Sunday, February 23, 2014

Previewing the 2014 Minnesota Legislative Session: Issues and Contrasting Agendas

    This week the Minnesota Legislature reconvenes. To predict the dynamics of the 2014 session one needs to understand how the governor, the House and the Senate, and the Democrats and Republicans all have different interests in what should happen in this short session.  While in some cases their interests may converge, there are also powerful forces that may push them in very different directions, potentially creating interesting conflicts that set up the 2014 elections.  Specifically, lookto see how party, region, and chamber and branch of government create contrasting interests in what happens in the 2014 session.

The Issues
    What are the major issues for the 2014 session?  Passing a bonding bill is the main reason for the session.  Estimates are that a bill of about $800 million is what both the Democrats and Republicans seem to want, but beyond the amount, the exact projects remain in dispute.
    Second, left over from 2013 are three issues–a hike in the minimum wage, anti-bullying legislation, and a fix to the civil commitment program for sexual offenders.  All three are hugely controversial items that will divide the parties.  Third, the legislature needs to decide what to do with the budget surplus–spend or save.  Finally, other issues such as whether to repeal the business warehouse tax, finding a more permanent funding solution for the Vikings stadium, and business law reform (something Dayton has talked about) are possibilities.
    What will we not see in 2014?  Government ethics reform.  Minnesota’s government ethics laws in terms of disclosure and conflict of interest are vastly out of date.  The legislature made it worse last session in voting to change the gift ban law for themselves, making it yet again possible for them to be wined and dined by lobbyists.  Representative Winkler is correctly proposing in HF  1986 to undue this exemption, but it will be a shocker if this legislation passes.  But even if it does more reforms are needed.  The state could use a revolving door bill to place limits on former legislators from coming back and lobbying the legislature at least for a year.  About half the states have laws like this.  More lobbyist disclosure, legislator conflict of interest of laws, ethics laws for law governments, and contribution limits to the parties and caucuses are all needed.  But don’t expect to see any of these reforms proposed.

The Coming Elections
    Overshadowing the session are the 2014 elections.  The governor is up for re-election as is the entire House of Representatives.  This is not necessarily a good year for Democrats.  No this is not 2010 all over again where anger against Obama and health care reform mobilized Republicans, depressed Democrat turnout, and swung independents toward the GOP.  This year Dayton’s approval ratings are riding high, as are Senator Franken, and perhaps there are some coattail affects here.  Yet  in a non-presidential election year Minnesota’s voter turnout drops to the low to mid 50s–a 20 or so plunge from presidential election year turnouts.  The biggest loss comes in terms of voters who generally support Democrats–the young, women, and people of color.  Democrats can do well this year in Minnesota, but they need to mobilize their base and keep the swing voters on their side.
    This means, at least for the Democrats, that they want this to be a short legislative session where they can get their main task accomplished–passing a bonding bill–while giving the Republicans little opportunity to find anything to use against them in the election.  Thus in general Democrats will not push too hard this session, much to the dismay of many of their supporters.  Conversely, Republicans are looking for inroads, wedge issues of use to them that will rally their base and peal away independent voters from the Democrats.
    Don’t look to see gay marriage be a 2014 general election issue.  It is a loser for Republicans, except as an issue to use within the party to beat up fellow party members.

Contrasting Political Agendas
    However, the DFL House, Senate, and Dayton have contrasting interests.  The entire House is up for  election and the DFL there do not want to tackle issues that will hurt them.   The Senate is not up for election. At best, there are probably no more than a dozen or so seats that are swing in the House, and the DFL will need to hold them to keep their majority.  Look for them to avoid medical marijuana and anti-bullying legislation.  Both are too controversial and may be perceived to be issues that produce political backlash from conservatives.  Moreover, the DFL has said that they want to move on minimum wage, but again don’t look to seem them push for a wage that really makes a difference.  It would make sense to pass meaningful minimum wage laws and with a built-in index for future automatic increases.  The DFL may have only this session to address the minimum  wage issue and if it were smart it would take advantage of the opportunity.
    No one wants to touch the sex offender civil commitment program.  It is probably unconstitutional but any change in the law lends to potential partisan criticism that the other is soft on sex crimes.  This is an issue that both parties would rather see go away–at least until 2015.  Alternatively, the GOP would love the DFL to act, giving the former a great issue for the 2014 elections.
    Additionally, the DFL needs to decide what to do with the budget surplus.  The House would love to be Santa Claus and do a tax cut–such as repeal the business warehouse tax–or provide other cuts that will be politically popular.  The DFL Senate does not see it that way, perhaps preferring to save it in a rainy day fund.  So far Governor Dayton has not made it clear what his priorities are, and his interests may be closer to the House in terms of what to do.
    Among other types of legislation that need to be addressed is fixing the fix. By that, the fix to the Vikings Stadium funding is still not financially secure it needs revisiting.  The money to pay for the  state’s share of the stadium is still not built on a secure revenue stream and unless another one is found, the public will be paying for the stadium out of general revenue.  Looming over the session also will be MNSure.  How it operates in the next few months and what might be done  legislatively about it may be one of the make or break political issues in the coming session.
    Finally, plans by Polymet mining pose a huge risk for the DFL, potentially pitting urban progressives and environmentalists against unions and Iron Rangers.  While there are no immediate calls for legislative action on this issue there is still the potential that it could creep up in bills, forcing the Democrats to make difficult choices.

    No legislative session is devoid of politics.  The same will be true in 2014.  How that politics plays out in next couple of months will tell us a lot about what might happen in the November elections.  For now, look to see how the issues divide along the party, branch and chamber of government, and region.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Race, Class and Ranked Choice Voting: Why the Jacobs-Miller Study Largely is Irrelevant

Race and class structurally divide the United States.  Economically we live in two nations separate but unequal, with political power and privilege fractured along this divide. Thus it comes as no surprise that Professors Larry Jacobs and Joanne Miller recently found  that the use of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) by voters in the 2013 Minneapolis elections largely tracked this class and racial divide.  Conceding that their statistics are largely correct, their analysis and conclusions are largely irrelevant to the debate about RCV, voting, or political power in Minneapolis or the United States.
            First, there is no debate that race and class divide America.  A 2011 Congressional Budget Office study found that the after-tax income gap (and this includes after calculating in transfers payments and welfare) between the top 1% of the population and everyone else more than tripled since 1979. Between 1973 and 2007, after-tax income for the top 1% increased by 275%. For the bottom quintile it was merely 18%, while for middle class or middle three quintiles it increased by not quite 40%. According to the Census Bureau, the median family income fell in 2012 from $51,100 to $51,017, with the average American earning less now than they did in real dollars in 1989. However, there is some good news. Since 2009, the income of the wealthiest 1% has increased by 31%.
            But income only tells part of the story. Maldistributions in wealth are exacerbating and growing. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the top 1% controls almost 34% of the wealth in the country, with half of the population possessing less than 3% in 2007. The racial disparities for wealth mirror those of income. Since 2007 the wealth gap has increased as the value of American homes–the single largest source of wealth for most Americans– has eroded. Studies such as the Survey of Consumer Finances by the Federal Reserve Board have similarly concluded that the wealth gap has increased since the 1980s.
            According to an April 2013 Pew Research Center report titled “A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy; Declines for the Lower 93%,” since the crash of 2008 the “mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%.” The richest have recovered nicely from the Great Recession, the rest of us have not done so well. Moreover, the income gap has a racial component. A recent Census Bureau report stated that in 2012 the median household income for Whites was $57,009, for Hispanics it was $39,005 and for Blacks it was $33,321.
            The wealth disparities across race were even worse. A policy brief from Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy found that over the last 25 years, the wealth gap between African-Americans and Whites tripled from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009. For the few African-Americans and Whites at the same income level, the latter had wealth at least three if not more times that of the former.
            Repeatedly, the evidence suggests that we remain as racially divided today as we were 60 years ago when the Supreme Court’s Brown v. The Board of Education decision supposedly desegregated America’s schools and launched a civil right revolution.  Books as American Apartheid by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton and  Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City by Paul Jargowsky document the racial segregation of contemporary America, and Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal describe the contrasting social worlds of America.  Closer to home, it was 20 years ago while I was working with john powell at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty that we documented Minneapolis as one of the three most racially segregated cities in America.
            The economic and social forces that divide America have long been known to politically allocate power.  As I point out in my new book Election Law and Democratic Theory, political scientists since the 1950s in books such as the American Voter by Angus Campbell, The New American Voter by Warren Miller and Merrill Shanks, The American Voter Revisited by Michael Lewis-Beck, and The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy by Kay Lehman Schlozman, all point to the racial and class divide in terms of who votes or participates in America, using the electoral systems replaced by RCV and which Jacobs and Miller seem to endorse.  Furthermore, E.E. Schattschneider’s The Semi-sovereign People, Theodore J.  Lowi’s The End of Liberalism, Grant McConnell’s, Private Power and American Democracy, Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets, and Robert Dahl’s Democracy and Critics are classic books by noted political scientists documenting over the last 50 years the class and often racial bias in our political system.
            So what is the point?  No voting system, whether it be RCV or the old one that it replaced in Minneapolis is going to rectify or mitigate the racial-class inequities that already exist in this country.  To conclude as Jacobs and Miller did that RCV “leaves open the well-documented voting gap” and reveals “differences in participation between communities of color and the poor vs. their white and affluent counterparts” (quoting from their February 13, 2014 Star Tribune commentary) largely misses the point.  That voting gap existed before the implementation of RCV and there is no indication that the system it replaced did anything to ameliorate the gap either.  Their study seems to imply causality-RCV caused the voting gap–or it begs the question–the voting gap already existed and it now still exists–or RCV was supposed to address the voting gap but it did not.  Jacobs and Miller  deserve credit for pointing out that a there is a class and racial gap in voting in Minneapolis, but that is nothing new or novel in terms of their conclusion.  Nor is their argument that more education is necessary to teach people how to use RCV.  I largely said that four years ago in the initial study of RCV in Minneapolis.
            Finally, the Jacobs-Miller study uses the wrong baseline for assessing RCV.  They point to the low participation rates among the poor and people of color in the 2013 Minneapolis elections as a flaw with RCV.  But compared to what, the turnout in other general elections or in primaries?  If we compare to primaries the turnout was much greater where with the former  a small band of white affluents or party insiders dominant the selection process.  If we compare to other general elections then it is not so clear that their results are statistically significant, especially based on one election.
            RCV is not a panacea for all which ails American democracy.  The core issue is how class, race, and to some extent gender allocate political power and influence in the United States.  RCV cannot fix these structural inequalities but it certainly did not cause them as the Jacobs and Miller  study seems to imply.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Women and Minnesota's Lieutenant Governor: The Tokenism of Power

Why would anyone want to be lieutenant governor in Minnesota, let alone a woman who wants to have real political power and influence?   Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon decision not to seek a second term on the DFL ticket with Mark Dayton  should not have come as a surprise. Nor should Senator Katie Sieben’s decision not to want to leave the legislature and become Dayton’s running mate. What is a surprise is that Minnesota still has the office of Lieutenant Governor.  Now is a terrific opportunity to ask the question whether the Minnesota Constitution should be amended to eliminate of the office of Lieutenant Governor? 
    Lieutenant Governors are a relic of the nineteenth century.  In many ways they mimic the office of the US vice-presidency, but with less authority.
    As weak as vice-presidents are, lieutenant governors are worse.  For the most part their only task is gubernatorial succession or serving during incapacitation.  Few states give them any powers, the exception being perhaps Texas where the lieutenant governor has the major powers of appointment. The positions are largely ceremonial, or perhaps no more than a source of political patronage. Better yet, the position of lieutenant governor is no more than a publicly subsidized campaigner for the governor.  With few duties the lieutenant governor is free to travel the state on the pretext of official business to push the governor’s agenda.  Lieutenant governors also make dandy surrogates to send to funerals.  In sum, the constitutional duties of the lieutenant governor are to sit and wait for the governor to die, get sick, travel out of state, or be given something to do by the governor.
    The hapless, powerless state of the lieutenant governor is also the case in Minnesota from its very first constitution.  Article  IV, Section 5 of the Minnesota Constitution is the sum of where the power of the lieutenant governor is described.  Here the sole power is described in terms of succession to the governor.  Additionally, until 1974 the governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately (that is still the case in 17 states).
    More often than not lieutenant governors in Minnesota have been invisible positions, or when visible, a source of problems.  In 1962 the separately elected DFL lieutenant governor Karl Rolvaag challenged the Republican governor Elmer Anderson in what would turn out to be the closest state-wide race in Minnesota history.  In the end Rolvaag prevailed by 91 votes out of 1.3 million cast.  Because of a prolonged recount, the new governor did not take office until March, 1963.  In 1974 Rudy Perpich and Wendell Anderson were the first lieutenant governor and governor elected together as a ticket.  But when in 1976 Walter Mondale resigned his US Senate seat to become vice-president Anderson resigned as governor so that he could become senator.  Perpich then become governor.  The scandal surrounding this move and possible deal with Perpich was so great that in 1978 DFLers were swept from office in the state.
    Finally there is the case of Governor Tim Pawlenty and his lieutenant Carol Molnau.  Ever since Perpich made Marlene Johnson his lieutenant governor in 1982, the tradition in this state has been for the DFL and GOP to nominate women for the number two slot.  But while this may sound like progress for women, it is not.  The lieutenant governor’s position is no more than a token position of power.  Yet Pawlenty to his credit tried to change that, making Molnau the MNDOT commissioner too since as lieutenant governor she had nothing to do.  Needless to say, with a bridge collapsing on her watch, her tenure in both positions is less than distinguished.
    Given all of the above, is it any surprise that Prettner Solon is not seeking a second term or that Sieben does not want the job?  Prior to being lieutenant governor Solon was a powerful legislator in her own right, involved in the policy process.  She has largely been excluded from major policy work in the Dayton administration, indicating that she is not part of the governor’s inner circle.  She was made Dayton’s running mate because of her Iron Range connections.  It may have been her appearance on the ticket that pushed  Dayton over the top, making her one of the few lieutenant governors who made a difference in the election.  Prettner Solon was made lieutenant governor for political and not policy reasons once elected she has largely been ignored, as have all other lieutenant governors.  Were Sieben to become Lieutenant Governor she too would experience a decrease in power and influence–being lieutenant governor is only the illusion of power, mere tokenism in the last generation for aspiring women of influence.  Margaret Anderson was more powerful as Speaker of the House than any female lieutenant governor has been or ever will be.
    So Prettner Solon stepping down really should be the occasion to ask does Minnesota need the position of lieutenant governor?  Eight states do not have lieutenant governors, and there is no indication that these states have any gubernatorial succession problems (often the secretary of state is next in line of succession) or are better or worse governed as a result.  There is little evidence that  the lieutenant governor contributes to good government or policy making in Minnesota.  Overall, Minnesotans should be asking why we are spending money for a position that produces or yields so little?  And women should be asking why they continue to be given token political power?