Jonathan Blake

Jonathan Blake is vice president of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. In this role, he serves as a policy analyst, research director, and legislative liaison. Prior to joining the Freedom Foundation in 2008, Blake was a public policy and communications consultant for numerous public and private sector clients, primarily focusing on transportation policy, public finance, and intergovernmental coordination. He lives in Woodbury with his family.

Posts about Politics

Six-figure Salaries Abound at State Teachers’ Union

Posted by: Jonathan Blake Updated: September 6, 2012 - 2:40 PM

It may be a challenging time to be a teacher, but it's apparently a great time to work for the Minnesota teachers' union. According to a report filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, 49 Education Minnesota staffers and three elected officers were paid more than $100,000 in fiscal year 2011.

In fact, 30 of those staff members (and all three officers) have higher salaries than the state Education Commissioner. The compensation details were included in the union's Labor Organization Annual Report ("Form LM-2"), a legally required filing for any union with more than $250,000 in annual receipts.

Among those collecting $100,000+ are the union's chief lobbyist, public affairs and communications personnel, and more than 20 field staff. At the top of the pay scale is Education Minnesota president Tom Dooher, collecting a salary of $168,530 (his total pay, including other disbursements, is $190,942).

Large pay differentials between union officials and those they represent are nothing new. The national teachers' unions have come under fire recently for using compulsory union dues to give union leaders extravagant compensation packages.

Meanwhile, few if any of the union's rank-and-file members will ever see comparable pay. According to the National Education Association, of which Education Minnesota is an affiliate, Minnesota's public school teachers are paid an average salary of $53,680. And of course, a chunk of each teacher's salary goes straight to Education Minnesota, which helps the union pay for... well, we already covered that.

Effort to unionize childcare providers flies under the radar

Posted by: Jonathan Blake Updated: September 7, 2011 - 5:16 PM
Minnesota currently has approximately 11,000 licensed family child care providers operating in the state, the vast majority of which are operating as home-based small businesses. But if two of the largest labor unions have their way, these independent operators may soon join the ranks of organized labor. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are working to collect signatures from childcare providers in different parts of the state, in a large-scale (but under-the-radar) effort to unionize the sector. The unions have patterned the drive after similar campaigns in other states that targeted providers with clients that receive state childcare subsidies.
The motivation is obvious. At a time when union workers have become almost synonymous with public workers, this pool of 11,000 daycare providers are seen by organized labor as an opportunity to expand their sphere of influence outside the ranks of traditional government work.
The effort is remarkable for a few reasons, not the least of which is the relative secrecy with which it’s happening. Unions are enlisting support among home-based day care providers by going, as you might expect, to their homes. This door-to-door drive targeting of thousands of independent operators helps explain the lack of public attention. It’s also possible that many providers have unwittingly signed on for something they do not support. The Rochester provider who is leading opposition to the union recently said: “Just about everybody we have spoken to has said they were not told by signing that card they were supporting a union. The main theme seems to be people are being told they can sign up for more information or be put on a mailing list.” The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota has spoken to several individuals who have had similar experiences with the unions. 
In addition to unions collecting signatures from a majority of the childcare providers, Governor Dayton would also need to sign an executive order to validate the unionization drive. To date, the governor’s office has declined to indicate whether Governor Dayton would sign that executive order, saying only that he is in the “information gathering” stage. It’s worth noting that both AFSCME and SEIU were major contributors to Dayton last year.
Why should it matter to Minnesotans? Everything from the cost of daycare to government’s role in a child’s upbringing could be affected. While the unions insist that they would simply give providers an opportunity to potentially gain a public pension or higher subsidy rates for children receiving publicly subsidized daycare, opposition to the unions is growing. Opponents object to what they consider a misleading campaign by the unions, a lack of perceived benefits from the union, and as one provider said: “I’m a self-employed business owner, not an employee of the government.”
The unions themselves have given providers plenty of reason for concern. Indeed, as one AFSCME representative recently said, “The time to talk about concrete benefits is after a union has been recognized and a contract has been negotiated.” To modify an old axiom from former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, you have to vote for the union to see what’s in it for you.
That time may come sooner than people realize. Some organizers claim they already have the required signatures from a majority of the state’s licensed childcare providers, and providers in more than a dozen states have been unionized since AFSCME and SEIU began their door-to-door campaign about six years ago. So while the effort has largely flown under the radar of local media and even home daycare providers, the unions efforts should be taken seriously.
Unionization would represent a radical shift not only for home childcare providers, but also the parents and children that depend upon them. Governor Dayton should address this issue and explain his intentions. The thousands of committed providers who care for Minnesota children each day have enough things to worry about. They deserve to know whether government intrusion and compulsory union dues have been added to that list.

State budget to blame for school referendums?

Posted by: Jonathan Blake Updated: September 2, 2011 - 2:55 PM

If Minnesotans hoped the contentious state budget debate ended in July when the legislature and governor negotiated a final budget deal, they will be disappointed. While the government shutdown is a thing of the past, the compromise that ended it has led to a new round of finger-pointing by state leaders, as well as cities, schools, and others affected by the budget. On the issue of K-12 funding, the unusually high number of referendums this November is adding more fuel to the broader budget debate.

One superintendent recently wrote that 130+ districts are seeking operating levies this year “due to the lack of adequate funding and due to the state borrowing 40 percent of state aid as a method to balance their budget.” According to the Brainerd Dispatch, the MN Department of Education agrees that “levy requests could also be tied to state leaders’ decision earlier this summer to help fill a $5 billion budget hole by delaying payment of about $2 billion in education money.” And MinnPost recently wrote: “Left to their own devices by the Legislature, several school districts are asking local taxpayers to pay more”.

The referendum blame game is convenient for local education officials, but the arguments behind it are unfortunately more spin than substance.

If districts are truly seeking tax increases at least in part because of the new state budget, then those districts also possess the extraordinary power to see into the future, because the majority of them were planning their referendums long before the current state budget was finalized, and in many cases had even decided on the exact request.

Regardless of how one feels about the broader budget compromise, it’s difficult to claim that K-12 was given short shrift. K-12 Education spending makes up 40 percent the budget, by far the largest piece of the $34.3 billion general fund. Of course, the state is once again relying on a “funding shift” (or delay) to balance the budget, which is both short-sighted and bad public policy. However, the state also boosted basic general education revenue of $50/pupil for the 2011-2012 school year and an additional $50 per pupil next year, more than enough to cover borrowing costs for districts with insufficient reserve funds.

In a politically turbulent year in which the state faced an historic deficit, K-12 funding wasn’t spared, it was boosted.

Even the broader claim that the state has underfunded K-12 in recent years is dubious. According to the most recent Census data, per pupil funding in Minnesota elementary and secondary schools is 5.7 percent above the national average ($11,098 versus $10,499). And while federal aid and local sources make a sizable contribution to our K-12 system, the state provides approximately 66 percent of all K-12 funding in Minnesota. Only four states pay for a larger share of their K-12 system.

Meanwhile, the state has largely stagnant math and science scores, a massive and growing achievement gap, an outmoded teacher tenure system that ties the hands of local school officials, and too many politicians who zealously protect an unacceptable status quo. So it’s true, Minnesota’s public education system has plenty of problems, but a lack of state funding isn’t one of them. 

Firefighter layoffs expose city's budget flaws

Posted by: Jonathan Blake Updated: August 10, 2011 - 5:53 PM
The City of Minneapolis announced this week that 10 firefighters will be laid off to help close a $23 million hole in the 2011 budget. The move will leave the city with just over 400 firefighters, down from a high of 463 in 2003. So why is the city laying off firefighters more than halfway through the year? Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office blames unanticipated Local Government Aid (LGA) cuts contained in the recently adopted state budget. There are two problems with this explanation: the words “unanticipated” and “cuts”. 
Let’s take “cuts” first: The City of Minneapolis received $64 million in LGA from the state last year. This year, that number was “cut”... to $64 million. However, this is significantly less than the city wanted, less than the state’s LGA formula suggested. 
Which brings us to the city’s claim that LGA cuts were “unanticipated”: Minneapolis developed its 2011 budget under the assumption that they would receive 100% of their certified LGA, which is determined by a formula. In other words, following a decade in which the state routinely reduced LGA to help balance the budget, following the election of a conservative legislature that made no secret of its desire to rein in LGA, and following (if not in the midst of) the greatest economic crisis of our lifetime, the City of Minneapolis assumed that 100% of local government aid would survive unscathed.
What’s the problem with this kind of budgeting? Besides being recklessly unrealistic, it also leaves the city in the position of making disproportionate cuts halfway through the year. That’s because city budgets kick in January 1, but the state’s biennial budget (in a typical budgeting year) takes effect July 1.
The mayor himself made this point on his blog earlier this year, saying this about a proposed $40 million LGA reduction: “because the cut would come halfway through our budget year, we’d have to cut $80 million to make up for it.”
But instead of taking responsibility for short-sighted budgeting, city leaders are instead placing the blame for their own decisions squarely on the state. A spokesman for Mayor R.T. Rybak said, “when the state passes its fiscal problems and unwillingness or inability to balance its budget sustainably, we have to take action. We can’t pass that onto anyone else.” But of course, the city is passing it along to someone else: firefighters.
All of this might be understandable if the city had exhausted all other options first, and if they had budgeted responsibly in recent years. They’ve done neither. For example:
  • Last year, Minneapolis spent more than $1 million on wi-fi services it never used
  • The city paid more than $600,000 for taxpayer-funded lobbyists in St. Paul and Washington, DC
  • And the city’s pension obligations continue to skyrocket, increasing by $17.4 million this year alone
Because of this history, not everyone’s buying the city’s “blame the state” excuse. The president of the firefighter’s union recently questioned the mayor’s priorities, saying “when there’s some fluff program, he finds money for it.”
For what it’s worth, Mayor Rybak says he plans to introduce a new “priority-based budgeting approach”. Unfortunately, the question isn’t whether the City of Minneapolis can prioritize services, it’s whether they prioritize the right ones.


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