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Progressive Politics in Minnesota, the Nation, and the World

2008: Flawed Democrats Must Win

Category: Presidential Politics
Posted: 08/24/07 19:13

by Dave Mindeman

Progressives have hard choices to make....and those choices are going to get tougher in 2008. It is frustrating to watch the gains that were made in the 2006 election get watered down in the inevitable political posturing of the election process.

The Red State/Blue State games... the 51/49 election winners.... the swing districts.... the special interests; it is all a muddled mess of subtle, nuanced statements to say as little as possible.

The Iraq War is unpopular, yet so many politicians are afraid to take a principled stand. We have the Blue Dog Democrats uncomfortably waffling. We have Presidential candidates parsing and dissecting their statements into fine dust.

We have two courses of action left:

1. We pressure those in power to do the right thing.
2. We push for full control in 2008.

Course #1 is not working. It has been a maddening, circular process, and the goals have been frustratingly elusive as narrow majorities in Congress sputter and stall their way forward

Disappointing examples:

Tim Walz: The Democratic darling of the 2006 election has succumbed to the jitters of a targeted Congressman. He has opted to play the delicate game of "both sides of the fence".

Amy Klobuchar: Although in less danger than Walz because she is early in her first term, she never-the-less has been reluctant to get tagged as siding with the progressive left, and draws a careful line that allows her to keep claiming a centrist label.

Hillary Clinton: Worried about her "security" credentials, she has placed a film over her liberal roots and muddied her stance on the war. She voted to authorize the start of the war, and then played a game of chicken about voting for renewed funding; voting at the last minute when the decision was already made.

Barak Obama: Touting his credentials about being against the war from the start has spiraled down into the same muddy waters that have engulfed Hillary Clinton. Instead of moving boldly forward with a clear voice for ending the war, he, too, has played the games of "keeping your options open".

Embracing Another Candidate: Of all the other candidates, Dennis Kucinich voices the progressive message clearly and with passion; yet his candidacy gets no traction. The Democratic electorate cannot seem to embrace him as the party standard bearer, even though his message is clear. Progressive Democrats are not rallying around that "message" either, and are concerned about factors of pragmatism -- deep candidate loyalties are obviously in play.

So, Course #1, has problems with those elected... it also has problems with a stalled agenda. The workings of government are complicated and the divisions of the government branches work against any bold policy changes.

The House is hampered by a Democratic caucus which is unified on domestic policy, but fragmented on the War. The Senate is tethered to the cloture rule which gives true power to a 60 vote super majority coalition. Right now, the Democrats have to consider themselves fortunate to chair committees..... as their current majority depends on the whims of Joe Lieberman.

So... we are forced to work for Course #2. That involves some compromises which I do not like... not at all.

It probably means that complete withdrawal from Iraq is all but impossible, for now. If a timid Congress cannot realize that goal, then maybe we have to work on partial withdrawals. Focus on the Joint Chiefs plan to cut forces in half....or John Warner's call for a 5,000 reduction by Christmas. At least some of our soldiers will be out of harms way. Work hard for more, but focus on the achievable.

It also means we must hold on to the current Democratic majority in the House, increase the Senate majority, and most critically, the Democrats MUST take the White House.

Maybe it will mean some compromises that progressives will not like...or be unable to do. Maybe we will have to cringe at some of the policy statements that come from these candidates. Maybe they will still ultimately fail us.

But, the status quo is becoming intolerable. Our current government is plagued with inertia..... unable or unwilling to move.

Only control of all the Houses (Congress and the White one) will change a policy that is in danger of becoming entrenched. If we fail in 2008, the spectre of war will follow us for another decade and beyond.

So, the answer to all of it is this: we must not fail. We swallow hard, accept the acceptable, and we win. It is as simple as that.

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Lies, Damn Lies, Then There's the Minnesota Taxpayers League

Category: I-35 Bridge
Posted: 08/24/07 13:49, Edited: 08/24/07 14:08

by Dave Mindeman

The latest gimmick at the Taxpayer's League is a "Test of your Minnesota Transportation IQ". Its a cutesy little thing... the questions are relevant -- the answers? Well, they're good for sound bites.... but with questionable relevancy. Let's navigate this with a little commentary of our own:

Question 1: What do you currently pay per gallon in gas taxes?

TLM Answer: You actually pay two gas taxes: 20 cents per gallon to the State and 18.4 cents per gallon to the Federal government. The State tax is dedicated (mostly) to pay for roads and bridges, while the Federal gas tax is often used for pork barrel spending. Federal gas taxes are rarely used for any kind of maintenance

RESPONSE: Numbers are accurate. The commentary is a bit over the top. The State gas tax has to go to roads and bridges; anything siphoned off is done with budget tricks with which the Pawlenty administration has a magical way. The fact is that the State portion has not been raised since 1988 and 28 states have higher state portions. As to the pork barrel spending involving Federal money... this is indeed true. But remember, earmarks increased most heavily during the GOP Congressional majority; and the "bridge to nowhere" came from a GOP Senator. It is also true that Federal gas tax money cannot be used for maintenance; this is a state responsibility. All the more reason for a special session to address our maintenance issues.

Question 2: What percentage of trips in the Twin Cities are made by automobiles vs. transit and other means of transportation?

TLM Answer: According to the Met Council most people use automobiles to take up to 10 trips a day. Transit accounts for about 2.3% of trips; about half as many people as walking. Bicycles account for 1.5% of daily trips.

RESPONSE: The answer may be factually correct; but is that what we really prefer as our future? Transit accounts for a low percentage because it is still being implemented. We have only 12 miles of light rail track running and BRT has a long ways to go. If people want to walk or bicycle, shouldn't that be encouraged? There is no question that cars are the main mode of transportation right now; but the ability to keep and maintain the roads needed to handle the volume has been put into question.

Question 3: How much do Minnesotans pay each year to subsidize public transit?

TLM Answer: About 2/3 of the transit budget comes from the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax and State general fund revenues. For every $1 collected in fares, taxpayers kick in $2 in subsidies. The total amount is escalating rapidly, nearing $200 million a year in subsidies to cover operating costs.

RESPONSE: ALL transportation (transit, roads, bridges, etc) is subsidized. Light rail has actually cost less than originally projected because ridership has exceeded projections by 65%! Would you rather subsidize clean, efficient, and safe light rail line or more gas guzzling cars? But this notion that transit alternatives are somehow a constant "boondoggle" and "a money drain" is just bunk. Here is a quote from today's Pioneer Press editorial page:

"For the third consecutive month, we find our fair state and its political oddities showcased in the most powerful newspaper opinion page in the country - the Wall Street Journal. And for the third straight time, they got it wrong. Not the opinion part. But some facts. A case can certainly be made, as the Journal did on Saturday, that the federal and state governments should look hard at how they are spending transportation dollars before raising more funds via a gas tax hike.
The Journal, citing the the I-35W bridge collapse and subsequent calls for gas tax hikes, said: "Minnesota spends $1.6 billion a year on transportation ... but nearly $1 billion of that has been diverted from road and bridge repair to the state's light rail network that has a negligible impact on traffic congestion.''
Steven Dornfeld, a veteran of this newspaper who is now director of public affairs for the Metropolitan Council, said combined federal and state spending on transportation is actually closer to $3.5 billion per year in Minnesota. Of that amount, he said, about 14.5 percent goes for transit, meaning buses primarily and the one light-rail train line now operating in Minneapolis.
It costs a lot to build the rail lines, to be sure, and Minnesota conservatives have questioned those expenditures. As they should. But much of the construction money comes from the federal government, and the state's share comes from a separate capital-projects bill that uses bonding - borrowed money - to build state facilities. So even the high capital costs do not directly affect annual state expenditures on road and bridge repair."

Question 4: What percentage of the State sales tax on motor vehicles is dedicated to roads vs transit?

TLM Answer: Bases on the Minnesota Constitutional amendment passed in 2006, not more than 60% will be dedicated to roads, and no less than 40% will be dedicated to transit.

RESPONSE: Absolutely correct. This is law voted on by the public. Full implementation of the law will take a few budget cycles.

Question 5: How much has road construction increased in the last 10 years?

TLM Answer: Over the last 10 years, state spending on road construction has increased from $368 million to $760 million per year-- an increase of more than 100%. There are additional monies spent on projects in partnership with the Federal government such as light rail.

RESPONSE: Assuming the figures they use are strictly road construction figures, that amounts to an annual budgetary increase of about 7% per year. Take out 3% for inflation and you have about 4% growth in real dollars. The number of road miles increase by about 2% per year. And we are maintaining infrastructure that is 30 to 40 years old. Is that an outrageous number? Budget numbers are always a mystery, especially with the money shifting we have been doing in the current administration. But the numbers budgeted for, have to be, first and foremost, based on what we need. Judging by Pawlenty's request for $1.7 billion in borrowing and MNDOT's failure to have money for the Crosstown Project.... it would seem budget and needs in this area are clearly not in sync.

Question 6: How much money has been diverted from transportation funding to spend on bike and walking trails?

TLM Answer: Out of the Federal Transportation bill, about $180 million was spent in Minnesota on bike trails, transit, and other non-road projects while the state has appropriated about $25 million in recent years.

RESPONSE: The question talks about biking and walking trails, yet the answer lumps in "non-road projects". But aside from that, the Taxpayer's League apparently believes that transportation budgets mean "roads only". The truth is, we cannot asphalt our way into a more prosperous future. Here is a quote from the MNDOT site about transit: "The financial benefits of public transit to individuals are being underscored by the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), which recently began a program in some cities to offer mortgages up to 8 percent larger than under a traditional loan to buyers who live near a bus or train line. The program is based on studies showing that people who commute on public transportation can save $200 to $250 per month, compared with the cost of owning, maintaining and insuring an automobile." Investment in transit is an investment in quality of life.

Question 7: According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT), has traffic congestion in the Twin Cities increased or decreased in recent years?

TLM Answer: According to MNDOT, Twin Cities area congestion has decreased for the 3rd year in a row. In fact, one of the largest sources of congestion is road construction itself, because road construction spending is at record levels.

RESPONSE: Then how do we explain this June, 2007 article that says Minnesota's congestion is the 49th worst in the nation ....behind only California? How bad was it 3 years ago?

Question 8: How much will it cost to subsidize the operation of the Hiawatha light rail line?

TLM Answer: The Hiawatha light rail line is expected to cost taxpayers about $140 million in subsidies. Property taxes will pay the rest of the subsidy.

RESPONSE: How much money would we have saved in traffic congestion and business time losses if the Central Corridor was in place when the I-35 bridge went down? How valuable is having transit alternatives when traffic bottlenecks get out of control? Sure, transit needs subsidies... but as MN2020 points out: " Local property taxes contribute more to roads and bridges in Minnesota -- an estimated $1.6 billion in 2006 -- than the "user fees" of state gas and registration taxes. Drivers also avoid paying for economic "externalities" such as the costs of pollution and military efforts to secure foreign petroleum supplies. Metro Transit riders, meanwhile, pay one-third of operating costs, among the highest rates of fare box recovery in the United States."
Question 9: Of the $250 million in federal "earmarks" Congressman Oberstar inserted in the 2005 Transportation bill, how much went to road projects vs. other spending?

TLM Answer: Over 40% of the money earmarked by Congressman Oberstar for Minnesota in the 2005 Transportation bill went to bike trails, transit, and other non-road related spending. There was even a $25 million appropriation for a "non-motorized" transportation pilot program in the Twin Cities -- using YOUR gas tax dollars.

RESPONSE: If the Taxpayer League wants the gas tax to only be used for roads, then they have decided that dependence on foreign oil is our fate forever; that pollution from transportation will continue to contribute to green house gases indefinitely, that wasted time in traffic and stalled movement of goods will always be a drag on our economy. Congressman Oberstar has the foresight to look beyond a "roads only" solution. His bike trails have rated Minnesota as the safest place in the US for bike riding....a "caloric burning", people powered method of transportation. His exhortation that Minnesota look to alternative transit means we can assume a valuable partnership with the Federal government in getting a pollution free, efficient system of light rail through out the Metro. It all depends on your "priorities".... the Taxpayer's League wants to focus on the antiquated ways, Oberstar wants to look to the future.

Question 10: How much would the 2007 Minnesota Transportation bill vetoed by Governor Pawlenty have increased taxes?

TLM Answer: During the 2007 Legislative Session, a transportation bill was passed that would have increased taxes and fees by up to $5 billion; including a 7.5 cent gax tax increase, a new Metro-wide sales tax, increase in tab fees, and a host of locally imposed taxes that could pass without voter approval. The tax increase could have cost a Minnesota family of 4 about $500 a year.

RESPONSE: The Taxpayer League always likes to use aggregate numbers to make everyone cringe and wince. The truth is that the $5 billion dollar figure is over a 10 year period. Governor Pawlenty, himself, indicated there is a $1.7 billion per year shortfall in transportation needs.... a figure he wanted to borrow in his own budget. For all the hyperbole, the tax bill that was vetoed would not have even met current needs if it had been put into law. The Taxpayer League can rant about taxes all they want, but at some point you have to meet the needs of this state. MNDOT quotes a Michigan study that says $1 in road maintenance saves $8 in future costs. We have to think about investments that can make a real difference..... transportation investments are tangible. Nobody wants taxes, but they are still necessary.... and it is up to political leadership to help the public understand when that need becomes critical. That time is now.
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Viet Nam Comparisons? How Would They Know?

Category: Iraq War
Posted: 08/23/07 20:16

by Tom Hammond

President Bush has expressed his concern that unless we continue his policies, Iraq may turn out like Viet Nam. Well, this isn?t the time for the president to worry about the Viet Nam war. The time for concern was when it was happening, when he could have done something about it.

The president favored the war in Viet Nam but chose not to serve. He joined his right-wing conservative friends in waving the flag and shouting patriotic slogans, but they sat by passively and watched as 58,000 young Americans gave their lives. They never lifted a finger to help them.

The Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C. honors those dead heroes by reverently listing their names on a wall. George W. Bush will never be honorable enough to have his name inscribed. Neither will Cheney, Limbaugh, Gingrich, DeLay, Coulter, Rove, and others.

The Wall is for American heroes, not for American hypocrites.
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