Supergridlock Amendment: Silent But Deadly

If you like gridlock, you'll love the Supergridlock Amendment.

Compared to the GOP-backed Marriage Ban Amendment, Voter Red Tape Amendment and Right-to-Leech Amendment, you hear much less in the news about the proposed the state constitutional amendment to restrict legislators’ future budget choices. This amendment would require a 60% legislative “super majority” approval for tax increases, limit general fund spending to 98% of forecasted income, and ban the use of budget surpluses for “non-emergency” purposes.

Compared to the Vikings stadium and the other hot button amendments, this issue is relatively wonky and boring. It doesn’t rally interest groups the way the other amendments do.

But it’s very impactful, so it deserves more news attention and scrutiny than it is getting. The problem with this issue flying below-the-radar is that it can sound reasonable at first blush, until you understand the intent and implications of the change. Minnesota needs to make this major decision with its eyes wide open.

For over 150 years, Minnesota’s representative democracy has constructed a very successful society using majority rule to govern fiscal policy. With majority rule, we built a prosperous economy, a great public school system, a solid infrastructure and a society that regularly places at or near the top of state quality-of-life rankings.

In other words, majority rule has ruled well.

But under the latest in a long series of conservative constitutional concoctions, we would scrap the historically successful majority rule approach, and make it much more difficult for future Minnesota Legislatures to reach fiscal compromises. The Supegridlock Amendment would make it “super” likely that future fiscal crises are addressed with a “cuts only” approach, since cuts only need the support of 50% of the Legislature, while tax increases would need a “super majority” of 60% of the Legislature. As we all know, it’s nearly impossible to get 60% of the Legislature to agree on something as non-controversial as designating a State Insect, much less a tax reform package.

Would you like your gridlock supersized?

This makes no sense. Dumping constitutional gravel into the already rusted and crumbling gears of Minnesota’s legislative machinery will make future gridlock and government shutdowns much more likely.

“Cuts only” and “shutdowns” are not unintended consequences of this approach. They are precisely what Republicans are hoping to achieve. The aim of the amendment is to create gridlock on all things related to taxation, and consequently force even deeper cuts hurting seniors, kids, veterans, commuters, sick people, crime victims, poor people, tne environment, small businesses, students, and middle class families.

Every legislative body has to do a taxation v. spending balancing act, and Republicans are attempting to put an iron thumb on the “cuts only” side of the scale, to make balance almost impossible.

And remember, an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans don’t want the “cuts only” approach Republicans keep trying to force feed them. By almost a 3-to-1 margin, a July 2011 MinnPost poll found that Minnesotans preferred a balanced approach to budgeting. That poll found that 66% prefer the balanced approach with tax increases in the mix, while only 23% prefer a cuts only approach.

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could seriously believe that the remedy for our hopelessly dysfunctional 2011-12 Minnesota Legislature is even an more gridlock-inducing set of rules. But that is precisely what the authors of this amendment are pushing. Legislative reporters understand this better than just about anyone. They cover the process every day, and they just lived through Minnesota’s state government shutdown.

So why the relative silence?

- Loveland

Note: Gear art by McMullin Creative.

Local Journalism’s Bachmann Failure

If you have any interest in things like gay bullying and the seamless interlocking of modern conservative politics and homosexual fear-mongering, you owe it to yourself to read the Rolling Stone piece, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens”.  It’s the, well, embarrassing tale of how conservative religious zealots up in the Anoka-Hennepin school district created and inflamed a climate that may – may –  have contributed to bullying that resulted in the suicides of nine teenagers, a rate far, far beyond the national norm.

Now, I realize that judging by traffic flow, deep-inside media stories hold very little interest to the public, and even less if the story means having read a daily paper opinion page piece. But bear with me, or move on. Your choice.

The 7000-word Rolling Stone story is both vivid, detailed and unsparing in making the connection between the likes of Michele Bachmann and the atmosphere of intense intolerance in the north metro area. It is also wholly unlike anything written, or produced, by any major media outlet in the Twin Cities — Star Tribune, Pioneer Press or Minnesota Public Radio — all of whom are fully aware of both the appalling suicide rate and the fervor of anti-gay rhetoric stoked by religious conservatives.

My MinnPost colleague, David Brauer, appears to be aware of this curious under-reporting of so highly provocative a case of cause-and-effect. A couple of days ago, he took Star Tribune opinion page writer Lori Sturdevant to task for a column she wrote tut-tutting Rolling Stone for what she regarded as a hyperbolic presentation of the story of Anoke-Hennepin’s problem, specifically the way it connected Bachmann’s political strategy with the anti-gay fervor … and tragic consequences.

I encourage you to read David’s piece, “Rolling Stone didn’t slime Michele Bachmann.” He treads into a pet/obsessive fascination of mine, namely the clear editorial choice made by standard-bearers of journalistic truth-telling and context-providing in this major media market. To be more specific: The very curious way the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press and MPR have restrained their coverage of Bachmann, in particular, and the volatile, potent and routinely factually inaccurate movement inspired by her kind.

My duties at MinnPost involve aggregating stories from near and far with an impact on Minnesota. When Bachmann was in the GOP presidential hunt there was a regular torrent of reporting and commentary on her daily/hourly accusations, misstatements, flagrant falsehoods and, what else can you call them but outright lies.

The striking thing to me, as I surfed hither and yon, was how little of Bachmann’s manifest recklessness with the truth made its way in to the print (or on-air) version of any of our three primary serious news entities. To its (modest) credit the Strib did run more of Bachmann’s absurdities in its “Hot Dish Politics” blog than the other two did anywhere. But, if I had to apply a percentage, our three local journalism mainstays reported no more than 30%-40% of what Bachmann — a presidential candidate and easily the highest profile politician in the state — was saying in a given news cycle.

More to the point in the context of the Rolling Stone piece, the influence of Bachmann, and other hyper-conservative political characters on events in Anoka-Hennepin, was reported only flatly. There was no drawing of any overt lines of causation, and no story approached the depth of reporting Rolling Stone put into the piece. Put another way, our local journalistic icons, treated the over-heated Anoka-Hennepin culture war milieu with studied dispassion and no evident desire to lay out a full and complete context for their readers/listeners.

My suspicion/accusation has long been that the local news media have each separately made an economic calculation that regular and full reporting Bachmann’s misrepresentations, activities, alliances and influences becomes counter-productive after the point of perfunctory diligence. Translation: To have aggressively covered her — did I mention, a presidential candidate and the state politician with the highest profile on the national stage? — would be to risk blowback from her intensely contentious supporters, open themselves to invigorated charges of “liberal bias” and possibly/likely suffer advertising/underwriting blowback.

My attitude has always been that Bachmann was/is a disgrace to the concept of public service; that her’s is a stunningly self-serving act fired by her willingness to recklessly disregard even a minimal respect for truth, accuracy and fairness … three qualities on which serious news organizations pride and market themselves. By her contempt for those qualities and her surge into the national limelight it seemed to me she merited/required both 24/7 attention from her hometown media AND regular reminders that she was practicing a form of reckless rabble-rousing that didn’t entitle her to serious coverage.

That last part is me, largely as blogger. But all three of the news organizations I mentioned have “silos” for analysis and commentary where they could have laid out in far greater depth than they didthe roots of Bachmann’s candidacy and her influence with so potent a sub-set of today’s electorate. But, largely, they passed on that opportunity.

Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker wrote the definitive Bachmann profile, Karl Bremer at “Ripple in Stillwater”, Bill Prendergast and the rest at The Minnesota Progressive Project delivered the best day-to-day coverage and Rolling Stone laid out the most complete portrait of the pernicious effects of her rhetoric and influence.

Put bluntly, there’s no excuse for that kind of coverage not appearing in journalism entities truly committed to reporting without fear or favor.

Grading Standardized Tests

Tests effective?

The news last week about Minnesota’s standardized reading scores reminded me how much I hate standardized tests. In my considered opinion, one-size-fits all standardized tests are the absolute worst tools I have seen for improving education.

Except for all the other options available to us.

Before explaining my Churchillian verdict on standardized tests, I should mention that I was a very poor standardized test taker back in the day. When I should have been answering questions, I tended to be thinking about why they asked the question…or why they used that particular wording…or what kind of deductive mind games they were trying to play…or what kind of test scores Charlie on Charlie’s Angels got in order to land that awesome job…or what is so special about #2 pencils for chrissake…or why the cute girl three rows over would never be interested in a guy like me, or why… And then when they announced there was one minute left before our life’s course would be charted by optical mark recognition equipment, I would guess “C” on the large portion of the test that I had not yet read.

Maybe that shows that I had an attention deficit disorder. Maybe it means I was analytical, creative, intellectually curious, hormonal, or moronic.

Psychoanalysis aside, this was not a winning strategy for me. It also wasn’t a winning strategy for the institutions who wanted an honest assessment of my likelihood of success. Because I turned out to be a “late bloomer,” someone who wasn’t predicted by the optical recognition scanner to succeed in academics or a white collar career, but did.

Given my personal experience, you would think that I’d want to ban standardized tests. I’m sorely tempted. But at the same time, I do think that K-12 schools need to be intentional and disciplined about teaching the foundational skills most of us need to succeed. I do want to keep kids away from teachers and schools who can’t or won’t teach those things. I do want to measure student performance in order to incent individual and institutional improvement, empower parents to vote with their feet, and target early help to kids who are falling behind.

And I can’t figure out how to achieve those things without standardized tests. Maybe those of you who got kickass standardized test scores can figure that out, but I can’t.
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Expecting More From News-Sponsored Polls

Last week, MinnPost released its inaugural public opinion poll, another step in it’s maturation as an increasingly central part of the Minnesota news landscape. I maintain polls are an important part of news coverage in a democracy, and Minnpost proved it last week when it was the first to tell the story of the public blaming Republicans, by a 2-to-1 margin, for the bitterly debated government shutdown. After months of wonky budget debate coverage, it was interesting to read about the public verdict, as measured by a random sample survey. Our little MinnPost is growing up.

But I have higher aspirations for MinnPost. In the future, I hope MinnPost polls will focus on more than just “approval,” “blame,” and “if the election were held today” questions. Goodness knows, that ground is already covered ad nauseum by the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Minnesota Public Radio, University of Minnesota Humphrey School, St. Cloud State and many others.

I hope MinnPost, or someone else in that pack, also asks questions that probe the values underpinning the opinions. For example, they could ask something like this:
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Indies Rejecting GOP “Cuts Only” Sermon

At some point, Republicans will have to leave the cozy confines of the Tea Party rallies, Lincoln Day dinners, right wing blogs, and conservative talk radio echo chambers. At some point, they have to listen to independent voters. After all, rare is the candidate who can win a general election without earning a sizeable proportion of the 51% of Minnesotans who call themselves “independents.”

When Republicans do start listening to the indies, they’re not going to like what they hear.

Do I hear an "amen?"

“Cuts only” is what the GOP is prosletyzing these days. In Minnesota, their insistence on filling a budget shortfall without new revenue led to a government shutdown and another Republican borrowing binge. So Republicans mostly won the policy fight, but will they win the 2012 electoral fight?

A MinnPost poll published yesterday found that very few Minnesota independents are shouting “amen” to the “cuts only” sermons that conservatives have been so vigorously preaching. While 22% of independents support the cuts only Republican approach, more than three times as many (72%) support using a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, the approach DFL Governor Dayton advocated. That’s a 50-point spread, and other recent polls have had similar findings.
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March Madness At the State Capitol

As any sports fan knows, coaches routinely “work the refs” by whining to them about their rulings. They don’t do this because the refs change the calls – they almost never do — but because they hope it makes the refs feel guilty or self-conscious enough that they give you a “make up call(s)” in the future.

Politicians do this same dance. Often because they aren’t objective enough to recognize a fair call when they see it, and often because they are executing a planned strategy to leverage future “make up calls,” politicians are also constantly whining to the non-partisan referees –- reporters, pundits, and budget analysts — of their political and policy “games”.

In the last couple of decades, conservatives have particularly spent huge amounts of time, energy and resources complaining about reporters. In my opinion, they’ve made substantial headway, a discussion for another day.

Working the refs doesn’t bother me. I wish that we could give Americans the functional equivalent of instant replay to analyse the rulings at hand, but working the refs is just good old-fashioned free speech. I like free speech.

But over the last few years, politicians have taken the act of working the non-partisan refs a step further. Now they not only work the refs, they replace the refs.

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Half Full

THIS POST HACKED.

10 Questions: Giving more power to the people

THIS POST HACKED.

- The Mgmt.

 

Underground is Not The Middle Ground

THIS POST HACKED.

Good reads II

THIS POST HACKED.

- The Mgmt.

 

Another Stool at the Bar…

Or is “another stoolie behind bars” a better analogy?

Damned if I know.  I’m still trying to get my head around it being 2010.  According to the science fiction future historical timeline, this was the year in which Dave Bowman comes back to terraform Jupiter’s Europa, there are colonies on the Moon and Mars and everyone has a nano-scaled tech implanted in their heads to augment their wetware.  Instead, we’ve got Glenn Beck, ride sharing with the Russians to the International Space Station and the iPhone.  Somehow, I feel short-changed.

But, I digress.  As usual.

My actual purpose in writing today was to introduce a new member of the Crowd, Brian Lambert.  Observant visitors will note the appearance of his “gravatar” on the left side of the page or  may have read of his imminent arrival in David Brauer’s MinnPost column over the holidays.

Mr. Lambert is one-man media band with  gigs ranging from MinnPost, where he’s one of the authors of the Daily Glean, to blogging at the Rake and MPLS/St. Paul magazine, yakking on KTLK-FM and writing for the Pioneer Press where I first met him as a media critic. Starting next week, he’ll be co-hosting a 7-9 PM show on FM107, aka “The Chick Station.”  He’s probably done more stuff I’m forgetting, but I’ll leave it to him to embroider as he sees fit.

I’m not sure when his first post will appear or the topics he’ll be writing about (not surprising since I don’t know these things about myself), but I almost always find Mr. Lambert’s musings interesting, insightful, entertaining and fun.  He’s also enjoyably snarky and gossipy about the local media scene when the spirit moves him.  In short, he’s a fine addition to our group, especially since he promised to buy the first round for everyone who makes it to our next meatspace gathering. This alone sets him apart from the rest of us.

Enjoy.

- Austin

Photo credit:  Dick Kraus.  “Brian Lambert helps his dad shovel a heavy snowfall from the steps of their rented house in South Huntington in 1996″certified payroll nice

What Happened In Rochester Better Not Stay In Rochester

Whatever magic Al Franken unleashed this morning in Rochester to secure the DFL endorsement with 62 percent of the votes ought to be vacuumed up off the floor of the Mayo Civic Center and bottled for the fall. According to MinnPost’s Doug Grow, today’s Al was sincere, articulate, persuasive and effective, qualities not much seen to date from the man who gave us Stuart Smalley. See for yourself:

Maybe he read Loveland’s post.

- Austin tax preparation business fine

The Man Who Mistook a Web Site for a Newspaper

Mike Hatch ducked an interview with MinnPost‘s Eric Black on the grounds that he mistakenly thought it was the Rochester Post asking for an interview about his tenure as AG and that of his successor.  He was shocked – shocked! – to find “that in fact you represent a blog called the Minnesota Post.”

This strikes me as the funniest thing I’ve read today.  Mr. Hatch is one of the most media-adept politicians I’ve ever observed; does he really expect me to believe he doesn’t know what MinnPost is or where Mr. Black is coming from?

- Austin free invoice fine

If You’re Not Outraged….

Doug Stone’s “Where’s the outrage?” posting on MinnPost today, coupled with Dr. Loveland’s musing on the state of the newspaper industry, has put me in a bit of a grumpy mood this afternoon. If an article as well-researched and well-placed as the New York Times’ analysis of the Pentagon’s use of retired military officers as a fifth column can’t rouse us – regardless of our political leanings – then the state of our union is pretty worrisome and the future of the newspaper industry looks pretty bleak

For those who can’t be bothered with the full version, the NYT last weekend ran a huge front-page analysis of how the Pentagon has systematically targeted a group of retired military officers serving as “analysts” for various news media. Turns out that these individuals 1) have been regularly exposed to special briefings, backgrounders, talking points and other spin from the Defense Department; 2) are often employed or are otherwise affiliated with companies that depend on the DoD for substantial revenue and; 3) these relationships were seldom if ever disclosed to the news organizations or their consumers.

This is the kind of reporting media experts say newspapers should focus on in our brave new world – in-depth, long-form, entrepreneurial, context- and content-heavy. This is the kind of reporting that – as Mr. Loveland correctly points out – often fuels the rest of the media and the blogosphere.

Except when it doesn’t. As Mr. Stone reports, the reaction to this massive heave has been – to say the least – muted. Despite the amount and quality of research involved (after more than a week of carping from the “liberal media” theorists the only correction made so far is the misidentification of one analyst’s service branch), despite the placement (front page of Sunday New York Times is as close as we get to a national agenda), there has been relatively little follow on by other media and very little evidence that the populace is particularly upset.

Mr. Stone cites several reason for this collective yawn including our cynicism (“Of course they’re doing this, everybody does it.”) and the unwillingness of the media to criticize itself, particularly in an age of media concentration and where the finger of criticism was pointing in the mirror.

Regardless of the disease, though, the symptom is what concerns me.

WARNING: BLOGGER CLIMBING ON SOAPBOX AHEAD…PREACHING TO COMMENCE IN 3…2…1…NOW…

Our system depends on checks and balances and not just between the branches of government, but between the various elements of the larger society. Government excess is checked and balanced in part by a strong and active press and by an engaged and informed public. What we’ve experienced in this decade has been a surge in the government – the executive branch in particular – seizing new powers and rights for itself while the media has been in a relatively dysfunctional phase of timidity, navel-gazing and economic turmoil even while the public has been relatively distracted and disengaged.

Oddly enough, especially coming from a guy like me who believes the negligence of the current administration nearly meets the definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors”, I don’t begrudge the administration using the opportunities presented to it. Every president – regardless of party or philosophy – has tried to expand his powers and to use the powers of its office to implement its agenda. Outreach to the retired military officers makes sense.

I do, however, fault the media for 1) not knowing about the relationships with the DoD, 2) not disclosing the relationships and 3) not acting to clean itself up in the wake of learning of these problems. I also fault us – the public – if we don’t take this fact – and many others – into consideration when we go to the voting booth.

- Austin investment advice kind

Consumer Weather Perceptions Argue for Twins Stadium Roof, Not Weather Data

One of the most persistent water cooler topics in the Twins Cities over the last few years has been this: “Should the Twins put a roof on their new outdoor stadium?”

On the Opening Day of the Twins season, Jay Wiener at the online news publication MinnPost (anyone reading it?) had some typically insightful reporting on this subject. The crux of his analysis:

So, including today, since 1961, that’s seven home openers out of 48 — or about 15 percent – that would have been problematic. But, if Opening Day were pushed each time beyond April 15, it looks like all but one of those snow/rain/cold days would have been avoided.


Interesting. But if these are the data the Twins used for their their roof decision, their analysis was incomplete. To me, the sales loss associated with going lidless goes beyond ACTUAL weather cancellations. Losses also will be associated with something else, the consumer’s perception that there is a constantly LOOMING THREAT of weather cancellations, or, just as importantly, a miserable experience.

After all, in marketing consumer perceptions about the product matter more than the actual product attributes. If buyers are convinced Yugos are lemons, it doesn’t really matter all that much if the reliability data actually tells a different story. And if Twins fans are convinced that the chances of cancellation or a bad experience are high, it really doesn’t matter if the weather data tell a sunnier story.

For this reason, I hope the roof decision was viewed through the prism of surveys and focus groups deeply probing consumer perceptions and concerns about weather, not just historic weather charts. The number of Opening Day weather-related cancellations is interesting and partially relevant, but it strikes me you have to go much deeper into consumer angst about Minnesota weather.

• APRIL/SEPTEMBER BOYCOTTS. How many families will boycott individual tickets in April and September in anticipation of the higher liklihood for cancellations and bad experiences?

• PREEMPTIVE DOWNSIZING. How many families will opt for PARTIAL season ticket packages, rather than FULL season packages, in order to avoid the weeks when the perception is that cancellations and bad experiences are likely?

• FROZEN OUT. How many families ultimately will not renew their ticket packages with the memory of a miserable experience(s) frozen into their brain?

• NON-METRO NO SHOWS. How many non-metro Twins fans and their families will eliminate or severely limit their Twins road trips because a multi-ticket forfeiture due to a weather cancellation seems too possible to risk the cash?

OK, I realize the following “analysis” is ridiculously back of the envelope. But I kinda sorta have a real job, so this is the best I can do between conference calls and emails. Here goes: If the Twins stadium is used for 30 years, the $200 million cost of a roof spreads out to about $6.6 million per year. Let’s say the average amount a fan dumps at the park per game — tickets, food, beer, trinkets — over those 30 years is $75. I have no idea if this number is reasonable, but remember MLB inflation rate is not exactly the same as the normal inflation rate. Given all that, it would take the loss of just 88,000 fans over 81 home games per year (3.4 million total annual capacity in the new stadium) to justify the cost of the roof.

For all of the aforementioned reasons related to consumer weather-related perceptions, might that be possible?

- Loveland

adp paystatements kind

Phased Gas Tax Increase Gives Legs To A Damaging Story

When you face an inevitably controversial story, every strategic communications counselor worth their salt will tell you the same thing: Manage the initial bad story as best you can, but, more importantly, do all you can to halt or limit subsequent follow-up stories. Reason: More damaging stories usually means more reputation damage.

Everyone knows that, right? Well, apparently not the earnest policy wonks who crafted the state transportation finance bill that passed the Minnesota Legislature last week with the courageous backing of a bipartisan super-majority.

The transportation finance wonks wrote a bill that calls for a 2 cent increase on April 1 (prepare for the flood of April Fools jokes), a 3.5 cent increase on October 1, and a 3.5 increase over the next five years. In the policy world, this is known as a “phase-in.” It is done to take away some of the immediate political bite of the proposal, and to allow people adequate time to adjust.

In the media relations world, this is known as “water torture.” That is, the phasing guarantees a steady drip, drip, drip of “DFL Defends Yet Another Gas Tax To Increase” stories onto the foreheads of Minnesota taxpayers, including a bunch of stories just a month prior to the November election.

There has been some terrific journalism done lately by MinnPost and the Star Tribune on this issue. Those stories put this increase in a much more complete and thoughtful context than the standard AP or broadcast news story does.

But the unfortunate reality is, most reporters are not going to cover this story more deeply than “Drivers To Feel Pain Due To Yet Another DFL Gas Tax Increase.” And thanks to legislative wonkery untempered by PR counsel, those reporters are going to be be spending the next five years writing that damaging story over and over and over again.

- Loveland sample invoice kind

Do I detect a strategy here?

Could it be that Minnesota’s Democrats in the legislature are actually following a plan? How unlike us.

Today’s Minnposting by Sharon Schmickle on the upcoming stem cell debate certainly suggests that the Dems are trying to bring up a series of politically volatile issues that either 1) split the Republican party (the transportation bill); 2) embarrass Governor Pawlenty (the Molnau ouster), or; 3) force our VP-Wannabe-in-Chief to make unpopular vetoes (stem cells).

In the latter case, there’s unlikely to be enough votes in the legislature to override a veto but there is consistent support for such research among the general population (as high as 2-to-1 depending on the poll) and particularly among those oh-so-important “moderates” that Senator McCain is going to need to have a chance at winning in November. That might make it harder for Mr. Early Endorser to remain on the Veep short list.

Of course, in the topsy-turvy world of 2008 politics (to steal Loveland’s line), a stand against stem cell research probably makes the Guv more attractive to Senator McCain as a way to appease the right side of his party (which is putting a pretty good press on him to backtrack from previous positions). That way he could stick to his current moderate-pleasing positions while signaling to the right that their views would be represented at the table.

- Austin education funding kind

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