Tag Archives: Featured

It’s totally not about that

State Senator Julianne Ortman held a press conference today to try and finger U.S. Senator Al Franken for playing a role in the current controversy over the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) giving unwarranted scrutiny to certain conservative 501(c)(4) groups.

In 2012, Franken and a group of other Democratic Senators sent two letters to the IRS, requesting that they give added scrutiny to 501(c)(4) groups.  Both progressive and conservative organizations had been setting such groups up because they are tax-exempt and not subject to campaign finance disclosures.

You can see the letters at the links below:

February 2012 letter

March 2012 letter

In each, the Senators in question ask the IRS to scrutinize all 501(c)(4)s.  Ideology doesn’t come up in either letter.

So, let’s sum up the argument here.  Ortman is asking us to believe that the letters from 2012 which called for additional scrutiny to be applied to all 501(c)(4)s are significantly responsible for IRS misbehavior that began in 2010 and was actually uncovered and stopped after the letter was sent.  Not even the reliable conservatives at Powerline are buying that one.

Why, then, would Ortman go to the trouble of calling a press conference to highlight this non-news with no real relation to her role as a State Senator?  Oh, yeah:

When asked about such a thing, Ortman played the “who me?” card.

Uh-huh.  It’s totally not about that.

And let’s not forget that Ortman has never exactly been shy about sending letters of her own demanding action by other parts of government.  Earlier this session, she asked Attorney General Lori Swanson to break from usual practice and preemptively give a ruling on whether legislation was constitutional or not.  Last session, Ortman demanded that the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court investigate the handling of family cases in the First District.

So it seems that Ortman’s outrage over legislative letter-writing is rather subjective.  Just remember, though, about those 2014 rumors:  it’s totally not about that.

Advertisements

Senate passes care workers unionization bill; House vote expected Saturday

The Minnesota State Senate voted 35-32 today to pass S.F. 778, which would enable independent day care operators and personal care attendants who serve customers that receive state subsidies to organize unions.  All Republicans in the chamber, including Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen, voted against the bill as did four DFL Senators (Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka, Melisa Franzen of Edina,  Greg Clausen of Apple Valley, and Bev Scalze of Little Canada).  The bill now moves to the House; which is expected to take up the bill on Saturday.  It appears that there are sufficient votes in the House to pass the bill, which Governor Mark Dayton has indicted he would sign.

Republicans in the Senate subjected the bill to 17 hours of debate, reflecting the highly controversial nature of the bill.  Unionization of such persons would be a different model than the traditional form of labor union, where employees organize and collectively bargain with their employers.  If the union were to be approved in this case, independent day care operators and personal care attendants — who generally function as small businesses of their own or independent contractors — would have a union to work on their behalf in St. Paul, bargaining with state agencies on work rules and regulations and lobbying legislators on reimbursement rates.  Care workers who provide services to clients that receive state subsidies but who vote against the union would be subject to “fair share” dues to cover a portion of the costs of the union’s representation as they would benefit from whatever changes the union negotiates.

Republicans have objected to the redefinition of the traditional union relationship introduced by this bill.  Additionally, they point out that in some cases AFSCME Council 5 — which is seeking to represent the day care workers — would end up negotiating with other AFSCME employees over work rules.

These are indeed valid concerns — and that’s coming from someone who generally finds themselves in labor’s camp on these sorts of issues.  The much-derided federal Employee Free Choice Act had a number of good reforms in it, for instance — such as equalizing the standards for certifying and decertifying unions and improving enforcement of certification elections.

But S.F. 778 feels like a step too far.

That’s not to say, though, that independent day care operators and personal care attendants don’t have valid concerns.  Day care subsidies were cut by 2% in the last budget cycle, passing increased bills to strapped working class families and forcing hard decisions on providers of day care services.  Personal care attendants, meanwhile, are besieged by low pay, long hours, and physically demanding work.  They deserve better from state government than what they have received in recent years.

DFL majorities in the Legislature should focus on passing those reforms into law this session as opposed to passing a bill that looks like political payback.  There’s no reason that we can’t increase reimbursement rates and address a number of the work rule issues that would be of great benefit to these vital workers.  And if Republicans come back in the future and want to undo those changes, it shouldn’t be politically difficult to hammer them for it.

[Picture is S.F. 778 author Sandy Pappas.]

Senate passes marriage equality; Ortman votes no

The Minnesota State Senate today passed the marriage equality bill by a vote of 37-30, following four hours of debate.  State Senator Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) voted no on the issue.  Only one Republican, Senator Brandon Petersen, voted in favor of the bill, while three DFL Senators voted no (Dan Sparks, Leroy Stumpf, and Lyle Koenen).

senatemarriage

Governor Mark Dayton has indicated he will sign the bill, and a signing ceremony is planned for 5 p.m. Tuesday afternoon on the South Side Capitol Steps.  Minnesota will be the 12th state to institute marriage equality.

Rumors were swirling before the vote that Ortman, who had been consistently opposed to marriage equality in recent sessions, may be reconsidering her position.  At times during the debate, she was spotted conferring with Senator Scott Dibble, the bill’s author.  Hanging over Ortman’s vote was the notion that she might be a candidate for higher office in 2014.  Recent speculation has indicated that she may be looking at the race for U.S. Senate against Al Franken.

 

The Republican base is strongly opposed to marriage equality.  Polling from January shows 79% disapproval among Republicans, which likely makes the path to endorsement difficult for a marriage equality supporter.

Meet Your “New” Republican Party!

State Rep. Ernie Leidiger will be holding his annual hog roast fundraiser next month.  This year’s event is themed “Meet The New Republican Party”, and features a pulled pork dinner, silent auction, activities for kids, karaoke, and a bonfire.  On-site camping is also available if needed.  Lots of special guests are also invited, like these fresh faces:

Hog Roast Emcee and failed gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer

U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann

U.S. Representative John Kline

U.S. Representative Erik Paulsen

Radio talk show hosts Jason Lewis and Sue Jeffers

State Senator Julianne Ortman

State Representative Joe Hoppe

Of course, these aren’t “new” faces at all.  These are just the same faces we’ve been seeing and hearing from for years now.  Keep looking down the list and — aha! — here are the new faces we’ve been looking for!

State GOP Party Chair Keith Downey

State GOP Deputy Party Chair Kelly Fenton

State GOP Secretary Chris Fields

Of course, of these folks, only Fields really qualifies a “new” face.  Heck, Fields hasn’t even lived in Minnesota for two years and he already has lost a race for Congress by 49 points.  Downey is a two-term former state representative who was heralded as an ideological leader behind the Republican House majorities that got routed in 2012.  Fenton, meanwhile, is a longtime party activist.

Even more to the point, though, is that while you can theoretically argue some of the faces are “new” — the ideas are the same old stale ones they’ve been peddling for years.  Let’s hope the pulled pork is fresher than the ideology.

[Picture above is 2010 gubernatorial loser and voice of the “new” Republican Party Tom Emmer]

Leidiger goes “nucular” over House energy bill

It’s been a fairly quiet session for State Rep. Ernie Leidiger thus far.  Being in the legislative minority has limited his already meager ability to shape legislation.  He’s chief authored just three bills so far (all transportation-related) — only 15 House members have been less ambitious — and has kept a low profile this session with no Bradlee Dean sightings or campaign finance kerfuffles.

Tuesday night, the House debated H.F. 956, the omnibus energy bill.  The key point of contention in the bill was an ambitious solar energy mandate included in the bill.  Under the terms of the bill, investor-owned utilities (Xcel Energy, Minnesota Power, Otter Tail Power and Interstate Power & Light) would be required to produce 4% of their electricity via solar by 2025 on top of the existing renewable energy mandates.  Cooperatives and municipal utilities would be exempted from this requirement.  Additionally, investor-owned utilities would be required to subsidize solar installations for residential and commercial customers.  Mining companies and paper mills receive protection from potential rate increases that would result from the mandate, and the bill would continue and expand incentives for solar equipment manufacturers in the state.

There’s a lot to chew on in those provisions.  Very real questions can be raised about the necessity of setting a mandate for solar, when the state is currently in the midst of a boom in wind production (up to 14% of the state’s electricity in 2012) and the reality that such a solar mandate may be quite costly for utilities to comply with.  Adding a 4% solar requirement on top of an increase in the  existing renewable energy standard from 25% to 40% would give Minnesota the highest renewable and solar energy mandates in the nation at 44% in total.

As an aside, the Senate version of the bill, S.F. 901, had a much smaller (and in my opinion, more responsible) set of provisions related to solar energy.  The mandate in the Senate bill was only 1%, and it removed the requirement that utilities subsidize solar installations.  Unfortunately, the House bill was chosen by DFL leadership as the baseline version of the final omnibus bill.  The House bill deserved a no vote, in my opinion, based on the solar mandate issue.

So there’s a lot in this bill that could be criticized.  Of the many provisions listed above, which does Leidiger choose to criticize?  Well, none of them, exactly.  Check the video out for yourself (the video will jump to the start of Leidiger’s speech, nearly six hours into debate on the bill):

First off, let’s get Leidiger’s charming Bush-like pronunciation of the word nuclear as “nucular” noted for the record. (Sometimes, a word really is pronounced the way it is spelled.)  It’s also telling that Leidiger’s rant is met midway through by chuckles.  Even Rep. Mary Franson, who enjoys a good rant as much as anyone in the House, appears to go from mild bemusement to indifference to apparently checking her e-mail.

Next, let’s talk about some of Rep. Leidiger’s facts.  Leidiger is certainly correct that China has been building nuclear power plants in the last decade, and is continuing to construct them (although scaled back significantly since the Fukushima reactor issue in Japan).  However, to imply that nuclear is the core of China’s “baseline power” isn’t true.  Nuclear power only represents 1% of China’s electric production today, and will only represent 6% by 2020.  However, the growth in nuclear is only half of that expected in renewable energy in China.  Wind power in China is booming — to the extent that today wind power in China produces more power than nuclear — and that trend is expected to continue.

energy

It should be pointed out that both Minnesota and the United States are currently and will continue to be larger users of nuclear power than the Chinese.  It’s not clear, and Leidiger certainly doesn’t specify, what it is exactly about Minnesota solar mandates and the Chinese construction of nuclear power plants that constitutes the threat to our national security.

Is it the fact that China is the leading manufacturer of solar panels?  If Chinese manufacturing is now a source of national security distress, we’re in a whole world of hurt.  The fact of the matter is that both political parties in this country have largely backed trade and economic policies that have encouraged the off-shoring of American manufacturing jobs — prioritizing the ability to buy low-priced products made elsewhere (like from — ahem — certain office furniture companies) and breaking the power of organized labor ahead of nurturing solid middle-class jobs and promoting critical industries.

And let’s not forget that Leidiger in the past has criticized government programs like the stimulus that sought to boost the American solar industry.  Neither Leidiger nor his party (nor Democrats, for that matter) have produced any meaningful reforms designed to reverse those trends.  The horse has left the barn on this issue, sadly.

Besides, dependence on foreign oil has proven to already be a national security risk.  Yet, Leidiger and his cohorts want us to continue on the fossil fuel bandwagon, despite the potential domestic drilling areas like ANWR  aren’t going to be long-term solutions to the problem.

Or maybe that’s not what he’s getting at.  The argument in its totality makes about as much sense as pronouncing nuclear as “nucular”. If you can figure out what Ernie’s talking about, let me know in the comments.

[h/t to the anonymous tipster who alerted me to Leidiger’s speech]

House passes marriage equality; Carver County Reps vote no

The marriage equality bill passed the Minnesota State House of Representatives today 75-59.  Four Republican Representatives voted in favor of the bill:  Jenifer Loon (Eden Prairie), Andrea Kieffer (Woodbury), Pat Garofalo (Farmington), and David FitzSimmons (Albertville), while two DFL Representatives voted against it:  Patti Fritz (Faribault) and Mary Sawatzky (Willmar).

Carver County Representatives Joe Hoppe (R-Chaska), Ernie Leidiger (R-Mayer), and Cindy Pugh (R-Chanhassen) all voted no, even after FitzSimmons’s amendment to rename all references to “marriage” in Minnesota statute as “civil marriage”, thereby providing additional reassurance that religious institutions would not be impacted by approval of marriage equality.

As previously noted, voters in both Hoppe and Pugh’s districts voted against the marriage amendment last November  so they are swimming upstream in this regard.  Pugh’s vote is a distinct contrast from her district, as 33B voted against the marriage amendment by 17 points – -the third largest margin of the 21 House Republican districts that voted against the amendment.

[Picture of the voting board above courtesy of Leanne Kunze’s Twitter stream.]

Session endgame heats up with marriage equality vote Thursday

The Minnesota House of Representatives will vote on H.F. 1054 — the marriage equality bill — on Thursday.  The movement of this bill to the floor is a signal from leadership in the DFL majority that they have the necessary 68 votes to pass the bill, as Speaker of the House Paul Thissen has indicated he would not bring the bill up for vote unless there was sufficient votes to pass it.

In recent weeks, there has been substantial movement among rural DFL legislators towards the bill, including Hinckley’s Tim Faust and Crosby’s Joe Radinovich just within the last few days.  With passage seemingly assured at this point, the interesting thing to watch will be if any suburban Republicans vote yes on the bill as well.  21 House Republicans — including Chaska’s Joe Hoppe and Chanhassen’s Cindy Pugh — represent districts that opposed last November’s marriage amendment.  As of now, none of them have publicly indicated their support for marriage equality.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk says he has sufficient votes in his caucus to pass the bill in that chamber as well, but does not intend to bring the bill to the floor until after the House vote.  Governor Mark Dayton has indicated he will sign the bill if it passes both chambers.

Ten states currently have marriage equality, and Delaware’s legislature is also voting on the issue this week (with passage expected).

Meanwhile, negotiations designed to produce a compromise budget between the House, Senate, and Governor are ongoing.  As noted previously, untangling the three tax plans is likely to biggest source the most difficult challenge faced by the negotiators.  With less than two weeks left in the session, the pace is likely to be rather hectic to get through all the necessary business by then.

Which tax provisions will survive?

Yesterday, after an inexplicable and embarrassing false start, the Minnesota State Senate passed its version of the omnibus tax bill.  The bill now moves to conference committee where it will be reconciled against the House’s version of the bill as well as Governor Mark Dayton’s budget proposal.  This may prove to be more work than expected, given that all three parties in the negotiations are DFL-controlled.

On a net basis (tax increases less new aids and credits), all three proposals raise between $1.5 and $1.7 billion dollars, but they get there in notably different ways:

1415summary

Let’s dig into the details.  Here are some of the key provisions in each plan:

1415details

Some elements should come together pretty quickly:  increasing LGA, increases to tobacco taxes, and reduction/removal of corporate exemptions for foreign source royalties and operating companies.

Other pieces are going to be more difficult.  House DFLers have committed themselves to paying off the remaining K-12 funding shift this session.  The temporary 4% surcharge on income is designed to get them to that point, raising $1.2 billion on its own.  However, both Dayton and Senate Democrats have listed the surcharge as not acceptable, and neither of them make any moves towards paying off the shift in their proposals.

Meanwhile, the Senate has stayed committed to advancing sales tax reform — proposing an expansion in goods and services subject to taxation while lowering the rate to 6% — while Dayton (in his updated budget) and House DFLers have stayed away from such proposals.

House DFLers have also advanced an increase in alcohol taxes that has run into substantial controversy.  Neither Dayton nor the Senate have embraced such a proposal.

So how do we get to a final bill?  Well, as it turns out, much of the Governor’s proposal ends up serving as a middle ground between the legislative proposals.  Dayton’s income tax rate increase on the wealthy touches a smaller group of taxpayers than the Senate version, which may be acceptable to the House.  But in order to get the House on board, Dayton and the Senate are going to have to make a significant move towards paying back the school shift.  How to do that?  By adopting the Senate’s cigarette tax revenue plan or the House’s plan which includes alcohol tax increases.  The House is likely also going to have to scale back (or eliminate) their property tax reforms.  Taking those steps should be able to ensure that at least half of the remaining shift is paid off.

With less than three weeks remaining in the legislative session, DFLers haven’t given themselves much time to hash through these issues, given the fragile nature of the coalitions they have had to put together to get these bills through the respective chambers.  It will be interesting to watch and see how the negotiations unfold.

Survey says: District 112 evaluates referendum options

The Eastern Carver County School District (District 112) School Board has begun weighing potential referendum questions for this fall’s ballot.  This would be the first ballot question since 2011’s failed technology levy, as the District passed on putting any questions on the 2012 ballot.

It’s a virtual certainty that there will be one referendum question on the ballot, as two operating levies representing $8.7 million in annual funding (or just under 10% of the District’s general fund) expire after the 2013-14 school year, meaning that they must be extended this year, or significant cuts would be required.

But it’s the potential for other questions is where it gets interesting.  As noted in this week’s Chaska Herald, the District has surveyed residents on a number of possible referendums in recent months, including:

  • A $2.3 million technology levy (54% support/strongly support in the survey)
  • School security facility improvements (64%)
  • Dedicated facility for early childhood education (55%)
  • Purchase land for a new elementary school in Chaska or Carver (46%)
  • New swimming pool (38%)
  • Theater facility at Chaska High School (38%)
  • Construction of a domed athletic facility (38%)
  • New soccer/lacrosse fields (28%)

The last four items on the above list are dead on arrival.  And, despite the favorable survey results for the technology levy, going back to that well again may not prove to be wise.  That leaves us with three items for consideration, and let’s look at the case for and against each of them:

School security facility improvements:  FOR: These changes would largely update some of the older schools in the District to reconfigure and update entrances and other security features.  An example of such a change would be at Jonathan Elementary, where the front entrance of the school would be changed to funnel visitors through the office instead of into the school’s main floor hallway. AGAINST: Since Newtown, District schools have made staffing adjustments as required to help monitor entrances that are antiquated in their design.  Could these processes be continued less expensively than making facility upgrades?

Dedicated facility for early childhood education:  FOR:  Today, early childhood programs are spread across multiple facilities in the District (including Chaska High School and Bluff Creek and Chanhassen Elementary Schools).  The District’s E-8 Task Force has been looking at different options for siting early childhood programs, but the enrollment crunch at the elementary schools and the possible changes in high school boundaries puts these programs in the lurch.  A dedicated facility would provide stability for these programs, which could increase utilization and improve efficiency (staff today frequently has to travel between buildings). AGAINST:  Having multiple locations for early childhood programs can also be an advantage, as it can also drive enrollment.  A Chanhassen resident, for instance, may not be interested in driving their child westward in the morning to a centralized facility but could take advantage of programs currently in Chanhassen elementary schools.  Also, if a new elementary school is built, might existing space (like the Kindergarten Center) be adapted instead?  This is also a potentially expensive project, depending on location and size.

Purchase land for a new elementary school in Chaska or Carver:  A new elementary school in the western portion of the District is inevitable at this point, based on the sudden burst of new residential development in Southwest Chaska, Carver, and Victoria this year as well as legislative actions like the move to universal all-day kindergarten.  And while the District can likely muddle along with the current facilities for three to five more years, the right time to buy land for a new school may be now.  Why?  Historically low interest rates and low property values.  Waiting to buy the land until the school must be constructed could cost District taxpayers millions in increased expense and interest.  It’s also fairly standard practice to secure land before securing the funding for construction, so as not to be delayed when you actually do need to build the school.  For instance, the District acquired the future Chanhassen High School property via a levy passed in 2004 — five years and an additional referendum before the building was built and opened.  AGAINST:  Why spend a significant amount of money on buying land until it is absolutely necessary to do so?

It’s unlikely, of course, that District would put all three of these items on the ballot in addition to the operating levy renewal.  How should the School Board and Superintendent Jim Bauck proceed, then?

The reality is that none of the referendum questions is likely to succeed without a coordinated and coherent presentation of the facts behind the need for the referendum.  The District failed on that count with the 2011 technology levy.  From that perspective, the security upgrades have the easiest story to sell.

But if we’re truly interested in financial responsibility, the notion of buying land for the new elementary school needs to be on the table as well.  Being able to acquire land now at favorable terms makes sense, since we know that the school will need to be constructed at some point in the short- to medium-term.

Past School Boards have been very cautious about putting referendum questions on the ballot, even those that do show majority support.  Even though the concept of buying land for a new elementary school shows mixed support in the survey, it may well be the right thing to do.  And the District should fight for doing the right thing by its citizens and taxpayers.

[Photo is Family Feud host Richard Dawson, from back in the day.]

How to go the right way on legislator pay

The Minnesota State Senate passed their version of the  State Government omnibus budget bill on Tuesday by a narrow 34-32 margin.  5 DFL members defected from the rest of the majority, primarily over the issue of pay raises in the bill.  Under the provisions of the bill, the Governor would get a raise from $120,000 to $128,000 effective in 2016 (and would be adjusted for inflation every year after that), while legislators would have their salary pegged as 1/3 of the governor’s pay.  That would represent over a $10,000 raise over the current legislative salaries of $31,140.  Commissioners of state departments would also see higher pay as well, going up to 133% of the Governor’s salary.

In addition to their base salaries, legislators also earn a per diem for their legislative activities, and a housing allowance of $1,200 per month is available for those who live more than 50 miles away from the State Capitol.  Per diem for most legislators runs about $10,000 per year.

There are some legitimate reasons to consider a pay increase for state legislators.  (And, in fact, despite the largely party-line vote, there is broad bipartisan agreement that a pay increase may be justified.)  First, they haven’t  received a pay increase since 1999, meaning that, adjusted for inflation, legislators are being paid about 30% less than they were then.  Second, there is concern that low legislative salaries may be a barrier to attracting people to run for office or retaining them while they are there.  This may be a factor in the increasing age of the Legislature, which in the House has increased by five years since 2000.  Third, the demands on our officially part-time Legislators are increasing, as the job continues to edge closer to being a full-time year-round commitment with yearly special sessions and fall/winter committee meetings on top of normal constituent outreach and service.

While those are all valid, increases to legislator salaries shouldn’t come without some reform to make the process more rational. (And let’s not forget the dreadful optics of increasing their own pay while the minimum wage languishes and state compensation rates for nursing home and home health care workers have stagnated for years.)  Here’s three specific reforms we should get in return for opening the door to increasing legislative salaries:

  • End in-session per diem:  Legislators are eligible to take per diem seven days a week while the Legislature is in session (even if there is no official business on that day).  As a result, the per diem requested by most legislators during the session tends to be pretty tightly distributed.  There’s little value added to administering such a process — let’s just increase legislative salaries to reflect an average number of days the legislature is in session per year and leave per diem to only cover days outside of the normal legislative session.
  • Standardize per diem rates for the House and the Senate:  Currently, State Senators get a higher per diem rate than House members.   The purpose of a per diem — to compensate a legislator for expenses incurred — doesn’t change based on the body the Legislator serves in.
  • No pay for legislators or the Governor if a budget is not reached:  If a state budget is not agreed to by the start of the fiscal year, then legislators and the Governor don’t get paid for the time until a budget is reached.  No salary, no per diem for the special session.  And when the budget does finally get passed, they don’t get that money retroactively.

To take a more radical approach, Minnesota could adopt a compensation plan similar to Ohio’s, which ditches the per diem and allowance model altogether and has a set schedule of pay based on a legislator’s role (leadership positions get bumps in pay).  Either way, it’s not too much to expect some reform to come along with any increase in salary for legislators or the Governor.

(It should be noted that the House DFL majorities have come out firmly against pay increases, leaving them out of their version of the State Government bill, which will likely set up some interesting Conference Committee discussions to hash out a final version of the bill.)

%d bloggers like this: