Monday, January 31, 2011

Jobs! Jobs! Culture Wars?

This last campaign season was all about jobs and the economy. This legislative session? Not so much. As I've been following the introduced bills, I'm struck by the number that address culture wars and seek to appease the Republican base with little or no consideration of the cost or economic impact of such legislation.

I came across yet another example of this today in H.F. 7.  H.F. 7 is actually pretty interesting in content, although the text is rather dry. Basically, it addresses the repeal of a number of local government mandates. There's a lot of stuff buried in there. Much of it is expected (though some is controversial) and previously publicized targets for repeal such as mandates that address funds to be used for staff development in public schools, requirements that schools reach contract agreements by January 15 or pay a penalty, municipality reporting requirements, requirements that benefits agreed to through collective bargaining need approval of employee representative in order to be reduced, etc.

But tucked away in the midst of it all is a repeal of laws that established standards to eliminate sex based pay disparities among public employees. They are seeking to repeal Minnesota's Local Government Pay Equity Act (LGPEA) which was adopted in 1991 in order to guarantee equal pay for equal work regardless of gender. Some argue that such laws are outdated and no longer needed. However, the Pay Equity Coalition of Minnesota rightly points out that the Minnesota Management & Budget Department's January 2011 report notes pay raises given in order to eliminate disparities in wages across the state increased women's pay from $16.27/hr to $17.86/hr. Based on a 40 hour work week, by my calculations that amounts to an additional $63.60 every week or $3307.20 every year.

How exactly does stripping women's right to equal pay create jobs or strengthen our economy?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The K-12 Shift Comes Back to Haunt Us

As this legislative session gets underway, the GOP has come out swinging and they've got Minnesota's public K-12 schools squarely in their sights.

H.R. 2 authored by Rep. Buesgens (R-Jordan) puts out a proposal as to where K-12 spending levels should be set for this biennium. He fiercely defends these numbers by claiming that this is not a cut in funding, but rather simply a freeze to previous spending levels. I would disagree with that assertion for a number of reasons. (Many of these are based on issues I've previously discussed here.) For one, under this bill the legislature will NOT repay the funding shift that diverted allotted money from our schools in order to temporarily balance the budget.

This was a major concern at the time this shift was enacted by then Gov. Pawlenty, with many in public education opposing such a move mainly because they knew that there was absolutely no guarantee that the future legislature would pay it back. I also suspected this may be part of the plan proposed by the Republicans. That suspicion was largely confirmed by the non-committal answers I received from candidate Tom Emmer when I asked him about this issue at the state fair. As Rep. Buesgens asserts in his defense of the proposal, previous legislatures cannot tie the hands of future legislatures. Which is exactly why so many opposed funding shifts to start with. They knew that in all likelihood it was merely a cut disguised as a delay.

Many Conservatives rightly point out that the DFL controlled House at the time also proposed a K-12 funding shift. They argue that it is hypocritical to be opposed to Pawlenty's shift but in favor of the one proposed by the DFL. What that argument missed what that there is a substantial legal difference in a legislative shift and a unilateral shift implemented by the Governor. MinnPost addressed just that in an article at the time.  As they noted:

"Some schools worry that if this remains Pawlenty's unilateral shift, there will be no legal authority mandating that the schools ever receive the $1.8 billion. If it becomes a legislative shift, state law requires that the schools be second in line to be paid back, right after rainy-day funds are restocked. Payback might take 10 or 20 years, but eventually there would be a payback. ... Though school funding shifts have become an almost routine part of the biennial state budget balancing act, the governor's unilateral action was unique. There is concern among some legislators, school superintendents and, perhaps, even the governor about no payback requirement tied to the governor's action. And some school officials fear that at the end of the biennium in 2011, the $1.8 billion will simply disappear into thin air."

It looks like their fears are coming true. In short, Minnesota law contains guarantees that any legislative shift be repaid. It has no such provisions that apply to a governor's unilateral cuts through unallotment.

MNpublius breaks down why they view this not as a simple freeze in funding levels, but actually a 20% cut. This is in large part because it views the spending levels at the amount of money the schools actually received, not considering the amount taken away in the shift. Because that was proclaimed a temporary measure, many schools that saw little benefit in further slashing their services, took out loans to cover the missing funding until it was repaid. They factor in that combined with the fact that because funding is determined on a per pupil basis and schools are expecting increased enrollment, under long used funding calculations they were actually anticipating an increase in funds to accommodate the additional students.

Instead our schools are left with broken promises, further public demonization, and the challenge of continuing to serve more students with fewer resources.

Update: Speaking of education proposals, it's also worth noting that there is another proposal in the works in the Senate that would freeze wages for ALL public school employees.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Blogging: The Cause is Mankind

When I was visiting my parents over the holidays, I came across a copy of Hubert H. Humphrey's 1964 book "The Cause is Mankind: A Liberal Program for Modern America." In case you haven't figured it out, Humphrey is a political hero of mine. In my quest to take a look at more political history, I thought this would be a great place to start.

I just started reading it, so I'm only a few chapters in, but already there's one passage that really caught my attention.

"I do believe, however, that freedom has grown enormously in the past half-century. This is an astonishing fact, a tribute to the vitality of our institutions, when you look at the outlines of the history of the era. In those fifty years, we've gone through two World Wars and several minor but deadly ones; a Depression that lasted the better part of a decade; a proliferation of extremist views of the right and left, here and abroad; the rise of totalitarian systems of unprecedented strength and horror; the Cold War of the nuclear age; such phenomena as the Ku Klux Klan, McCarthyism, and black-lists; the murder of a beloved President.

And yet, democracy has weathered all these threats to freedom. On the balance, today, our civil liberties and civil rights appear to be at least as secure as they ever have been-and, in some conspicuous cases, much more secure."

Each generation seems to have a romantically misleading view of the previous generations. Each thinks of itself as the most troublesome generation and longs for the assumed security of the past. I see that currently in our own nation. So many people lament at the situation they see in our society and how it may be the very thing that will rob us of our freedom. Yet, here Humphrey points out all the turmoil that the US has faced in his lifetime alone (up to that point-1964). When each event is laid out side by side, it certainly seems like enough to be the undoing of many of America's liberties. Yet, Humphrey proclaims that in spite of all of this democracy has not only weathered the storm, but come out better for it. It's an interesting contrast to the rhetoric we hear today.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Political Fatigue

I'm a little burnt out on politics these days. It's not because I don't enjoy following the political process and monitoring what is going on in St. Paul and Washington, D.C. I do. It's not that I don't find the ridiculously exaggerated claims during policy debate amusing.  I do.  I think my fatigue comes from the division of the potential that I see in the political process and the reality of how it is currently playing out.

My interest in politics is rooted deeply in my passion for social justice. In it I see the vast potential for our nation to band together for the betterment of our society. At it's best it is a catalyst for justice.  A great example of this (and the major reason for the name of this blog) is the 1948 Democratic National Convention speech of then Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey.

In my opinion, this is an example of politics at its best. A moment when our leaders stand up and fight for what is right, even in the face of opposition. A moment when the fight isn't about what will get you elected next cycle, but about what will make our country better. Growing up, a teacher of mine had a sign on her desk that read "What is popular is not always right. What is right is not always popular." That's the spirit I'd like to see more of in politics. I'd like to see more concern over what is the right thing to do and less about what will boost approval ratings.

Today ushered in a new governor for the state of Minnesota. Soon we will see a new crop of legislators both locally and nationally. I hold out hope and keep looking for elected officials who will walk in the example of Hubert Humphrey and fight for what they believe is the right thing to do. We need to stop seeing government merely as a ledger sheet of expenses and start seeing it as what it was intended to be, an entity that seeks to serve the best interest of its citizens in order to make this a nation that lives up to its reputation as a land of freedom and opportunity.