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The Case Against Majority Leader Tom Bakk

Category: DFL2012
Posted: 05/23/13 18:49

by Dave Mindeman

(Note: The following is my own opinion based on observations regarding this legislative session.)

If you want a good read regarding the last minute negotiations between the House and Senate in the final day, then check out Brianna Biersbach's article in Politics in Minnesota (may be firewalled).

This article talks about the conflicts that occurred, but quite frankly, the whole problem centers around 1 person - Majority Leader Tom Bakk. This session should have been a chance for a lot of DFL priorities to get a full hearing....and in the end, most of them did. But the petty shenanigans that seem to abound within the Majority Leader's office nearly derailed a good session.

Let's look at the evidence.

1) Legislator Pay - I agree that the legislators are underpaid, but to focus on the issue like Bakk did, was totally unecessary. The House has to go before the voters again in 2014 and a legislative pay issue was the wrong item to bring forward. In the end, the issue was finalized as a Constitutional amendment vote for 2016. As far as I'm concerned, it was unecessary baggage.

2) Business to Business Taxes - Although I would support a broader sales tax expansion....Dayton decided to pull the plug on his plan early in the session. Bakk brought it partially back after the controversy had been allowed to die...and then chose some very controversial items to move ahead with. The tax chairs (House - Lencewski and Senate- Skoe) were in a long drawn out conflict about it. And an exasperated Lencewski couldn't seem to figure out which way the Senate conferees wanted to go....

The tax bill also proved a source of headaches in the 11th hour, particularly a provision that would apply the sales tax to farm machinery repairs, which would raise $28 million in the next biennium. The Senate came to Lenczewski to tell her the provision was a mistake, but she insisted that conference committee members were adamant about its inclusion. She was uninterested in reopening the tax bill to accommodate the Senate. ?The Senate insisted on it, and now they?re saying it was an error,? Lenczewski said with about five hours before adjournment on Monday. ?They?d like us to open the tax bill to fix their problems.?

To have that kind of confusion in the final hours was nearly a disaster. The whole thing was unecessary and, quite frankly, is not going to produce enough revenue to warrant its inclusion. It WAS a mistake, but now its there. Watch for a correction next year. Unfortunately, this foolishness will give the GOP a new talking point.

3) Bonding Bill - First the Republicans renegged on promises to support the Hausman bonding bill which put all bonding in jeopardy at the last minute. But Bakk insulted the House further by pushing a last minute Capitol Bonding fix without consulting them. That put the House in an impossible position and left Hausman holding the bag. Bakk forced the issue and left the House Dems with no ability to negotiate. Hausman did not even present the bill and left it to John Ward to shepard it through the House.

That left Capitol action at a standstill that stretched deep into the evening. Senators wandered around the floor in recess, while the House opted to simply stop moving bills without actually recessing. Shortly before 9 p.m., the House Republican caucus emerged on the House floor after disappearing to caucus on a bonding proposal. When they came back, a new $156 million general obligation bonding bill was immediately taken up on the floor. It included $109 million for Capitol repairs, $22 million for two new parking facilities at the Capitol complex, $19 million for the Minneapolis veterans? home and $20 million for flood mitigation. Hausman made it clear that she was upset by the final outcome: DFL Rep. John Ward presented the bonding package on the floor, while she was nowhere to be found. ?I know what I want,? Hausman said a day before adjournment. ?I want my old bill.?

The Capitol bonding was clearly needed but Bakk had no business strongarming this through without warning. That is going to damage the trust between the bodies and clearly they need to be showing a united front.

4) Previous Tax Bill Vote - You probably remember that the first vote on the Tax Bill failed a few weeks ago. Bakk had not solidified his votes and when it was defeated, he managed to put a couple of freshman legislators on the hot seat - changing their votes. It was an embarrassment for the Senate and gave fodder to the GOP which they brought up at every opportunity.

5) Minimum Wage - I don't know if this was a Bakk problem or maybe the Bonoff "wing" of the Senate, but the minimum wage was held hostage by Senate intransigence. They stuck to a lower base that is barely above subsistence living and wouldn't touch indexing. There was a pretext of a conference committee on this but it was a victim of the last minute maneuverings and time constraints. Constraints that were unnecessary because both bodies had passed their bills with time to negotiate.

6) Gun Bills - Bakk deftly kept himself out of direct controversy on background check gun legislation. His past has been heavily supportive of the NRA and he gave lip service to watered down legislation in regards to gun bills. He let Speaker Thissen take the heat by forcing the House to take the more controversial positions on the issue and when Thissen decided it wasn't going to work for the session, Bakk simply concurred, ending the issue and any tough vote.

***********************************************

This session was still a success, but Bakk always seemed to be inthe middle of any controversy. I'm afraid that Bakk's agenda could end up putting the House majority in jeopardy. Even when the Governor, the House, and Senate are in DFL control, there must still be compromises on the table. Playing stubborn games within your own legislative agenda is a dangerous thing to do.
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Legislative Progress

Category: DFL2012
Posted: 05/22/13 14:08

by Dave Mindeman

It was an extraordinarily busy session. The DFL majorities had enormous pressure from within and without. On the whole, they did pretty well. Let's talk about it....

It was interesting how the Governor, the Senate, and the House had parallel but very different paths for the end product. This lack of coordination was probably a bigger obstacle this time than Republican opposition.

The High Points

Balanced Budget - Governor Dayton's original budget plan was real reform. You can tell real reform by the amount of opposition. This plan was heavily opposed. Reduced sales taxes, broadened base on sales taxes, transit funding, and income tax reform were all solid attempts at a full structural fix. And I hope that we revisit more of the parts of it going forward.

The Governor backed off of the plan ...probably seeing the pushback as problemsome for a reelection bid. But at least there was a serious discussion and examination of where we probably need to go eventually. The Governor may have backed off too far, but his campaign signature issue of tax fairness did end up being the centerpiece of the tax bill.

The other pieces of the tax bill left the legislative houses at odds. The Senate put together an odd business service tax portion. I don't disagree with the concept but the parts chosen are a bit problematic. Warehousing is a tricky taxation issue and the attempt to exempt agricultural products adds more complications. It is also a little strange to exempt agricultural products as much as possible, but still taxing equipment repairs. Agricultural equipment are big repair projects at times. Finally, telecommunications taxation is also an issue because this changes so rapidly. It is hard to keep up with state of the art advances, let alone taxation on every change. It is quite probable that this part of the tax bill will get tweaked in the future. House Tax Chair Ann Lencewski seemed a bit peeved in this regard - she seemed to indicate that the Senate insisted on the changes and then at the last minute backed off, which would have left a gaping hole in the funding process. The Senate and House tax committees must have had an interesting conference discussion.

The House was also very attatched to the income tax surcharge that would pay off the school shift. The Governor and the Senate backed off of that because they wanted to focus on new money for education. The House wanted both. However, the school districts were not clamoring for an immediate payment and were more concerned with new funding that would stabilize budgets in the future. In the end, the House backed off the surcharge which was probably the prudent way to go.

Property Tax Relief - This was also an important promise. In his original budget, the Governor wanted rebate checks...that did not get legislative support. But relief did occur in more LGA money and an increase in the property tax credit and renters credit. These will help with local government budgets and also get some credits to the people who need it most. It won't be as visible as a check but still looks like good policy.

Education - This is the crown jewel of this budget. Education, both K-12 and Higher Ed, get significant investments. This is going to pay off, economically, over the long haul. Most Minnesotans get the benefits of education investment and hopefully this will manifest itself in visible changes. The MOST visible will be all-day kindergarten. Although its is voluntary for school districts, I can't imagine that any district will not take advantage of this. It will be beneficial for working parents and increase academic excellence for these kids in later years. This has been a long time coming and, of course, it took the DFL to accomplish it.

The bill also adds $40 million to special education. This is still not enough as we still have Fed funding problems, but additions here will free up revenue for other aspects of the curriculum. Another part of education that only the DFL seems willing to address.

Scholarships for low income parents and changes to testing are also included. This is a very important piece of legislation.

Transportation - Although transportation advocates are disappointed by the status quo funding in this area, I have to give a shout out to Sen. Scott Dibble for making room for funding the Southwest Rail Corridor. This might have died without this funding and keeps us on track to keep matching Fed funds coming. It is a very important piece of a complete metro light rail system.

Child Care Provider Union - This is probably the most controversial bill passed during the session, but for this low income worker area, it will be enormously beneficial. Child care is a vital aspect of keeping our work force up to speed. And the compensation is very weak. Although some providers opposed this move to union representation, I think in the long run they will benefit greatly. The vitriolic opposition by Republicans was unwarranted. They seem to get crazy when the word union is even uttered. But in the end, what have they ever done to help this area of the work force? Outside of cutting health and human service payments to them?

Gay Marriage Bill - This was an enormous achievement for the DFL majority. They have righted an enormous wrong in our state and have given same sex partners equal opportunity for happiness. I know there is still divisiveness on this issue but I would be very surprised if that doesn't heal when we find that this is not the gloom and doom scenario that has been part of the opposition rhetoric. There will be some discrimination cases going forward, but the generational shift will take care of all of it in the end.
***************************************
Low Points

Although the high points greatly outweigh the low, there are still a couple of things that should be mentioned.

Guns - We still have a ways to go when it comes to gun safety. A lot of people were deeply disappointed that even background checks couldn't get a proper hearing. The almost religious zealotry from the NRA people will not even yield to commons sense safety mechanisms. I know that an attempt to bring this forward next year will be done, but I think the window of opportunity has passed.

Minimum Wage - This is even more disappointing, because both the House and the Senate passed bills. They could not find a compromise position and thus the whole issue was lost. This was another great opportunity flushed away. I have my doubts that this will now happen at all, especially in an election year.

Transportation - Although Sen. Dibble got funding for Southwest Rail, the gas tax and metro transit tax were tabled. This leave transporation running in place with a massive backlog pending. I hope that in the near future, this gets priority.
***********************************************

But on the whole, this was a very successful legislative session. The inner workings of it weren't pretty and the timing gave everybody ulcers, but it still had a successful end product.

Progress has been made.
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Scandals Come In Threes?

Category: DFL2012
Posted: 05/16/13 14:26

by Dave Mindeman

I have spent most of this week hacking and coughing and laying around like a slug...trying to get over a nasty head and chest cold. Needless to say, I haven't been up to blogging and the news hasn't helped my mood much. It has been one endless stream of gleeful Republicans hyping "scandal" after "scandal" in front of any camera that will point their way.

But since I was in a slug-like funk, it also gave me the opportunity to watch all of it and to get a fuller understanding of reality....and not just a GOP interpretation of it.

Benghazi

This gets the most sound bites but has the least actual news involved with it. It is hard to claim "cover up" when all the information has been in hand from the beginning. ABC News botched a "scoop". CNN debunked it. Darrell Issa continues his fishing expedition. Everybody tries to connect Hillary Clinton to anything they can. Meanwhile, the White House has accepted the investigative report. Plans to implement every recommendation. Now, will the GOP House fund the proposed security upgrades for our embassies? I'm betting not. It would be nice if this tragedy would not be politicized any further.

IRS

Of course, Michele Bachmann couldn't resist citing "worse than Watergate" in her hyperbolic way, but there is a problem here. However, the problem is NOT in the extra scrutiny of the applications, because 501c4 applications need it. The problem is that the scrutiny was one sided. There is little doubt that it wasn't just conservative groups that deserved that kind of attention. Liberal groups were involved as well.

I find it more than a bit ironic that Eric Cantor is calling for more transparency.....when the whole idea behind 501c4 applications is to avoid any semblance of transparency. They want to hide their donors from public view and keep funneling the "dark" money into campaigns. Even though the purpose is supposed to be for the "social welfare".

People should be held accountable but the the whole thing is a manufactured problem of Citizens United.

AP Phone Records

This is really the most troubling "scandal". An investigation into the source of a government leak is justified, but the broad and sweeping acquistion of reporter phone records is not. There has to be a more specific probable cause and preferably judicial oversight here. This is the Press and they should have protections.

I am not a big fan of Attorney General Eric Holder. He seems to be using a pretty broad office cudgel (ala Alberto Gonzales) in his investigative authority. Even though he recused himself here, he is not absolved of some responsibility. He is still responsible for the workings of the Justice Department and this is a very troubling event.
*********************************

These issues are worthy of discussion and investigation....but as usual, the Republican response is shrill and overblown.

Bottom line?

The end result of Benghazi should be safer embassies.

The end result of the IRS should be reform of a broken campaign finance system....or even better, a repeal of Citizens United.

The end result of the AP Phone Records situation should a renewed Press shield law that protects the first amendment fully and completely.

Any other actions are political....and as usual, the political is all the GOP is interested in.
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