Saturday, July 25, 2015

Politics, Drugs, and Sports: Thoughts on Clinton, Trump, Medical Marijuana, and the Vikings

The 2016 presidential race is effectively over already in 40 states.  In places such as New York and Texas, Republicans and Democrats respectively might as way stay home on election day because the chances of the voters in these states electing their party nominee are slim to none.  But it is small group of ten swing states (and Minnesota is not one of them) that will decide the election.  This is the conclusion and subject of my new book Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.  Whomever wins in these states wins the presidency.  And if that is true then the Democratic and Republican frontrunners both are in trouble.
Both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton are leading the polls in their party. According to a new Quinnipiac University Poll Donald Trump has huge negatives in three critical swing states–Iowa, Virginia and Colorado.  The same poll has Clinton trailing Walker, Bush, and Rubio in these states, even though she still has a lead overall against Republican contenders according to other polls.  For Clinton, this is a significant turnout around where just a couple of months ago she enjoyed strong leads over all Republicans, and even was far outdistancing Bernie Sanders
But because the presidential race (and even the primaries and conventions) are a 50 state (plus DC) contest due to the Electoral College, national polls mean little–it is about what happens in individual states.  For Trump this suggests that he faces major problems should he get the nomination–he may be unelectable among swing voters in swing states, some of which, such as Colorado, have a significant Hispanic population.  Of course his other problems–his disconnect between his brain and mouth and the fact that his first place is really only about 15% in the party polls, suggests major problems for Trump and for the Republicans.  It is not clear which is worse–Trump as the party nominee who drags the entire party down across the country–or Trump  as a third party candidate who drags the Republicans down and costs them a presidential race.  Assume Clinton and Bush get the nominations, this might be a repeat of 1992 when another third party candidate by the name of Perot ran against a Bush and Clinton, leading to a Democratic victory.
But Hilary Clinton and the Democrats too face problems.  Clinton’s problem in swing states also raises questions about her prospects of winning in a two way race.    Her big negatives and high name recognition make it unlikely she can really change her image as she is trying to do.  She is who she is.  Yes much of her criticism is sexist and the product of a smear campaign, but that is the reality she must face and yelling foul does not change much.  Should she get the nomination she faces problems winning the swing states not only because many swing voters will not vote for her but because the Republicans will use her to activate all types of misogynists and Hilary-haters.  Karl rove penned a recent essay declaring Clinton has a likeability or relateability problem still and Republicans will exploit that.  As a politically savvy friend of mine pointed out, Clinton will be a terrible draw at the top of the ticket.  For example, Clinton nomination will probably hurt Democrat’s prospects to win back the Senate and in Minnesota she will not help in knocking off Congressman Kline.
Finally, the money is still on Clinton to win the nomination but she could be damaged.  Weeks ago on Esme Murphy’ radio show I discussed how  Clinton remains weak in caucus states just as she was in 2008.  Image a scenario where Sanders wins the Iowa caucus (not impossible) and then does really well in New Hampshire (next to his home state of Vermont).  Clinton is damaged much like McCarthy damaged Johnson in 1968.  By the time we get to Minnesota I can see it too going for Sanders–he has the passion of the grassroots, Clinton does not.

Drugs and Sports
Two local stories deserve comment.
First, the roll out of medical marijuana so far is horrible.  Beyond the stories of Leaf Line  hiring three former or present states officials or representatives to work for them (raising tons of questions about ethics, perhaps illegal behavior, and whether the original bidding process for distribution rights was fair), there is the issue of so far only 340 individuals certified for usage for the medical marijuana.  There are few doctors registered to prescribe, fearful both of their licenses (pot is still illegal under federal law) and because there is still no scientific evidence of the value of pot.  While the State of Minnesota may not be interested in whether medical marijuana makes money, the private companies have to think about that.  With such a restrictive program and too few customers one wonders about the economic viability of the program.
Also, Leaf Line appears to be selling medical marijuana for about $350 per ounce.  Because  it is an experimental drug I am not sure insurance will cover it.  Because of this individuals may have to pay out of their own pockets to purchase it.  It probably will be cheaper to buy a dime bag from your friendly neighborhood dope dealer instead.
Finally, the Vikings stadium deserves comment.  One is the story points out that the Vikings stadium was one of the five worst sports deals negotiated with a government.  Minnesota tax payers got fleeced–Dayton and the legislature did a horrible job in negotiating the deal and we still have no idea regarding all that was promised since so much was dealt behind closed doors.  Second, the 12 person state legislative panel meant to oversee the Vikings project has not met in a year.  Effectively, there is little oversight here.  Finally, as Jay Kolls has pointed out in a channel 5 television segment I did with them, the development around the site in Minneapolis is a saga in back door deals.  The Vikings already has exclusive rights for 80 days on the public park being built next to the new stadium and Minneapolis is looking for more corporate sponsors for it.    One wonders what deals they will get on exclusive use and also I wonder whether I can show up to this public park and protest public funding for sports stadiums!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Technically, Ted Cruz And Greg Abbott Should Be Disbarred

Today's blog appeared  on July 15, 2015  at http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/ted-cruz-greg-abbott-should-be-disbarred

Technically, Ted Cruz And Greg Abbott Should Be Disbarred

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry and that states are required to issue them marriage licenses. Yet many public officials have publicly encouraged people to break the law. Among them are attorneys, such as Texas governor Greg Abbott and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. They may frame their opposition as standing up for what’s right. But according to the ethical rules of lawyers, public officials who are attorneys defying the Supreme Court by refusing to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies or encouraging others to do the same should be disbarred.

Article VI of the Constitution makes it the supreme law of the land. The Supreme Court gets the final say on what the Constitution means. The Court may be wrong, and on occasion it has been, such as with slavery and the separate-but-equal doctrine. Yet until it is overturned by constitutional amendment or it reverses itself, the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Constitution are binding precedent on all lower courts and public officials. Every lawyer and law student knows this.

Public officials are entitled to express disagreement with Supreme Court decisions, but they are not free to disregard them, or encourage others to do so because they are legally and ethically bound to obey them. They are in a different position from ordinary citizens when it comes to civil disobedience and defying the Supreme Court. Individual citizens may ignore the Supreme Court on matters of conscience, but at their own legal peril. Public officials do not have this luxury. Almost all public officials, including elected, appointed, and civil service across the country take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.

Refusing to follow a Supreme Court ruling as a public official, especially when one takes an oath to obey it–and even more so when one is entrusted to enforce the law–is illegal. That alone limits their ability to invoke conscience as an excuse to disobey. Now add to that an additional issue: What if the public official is an attorney?

The American Bar Association designed the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to define ethical duties of attorneys. State Supreme Courts have adopted versions of the Model Rules as binding upon attorneys who practice law in their jurisdictions. Attorneys are not free to ignore them–compliance is conditioned upon being licensed to practice law–and failure to obey could result in disbarment.

In the preamble, the Model Rules declare that lawyers must “demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges.” The Model Rules state that it is permissible to disagree with court decisions, but lawyers have a duty to uphold the legal process. This includes respect for, and compliance with, Supreme Court decisions. Model Rule 3.5 admonishes an attorney not to “engage in conduct intended to disrupt a tribunal.” Rule 8.4 declares that it is professional misconduct for attorneys to violate these rules, or to commit an illegal act that reflects adversely on their fitness to practice law. Rule 1.6 prohibits attorneys from using their legal skills to help others commit or plan a crime.

For Greg Abbott, Ted Cruz, and other attorneys who are public officials, their refusal or advocacy to others to refuse to perform same-sex marriages is both illegal and unprofessional conduct. Attorneys as public officials are legally and ethically bound to comply with the Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling. Their refusal to do so means they should face disciplinary action for their behavior, and other attorneys who know of their contempt for the law are required to report them.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Getting the Money Out of Politics: Two Essays

Hi all:

On July 8, I had two different essays published which address the role of money in politics.  One essay takes us along the history of how our campaign finance laws broke down, the other describes four fixes the president can take to act.  I have reprinted both essays in this blog.


“The Supreme Court, Public Opinion, and Money and Politics,” DEMOS Policy Shop, July 8, 2015
http://www.demos.org/blog/7/8/15/supreme-court-public-opinion-and-money-and-politics\

“A Federal Court Just Threatened Citizens United,” Talking Points Memorandum, July 8, 2015
http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/federal-court-citizens-united


The Supreme Court, Public Opinion, and Money and Politics, DEMOS Policy Shop, July 8, 2015

Is it a problem when the Supreme Court is out of step with public opinion? While in many cases
the answer is no, when it comes to the question of money and politics and the financing of
campaigns and elections, its counter-majoritarianism is a threat to democracy.

Contrary to the belief of many, American politics is not simply a majority rule, winner-takes-all
system. As designed by the Framers in 1787 and modified by the Bill of Rights, America’s
constitutional democracy is one of majority rule tempered by minority rights. James Madison’s
famous Federalist Paper number 10 discusses the dangers of majority faction, describing how
the complex machinery of checks and balances and separation of powers is meant to restrain
majority faction. Majorities generally get their way on most issues, but when it comes to the
right to free speech for example, no majority gets the right to tell a minority what they get to
say or think.

The American constitutional system contains numerous anti-majoritarian institutions to protect
minority rights. The Supreme Court serves an important role in protecting minority rights,
often at the expense of being counter-majoritarian. But that counter-majoritarianism facilitates
America’s constitutional democracy, protecting minority rights and preventing a majority from
using its numbers to entrench its power.

Yet the Supreme Court’s counter-majoritarianism does not always enable democracy—
sometimes it can inhibit it. Consider the issue of the role of money in politics. A June 2, 2015
New York Times survey found that 84% of the American public believes money has too much
of a role in American politics and that majorities (or near majority with Republicans) do not
believe that money given to candidates is a form of protected speech. The Supreme Court,
especially under Chief Justice Roberts, in giving increased First Amendment protection to the
use of money for political purposes in cases such as Citizens United v. F.E.C. and McCutcheon v. F.E.C., is out of step with public opinion.

Yes, critics may argue that polls such as this are meaningless or that the Court is doing no
more than protecting unpopular speech. But what is going on here is not about regulating
content or viewpoint expression or suppressing unpopular groups or oppressing discrete and
insular minorities. What we see here instead is the public describing how they think the
American politics process should operate, and such views do deserve significant deference.
Once I had the pleasure of meeting with former Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox
who stated that election laws were the “rules that determined the rules of game.” By that he
meant that the rules of election law, including how money could be spent for political purposes,
determined how the game of politics and democracy would be played. Decide these prior rules
and they determine the latter. His point is simple—there are important values that a democracy
must articulate and enable. Our Constitution sets the ground rules for ordinary politics,
including how campaigns and elections are to be run and funded.

What the public is saying is something simple—the First Amendment has not enshrined money
as a constitutional value defining how political power should be allocated. In his famous 1905
dissent in Lochner v New York, Justice Holmes was famous for declaring the Constitution does
not “embody a particular economic theory.” There he rejected the idea that laissez faire
capitalism was a constitutional theory. Here, the public is making a similar point that neither the
Supreme Court nor critics of campaign finance reform understand. There is an important
difference between the use of money as a constitutional value and its use as a market tool.
Money may be an appropriate medium for financial exchange to buy consumer goods, but it is
not an appropriate constitutional value to distribute political power, influence, and authority.
American politics is “one person, one vote,” not “one dollar, one vote.”

There is a profound difference between politics and markets. Each has their own logic and
values, and operates by different mechanisms. American politics is about equality, respect for
minority rights, public accountability, and transparency. The ability to expend unlimited
amounts of money is not one of the constitutional values that define how American politics
should operate. But even if it is, it must be viewed and balanced in context of all the other
competing values.

This is what the American public is saying in the New York Times survey. They better
understand than the Supreme Court right now that money is not a legitimate tool that should
be the final word driving how decisions are made in American politics. Money cannot be both a
political means and end or value in politics. Campaign finance laws not only protect money
from drowning out minority voices, but also prevent the entrenched few from using their
resources to thwart majority rule. Viewing money and campaign finance laws this way shows
how out of touch the Supreme Court is here in terms of both public opinion and in facilitating
democracy.


“A Federal Court Just Threatened Citizens United,” Talking Points Memorandum, July 8, 2015

Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled 11-0 that a ban on federal campaign contributions by individuals who contract with the government is constitutional. After a wave of controversial decisions by Supreme Court that have unleashed a flood of big money into politics, this appeals court decision sends a clear message: Sometimes, more money in politics can be a very bad thing.

Americans agree. According to a poll from the New York Times, some 85 percent of the American people believe that the way political campaigns are funded needs either "fundamental changes" (39 percent) or "a complete rebuild" (46 percent).

Money has become central to American politics. Spending in the 2016 presidential election alone could top $4 billion, with the winning candidate having to raise $1.5 billion.

How did we get into this mess? In 1974, after the Watergate scandal brought down Nixon, Congress established limits on how much people could give and how much politicians could spend on their campaigns, and mandated disclosure to ensure that regular citizens could “follow the money.”

Unfortunately the Supreme Court blew a hole in the 1974 law right away. In Buckley v. Valeo, the Court eliminated campaign spending limits. With no limits, a fundraising arms race began which continues to this day.

Building on Buckley, John Roberts’ Supreme Court has largely gutted most of the post-Watergate reforms. In Citizens United v. FEC the Court not only struck down a law regulating independent expenditures but it also freed up corporations to spend unlimited money directly to influence elections. In McCutcheon v. FEC it voided aggregate contribution limits to federal candidates, ruling that the $123,000 cap on how much one individual could contribute violated the First Amendment. Both decisions were done under the belief that the use of money for political purposes is protected speech.

The Supreme Court has not acted alone. Candidates and special interest groups have exploited legal ambiguities and used tax-exempt non-profit legal shells for political purposes to escape contribution limits and disclosure rules. Groups are challenging other laws, anticipating that the Roberts Court will eventually strike them down, too.

The result is twofold. First, groups and candidates are flouting any remaining regulations, leading to a dramatic growth in unregulated and undisclosed spending, especially since Citizens United.

Second, special interest money has pushed the Democrats to the left and Republicans to the right, preventing bipartisan problem-solving on issues across the board.

So can anything be done?

Actually, yes. All hope is not lost. And yesterday’s court decision is a step in the right direction. America need not wait for Congress or the Supreme Court to come around. The president and various federal agencies have the power to make several small but important reforms. Here are four:

1) The president could issue an executive order to require federal contractors to disclose all political contributions they make and to bar contractors from bidding on federal contracts for two years if they spend too much to influence a federal race or a member of Congress.Yesterday’s ruling upholds a ban on individual “pay to play” contributions to prevent conflicts of interest or undue influence. A new order could build on that ruling.

2) The Securities and Exchange Commission could make a rule requiring publicly traded companies to disclose all expenditures of money for political purposes and to obtain shareholder assent to use money for these purposes.

3) To reduce candidates’ need for costly commercials, the Federal Communications Commission could issue require that broadcasters to provide reasonable free air time to all House, Senate, and Presidential candidates. The public owns the airwaves, so there is nothing to stop the FCC from doing this.

4) The IRS could require that non-profits whose major purpose is political advocacy register with the FEC and disclose their donors and expenditures.

These reforms are not enough, but they show that something can be done now—and they would give us the tools we need to better understand the money flooding our political system. That knowledge is a critical first step that will build the case for overturning Buckley and Citizens, and, ultimately, healing our democracy.

Postscript:  Two additional points.  The first is that if I had to make one change in the TPM essay it would be to say that big money has less so moved Democrats to the left than either to the right or simply the money has entrenched their positions and made it impossible for the party to respond to the left.  Second, back in 2010 Senator Al Franken's  legal counsel had contacted after Citizens United was decided.  I was asked to offer suggestions on what could be done.  I related a variation of the above four ideas to counsel.  A few weeks later I called back to ask what happened.  I was told that the Senator liked my suggestions and communicated them to President Obama, who simply decided not to do anything.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Sex, Lies and Leadership: What We Learn from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and Sex Abuse Cover-up in the Catholic Church

Two Minnesota stories converged this week.  The first, a federal judge declaring unconstitutional  the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), the second was John Nienstedt’s resignation as Archbishop of the MSP Catholic diocese over the priest sex abuse cover up.  Together, they tell a story of sex (power), lies (deception and coverup), and leadership (bureaucracy and shirking of responsibility) with equally tragic tales and little to praise in terms of the political or religious leaders of the State of Minnesota and the Catholic Church.

Minnesota Sex Offender Program
As expected, Federal Judge Donovan Frank declared the MSOP unconstitutional.  Minnesota state officials really knew MSOP was unconstitutional, but they just did not care.  As Frank well put it, everyone has rights, including sex offenders, and the MSOP amounted to either a roach motel (“they check in and they don’t check out”) or simply a lock them up and throw away the key approach to dealing with sex offenders.
The 76 page opinion crisply summarized the constitutional infirmities of MSOP.  The program cannot use civil commitment to punish for past crimes since the offenders have already served their sentence.  The program cannot use civil commitment to lock people up indefinitely to prevent them from committing future crimes because that is not what we do in a free society that values liberty.  The only constitutional justification for civil commitment is to provide treatment to individuals who are mentally ill until such time that they are cured and deemed to be fit to freed. .However, the decision documents a horrendous pattern of non-treatment for detainees’ mental illness.  No treatment, changed treatment, failed treatments.  Detainees were not evaluated, had no options to placement into a less restrictive environment.  None of the individuals ever committed  into the MSOP had ever been released, and only a few ever received conditional release.  Compared to similar programs in Wisconsin and New York, Minnesota simply decided to do nothing with these individuals except detain them for life.
The opinion documents a willful pattern of refusal to treat.  It is a story that goes back to very creation of the program in the 90s, but especially damns both the Pawlenty and Dayton Administrations.  Repeatedly there were reports and warnings from state officials that the program has problems, but the governors and legislators refused to act, fearing political repercussions.  It is hard not to read this opinion and not see that there was an intentional  refusal to act and treat.  The state used the lie of mental illness to detain and then chose not to treat.  Frank documents a dozen problems with MSOP, finding the program was facially unconstitutional  and as applied. Finally, the opinion sets an August 10, 2015 hearing, demanding that the governor and legislative leaders appear before him with a game plan for how to comply with this order.  No surprise, Governor Dayton’s first reaction was defiance, declaring that he thought MSOP was constitutional, suggesting appeal.
What is one to make of the opinion and reaction to it?  Appeal is likely but the chances of the state has in winning are practically nil.  Finding it both unconstitutional facially and as applied  makes it harder to win on appeal, especially when for each type of challenge Judge Frank found numerous problems.  All it takes is for an appeals court to uphold one constitutional defect and MSOP is dead.  The Supreme Court will not take the case–there is no matter of new law here, it is all about a factual case of abuse.  In fact, the non-treatment was so bad and willful that it likely that each of the individuals in MSOP can bring individual constitutional challenges, potentially seeking millions of real and punitive damages from the state.  Add to that the costs to correct MSOP and treat, and the state is on the financial hook big time.
Dayton’s appeal of the decision is an effort to yet again kick the can down the road.  No one wants to take personal responsibility for the problems with MSOP.  Dayton could have taken the high road, acknowledged problems with MSOP, and said he would address them.  He wants to put the issue beyond the 2016 election, perhaps even beyond his governorship.  Yet the August 10, hearing suggests that Judge Frank knows this.  Look to see him hold the state in contempt of court with large fines if they do not act.  Ultimately, the taxpayer will be paying for this willful  choice not to act.

 Sex Abuse and Cover-up in the Catholic Church
Watergate taught us that often times its not the crime that is the problem, it is the cover up.  Persistent sex abuse by Catholic priests is horrible enough of a crime, but what makes it worse is the cover up.  It’s clear that the higher ups in the Catholic Church, especially in the MSP Archdioceses, knew about the abuse, did little to nothing to stop it, and instead simply covered it up.  If they were a private corporation they would be out of business or in jail by now.  Wall Street is littered with stories of CEOs and executives who covered up illegal behavior of their companies.  I know of no private company which could have gotten away with what the Catholic Church did.   They abused  their moral authority and fiduciary responsibility to look out for the best interests of their congregations.
They did that in ways that are taken as textbook.  Deny knowledge, stonewall investigations,  blame the accusers.  Making it hard for victims to file suits and delay long enough that statutes of  limitations, death of priests, or memories of witnesses fade.  Criminal charges should have been filed but they were not, with the best being that Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s decision to indict the Church on civil charges.  With his approach the Church as an institution is held responsible, but no one individually will be.

Lessons Learned
So why do these two tragedies tell a story of sex (power), lies (deception and coverup), and leadership (bureaucracy and shirking of responsibility)?  Ostensibly both the MSOP and priest sex abuse is about sex’ but really at the end of the day both are about power.  They are about the story of two bureaucracies using their power to control others.  In one case sex offenders, in the other, sex  abuse victims.  It is about how individuals can escape moral responsibility for their actions by hiding a bureaucracy.  They do that by lying, deception, covering up abuse, and simply by shirking leadership and responsibility.  In my ethics training I often discuss the concept of administrative evil,  seeking to explain why good people and organizations do bad things.  With the State of Minnesota and the MSP Catholic Church one seeks how bureaucracies can malfunction, perverted one small step at a time by leaders unwilling to make the rights decisions.  Bishops and elected officials can  hide within their respective institutions, morally deaf to the way their choices are victimizing others and damaging the legitimacy of both Church and State.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

What Ever Happened to the Liberal Democrats?`

What the hell ever happened to progressive politics and liberalism in the Democratic Party?
            When I first moved out here DFLers bowed to the memory of Humphrey, McCarthy, Freeman, and Mondale.  Later they added to that Wellstone.  But such homage is living in past, shallow in the sense that the DFL today lacks the courage of the convictions it once had.  The same is true for Democrats at the national level.
            At the national level Barack Obama is pushing a free trade agreement that only Republicans and Wall Street can love and he now wants to ramp up troop commitment and base building in Iraq, essentially continuing Bush's war and undoing the original rationale of his presidency.  Hillary Clinton's liberalism is hardly that;  her speech on voting rights called for tepid reform at best, ignoring the socio-economic forces for why many do not vote, and her call  for economic justice looks hollow next to support for Wall Street.
            In Minnesota a governor who just a few months was heralded in the national media as the most liberal one in America who got the job done, just folded to the Republicans on almost any measure.  The give-aways on the environment, gun silencers, gutting the State Auditor's office,  and retreating on universal pre-K send signals that Republicans can win if they hold long enough.  And then there is Senate majority Leader Tom Bakk- why he is a Democrat is anyone's guess.  His leadership was deplorable, his messaging horrific, and his negotiating skills next to none.  If he thinks that his capitulation will defend and protect Senate seats in 2016 he is simply wrong. His gaffes and missteps only make suburban DFLers more vulnerable and he has done nothing to convince rural voters to support Democrats.  He made the classic mistake Democrats have made for so long, believing that by acting like Republicans they are more electable.  The reality is that the more the Democrat brand is muddled and undistinguished the harder it is to win an election.
            The politics that looks dead is good old-fashioned economic liberalism.  The progressive politics that appears dead is that of Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and even Teddy Roosevelt. It is about the Great Society and the New Deal.  It is about redistributive politics that sought to raise those at the economic bottom, narrow the gap between the rich and poor, and wrestle control of political power in the United States from corporations and plutocrats.  It was a commitment to believing that the government had an important role in make sure we had a nation that was not one-third ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed, that kids should not go off to school hungry, and that corporations should not have the same rights as people.
            But if Bill Clinton’s presidency did not kill off this type of progressive politics, surely Barack Obama has.  If Obama did not do it directly, he did so indirectly with the 2010 and 2014 backlashes against him that has done more to kill progressive politics than can be imagined.  With less than two years to go Obama is liberated and you would think he would be more bold, but he is not.  Why?  He never was the liberal  folks wanted to believe.  In 2008 his liberalism was far distant to the right compared to Dennis Kucinich and even John Edwards.
            Mark Dayton gets nothing his first year in office then supports corporate welfare for the billionaire Vikings owner.  Now again in 2014 he gives in and Tom Bakk is complicit.            Progressives are on the run everywhere.  It is not just on matters of public policy such as with taxes, government regulation, and health care, but also in the rhetorical battle for the hearts and minds of the people. You can’t even call yourself a liberal anymore without being red baited. Thus the reason for switching to the term progressive. Conservatives have successfully labeled as left or socialist anyone who does not agree with them. 
            Watch cable news (not just FOX) or surf the web, crackpop conservative ideas dominate.  In 2008 Ron Paul pleaded for a return to the gold standard, Michelle Bachmann blamed Obamacare and Wall street reforms for the crash in the economy (even though neither have really taken effect for the most part).  The recession of 2008 is the fault of the government and not greedy bankers and speculators, Keynesian economics to stimulate the economy is wasteful, consumer protection is bad for business, and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United expanding corporate free speech rights to dump unlimited money into the buying of elections is good.  Oh, and vaccines cause mental retardation and global warming does not exist and Obama is blamed for the  screw ups with FEMA and hurricane Katrina! Main stream media seems afraid to put real progressives on the air and what passes as progressive on MSNBC is watered-down, snobbish, and defensive.
            How did it happen?  There is no one cause but there are several reasons.  First, what Obama and progressives have failed to do is craft a narrative supporting their views.  Conservatives have the narrative of individual freedom–markets are good and government is bad.  Government suppresses personal freedom and markets promote it.  Never mind that corporations tell more people what to do with more of their life at work than the government ever does or could.  That’s corporate freedom.  Conservatives have made free choice their buzz word and equality a dirty one.  Progressives have no overarching rhetoric and narrative to support their world view.  Progressives need a winning narrative that appeals to Americans and which dictates a governing philosophy.
            Second, Obama was not really a liberal but his rhetoric looked it.  He ran promising change.  The reason why so many are disappointed in him is not that he was too far left but that instead he failed to deliver on his lofty promises.  At inauguration Obama had a window to change America but he flinched.  Carpe diem was not his motto.
            Third, progressives lack guts to fight.  Obama repeatedly caves, and now Dayton has done it twice. Why?  Democrats (and one should not confuse the party with progressivism) believe that they are the caretakers for government.  They believe that they need to be responsible and not run the risk of shutting the government down for fear of how it would ruin the economy or hurt people.  But conservatives know this and take advantage of the Democrats willingness to blink.  But by blinking the Democrats are screwing over poor people and the economy slowly by giving ground one inch at a time and they seem unable to recapture it. Until Democrats fight and show conservatives they are willing to shut the government down and hold conservatives responsible they will never win.  Missing is the courage of their convictions.
            Fourth, conservatives understand how to make structural reforms and policy changes that both benefit their supporters and enhance their power.  Tax cuts and cuts in regulation are simple ways to benefit supporters, but there is more.  Voter ID disempowers their opposition, attacking union rights undercuts labor support for Democrats and opposition to business in the workplace, and gutting regulations on money in politics strengthens corporations and rich individuals.  Obama’s biggest mistake in his first two years was his failure to act accordingly.  Instead of health care reform he should have used his sizable majorities in Congress to support the Employee Free Choice Act to strengthen unions, adopt national legislation banning voter ID and permitting day of election registration in federal elections, and adopting real Wall Street and bank reforms that would have limited their power, including reauthorizing Glass-Steagall.
            Moreover, Obama should have first done something to help homeowners and workers get their houses and jobs back.  Reward supporters up front and they are with you for life.  Furthermore,  when the Supreme Court issued Citizens United Obama could have issued an executive order barring corporations from bidding on federal contracts if they make political expenditures.   Or he could have ordered the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue rules requiring shareholder assent before companies make political expenditures.  Finally, to break the back of conservative news he could have embraced a reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine to require the media to offer diverse view points.  But he did not do any of this.
            In Minnesota Dayton signed the death knell for campaign finance reform.  His negotiations with the legislature were a contempt for open and accountable government.  He and the DFL leadership have never supported lobbyist, campaign finance, or real structural reform of the government.  Instead, if anything, what has emerged is a CEO-corporate style of management for government-a repudiation of liberal reforms of the last 40 years and an embracing of a Republican style of politics.
            This is the last problem.  Democrats now feed at the same trough as Republicans.  Obama, Clinton, and  Democrats across the country and Minnesota are equally as dependent on big money and the kindness of millionaire friends as are Republicans.

            Progressive politics is dead so long as it is married to the current Democrat Party.  They need a party that is not willing to play it safe and worry that if a few Democrats lose  that means the Republicans win. It means a willingness to fight for what you believe in.  This is what progressive politics needs to be in the age of conservatism.  The dead don’t fight or win.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Dissing Democracy Minnesota Style

The 2015 Minnesota legislative session and the soon-to-be special session will be noted for  passing few laws, failing to get its work done on time, and simply for sidestepping important policy choices that it needed to address.  But it should also be noted for its contempt for open government, democracy, and respect for the State Constitution.  In effect, it is a simply dissing of democracy and the rules for process for how government should operate.

Closed Door Budget Negotiations
Consider first the most obvious and blatant assault on democracy–the behind the door negotiations to resolve the budget.    It’s bad enough when legislative leaders and the governor did private talks and deals on the budget at the governor’s mansion.  Bad enough when votes take place at the end of session at the wee hours of the morning.  Bad enough when they take place in impromptu conference committee hearings that effectively exclude the public and most legislators.  But now the talks to resolve the disputes over the three budget bills are being done in private between Governor Dayton and Speaker Daudt.  No public, no media, no other legislators.  The deal they carve will be presented as take-it-or-leave-it to other legislators in a special session that will be perfunctory at best.   There is no real accountability and public inspection of these negotiations, no real chance to raise objections, and no real deliberation and debate.  Public matters such as the state budget should be done in public, not behind closed doors as if this were corporate America.

Big Money Wins
Second, Democrats and Republicans joined together with the governor to eliminate the political contribution rebate (PCR) program.  These program, one of the true hallmarks of political reform in Minnesota, allowed for Minnesotans to contribute up to $50 per year and have it rebated to them by the state.  The PCR was nationally hailed as a powerful campaign finance reform tool that encouraged small contributors to give.  Repeated studies pointed to how legislators successfully used it to reduce their dependence on large donors and special interests.  It was also a mechanism to help  third party candidates.
But now it’s gone.  Governor Pawlenty killed it once and it came back.  But now it is gone again, and probably dead forever.  It, along with horrible legislation passed a couple of years ago raising contribution limits and weakening disclosure laws in Minnesota have just about killed off all of the reforms this state had adopted in the early 1990s.  Minnesota has effectively deregulated  money in politics, benefitting noone except for special interests, big money, and the incumbents who voted for these reforms.

Gutting the State Auditor’s Office
Finally, consider legislation that guts the State Auditor’s Office.  The State Auditor is an officer provided for in the Minnesota Constitution and its primary responsibility is to audit local governments in the state to make sure that they are spending their money appropriately.  It is an important position in the state that promotes accountability to ensure tax dollars are spend the way they should be.  Yet the legislature voted to privatize the audit functions, giving local governments the option to hire private audit firms.  The governor signed this bill but now seems to want the legislature to undo this.
The governor should have never signed a bill that allowed for this.  Nothing against private auditors, but this is the constitutional duty for the Auditor.  The privatization will cost tax payers more in the long run–as is typically the case with many privatizations.
But in many ways, it probably does not matter whether the governor wins to get this privatization overturned–the provision is probably unconstitutional, conflicting both with Article V, section 1, of the Constitution creating the office of the Auditor, and Article III, section 1, the separation of powers clause of the Constitution.
There is a rich jurisprudence in Minnesota that carefully protects and respects separation of powers.   One of the best cases on this issue is State ex rel. Mattson v. Kiedrowski, 391 N.W.2d 777 (1986).  In that case at issue was a  1985 law enacted by the legislature, in special session, which transferred most of the responsibilities of the State Treasurer, an executive officer, to the Commissioner of Finance.   The reason for the transfer of responsibility was that the Treasurer, then a constitutional officer, essentially abandoned the state and was no longer performing his duties.  The Supreme Court rejected this transfer of duties.
The Court reasoned that even though the duties of the treasurer were prescribed by law, that “does not allow a state legislature to transfer inherent or core functions of executive officers to appointed officials.”  One branch of government, or even another part of the executive branch, cannot act in such a way either to undermine the core functions of another constitutional part or make it impossible for it to perform its constitutional duties.
Other Minnesota cases have reinforced that point.  In In re Marriage of Sandra Lee Holmberg at issue was whether a law regarding  child support  giving administrative law judges power to modify district court orders and to assume duties of district court judges violated the state separation of powers clause?  The Court said yes, arguing that the transfer of power violated separation of powers.   In supporting its decision the Court referred to precedents and decisions in other states reaching the same conclusion.
In  State v. Baker the Minnesota Supreme Court voided a state enhanced gross misdemeanor statute as unconstitutional because it allowed for local imprisonment without a 12 person jury trial.  Here the Court said that the law sought to redefine crimes to avoid the constitutional mandate.  In State ex rel Birkland v. Christianson, the Court declared that the legislature cannot change form of government which would change separation of powers.  In In re Temporary Funding of the Judicial Branch, a case involving funding for the judicial branch as a result of a government shutdown in Minnesota, the Supreme Court ruled that it had the authority to require the legislature and governor to fund the courts, for failure to do so would prevent the judiciary from performing its constitutional duties and therefore it would be a separation of powers violation.  Similar conclusions were reached regarding separation of powers and constitution in Clerk of Court's Compensation for Lyon County v. Lyon County Commissioners.
The point simply is that there is good reason to conclude that this privatization is unconstitutional and in a law suit the Auditor would likely prevail.  Given these precedents, it should be clear that this legislation does nothing more than express contempt for the State Constitution.  It does that, along with the current negotiations on the budget and the elimination the PCR.  The three together are a huge step backward for transparent, fair, and constitutional government in Minnesota.  Process matters.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Failing Grade for the 2015 Minnesota Legislative Session

The 2015 Minnesota legislative session was a failure.  An F grade for all in my line of work.  No one really got what they wanted and not because there was compromise.  Dayton did not get universal Pre-K, a transportation bill, a bonding bill, or really much of anything else.  The House GOP wanted $2 billion in tax cuts, and infrastructure money and more goodies for greater Minnesota, and they failed.  I have yet to figure out what the Senate Democrats wanted but they did not get it.
The governor and the legislature largely failed to deliver on anything.  The state failed to deal with passing a responsible budget in a timely fashion.  It is full of gimmicks.  They range anywhere from acting as if there was a real surplus and then squandering it to House Republicans passing a phony budget that robs money from one place and giving it to another and calling it an increase.   But think about pressing issues not addressed–transportation funding and infrastructure, civil commitment for sex offenders, and MNSURE–and it is hard to conclude that this was a good session.  Welcome to the new Minnesota normal.

A Crisis in Leadership
Poor time management and leadership defined this session. Back and Daudt did not enter into negotiations until very late in the session.  Back and the Democrats again proved horrible at messaging, while Daudt and the Republicans could not decide if they wanted to play pork barrel politics to get goodies for their constituents or simply cut taxes.  In the end they did neither.
For Dayton he was largely uninvolved in the legislative process and never really made it clear what he wanted.  Recall his state of the state address where he said he had lots of priorities?  If everything is a priority then nothing is.  Kurt Daudt is correct that if Dayton had wanted universal pre-K to be his main priority he should have said that months ago and worked to line up support for it.  He never did.  But Dayton also seemed to pout a lot.  Recall his earlier flare up with Bakk and then his actions in the closing days sounded more like I will take my bat and ball and go home if I do not get what I want.
What Dayton ignored is that you have to create  political incentives for legislators to act, especially  members of the opposite party, and he never did that.  He thought that he had a mandate and could simply push legislators in line.  That is why he did not get what he wanted and that is why he still might not get what he wants in a special session.  Memories of Senate Democrats and House Republicans teaming up to overturn Ventura’s vetoes loom on the horizon if Dayton is not careful.

The New Normal and Why
But this session seems less of an outlier when one keeps in mind that dating back to the Ventura era the repeated number of times the state has witnessed shutdowns, near shutdowns, failed unallotments, and special sessions that reach budget accords so late that it makes it difficult for schools and local governments to plan.  One should also not forget all the phony budgets, cost shifts, and kicking problems down the road that have been part of the new Minnesota Normal.
Partisanship and polarization too were factors this year and in the past explaining the New Normal, but they only exacerbated three underlying problems in Minnesota politics.  First, an archaic and broken budget process.  Second, the entrenched special interests that make it difficult for the two parties to compromise.  Third, the disparate electoral incentives of the governor, Senate, and the House.

Broken Budget Process
The budget process is broken.  Minnesota is trying to do a twenty-first century budget with  a horse and buggy process.  The process in place is one that perhaps once worked well 30 or 40 years ago when the budget was half of what it was and no where near as complex as it is now.   The constitutional mandate for the length of the session goes back to the nineteenth century when we still had this image of farmer-legislators who needed to adjourn in time to get their spring crops in.  A century ago  one did not need as much time as is presently required to pass a budget and debate legislation.  There was simply less to do.
The complexity of the budget process is now so great that even under the best of circumstances it is difficult to get it done in just a few months.  But add to that some additional problems.  First, the increased complexity of the budget and what the state does makes it harder and harder for legislators to master it in a short period of time.  We had elections in November producing  new legislators and  House majority.  How do we expect them from day one to understand how to govern and what Minnesota government does.  Few of us are ready to do our jobs well in the first few months.  There is a learning curve and for state legislators that curve is the budget session.   It would make far more sense to have the budget done in the second year of office, giving legislators ample time to adjust and learn.
Its also about timing.  The governor generally does not release a budget until late January, the final fiscal forecast which is the basis of the budget comes out late March, and then a revised governor’s budget based on the forecast is produced. At this point already two months have been wasted in the budget year.  The timing of when the legislature comes into session, the governor releases a budget, and the fiscal forecast occurs need to be changed because their present order simply encourages procrastination.

Special Interest Gridlock
But a second underlying problem is the way money and special interest influence have made it impossible for the two parties to reach agreement.  Both the Democrats and Republicans have interest groups supporting them, encouraging them to stick to their guns and not negotiate.  It’s not about the gift ban law making it impossible for legislators of different parties to swill together at the Kelly Inn that prevents them from working together, it is about them being unable to resist the pressures from their constituent groups to forge compromises.

Differing Political Incentives
Finally, as this session reveals, there are contrasting electoral incentives that driven the House, Senate, and governor in different directions.  Here the House and Senate both face 2016 elections and therefore have incentives to cooperate.  But in other years the four and two year terms  put the electoral interests of the two chambers in conflict.  This year, moreover, Dayton’s interests contrast with legislators–he is not up for election, perhaps ever again–and he can push for issues or that legislators cannot.
Overall, many factors explain why this session ended the way it did and why it deserves an F grade, and I am not even sure an A for effort is in order.


Three Final Thoughts
If the K-12 budget is vetoed does that mean there will be no funding and school?  No.  Remember that the State Constitution mandates the legislature to fund a “thorough and efficient system of public schools.”  If no agreement is reached the courts will settle this.

Maybe now the state will think about passing the automatic continuing resolution that requires the  state to continuing funding programs at the same level into the next budget year if no budget is agreement upon.

Finally, where will the legislature go for special session if the capitol is closed?  The session has to be in St. Paul.  The governor proposes tents for the front lawn.  I will make a pitch for them to move down the street to my school–Hamline.  Plenty of parking and space to meet, and food no worse than Ulcer Gulch at the Capitol!