the line.  The Hawks romped past Benilde-St. Margaret 69-41 on Saturday to reach the section final.  The game will be at 7 p.m. at Minnetonka High School.
  • On the Chaska restaurant front, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit is open in Chaska Commons, while downtown’s Egg & Pie Diner is headed for a mid-March opening.  Construction is also underway at the future location of BullChicks in Chaska Commons.

More pizza pizza for Chaska

According to the staff report for Monday’s City Council meeting, Little Caesar’s Pizza is planning on going into the former Domino’s Pizza location in the Brickyard Shopping Mall.  The opening date is yet to be announced.

Also of note in the staff report is the fact that two developers are moving forward on plans to start development in Southwest Chaska, both with intentions of breaking ground this summer.  That’s excellent news!

Chaska High School on lockdown after threat [UPDATED]

A threat received this morning has prompted Chaska High School to go into lockdown.  Students and staff that were in the building are being kept there.  Buses were diverted to Pioneer Ridge Middle School, which has also been placed on lockdown as a precaution.  CHS students and staff not at school are being encouraged to stay at home until the all-clear is given.  No injuries or unusual activity have been reported.  All students at CHS and PRMS are safe.

For continuing updates, follow these links:

Chaska High School website

Chaska High School Twitter feed

Pioneer Ridge Middle School website

[UPDATE, 10 a.m.]:  All Eastern Carver County schools are in external lockdown, meaning all doors are locked and no visitors are being allowed.

[UPDATE, 10:15 a.m.]:  Per the District’s Facebook page, external lockdown will be lifted for other Eastern Carver County district schools at noon.

[UPDATE, 10:30 a.m.]:  Several CHS parents have reported receiving e-mails indicating that the school will be closed for the day, and students inside the school will be released around 10:45.

[UPDATE, 10:45 a.m.]:  All after-school activities will go on as scheduled.  The Family Learning Center is closed for the day.

[UPDATE, 1:15 p.m.]:  The District’s webpage indicates that the Chaska police has cleared the building and it is free of threats.

Eastern Carver County takes some steps in a moderate direction

Every election cycle, we get the requisite story about Carver County’s long history of voting Republican.  2012 was largely a continuation of that trend, with Mitt Romney racking up nearly 60% of the vote in the County, and Congressional and Legislative Republicans winning re-election.  But there were some signs that the “suburbanization” of eastern Carver County may be starting to make Chanhassen and Chaska look more like their Hennepin County neighbors than like the rest of Carver County.

Let’s start off with the U.S. Senate race.  For the first time in recent memory, a Democratic candidate won the county.  Senator Amy Klobuchar cruised to victory by a double-digit margin over Republican nominee Kurt Bills.  Klobuchar won eight of the nine precincts in House District 47B (all of Chaska, precincts 3-5 of Chanhassen, and precincts 1-2 of Victoria), and tied with Bills in the ninth.  Much of that has to do with Bills’s historical weakness as a candidate, but it also speaks to the kind of Senator Klobuchar has been.  (Keep in mind, Klobuchar lost Carver County six years ago to Mark Kennedy).  Klobuchar has taken a moderate, low-key approach in the Senate, focusing on consumer issues and taking centrist positions on civil liberties and foreign policy, as well as many business issues.

Another notable result was on the marriage amendment.  If you look at House District 47B, the marriage amendment lost by nine points (45.4% yes vs. 54.6% no/no-vote).  The weak performance of the marriage amendment (compared to expectations) in traditional Republican areas like Carver County can in large part explain why it failed on a state-wide basis.

Interestingly enough, this vote puts eastern Carver County’s legislators, State Sen. Julianne Ortman and State Rep. Joe Hoppe, squarely in opposition with a large block of their constituents (While Hoppe’s 47B voted solidly against the amendment, 47A voted in favor of the amendment, allowing it to win SD 47 with 50.1%).  Both voted in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot, and Ortman fought back hard against allegations that she hadn’t been supportive enough of the amendment during her campaign for the GOP endorsement against Bruce Schwichtenberg.  Will Ortman and Hoppe back off of their support for their party’s divisive social agenda?

Meanwhile, the Carver County Commissioner races continued to show trends began in 2010.  In that cycle, the three incumbent commissioners on the ballot withstood challenges from the right.  This year, with all five incumbents up for re-election thanks to redistricting, all five incumbents were victorious.  Four of those incumbents fended off challenges from the right.  Tom Workman was the exception, as he was the lone incumbent who faced a less-partisan challenger.

What does this mean?  Is eastern Carver County poised to “turn blue”?  It may be too soon to say that, but it does show that demographic trends are likely over time to make this area more competitive than it has been in the past.  And Democratic candidates with the right mix of qualities can get a fair hearing from voters in these areas.  Democratic efforts should be focused on party-building and creating the infrastructure to support and develop these types of candidates that can compete and eventually win in eastern Carver County.  Klobuchar and State Senator Terri Bonoff are good examples of the sort of moderate candidates that would fit that mold.

[Edited to clarify a point on the marriage amendment, 11:20 11/13]

Chaska Area Election Results and Quick Analysis

State Senate District 47:  Julianne Ortman (63.8%) def. Jim Weygand (36.0%)

State House District 47A:  Ernie Leidiger (62.5%) def. Keith Pickering (37.3%)

The two challenged legislative incumbents cruise to victories with margins somewhat smaller than 2010.  Probably the biggest change for Ortman, Leidiger, and Joe Hoppe (who was unopposed in House District 47B) is that they will be working again from the legislative minorities, as the DFL flipped the script on the GOP and retook both houses of the Legislature.  In fact, with the current results showing the DFL having a 39-28 lead in the Senate and 73-61 in the House, the DFL is poised to have larger majorities the next two years than the Republicans did in the previous two.

This will mean a significant loss in power for Ortman and Hoppe, who chaired committees when in the majority, but both will still be well-positioned to work on a bipartisan basis on critical issues.  Although Ortman and the DFL majorities are out of step on many tax issues, fulfilling the promise of fundamental tax reform will require hard work from both parties to craft the best solution.  Hoppe has worked well with many DFLers in the past, including Rep. Joe Atkins, who may very well end up taking the gavel on the Commerce Committee.

This will also be a challenge for Leidiger.  His first term was rather unproductive (only one bill signed into law, placing him in the bottom quarter of the GOP freshmen), and that was with a Republican majority.  Is Leidiger only interested in being a lightning rod backbencher, or is he capable of more?  If he is capable of more, now is the time to show it.

Carver County Commissioner District 1:  Gayle Degler (60.6%) def. John Siegfried (38.7%)

Carver County Commissioner District 2:  Tom Workman (58.1%) def. Cheryl Ayotte (41.5%)

Carver County Commissioner District 3:  Randy Maluchnik (67.0%) def. Vince Beaudette (32.3%)

Carver County Commissioner District 4:  Tim Lynch (63.4%) def. Frank Long (36.2%)

Carver County Commissioner District 5:  Jim Ische (53.3%) def. Jim Walter (46.3%)

The five incumbents all win re-election.  The notable thing here is that for the second cycle in a row, the Republican-endorsed challengers all lost.  As I’ve said before, this is a losing strategy for the local Republican Party.  County issues are not partisan issues, and voters don’t appreciate partisan warfare being brought where it doesn’t belong.

Eastern Carver County School Board:  Heather Nelson (25.0%), Amy Logue (24.0%) and Jeff Ross (19.2%) def. Jim Leone (17.8%) and Larry Doran (13.4%).

The housecleaning is complete with this vote, as Jim Leone is the last long-term incumbent on the Board is swept out of office.  Highly qualified newcomers Logue and Ross join Nelson (who won election to reduced term in 2010) on the Board.

Chaska Mayor:  Mark Windschitl (67.8%) def. Richard Swanson (31.1%)

This was a clear show of support for the current city leadership.  Windschitl has grown greatly on the job the last three years, and Swanson’s failure to provide a clear case for change and his tax issues didn’t help his cause.

More analysis to come, including looking at the statewide races and constitutional amendments.

 

Mayor candidate Swanson has $31,000 in unpaid taxes

Richard Swanson, who is running for Mayor of Chaska, has tax liens against his business totaling over $31,000 for tax years 2005-2008 according to the Chaska Herald.

Here’s a helpful hint for folks thinking about running for office in the future — if you have tax liens against you, get it taken care of before you file your candidacy.

Last week, before we were aware of this story, Brick City Blog endorsed Mark Windschitl for Chaska Mayor.

 

Chaska Herald, other Carver County newspapers urge a no vote on marriage amendment

This week’s edition of the Chaska Herald features an editorial indicating the paper’s opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot to limit the definition of marriage to be one man and one woman.

Here’s a key passage from the piece:

The United States has a long tradition of debating our rights, namely measures that would limit freedoms. The public has largely argued against things that would limit rights – to bear arms, to worship, to free speech.

So it’s alarming that the state Legislature would ask the public to enshrine in the State Constitution a law that would strive to take away rights – the right of two Minnesotans to marry.

Traditionally, we know that marriage has been defined as between one man and one woman. We also know that customs and laws have changed for the better since the founding of the United States, providing equal rights for women and minorities. As a result, our country has grown stronger.

The Herald joins three other Carver County newspapers — the Carver County News, Waconia Patriot, and Norwood-Young America Times — in opposing the amendment.  Their editorial, which ran last week, echoed many of the same themes:

America was not founded on the principle of oppression. America was founded on the principle of freedom.

Passing the amendment would place limits in our constitution on the freedom of same-sex citizens. It would erect a barrier to continuing the discussion of same-sex marriage, for today’s voters and for future generations of Minnesotans who might want to reopen the debate.

Voters would, in fact, be making choices for those future generations. Voters would be telling many of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that marriage won’t be an option for them.

That’s not freedom, that’s oppression, and we are concerned what message that sends the world about our state. What kind of Minnesota do we want to present to the world.

The implications of that message may reach farther than we realize. We believe the marriage amendment, if passed, would limit the ability to recruit and retain top talent. Minnesota companies such as General Mills and St. Jude Medical have spoken out against the amendment, saying it would hurt their ability to recruit and hire a diverse group of employees.

The papers are right on this issue.  Same-sex marriage is already illegal in this state based on statute, there is no need to make it doubly illegal by enshrining such language in the Constitution.

(On a snarky note, is it possible to have Carver County Commissioner candidate profiles retroactively removed from the Herald?  Asking for some friends.)

Brick City Blog Endorsement: Mark Windschitl for Chaska Mayor

In the first of our endorsements for the 2012 election cycle, I’m pleased to announce support for the re-election of Chaska Mayor Mark Windschitl.

When Windschitl first ran for the office, in the 2010 Special Election, I did not support him.  (On a side note, I am very pleased that we will see the return of Windschitl’s opponent in that election, Jay Rohe, to the City Council.  His voice will be a welcome addition to the Council.)

Windschitl’s 2010 Special Election campaign focused on his personal qualities and long history in Chaska to the exclusion of what agenda he wanted to pursue for the city.

That said, his performance since his election has exceeded my expectations.  He has grown into the role and has overseen the long-awaited completion of the Downtown Master Plan.  The city is in the midst of refreshing its plan for Southwest Chaska — another important effort.  Windschitl’s support of these efforts has been important, and now we need to see him and the rest of the Council follow through to make sure city staff are executing the plan to the best of their abilities.

On the downside, many of the problems that have existed in Chaska for years and years are still there.  Principally:  communication.  The city still does a lousy job of communicating basic information to its citizens.  The city’s website is still a mess.  Last month, the city passed its preliminary levy, setting the ceiling for property tax collections in 2013.  There’s no link to the backup documentation on the front page of the website, nor on the Finance/Budget page.  (If you want to find it, you need to read the staff report from that particular council meeting.)  It shouldn’t be that hard to find basic information about a current, critical issue.  It’s long past time for the Mayor, City Council and staff to stop making excuses and get with the program.

The city also continues to kick the budget can down the road, putting off hard decisions year after year, while patting itself on the back for “not raising taxes”, even though it’s increasing the property tax rate every year.

Windschitl’s opponent, attorney Richard Swanson, is an energetic proponent of downtown Chaska.  While he provides a coherent explanation of the problems in downtown Chaska, he offers little in the way of actionable solutions or insight as to how his leadership would be different than Windschitl’s.  As such, Swanson offers no compelling reason to displace Windschitl.

Windschitl’s experience and record lead us to believe that he is the best choice to move Chaska forward for the next two years.  The city has the ball moving in the right direction, and Windschitl deserves the opportunity to keep things moving.

Below is the video from last week’s League of Women Voters candidate forum for the Chaska Mayor race, so you can evaluate Windschitl and Swanson for yourself.

 

Word games local politicians play to avoid responsibility for raising taxes

We’re entering budget season for counties and cities.  In the next three weeks, these local governmental entities will be setting their preliminary property tax levies for 2013.  The preliminary levy is the highest amount of taxes that the city or county can collect for 2013 — they do have the option of collecting less than that amount when they approve the final levy in early December.

Local units of government take great pride in announcing that they aren’t raising your taxes — they pretty much seem to make that announcement every year, in fact.  How is this possible?  Can it be true?  As you might suspect, the answer here is “not exactly”.  Let’s take a step back and see how this works.

The basic tax calculation for an individual property is pretty simple:  the value of the property multiplied by the tax rate (also called a mill rate). Since the local unit of government has to levy a specific dollar amount for their entire community, though, there’s two ways they can go about the process of determining that final number — they can either go based on the total levy amount and work back into the mill rate or they can start with the mill rate and work up to the number they need.  In reality, local governments combine the two methods to get to a final answer.

Let’s take a look at what happens here.  Here’s a community of 10 houses.  We’ll call this community “Sampleville”.  The 10 homes in Sampleville have a collective value of $3 million, and pay a combined $6,000 in property taxes based on a mill rate of 0.2%. (For wonks out there:  this is going to be a really simplified example.)

What happens in Year 2?  Let’s look at an example of what many cities and counties are experiencing today — declines in property values.  Let’s assume a 10% reduction in property values, and let’s also say that an 11th home is built in the community.  Since times are hard, this home has a less than average value of $150,000.  If the mill rate stays the same, Sampleville generates $300 fewer property tax dollars, even with the addition of the new house.

The Sampleville City Council has some decisions to make at this point.  They can choose to keep the mill rate the same and cut their budget by 5%.  Or they can do what many local government units have done — keep their overall levy amount the same.  After all, Sampleville largely has to provide the same services in Year 2 as they did in Year 1.  They may even have to provide more of some services as there are now more people living in the community.  Under this scenario, Sampleville has to raise the mill rate to make up the difference.  They only have to raise the rate by 5.26%, because of the new house being added to tax base, though.

Even though the mill rate has increased, the Sampleville City Council goes back to its residents and says:  “No tax increase!”  Why? They will say it is because they left the overall tax levy the same — and all residents who were here in Year 1 will pay less in property taxes in Year 2 than they did in Year 1.  (Never mind that they are taking a larger percentage of your property value in Year 2 than they did in Year 1.)

But what if Year 2 is a good economic year?  If property values grow by 10% instead of shrink by 10%, we see a different story.

If no changes are made to the mill rate, tax collections go up by $900.  What does the Sampleville City Council (and most units of local government) do under these situations?  Go back to their residents and say:  “No tax increase!” (and  start planning things to do with the additional $900).  Why?  Because they left your mill rate alone.  The Council will tell you that the reason your taxes went up is a result of your property value increasing, not an active decision by government.

You may have realized at this point that the Sampleville City Council is changing the rules of the game midstream here.  You may also be realizing that many local units of government in Carver County (and across the state) operate the same way.  If you change the standard by which you declare a “tax increase”, it’s pretty easy to make it look like you’re not increasing taxes.

This isn’t meant as some sort of anti-tax screed.  In times like we are in today, decisions to keep local levies flat by raising the mill rate can frequently be justified.  But we have to be fair and call a spade a spade.  If keeping the mill rate flat during good times and collecting the additional revenue from increase property values isn’t a tax increase, then raising the mill rate during bad times to make up for declining property values is a tax increase.  Period.  We should expect our local government officials to not try to muddy the waters on this point.

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