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!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Reflections on Race, Gender and Class in America

States are praised as laboratories of democracy.  But as the debates over same-sex marriage reveal, states often can also be crucibles of persecution and discrimination.  If as many expect the Supreme Court rules by the end of June that the Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry that decision will not mean the end discrimination against gays and lesbians.  Instead, as both history and recent events reveal, it will take more than a Supreme Court decision and the passage of few laws to end discrimination.
Consider the matter of race. Sixty years after Brown v the Board of Education schools in the US remain as segregated as ever.  Fifty years after the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act women still are only paid 77 cents on the dollar compared to men and boardrooms remain almost exclusively male (as does Congress and most state legislatures).  Police shootings of unarmed African-Americans paint a picture of continuing racism, and recent polls in the NY Times attest a public opinion that sees a worsening of racial attitudes in America.  Obama has not moved us into a post-racial era and mounting evidence suggests that Millennials are not our first color-blind generation.
Now think about the issue of GLBT rights.   We have traveled an eternity since Stonewall but one should not think that a Supreme Court decision protecting the right of same-sex couples to marry will end the issue.  Much in the same way that post-Brown states found ways to circumvent the Supreme Court, the same is happening with same-sex marriage and GLBT rights.  Indiana’s religious freedom restoration act originally would have sanctioned, under the guise of religion, bigotry in the sense of letting people refuse to provide services to same-sex couples.  Now we see the same bill surfacing in Minnesota with a Senate bill.
James Madison, one of the constitutional framers and author of the Bill of Rights, was skeptical of the power of majorities in small close-knit communities.  He sought to create a larger more diverse national country to offset the powerful pressures of conformity and discrimination often found in local communities.  Nationalizing rights was a say to overcome the type of behavior we see in laws now that try to create personal religious exemptions to laws enforcing civil rights.
But even if the Supreme Court does rule as expected and these laws do not pass or are brushed aside by the courts, one should not think that the last frontier of discrimination has ended.  In fact, the real battle has yet to start–the battle of discrimination against the poor.
Face it, the ultimate discrimination is based on money, wealth, or poverty.  Few see any problem with saying that housing, food, medical care, and even political power or influence being allocated on the basis of money or wealth. Back in the 1970s in San Antonio v. Rodriguez the Supreme Court refused to declare wealth a suspect classification necessitating that government classifications based on it were constitutionally suspect.  Governments are free to discrimination against the poor and they do so all the time.  But even if the Court had ruled opposite of what in did in Rodriguez it still would have left untouched all the non-governmental discrimination that is inflicted upon the poor.
In so many of my classes I discuss how race, class, and gender are often major point of discrimination and conflict in our society.  The law and social attitudes at least officially decree racism and sexism wrong, but we have done little to tackle class.  Instead, as I have written about so many times in columns and blogs, inequality in America is growing and it is clear that the poor have little political influence or power.  Ask who governs America? and the answer is simple–look to see who benefits and it is certainly not the poor.  Our economic stratification reflects our societal political power differentials.
Economics is what gives racism, sexism, and homophobia their power.  On one level I do not care what others think, but it is when they are able to enforce or impress their views upon me by allocating or withholding economic resources, that is what gives discrimination its punch. In many ways I think class is the most fundamental and powerful form of discrimination, it is the one that underlies all other forms of prejudice.

On Another Topic: With less than ten days to go before the end of the 2015 Minnesota Legislative  Session it is not looking good to finish on time. As I said in my last blog, political incentives, partisanship, and a broken budget process all are factors explaining why Minnesota repeatedly now cannot gets its work done on time.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Final Exam: Political Science 101, Introduction to Real World Politics

It’s May.  I am a political science and law professor and it is final exam time.  Here are the questions  and suggested answers to the final exam in my class Introduction to Real World Politics.   The final consists of three essay questions.

1.  Independent and self-described democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders has officially declared he is running for president as a Democrat.  The media has declared that he cannot win.  Are they correct?

Much in the same way after Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul declared they were running for president and the mainstream press declared they could not win either the general election or even secure the party nomination, they are saying the same about Bernie Sanders.  The media says that Sanders cannot raise enough money to challenge Hilary Clinton and that she is such a frontrunner and he has positions so liberal that he cannot possibly win and that even the very idea of running seems Quixotic at best.  However, the media and the establishment has been wrong in the past.  Just seven years ago Clinton too was declared the front runner and had a lock on the Democratic nomination and then something happened–It was called Barack Obama.  Both he and John Edwards beat Clinton in Iowa and the former went on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency...twice.
Clinton has high name recognition and a strong media presence, but she also has huge negatives.  She is well-known and will have a hard time redefining her image.  She does not have a lot of room to recreate herself.  Additionally she has yet to craft a narrative and rational for her campaign.  In effect, she is repeating so many of the mistakes she made seven years ago when the arrogance of her campaign assumed she was inevitable.
True Sanders does not have a ton of money but he has a powerful narrative about economic justice and fairness.  Sanders also appeals the disenchanted left of the Democratic party which does not like Clinton. He will not vulnerable to the criticism that he is a tool of Wall Street and instead will be able to make that argument against Clinton.  Sanders is also good one-on-one talking to people, something really valuable in Iowa and he could pull off an upset there just like Obama did in 2008.  Moreover, while Clinton then recovered and won New Hampshire, Sanders may enjoy terrific name recognition in the Granite state because he is from Vermont.  Combine an Iowa win and a great New Hampshire showing, along with a good narrative and who knows.  Yet again the media could be wrong.  Remember, the media was not only wrong with Obama in 2008, it missed it with Bill Clinton in 1992 and Jimmy Carter in 1976, among many other examples.

2.  The 2015 Minnesota Legislative session ends on May 18.  Do you think they will reach an agreement on a budget by then?
There is barely two weeks left in the legislative session and it is looking less and less likely that there will be a budget by then.  While in January few thought that either not passing the budget by May 18, or by July 1, to avert a government shutdown was likely, what has been most interesting to watch is how the Republicans have hardened their political and policy positions over the last few weeks.  Kurt Daudt and the Republicans have learned how to move their agenda in a coherent fashion (they have learned how to be a majority), while the Senate Democrats and Governor Dayton still seem both unable to articulate a compelling narrative to support their agenda and unable to find the political ability to work together to counteract the GOP.  The governor’s political interests are different from Senate DFLers in that he is not running for reelection while they are and potentially  are vulnerable in 2016.  Thus, their political interests are moving in different directions, thereby preventing them from uniting to oppose the House Republicans.
Many contend that the Republicans are operating in a fantasy world.  They want to make $2 billion in tax cuts (give back all of the surplus) and also spend more on rural and greater Minnesota.  That explains why their recent higher education budget hammered the UMN Twin Cities.  One cannot give away $2 billion and also spend more on greater Minnesota at the same time if one is talking about using the surplus.  That is why the GOP us also proposing other cuts to human services.
But remember that the Republicans are not the only ones living in a different dimension.  The governor and the Senate Democrats too believe that we have a surplus.  The reality again is that there is no real surplus and that between inflation and money that should be placed into contingency, that $2 is already spent.
Perhaps partisan ideology and contrasting constituencies account for many of the reasons regarding why Minnesota this year is perhaps hurling toward another budget impasse.  Yet given all the recent problems with government shutdowns, special sessions, and botched unallotments, the bigger problem is that the budget process is broken.  There are many changes that could be made to improve budgeting.  One example of a good reform would be to adopt an idea from Wisconsin.  In that state, if there is no budget adopted by the due date the current ones continues in effect.  This automatic continuing resolution if adopted in Minnesota would prevent government shutdowns and  would be a good first step in reforming the budget process.  Another good reform would be eliminating the dumb idea that inflation is not calculated for the purposes of determining state budget obligations, even though inflation is considered for the purposes of determining revenue.

3.  Will the screening out of bad racist police officers solve the shooting problems such as what we just saw in Baltimore?  What are these killings occurring?
Police shootings such as in Ferguson and now most recently in Baltimore are not just the product of a good cop/bad cop dichotomy.  By that, the assumption is that only bad cops shot unarmed civilians or racial minorities.  Find a way to screen them out and the problem is solved.  Alas, this is a simplistic solution.
Yes there is individual racism that might motivate some of these shootings, but the problem is far larger than that.  The racism found here is rooted in something larger–the social injustices of American society.  It is about the huge income and wealth gap between Black and White in America.  It is about the educational achievement gap, and it is also about the gap in the demographics of the American population and who is actually elected to office.  The core problem here really is a political economic one.  African-Americans and Latinos, for example, have largely been excluded from the  political structure in the United States and one can argue that the excessive use of political force against them is really the most direct symbol or sign of how the government and society use its power to oppress them.
But even beyond the institutional racism that may be at play here, one needs to consider other factors that may influence why so many people–and not just people of color–are shot.  Unlike in England where there are no police shootings of civilians, this country has a lot of guns in private and personal possession.  England does not.  America is one of the most heavily armed countries in the world.  We are the fantasy world of the NRA where they seem to think if everyone is armed like in the good old wild west of yesterdays then everyone will be able to protect oneself or others.  Guns deter them seem to believe.  They have forgotten though that the old days of the west were violent, and that is what happens when you have guns–people use them, or at least there is a fear that they will be used.  I can appreciate the fear of police who approach people whom they do not know whether they are armed or not.
But yet another issue here is the nature of policing.  Policing is not about roughing up people–it is about interpersonal skills, communications, and problem solving.  Policing now requires  skills more closely approximating negotiator and not a solder.  Yet too often police are badly or ill-trained.  Minnesota has some of the most stringent educational and training requirements for police in the country. Elsewhere across the USA a simple high school degree lets any Barney Fife put on a badge and carry a gun.  The skill of policing is in learning how not to use force, yet that has been forgotten by politicians whose message and arming of police over the last 50 years has been one emphasizing a war mentality.
What all this means is that the political economic exclusion of people of color from the political process, along with a society with too many guns and often bad police training may better explain than individual racism why so many shootings occur.