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

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.

Transportation fix: It's all in the timing

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: January 26, 2015 - 3:54 PM

My guess is that state Rep. Tim Kelly played a little basketball in his day, and knows something about prolonged dribbling to delay action. That's the image that came to my mind Monday as I heard Kelly, the state House transportation chair, patter about the time not being quite right this year to enact Gov. Mark Dayton's proposed $9 billion, 10-year state highway and transit funding surge.

Kelly didn't blast Dayton's plan. He dribbled. He voiced uncertainty about Dayton's numbers. He fretted that the governor was introducing new complexity with a proposed gross receipts tax on wholesale motor fuels.  He noted that achieving bipartisan deals requires much negotiation. He said that he and the new House GOP majority would need "time to do this responsibly" -- more time than will be available during the current legislative session, which must end May 18.

And when asked why he did not accept the work of a bipartisan (though Dayton-appointed) panel of experts that said in 2012 that Minnesota need $21 billion more over 20 years just to retain the transportation system's current capacity, Kelly shot back: If that assessment is credible, why didn't DFLers act on it in 2013-14, when they controlled both chambers of the Legislature?

That DFL decision a year ago -- made by an election-wary governor and House DFL leaders -- is one they may rue today. House DFLers lost their majority despite their transporation stall. Their defeats in Greater Minnesota came in part because voters in that part of the state felt neglected by state government. Those voters could cite as evidence the deteriorating condition of many outstate highways.

Timing is always tricky when Minnesota needs a tax increase. It's easy for politicians to say a tax increase is unwise when the economy slumps, unjustified when the economy is strong, and imprudent close to an election. The right time to say yes can be brief and fleeting.

But Kelly's response Monday to Dayton's transportation proposal may suggest a GOP judgment that this is not the time to say "no way" to higher taxes for transportation, either. Too many Minnesotans can see for themselves that this state has invested too little in roads and transit. Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle says that the cost consumers bear for road-related damage to their vehicles alone comes to $1.2 billion per year, or $396 per licensed vehicle.

Instead, Kelly said, "I look forward to crafting a long-term solution over the next two years....Why wouldn't we take more time?" Bounce, bounce, bounce.


Crunch time for Capitol decisions

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: January 14, 2015 - 4:04 PM

It was never going to be easy -- even when they were all DFLers -- for the governor, House and Senate leaders, and the attorney general to decide how to divide space in the renovated Capitol.

But the inability of the State Capitol Preservation Commission to meet Wednesday's contractor-imposed deadline for a space allocation plan is worrisome. The commission, chaired by Gov. Mark Dayton, now has until Jan. 22 to make up its mind about how to configure the interior of the 110-year old Cass Gilbert masterpiece, now undergoing a four-year, $272 million renewal.

If the commission blows that deadline too, the project faces cost overruns to the unacceptable tune of $680,000 per month -- or more, if key workers are lured away to other projects, the commission was told.

The precise nature of the space dispute that held up action Wednesday wasn't disclosed. But already last session, whispers had it that some senior state senators were loath to surrender Capitol space that has been allocated to the Senate majority since the mid-1970s.A new office building for senators, scheduled for 2016 completion, will accommodate all 67 of them. But three Senate committee hearing rooms will remain in the Capitol. Key committee chairs and their staffs want their offices close by.

That would be convenient -- for them. It wouldn't be for Capitol visitors seeking to find their senators. It wouldn't be for the governor or the attorney general if it limits their ability to consolidate their operations in one location.

And it would be a shame if the Senate's desires pinched planned improvements in accommodations for the public. The Capitol should be both a working center of government and a place of hospitality, education and assembly for visitors of all kinds. Improving the visiting public's experience has been one of the renovation's key promises.

Dayton spoke well Wednesday when he reminded the commission -- which includes representatives of all four legislative caucuses -- that the Capitol belongs to the people. Their interests should be paramount in the space allocation decisions. And their interests also require keeping the Capitol project on time and on budget, by meeting key deadlines.

A Minnesota push for interfaith peace

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: December 5, 2014 - 1:27 PM

In the season when Christians sing of their hope for peace on earth, the Minnesota Council of Churches is stepping up its effort to promote interfaith peace and friendship in this state.

On Dec. 11, leaders of the council's 24 member churches -- mostly mainline Protestant denominations -- will meet with their counterpart "positional" leaders of at least eight non-Christian faith communities in Minnesota. They will host Shaykh Hafiz Muhammad Naqib Ur Rehman (Pir Saab) of Pakistan, a leading Sufi Muslim exponent of interfaith harmony and nonviolence who is making several stops in the Twin Cities next week.

The goal of the meeting is simple, yet profound. It's to deepen personal relationships between local leaders of diverse faiths, explained the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, Minnesota Council of Churches executive director. No joint proclamations are planned; no new organizational structure is being proposed -- at least, not initially.

Rather, Chemberlin said, the aim is the creation of informal but genuine bonds of friendship, of the sort that can lead to quick joint action and mutual support if and when interfaith harmony is threatened in Minnesota. "The relationships are central," she said. 

In some Minnesota locales and among lay people as well as clergy, interfaith relationships are already strong, she said. But there's added value when the people who have been chosen to speak for their faith communities know each other and can count on each other's public witness and personal support.

While no subsequent interfaith leadership meetings are yet planned, Chemberlin and the Council of Churches seem eager for more. Events like the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., which left six worshippers dead, inspire in them a sense of urgency. Their effort at local friendship-building should inspire in others a sense of hope. 



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