If you picked up a Star Tribune last weekend, you might have read two seemingly unrelated stories. On Saturday, news of a $1.9 billion surplus, with the state budget growing to $42.5 billion for the next two years (“Surging surplus raises the stakes, Feb. 28). On Sunday, a solid piece of investigative journalism about political cronyism on the Iron Range (“Range agency deep into DFL politics, pockets,” March 1).
What if these two stories were related? Researchers at Indiana University published a study last year that explored the impact of public officials’ corruption on the size and allocation of state expenditures. Their findings? Corruption is expensive! In the 10 most corrupt states, the cost of corruption was calculated to increase spending by 5.2 percent.
Thankfully for Minnesota’s ranking, the study looked at corruption and state spending from 1997-2008, missing the explosion of growth in state spending under DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the recent ethical problems of the DFL Party. These trends in Minnesota should alarm taxpayers and policymakers alike.
The trend in state government spending is unmistakable. When Dayton took over, the general fund budget was $34 billion. Last week’s forecast predicts it will grow to $42.5 billion. That represents 25 percent growth in just five years. Even the $5 billion deficit in 2011 didn’t slow down the growth in state spending — it went up almost $1 billion that year. And the $2.1 billion tax increase passed by Democrats and signed by Dayton in 2013 put spending growth on steroids.
Ethical problems within the DFL Party have grown from one or two isolated events into a full-blown culture of self-interest. Every week there is a new story showing DFL politicians’ self-interest triumphing over the concerns of the people they represent:
• The DFL Senate campaign committee was fined $100,000 last year for cheating with 13 DFL Senate candidates during the 2012 election.
• The DFL Legislature, with Dayton’s signature, spent $90 million on an unnecessary new office building, bypassing the normal process and allowing no public hearings.
• DFL Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion were accused of bullying the Minneapolis school board into funding a program run by their friends and associates. Hayden is also the subject of an ongoing ethics complaint that he received free trips and other inappropriate perks while serving as a board member for Community Action of Minneapolis, a government-funded nonprofit.
• DFL Sen. David Tomassoni attempted to take a job as a lobbyist for the Iron Range city association, even though he is a sitting senator representing part of the Iron Range.
• The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) was exposed for underwriting a business whose main client was Dollars for Democrats, an organization set up to help Democratic politicians win elections.
• Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman refused to investigate the misuse of public funds at Community Action of Minneapolis because of “political” concerns surrounding the executive director of the organization and his financial support for Dayton. By the way, Rothman used to be the treasurer of the DFL Party.
• Dayton recently awarded his commissioners salary increases as large as $30,000 each. He gave the chair of the Met Council an $86,000 increase — and the beneficiary just happens to be married to the governor’s chief of staff. One of Dayton’s deputy chiefs is married to a top official at Education Minnesota, the teachers union. Another Dayton staffer is married to the chair of the DFL Party.
It doesn’t take a university study to see the correlation between spending and corruption. More money for public projects such as the new Senate office building, more money flowing to nonprofits like Community Action of Minneapolis and higher salaries for government executives become breeding grounds for cronyism and graft.
Increases in spending result in a corresponding decrease in oversight. If we are flush with cash, why sweat the small stuff? We can afford to be wasteful. And if you are a member of the DFL majority or the governor, why not direct some of the largesse to your friends? After all, they need jobs, too.
It’s clear the DFL has reached the point where it views state government and taxpayer money as its private playground to do with as it sees fit. DFLers now believe their political self-interest is the same as the public interest. Cronyism and graft in the DFL is rising on a parallel track with the exorbitant growth in state government budgets. Minnesotans should demand an end to both.
David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, is minority leader in the Minnesota Senate.