MN Top Ten for First Half of '06
10) With the help of a TCF donation and a crazy land deal, the U of M got approval for a stadium for its football team. Most significantly, the U set a new, free-spending precedent: getting state funding for something without having to prioritize it on a list of capital-improvements projects contending for funding in the omnibus bonding bill.
9) The legislature passed a bill, signed by the governor, authorizing a few small-town officials to acquire inventory and operate convenience stores. Apparently, some former eastern European economic planners were able to convince our State Capitol crowd that “communist” grocery stores were instrumental to efficiently providing basic staples to remote small towns.
8) Concerns about mobilizing the voting blocs of competing special interests (outdoorsmen vs. tree-huggers vs. underappreciated artists) were all that prevented the legislature from agreeing to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment dedicating general funds to specific environmental and arts projects. And no matter how good any one project might seem, it was very short-sighted for the executive branch to lend moral support to dedication, a concept that infringes on its authority to shift priorities and spend or impound funds based on changing assessments of critical public needs. Congress has become infamous for its “earmarking” version of dedicated funds; we need not follow in its fiscally wasteful footsteps.
7) In another sign of the decreasing clout of political party organizations, State Sen. Michele Bachmann was able to flood party delegations with fiercely loyal followers that allowed her to trounce a strong field of contenders for the Sixth Congressional District Republican endorsement. Our political parties are now at the mercy of charismatic, well-funded, and well-organized candidates. Bachmann may be willing to pursue most of the Republican Party’s objectives, but the point is that the Party would be powerless to derail her candidacy even if she were unwilling.
6) Sen. Majority Leader Dean Johnson’s self-righteous politicking might finally have caught up with him, thanks to a pastor who was willing to do more than turn the other cheek when he witnessed insincere pandering about the courts and same-sex marriage. Sen. Johnson’s “truth-sanding” may have eroded the political advantage he once had as a minister to claim a moral high ground.
5) On June 15, when Rep. Jeff Johnson questioned House Minority Leader Matt Entenza’s ability to impartially monitor an investigation of United Health if Entenza were to become Attorney General, he knocked out a pillar of support for one of the most influential DFLers on the rise in Minnesota politics. Rep. Johnson planted seeds of doubt among the media, independents, and a key part of the DFL’s core constituency with his demand that Rep. Entenza explain how he would be able to monitor an HMO. Reason: the compensation Entenza’s wife has received as one of its top execs has also been the primary source of his family and campaign funds. People who identify as independent voters tend to be very cynical about unethical influence wielded by the role of money and by special interests. Also, the media feels compelled to delve into possible conflicts of interest when specific instances are brought to their attention.
When Matt Entenza publicly acknowledged that his wife had gained “probably $20 million” from stock options during her career as a United Health executive, Jeff Johnson’s campaign offensive against Entenza had drawn blood. Learning that Entenza had close ties to a dreaded HMO and was very wealthy due to HMO stock options may forever alienate him from class-envying, populist DFLers who expect their candidates to fight for consumers and stand up for the little guy. Since this has been Mike Hatch’s battle cry throughout his political career, his operatives were then able to go public with their reservations about whether Entenza was the best candidate to succeed Hatch in the A.G. job.
Entenza has long been ambitious enough to downplay his family wealth and to not have many scruples when it came to campaign tactics. But in a span of a few weeks, his inability to tell the whole truth—Was it $20 million in options, or $30.8 million? . . . Was it less than $1000 for routine opposition research, or was it a $40,000 effort to dig up all dirt on any possible challengers?—turned his wounds into fatal political injuries. Whether Jeff Johnson will ultimately triumph over Hatch protégé Lori Swanson remains to be seen, but he has certainly done enough to earn more media and public attention for his campaign than previous Republican candidates for Attorney General have been able to get. Still, with Entenza gone from the race, it wouldn’t be surprising if the establishment media went back to not giving Jeff Johnson the coverage he deserves.
4) The weakness of platform-based party organizations has led to another significant development. In a stunning reversal of the gubernatorial politics of the early 1990s, the establishment-oriented pols (Tim Pawlenty and Mike Hatch) captured the endorsement process, leaving more principled ideological candidates (Sue Jeffers and Becky Lourey) no recourse but to wage long-shot primary challenges to promote the party platforms.
3) The judiciary upheld 2005’s so-called “health impact fee”, an abomination that has continued to pervert Minnesota politics in 2006. If tobacco companies could be pressured into a settlement with the state under the guise of recovering health-care costs, they should not be assessed twice through “impact fees” that use the same flawed rationale. A government that can use the same justification to both sue and tax a business has been entrusted with too much power. Another very unpleasant side effect from the impact fee is that public officials from across the political spectrum already have developed a vested interest in its continued existence. Now they are adding the impact fee revenue streams to their budget plans, so that they can offer tax rebates or new programs without having to make cuts in anything else.
2) Gov. Pawlenty’s transformation from conservative-leaning legislator to milquetoast career politician continued, aided and abetted by the acquiescence of other top party figures. The legislator who once opposed major taxpayer funding for pro sports facilities, especially without referenda, did not threaten to veto the bill this year authorizing a local sales tax to provide a huge subsidy for a new Twins stadium, even though he had a duty to enforce a law which requires local taxes to be subjected to a local referendum. The transformation became complete when he tried to gain credit for the new baseball stadium subsidy by holding a signing ceremony for the localized tax bill on the field of the Metrodome.
It’s not as if accepting the Twins bill this year has been an exception to an otherwise strong commitment by the Governor to fiscal conservatism, either. He vetoed NOTHING out of a billion-dollar bonding bill, vetoed only $1.5 million out of a $202 million supplemental appropriations bill, and proposed significant new entitlement spending in the form of state-paid years of college tuition for students that get above-average grades in high school.
1) Carl Pohlad’s relentless quest that a new stadium for his baseball team be funded primarily by taxpayers outlasted a sizable but demoralized base of underfunded opposition, sending the wrong message to other corporate-welfare fatcats (such as Zygi Wilf): you can get whatever favors you want from Minnesota politicians as long as you commit to applying constant pressure indefinitely.