Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, has covered state government and politics for more than 30 years.

House GOP gets serious about transportation

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: March 23, 2015 - 12:36 PM

State House Republicans showed Monday how transportation funding can be done the "no new taxes" way, by shifting existing tax receipts to highway and transit purposes as the heart of a $7 billion, 10-year plan.

That is, they showed some of how it could be done. The rest of the story is due Tuesday, when the House GOP majority presents the outline of their four-year general fund budget. That budget will be minus $228 million in fiscal 2015, $300 million in 2016-17 and $630 million in 2018-19 for transportation's sake -- sums that otherwise would be available for education, public safety, health care and the rest of state services.

DFLers were quick to label that approach to transportation funding "shifts and gimmicks." They're right about shifts. But the GOP proposal ranks as a serious plan -- much moreso than the meager $750 million version the new House majority touted in January. Though smaller than DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's 10-year bid of more than $11 billion, Monday's package makes negotiation toward compromise seem at least plausible. 

But it complicates the Legislature's main mission in the next two months -- setting a 2016-17 general fund budget. House Republicans have injected a tough new competitor for general fund dollars into a mix that already was churning with appeals for early childhood education, a public college tuition freeze, raises for long-term care workers, increased income support for the poor and more aid to local governments.

Avoiding a gas tax increase is more than "no new taxes" dogma for the GOP. It's also a reflection of sentiment in exurban and Greater Minnesota, as measured by the latest Star Tribune Minnesota Poll about Minnesotans' division over raising the highway-dedicated gas tax. The poll found 3 out of 5 Minnesotans outside Hennepin and Ramsey counties opposed to higher gas taxes, while 3 out of 5 in the two urban core counties are willing to see gas taxes rise. It's notable that only one House Republican represents any territory inside the Interstate 494-694 beltway.

It's also notable that even in auto-dependent Greater Minnesota, upwards of 40 percent of Minnesotans are willing -- even eager -- to pay more. Perhaps it's because Minnesotans know the gas tax can only be used to improve highways. No such restriction applies to the taxes House Republicans want to employ for road rebuilding. That's a serious weakness in a serious plan.


A fitter Wadena, post tornado

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: March 22, 2015 - 4:52 PM

WADENA, MN -- Minnesotans do disaster relief well, I've often claimed, because this state has had so much practice. Support for that claim is abundantly evident on the west side of Wadena, MN, which I saw Saturday for the first time since June 2010. 

There was no sign of the devastation I witnessed nearly five years ago after an EF4 tornado ripped through a placid residential section of the west-central Minnesota town of 4,200. None, that is, unless one counts the 29 vacant lots where houses once stood. 

Those lots are situated in what appears to be a desirable neighborhood, save for the lack of mature trees. Plenty of small ones have been planted to replace the ones uprooted by the June 17, 2010 late afternoon storm.

Anyone who cared to build a house there would be close to a handsome new high school building (complete with storm shelter), a refurbished Minnesota West Community College campus, a new county fair grandstand, and the city's pride and joy -- Maslowski Wellness and Research Center. That $12 million facility offers top-notch pools, racquetball, basketball and exercise equipment, available at family-friendly prices -- amenities few other small towns on the prairie offer.

Former Mayor Wayne Wolden, who led the city's tornado recovery, calls the wellness center the "crown jewel" of a recovery effort that sought not only to repair what was damaged, but also to rebuild to a higher standard. In that effort, he noted, Wadena found a strong partner in the state of Minnesota; $4.5 million in state bond proceeds went into the wellness center. Regional foundations and businesses also made major contributions. 

Wolden and others I met in Wadena are justifiably proud of all that's been rebuilt. But they are worried about those vacant lots -- so much so that the city, county and school district are offering 10 years of no property taxes to anyone who builds on them this year or next. So far, the tax abatement bait hasn't lured many takers. 

That makes Wadena a test case of the power of tax giveaways and civic amenities to attract private investment, by both homeowners and the employers. I'll plan a return visit in a year or two and report on the test's results. 

After 42 years, the ERA returns

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: March 13, 2015 - 2:16 PM

The reaction I've heard most often to the bid to revive the Equal Rights Amendment is, "What? Didn't we put that in the Constitution years ago?"

No. The effort to constitutionally guarantee equal rights under the law for women as well as men has been a 92-year exercise in futility for the nation's feminists. The Minnesota Legislature ratified a proposed federal amendment in 1973, only to see that push fall three states short of the 38 required for the amendment's addition to the U.S. Constitution by the deadline set by Congress, June 30, 1982. Some historians mark that failure as the crest of the 20th century American women's movement.

A new wave appears to be rising, propelled by a new generation of women who seek the protection from workplace discrimination an ERA could provide. On March 5 the state Senate Judiciary Committee approved a resolution asking Congress to simply repeal the 1982 deadline. That would allow the 15 states that have yet to ratify the ERA to consider the question anew. Similar moves are afoot this year in legislatures around the country.

Significantly, the Senate panel's vote was unanimous. The willingness of Republicans to join DFLers in supporting the resolution raises hope that the partisan tinge the amendment acquired in the late 1970s may be fading.

As Republicans became allied with opponents of legalized abortion, they were susceptible to arguments that the ERA would keep abortion legal. It's now clear, 42 years after Roe v. Wade, that ample justification for legal abortion can be found in the U.S. Constitution without the ERA. 

But some abortion foes remain suspicious of the ERA, which may explain why the GOP-controlled Minnesota House has yet to schedule a hearing on the ERA resolution that's awaiting action on the Senate floor. Neither body has acted on measures for an ERA addition to the state Constitution.  It may take a push from House Republicans' constituents to show them that Minnesotans consider gender equality under the law important enough to be guaranteed in the state and national foundational charters.

Reviving fiscal memories

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: March 5, 2015 - 5:16 PM

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk was in mid-pitch for an increase in dedicated transportation funds at Thursday's Senate-plus-Dayton DFL press conference when, seemingly in passing, he made a noteworthy observation: Of today's 201 Minnesota legislators, only 39 were in office in 2002.

Why is that significant? Because 2002 was when the "good old days" in state government came to an abrupt end. From 1995 through 2001, Minnesota saw a steady stream of state budget surpluses. Legislators regularly voted for either temporary or permanent tax cuts. At the top of the "dot.com" bubble, in 1999-2000, Minnesota enacted state income tax cuts larger than any other in the country. Property tax cuts followed in 2001.

Only months later, the tide turned. Legislators in 2002 faced a deficit that swelled in 2003 and persisted in 2004 and 2005. It eased a bit in 2006-07, but came back bigger and meaner than ever between 2008 and 2012.

The 39 still-serving legislators who were in office in those years know firsthand how volatile the state's general fund can be. They're less likely to believe that the $1.9 billion surplus forecast for 2016-17 is "permanent" money. They're more likely to think about applying today's bonus dollars to long-term needs, like infrastructure and an educated workforce, rather than quick thrills like tax rebates.

They're likely to resist making future promises for, say, highway construction from the general fund. Bakk and seven other DFL senators said Thursday they will oppose an expected move by the GOP-controlled House in that direction. Probably not coincidentally, 29 of the 39 legislators who were serving in 2002 are DFLers. 

Re-value vocational education

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: February 11, 2015 - 12:58 PM

Even in pro-education, pro-work Minnesota, a cultural impediment stands in the way of efforts to enlarge the state's skilled workforce. It's the pervasive bias against vocational education.

So said Harvard education scholar Robert Schwartz, in the Twin Cities Wednesday to meet with educators and policymakers at the invitation of the Greater Twin Cities United Way and Education Evolving, St. Paul-based advocates for more effective public education.

Schwartz is among the education leaders who favor giving American late teens the option of a European-style blend of academic learning and on-the-job experience. Most U.S. high schools today focus almost exclusively on preparing students for admission to a four-year degree-granting college, he says, and that is leaving too many young people behind.

While projections show that more than 70 percent of Minnesota jobs will soon require a post-secondary degree, only about half of that number will require baccalaureate degrees. The vocational schooling offered at two-year colleges and via college-connected apprenticeships -- the European option -- will satisfy the preparation requirement of the rest, analysts say.

Schwartz encouraged Minnesotans to find ways to offer more vocational options to 11th and 12th graders. But he warned that "there are cultural issues that must be penetrated." Americans tend to define "college" as a four-year program and consider two-year or vocational training as second-rate and less desirable, he said. Attempts to present vocational options to high school students sometimes encounters parental or community resistance, he said.

That's a bias that needs rethinking. In Minnesota, a shortage of skilled workers is already impeding business growth in some places and industries. Schwartz encouraged state political leaders to use their bully pulpits to help educate Americans about what the jobs of the future will require of their children. I'd say that's an assignment that can be widely shared.

Conflicts still in store for Tomassoni

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: February 4, 2015 - 9:00 AM

Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm may feel vindicated by the draft opinion on his new non-legislative job that was circulated last week, in advance of Friday's special meeting of the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. Its conclusion: simply taking a job as executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools does not constitute a conflict of interest for the 20-year legislator.

But Tomassoni would be well advised to study the remainder of the draft opinion. It says that the law requires a public official to "evaluate the decisions they are required to make and the actions they are required to take as a part of their official duties" to determine whether he or his enterprise stand to benefit disproportionately from those actions, compared with similar enterprises.

If the answer is yes, the public official is obliged to publicly announce that he has a conflict of interest and to decline to participate in the decision -- that is, to recuse himself.

Tomassoni said Wednesday that he expects to recuse himself only when the Range Association itself stands to directly benefit from legislation, not when a bill would aid the schools and city governments that comprise the association.

But that narrow interpretation of the law's conflict-of-interest requirements is bound to be challenged by watchful GOP senators. They can argue that as executive director of an association whose primary purpose is lobbying the Legislature, Tomassoni will have a personal stake in how well members of that association fare at the Capitol -- even if he does no lobbying himself. They'll argue that he should step aside whenever special provisions for Range cities and schools appear in bills.

If he does, he'll be stepping aside often. Bonding bills, the tax bill, and education funding bills often contain Iron Range-specific provisions. So do bills that traverse through the environment and economic development finance committee that Tomassoni chairs. He'll be under frequent pressure to reliquish his gavel or his conference committee seat. His critics can be expected to take their case to the voters in 2016. Tomassoni should consider whether he wants to face that recurring challenge to his role -- and whether he can serve his constituents well as he does.

Tomassoni's dilemma is akin to others that arise in Minnesota's "citizen Legislature," whose members are paid the princely sum of $31,140 per year plus expenses. Most of the 201 legislators have non-legislative careers or sources of income. Often, conflicts between public and private roles are tolerated with a shrug and a quip that "they've got to make a living somehow."

But when a legislator takes charge of an organization whose purpose is to influence the Legislature -- even if he vows not to do the influencing himself -- eyebrows are raised. And rightly so.


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