Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Senatorial Weakness or Extreme Voter Manipulation?

Today’s press coverage includes a story on the hold up of the St. Croix bridge project - again - due partly to the failure of the Senate to approve the bridge measure as part of any of its bills even though it requires no new spending. What is does require is an exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that currently limits development on the St. Croix river.

Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar is described as a “leading proponent” of the bridge. Her party controls the Senate. She is up for re-election in 2012. Past practice and collegial courtesy take those things into account in the U.S. Senate, where bills sponsored by senators coming into an election year are routinely given extra consideration to give those senators something positive to talk about in their campaigns. So why has this bridge project been delayed yet again?

Supposedly both Democrat and Republican staffers are chalking it up to Washington’s “preoccupation” with negotiations on tax and spending deals. That “preoccupation” didn’t seem to hamper their multi-tasking ability to pass legislation allowing for indefinite detainment of American citizens without charges or censorship of the Internet, measures voted for by Klobuchar even though they were widely criticized and are sure to be challenged in court as unconstitutional. Women are great multi-taskers. So what stopped Klobuchar from pushing the St. Croix River bridge closer to the top of her to-do list?

Once you get past the anemic bipartisan soundbites, only two viable theories surface: either the good senator does not have the credentials and clout necessary to convince her leadership to pay attention to the needs of her state, or she is playing political football with the long-suffering constituents of the St. Croix River area. A key quote from the senator herself in a Star Tribune story by Kevin Diaz and Kevin Giles gives us a clue: “We believe we still have a window here for early next year. We can get it done.”

Early next year? As in, just in time to remind voters of her value and neutralize any idea of a valid alternative to her candidacy? Maybe this is the real consideration afforded to Klobuchar by her leadership: the ability to kick around desperately needed jobs and infrastructure projects until it serves her personal purposes. Either she can’t get this project done, or she will only do it for her benefit. It can’t be both. So, which it, Senator? Are you weak-kneed, or is this a power play?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Home Sweet Police State

Fully half of Americans believe the United States federal government poses an immediate threat to the freedom of our own citizens.  As crazy as that sounds, actions like these tell us why that sentiment is so strong:

The United States House of Representatives voted today to approve the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual occurrence that approves the budget for federal defense spending. But this year there’s an addition to the bill: Section 1031, a provision allowing our military to arrest and hold enemy combatants for indefinite periods of time without charges, has been expanded to include US citizens and legal residents. Moreover, the provision allowing the arrest and indefinite imprisonment of US citizens was inserted at the command of the President himself. President Obama threatened to veto the whole budget bill unless the language protecting American citizens and legal residents from this provision was removed. Minnesota Senator Klobuchar voted for in favor of this bill, even though as a former prosecutor she knows what kind of unprecedented power this gives both our President and the military to control, harass and threaten US citizens.

Another measure that Senator Klobuchar voted for, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its companion, Protect IP Act (PIPA) is well on its way to passage in spite of enormous opposition from internet providers, engineers, major website companies, journalists, entertainers and grassroots activists. The bills are couched as legislation to strengthen US copyright laws. The language is fraught with problems, however, authorizing prison terms for people classified as offenders and giving the government the ability to shut down entire websites that the Department of Justice believes are violating the provisions of the law. In an open letter to Congress, some of the most prominent computer engineers and web inventors had this to say:

“The current bills -- SOPA explicitly and PIPA implicitly -- also threaten engineers who build Internet systems or offer services that are not readily and automatically compliant with censorship actions by the U.S. government. When we designed the Internet the first time, our priorities were reliability, robustness and minimizing central points of failure or control. We are alarmed that Congress is so close to mandating censorship-compliance as a design requirement for new Internet innovations. This can only damage the security of the network, and give authoritarian governments more power over what their citizens can read and publish.”

These two statutes, if they hold up in court, strip American citizens of our First Amendment rights, our due process rights, and any other right the presidential administration deems necessary in the “war on terror”. By expanding the definition of the war on terror to include US soil and include US citizens and legal residents as possible enemy combatants, the administration now wields enormous legal power over the American people.

Both of these bills have bipartisan support, which only increases the cynicism and distrust of people who are looking to one party or another to defend our inalienable rights. These statutes are blatantly unconstitutional and must be immediately challenged in the courts. Every lawmaker who voted for them, like Senator Klobuchar, needs to be held accountable and replaced in 2012 with leaders who will untangle this mess and put the American people first.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Rules of McPolitics

“The reason it is so important to control government is because government is the source of enormous power. One president of this country, when he or she takes office, appoints…5,000 people to run a bureaucracy, nonmilitary nonpostal service of 2 million people, who hire 10 million outside outsource contractors – a workforce of 12 million people – that spends $3 trillion a year. That number is larger than the gross domestic product of all but four countries on the face of the earth.

“So the reason we’re doing what we’re doing…and the way to get progressive change, is to control government. That’s what this is about.” – Rob Stein, 2008

In 2004 a very small group of very focused Democrats came together in the state of Colorado, determined to change the course of election outcomes in their state. Started by one very bright political organizer and financed by one very ideologically driven wealthy resident, they built the most effective strategic and tactical system the American political world has seen in modern times. In so doing, they rewrote the playbook for winning elections, turning traditionally red state Colorado into a heavy hitting blue state. They created an extremely effective system that has now been franchised across the country, a system I like to call McPolitics. A book was written documenting their efforts and successes, authored by a journalist who covered the campaigns during that time period and by a former office holder who became a casualty of their success. The book is titled, “How the Democrats Won Colorado, and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care”.

In reality, however, this isn’t a partisan problem. This is a problem of regular people vs. power structures. The system the Democrats invented is now being adopted by many on the Republican side. Escalation is inevitable in an arms race, but the effect has been to so thoroughly manipulate the campaign process and stack the deck in favor of heavily funded shadow organizations, it is nearly impossible for “regular people” to make honest, informed decisions for themselves at the ballot box. Just like some independent business owners have a hard time competing against national chains when they come into town, McPolitics is incredibly hard to overcome once it is established in your area. Either you adapt to the new landscape, or you die.

Here, then, is the genesis of McPolitics:

In Colorado, the Democrats were really tired of being kicked around. Colorado had been a dominantly Republican state for a long time. Determined to change the landscape in Colorado to further their goals, dedicated liberal leaders from private and non-profit sectors came together around one goal: to win, period. They set aside any issue or policy disagreements, knowing they could work those out later once they were in the majority. They made the conscious decision to never criticize or work against each other in public. Their discipline was incredibly strong. It didn’t happen – not once. No public squabbles, no potshots, no public disagreements of any kind.  The group’s leaders, made up of extremely wealthy business people, the heads of some of the biggest non-profits, and the best political operatives, formed a Roundtable that made all key decisions going forward. All participating organizations coordinated tightly around each one’s strengths and took their directions from the Roundtable.  Organizations were focused (and new ones set up) on what they did best; they didn’t go rogue or step on each others’ toes. The organizations were plugged into the plan where they would be most effective.

The Roundtable based all decisions on how to take extreme advantage of campaign finance laws and protecting donors – file as little paperwork as humanly possible and operate in the shadows as much as possible.

Excerpt from, “The Blueprint”: “The group immediately recognized that campaign finance reform had completely changed the rules of the game. By limiting the amount of money candidates and political parties could raise and spend, the new law had seriously weakened candidates – and all but killed political parties… The biggest thing is it took parties out of the mix as a money entity [compared to the capacity of C4s and 527s].”

The Roundtable developed target lists for seats based on local issues, opposition vulnerability and voting index. All that mattered was whether the seat was winnable. Every race was local; there was no statewide message (although there were overarching themes). In-depth polling and research was used to develop strategy and messaging in every case.

Excerpt from, “The Blueprint”: “Party [entities]… have a tendency to put valuable resources into races they’re probably not going to win because activists demand it and they want to make friends…The people at the Roundtable recognized that they, for all intents and purposes, were the party…That wasn’t such a bad thing. They wouldn’t allow themselves to be caught up in interpersonal politics…Everyone had a common goal and it wasn’t to win friends. It was to win elections. That was the measure by which they would succeed or fail.”

Campaign budgets were developed on the question: “How much does it take to win?” NOT: “How much do we think we can raise?” “How much has been spent in the past?” “How much ‘should’ we spend?” The only cost/benefit analysis that mattered to them was winning the seat and gaining control. The defining philosophy guiding budget decisions was “overwhelming force”. They didn’t care how much money was spent; they only cared about winning. They adopted the attitude that it was cheaper to win and advance than to defend after losing. No matter how much it costs, winning is less expensive than losing.

Illustration: MN Governor’s Race: Republican Tom Emmer lost the election by 8,700 votes. For want of 8,700 votes, Republicans now contend with a governor who blocked our budget, blocked our redistricting maps, blocked our government reforms and now leads a very well-funded, well-organized opposition on everything from taxes to constitutional amendments. Now various Republican groups are on defense, trying to raise roughly $2-3 million to defend redistricting in the courts, defend against union activism, and pay legal costs for a recount. That’s $2 to $3 million the GOP is paying because we lost. Could the GOP have won 8,700 more votes with another $3 million in campaign funds before the election? The fact is, we’re going to spend the money anyway. We can choose to spend the money on offense or on defense, but it’s going to be spent one way or another. Wouldn’t you rather spend it to win?

Organizational structures were purposely kept separate to make money tracking more difficult. The Roundtable (which morphed into Colorado Democracy Alliance, ‘CoDA’) brought participating groups and funders to the table together and matched them up – like a dating service – rather than acting as a clearing house for contributions. 527s, C4s and other organizations deliberately shifted over time, changing names and becoming ever more complicated to befuddle opposition research. Their legal goal was the exact opposite of transparency.

The Roundtable’s plan carefully included every method of obstruction, obfuscation and intimidation available, including overpowering media of every kind and legal action for everything and everything. Truth or legitimacy had no bearing on actions, only turning advantage to gain power. Tactics were designed to keep opposition on defense and suck up opposition donor money in legal bills so it could not be used on the campaigns.

Democrat attorneys were brought in for the express purpose of filing nuisance lawsuits against every organization and candidate that was competitive.

“Professional” activists were used to threaten, intimidate and bully opposition donors and volunteers.  Training camps were developed based on the mob tactics anarchists used during the G8 and G20 summits; trainings were hosted and filtered through specific unions, particularly SEIU.

Media outlets were co-opted either by “making friends” with the right people and nurturing those relationships, or arranging for financial help by liberal investors into new or troubled outlets to build them up and strengthen natural loyalties.

Every action was coordinated through the Roundtable. There was no truly unplanned or uncoordinated activity. “Random” or “coincidental” events were never truly random or coincidental. Rapid response to spontaneous opportunities was done through Twitter, text messaging and Facebook direct messaging. Lead “activists” were paid professional chaos creators, not volunteers who do things in their spare time.

Their main strategy was to discredit and demonize the opponent in every way possible while protecting their own candidate in every way possible.

Excerpt from, “The Blueprint”: “In the new arena, candidates are bit players in their own campaigns. It’s almost as if they don’t exist as people, but as biographies to be massaged, amplified and distorted by powerful campaign tactics.”

Overwhelming force and deep negativity were the tactics of choice because they work the fastest. At the same time, the Democrats hysterically decried and litigated (and were compassionately amplified by friendly legacy media) every minor attempt by Republicans to do the same. Class, race and lifestyle warfare were routinely used to great effect with a general electorate that was demoralized by an entrenched recession and subliminal (or not so subliminal) guilt trips over race and immigration.

 Illustration: MN Governor’s race: We saw very little of Mark Dayton on the campaign trail in person. We made the mistake of thinking it was because he was so erratic as a candidate his handlers had to keep him hidden. In reality, they were just carrying out their intended strategy, and he was a compliant candidate. Tom Emmer, in contrast, engaged heavily in Main Street retail campaigning to make up for his smaller campaign war chest. The result was that it kept him in front of the press, exponentially increasing his chances of making mistakes and getting critiqued on the record, giving his opponent new advertising material to use against him. Which is exactly what happened.

After the success of the prototype model in Colorado, the decision was made to create a permanent infrastructure that could be replicated in other states, essentially franchising their system. Eighty Democrat donors put up $110 million to fund development in targeted states to develop that infrastructure. Minnesota was in the top targeted states in the nation as far back as 2006, which launched what we now know as A Better Minnesota and its cohorts.  The political terrain, strategy and tactics have completely changed in less than one election cycle, bringing in tens of millions of dollars from other states and upending all of our political parties and traditions. AEW does not know how this will turn out. But the regular, everyday people of Minnesota are at the greatest risk of losing this arms race.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Competing with McPolitics

I have been watching the changing dynamics of politics and campaigns play out for some time now. Fundamental shifts are taking place right under our feet thanks to the McCain Feingold campaign finance laws (along with its companion legislation) and to the landmark Citizens United court decision of 2009. They have upended political financing norms, with the net result being much weaker state parties, very powerful special interest organizations, and candidates whose election success will depend even more on who controls the most money rather than grassroots activists. Money buys advertising; advertising sways voters. When grassroots activists don't have organized channels through which to work and amplify their voices, they cease to matter. All that matters is who has the most money and can spend it the best to sway public voters.
This concept is foreign to most Minnesota Republican activists. Because Minnesota is a caucus state, grassroots activists play a larger role than they do in a primary state. Historically, the Minnesota Republican Party has been one of the most thoroughly developed state GOP party organizations in the nation, with the most extensive voter ID lists, the biggest, most active grassroots population, the largest in-house fundraising capacity and the most influence over elections and legislative agendas precisely because it has the ability to defend the candidates endorsed by its delegates and advocate for the platform developed by its delegates. The power of the party organization really is the expression of the power of grassroots people across the state.

Maintaining and improving all of the operations that go into doing those things takes money. A lot of money. Until McCain-Feingold was passed and vetted through court cases, the ability for the state party to raise money from small and large donors was largely unmatched because of its strength and tradition. However, three things have collided to challenge the strength of this state party and state parties throughout the country:

1. The regulations and statutes contained in McCain-Feingold coupled with the Citizens United decision;

2. Strategies implemented by the Democrats to challenge and litigate as much as possible in the campaign and election process;

3. The protracted recession.

First, McCain-Feingold and its companion legislation increased reporting requirements by party entities, and more strictly separated and defined how state parties could use the funds they raised. Donations are separated into state and federal accounts with a $10,000 individual contribution limit placed on federal donations. This makes it more time consuming and expensive to raise money for the federal account because it has to be driven by small dollar donations. Additionally, almost all state party operations (staff, rent, voter lists, IT, administration costs, etc) have to be paid for out of the federal account because finance regulation assumes that those things are used at least in part to promote federal candidates and influence federal elections. (an oversimplification, but it is the practical effect). Thus, raising money for the federal account has become more expensive and difficult, the costs required to be paid by the federal account have become even more burdensome, and compliance efforts are more complicated and expensive (driving up costs for legal and consulting budgets). The net effect has been to dramatically reduce the involvement and influence of state parties in federal elections around the country.

Second, McCain-Feingold created some new elements in the campaign financing game. People are familiar with 527s (as in Moveon.org), but the newest entities to gain traction are the Super PACs and C4s. Super PACs are candidate-oriented. C4s are the real competition to state parties now. A 501c4 organization can accept donations of unlimited size from both individuals and corporations, and it does not have to disclose those donors in its reports. It is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction to campaign transparency. C4s cannot tell people to vote for or against a particular candidate, but they can drive people to (or away from) specific candidates with ads urging people to "Call Candidate So and So and tell him to support free markets!" or "Call Senator X and tell them you don't want to compromise on environmental protection!" C4s can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money at a very low cost without reporting donors, and they typically have very little overhead to support because they do not work directly with candidates, nor do they have to support and sustain a grassroots activist network. If I'm a major donor with $100,000 to give, and I have a choice between giving to a state party where I have to give my own personal money, my name gets publicly reported, and a big chunk goes to overhead, or I can give to a 501c4 where I can give my own or my business' money, my name (or my company's name) is never released, and almost all of my money goes directly to advertising for the candidate or issue I like, where do you think I will spend my money?

Everything about McCain-Feingold tends to favor large donors and hamper activist organizations like state parties that speak for "the little people".

But it gets better.

The 2000 election crystallized a new campaign strategy adopted very quickly by Democrats: the art of influencing elections through the legal process. The mess that was Florida inspired an entirely new set of tactics that Democrats have used to tremendous effect around the country: filing complaints and litigation for everything they possibly can wherever it is to their advantage to slow down the opposition. Filing a campaign violation complaint against a Republican candidate or entity has proven devastatingly effective around the country because: 1) the media will hype it to the nth degree; 2) conservatives are naturally guilt-ridden and will consider a fellow conservative guilty until proven innocent (and even then there will be residual judgment); 3) conservative donors DO NOT want to contribute money to pay for lawyers. It doesn't matter if the complaint is without merit. It doesn't matter if Democrats have done it, too. It doesn't matter what the ultimate outcome or consequences will be. A campaign violation complaint is the hand grenade of the new politics: it can be thrown at will for any or no reasom, land anywhere, will have a very messy, negative effect for everyone within the vicinity, and it is time-consuming and expensive to clean up. Nobody wants to give money to an organization mired in legal battles: where there's smoke, there's fire, right? There must be something wrong with the organization somewhere, and my donation is just going to go to pay lawyers anyway. Besides, why do I want my name associated with that kind of controversy?

The final nail in the coffin is the protracted recession. People are hurting financially. Since they don't have the cushion of a refund to pay them back for their donation (even if they think it's horrible policy), they're going to be much more careful with their donation budget. Given the choice to give to their local candidate/party unit or give to a state organization mired in legal battles and squabbling among its officers, where do you think the money is going to go? And without sufficient resources at the state level to support the infrastructure that the local units rely on, how long will the units be effective?

To see the results of this convergence of circumstances, we only need look at the Minnesota DFL state party. Their party endorsement has no power; their delegates essentially have no voice. The DFL candidate is the one with the most money to win a primary, and then the resulting winner enacts policies and legislation that appease their biggest contributors. The unions have become the grassroots force when it's needed. All the money, all the strategy, all the top-line staff come from A Better Minnesota and its cohorts. And it comes from all over the country. New York, Hollywood, Colorado, Texas. The old adage that all politics is local has evaporated. It’s been replaced by McPolitics: local franchises of a well-developed, proven campaign concept with national financing.

So it becomes harder and more expensive for state parties to raise money. Legal battles - and bills - mount. Operational expenses have to be cut to appease those complaining about debt. Efforts are made to drive wedges into leadership either by outside attack or by co-opting individual members to the other side (big lobbying contracts on issues against the party platform, for example). Credible leaders walk away from the dysfunction, leaving a power vacuum. Donors wash their hands and direct their money to more effective organizations. The organization splits apart from the inside, crumbles and leaves the path open for victory by the opposition. And it takes years to rebuild, if ever.

This is eerily similar the game plan used by corporations launching a hostile takeover. It has proven very effective wherever it has been deployed. Welcome to the new era of McPolitics.

State parties don’t have to fall prey to this, however. Just like small businesses can retool and compete against national chains, state parties can compete against McPolitics.

Narrow focus to concentrate on what the state party does best. For years, activists and candidates have gotten used to the state party doing “everything” from list development to candidate recruitment to voter turnout to TV advertising. That won’t work in the McPolitics world. State parties have to concentrate on doing a very few things that no other group does, and then do them extraordinarily well.

Know your customer, serve your customer. In the “all things to all people” model, state parties work to appeal to both grassroots activists and the public. That’s a difficult balance to maintain. State parties may find an advantage in picking one group and gearing everything to serve that group. The real voice of the Republican Party is the grassroots activist – regular people who talk with their neighbors every day. No list will ever be complete without input from local volunteers, no advertising strategy can trump good relationships and conversations with your neighbors and friends. There are all kinds of tools and trainings that state parties can generate to equip local activists with what they need to accomplish the goal: successfully getting out the conservative message and turning out voters.

Expect accountability. Understand that successfully competing in the McPolitics world is a two way street, and every person has to do their part. It cannot fall to one person to raise all the money, be the spokesperson, run the daily operations, advise the candidates and keep the calendar. State parties can reasonably expect that every state level officer will help raise money and build local organizations. Every regional and local party officer should have a voter ID plan, a fundraising plan and a voter turnout plan, and it is reasonable to expect that if one plans to run for local party officer positions, one will have the integrity to fulfill all the responsibilities that come with the position. Candidates for office – every office – have to do their part to add to the effectiveness of the whole effort with strong, well-organized, self-sustaining campaigns. In this incredibly competitive new landscape, every single person matters. Slacking off is not allowed. Infighting is destructive. The only way this strategy works is when everyone stands shoulder to shoulder and does the work together. The bottom line is: if you want to be counted, then your efforts have to count for something.

I have been involved in Minnesota politics for longer than I care to admit. I’ve seen the parties here go through several cycles of renewal. The timing in this case for the Republican Party of Minnesota to retool and open the New Year focused and ready is perfect for the coming 2012 elections. There’s not a moment to waste.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

This Country Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us

Gallup Polling released some startling statistics in September. A nationwide poll showed that Americans’ distain for government performance is at a whopping 81% - an all-time record. Fully 57% have little to no confidence that the federal government can solve domestic problems, and they believe that government wastes 51 cents of every dollar it spends. But most disturbing:

Half of Americans believe our own federal government poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.

The New York Times released poll results at the end of October showing the same level of distrust and skepticism. Not only are these results profoundly negative, they are unprecedented. The overwhelming numbers alone suggest that these dismal views cross party lines, ideologies and socio-economic demographics. Americans are showing a cynicism toward their government that is unlike anything pollsters have ever seen.

Politicians everywhere are scrambling to get a grip on this problem. With national elections less than a year away, both Democrats and Republicans are trying to come up with a “messaging strategy” that will convince majorities of voters to go their way. I think voters are sending a strong message of their own: “We don’t believe in you anymore, no matter who you are.” A friend of mine recently summed up the feeling this way: “The enemy isn’t Republicans or Democrats. It’s the government.”

I have been fortunate enough to travel this beautiful state of Minnesota for three years now. I’ve spent a great deal of time observing and listening. I have felt a sense of desperation and urgency that is truly unlike anything I’ve encountered before. I remember the malaise of the 1970s with its misery index. The mood today is worse. Coupled with the insecurity of a very fragile economy is a feeling that Washington doesn’t care about what happens to all of us as long as Congressional members continue to get their perks and pensions, the President gets his vacations, and the bureaucracy continues to get fed. We have seen our rights and civil liberties stripped away in large and small ways, and by both parties. The only thing Washington really seems to care about is controlling ordinary people while indulging its own interest groups and bureaucracy.

This is the anger that sparked the Tea Party movement. This is the cynicism that spawned the Occupy movement. Even though most of the beliefs and ideas of the two groups are diametrically opposed, that fundamental sense of betrayal by their own government fueled both movements.

Voters are rapidly reaching the point where they don’t care which party politicians say they belong to. Voters want to vote for candidates who will actually take a stand against the Washington status quo and work for the people. For too long the People have been the ones on the losing end. The People do not want politicians anymore. We want elected officials who will set aside the desire to score points for their party or themselves and instead, put the needs of the American people first. We want leaders who will take bold action to reduce the size and power of government, reinforce our rights, and facilitate leadership in the private and non-profit sectors to grow our economy, not the government bureaucracy.

As we head into 2012, voters are using a new yardstick to measure their candidates: do your ideas expand the size and control of government, increase the need for more spending and diminish the rights and opportunities of the people, or do your ideas reduce the size and expense of government, strengthen our rights and liberties, and facilitate growth in the private sector? Voters are telling us there is not room for both. Either you stand with government bureaucracy and control, or you stand with the citizens of this great nation. Where do you stand?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Leave 'No Child Left Behind' Behind

Twelve years ago, presidential candidate George W. Bush made public education reform a central theme of his campaign. American students were not keeping up with their global counterparts, and the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their better off peers was not getting any better. Mr. Bush thought it was time to do something drastic to overcome the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’, as he called it.
That something drastic became “No Child Left Behind”, the largest, most comprehensive federal overhaul of education we have ever seen. For the first time, the federal government established education standards that every student had to master in order to graduate. Schools that repeatedly missed the mark risked losing students to better-performing schools or being completely reorganized and taken over by state government.

Despite my misgivings about federal involvement in k-12 education in general, I was a huge fan of the idea of No Child Left Behind when it was first implemented. Like many others, I was deeply disappointed with the overall performance of the education system in America and fed up with the lame excuses from those who defended the status quo. I was shocked that schools were churning out students as “graduates” with very little data to prove they’d mastered their material. Educators talked about how well they knew their students in the classroom, but in fact, we knew very little about our students at all. How could we effectively reach every student unless we dropped our assumptions about who they were and how they learned?
So we began testing. We began assessing. We compiled data. We measured progress.
Ten years later, a professional field that had operated almost entirely without numbers is now swimming in data. Entire companies have been developed to generate, compile, track and analyze all the data points we gather. We have demographics, psychographics, learning styles, rates of progress, cohort comparisons, and a host of other data points that educators, administrators, board members and regulators can use to measure the success or failure of a school system, a curriculum, a teacher, a student population.
Now we need to breathe.
School districts all over the country have been frantically trying to analyze all their data, compare it to federal and state standards and come up with improvement plans where necessary to avoid the most onerous penalties of No Child Left Behind, all in an environment of continually changing standards and requirements. If the federal government really wants to help improve education at this point, the best thing it can do is… nothing. Freeze No Child Left Behind for two years. We need sufficient time for data and people to work together all the way up and down the educational food chain to determine best practices and make well-planned adjustments to our educational vision that will serve students well into the future. We will not achieve good results by trying to accomplish this on the fly using staff who feel they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their collective heads every day. No Child Left Behind has been an enormous catalyst for transforming education in America. Freezing it for the purpose of properly finishing its task can be an equally significant contribution to our children’s futures.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bridging the Great Budget Divide, Part I

A recent tweet said, “Democrats think the budget is a negotiation; Republicans think it is an intervention.” That might be the most apt description for the philosophical divide at the heart of the budget fights on the federal and state levels across the country.

Dating at least back to the days of FDR and accelerated under Lyndon B. Johnson, the dominant school of thought in American politics has been that government entities are legitimate partners that should be included in most, if not every, area of life with the goal of improving people’s lives. The enforcement authority and funding power of government have been used for everything from rewarding or punishing individual personal behaviors to buying global friends to changing entire industries. The term “public-private partnership” was coined primarily to make the use of taxpayer dollars and government involvement in private projects more palatable to those who wanted to curtail the size and cost of government. And although the ‘partnership’ of government into virtually every social and charitable area of our American lives is strongly favored by Democrats (the so-called ‘war on poverty’, the easy negotiating of labor contracts between members of government bodies and the public employee unions that donate to their campaigns), so-called ‘pro-business’ Republicans have been no less culpable in their promotion of government partnership in commercial development projects and private industry R&D. Both sides have used Americans’ hard earned tax money to finance foreign forays of all kinds, often with unintended and dubious results. For many with both Ds and Rs behind their names, tax dollars were simply an unending stream of capital to be horse traded for each other’s priorities.

We are now reaping what we have sown. We are so far in debt at the federal level that people in high places actually talk about the United States federal government becoming insolvent. We have such significant structural liabilities from accumulated commitments in labor contracts and entitlement programs that we are in danger of suffocating from the weight of our own taxpayer-funded generosity. Our position in global affairs grows more tenuous by the day, as more allied nations question our ability to keep up with the promises we have made to them and the leverage of often unfriendly creditor nations increases every time we borrow more money.

Our situation has brought a different kind of fiscal sensibility to the forefront of national and state politics. A more sophisticated philosophy with a fundamentally different budgeting premise, it recognizes we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect different results. The idea of using last year’s budget numbers as the starting point and horse-trading from there to get a passable and signable budget is a stale concept that does not fit these modern sensibilities; it's tantamount to redecorating the train as it speeds toward a derailment. “Public-private partnership” is a four letter word. New sensibilities are less “pro-business” and more “free market”. The idea of negotiating dollar allocations to different government agencies is viewed as a complete waste of time until the deeper problem of examining and testing the proper scope and role of government in today’s dynamics is thoroughly addressed - and remedied.

The modern fiscal philosophy does not ask, “What has government been doing?” or even, “What does or can government do well?” These questions are not relevant to modern budget discussions. The primary question that must be asked and answered is, “What functions are mandated of government by the Constitution?” Those functions enumerated by either federal or state constitution as governmental responsibilities are the primary (for many, the only) reasons for government to exist at all; every activity beyond that scope should be left to the private and charitable sectors. This new sensibility does not believe there should be no safety net; rather, it demands that we the people be the direct, primary safety net instead of abdicating our social responsibility for our fellow man to a government bureaucracy.

That is the true divide in American politics today. It’s not about the numbers. It’s not about the percentage of the top marginal tax rate. Until our body politic resolves the question of the proper role of government in our modern times, we will not bridge the divide. Having an honest and respectful conversation about that role may be the best recession therapy this country can get.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

America's Conservative Agenda Brought to You by... Minnesota

The land of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone finds itself in a very curious position these days. With the entry of both Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Governor Tim Pawlenty into the presidential arena, the election of a new congressional member from a district formerly considered a GOP black hole, and legislative majorities in both state houses committed to not just downsizing state government but completely overhauling its obsolete methods and assumptions, Minnesota is poised to be a major trend setter for the nation in the 2012 elections, perhaps THE trend setter.

Sounds funny, doesn’t it? “Minnesota” and “political conservatism” don’t exactly roll off the tongue here. The Scandinavian tundra is much better known for its ‘progressivism’, and downright socialistic tendencies in many respects. But things have been changing for awhile, even if establishment liberals have steadfastly ignored the shifting tides. More and more Republicans have been getting elected in the last 10 years, and those Republicans have trended more conservative than their 70s and 80s counterparts. Even though the 2010 election gave us a Democratic governor, he only garnered 44% of the vote, and he only managed to do that by spending more than $15 million – more than his two opponents combined. Buying an office isn’t exactly a voter mandate for the liberal agenda.

So what does Minnesota have to offer the nation?

First, we balance our budget every year. There is no such thing as deficit spending in our state government. We prove that it is possible to balance a budget and not run billions (or trillions) of dollars of debt. We had a governor who presided over that process for 8 years without raising taxes. Some Minnesotans will complain that he raised some fees, shifted some payments, and wasn’t exactly a libertarian’s dream. However, compared to governors in other states (Romneycare, anyone?), Tim Pawlenty’s record looks a darned sight better to regular voters. He can speak with authenticity about the reforms that are possible, and about the very serious reform limitations that challenge us if we don’t have the political will to make fundamental shifts in our thinking about government.

Second, we have a vibrant independent streak that demands politicians listen to us, or else. Michele Bachmann has become as popular as she is because she not only listens to what people are saying, she actually responds. Forget what the media elite are saying. Go beyond the Beltway Brie crowd, and you will find big chunks of voters who love the fact that she listens to them and respects what they have to say. Is her voting record perfect? Of course not. But her body of service shows that she actively works to learn what her constituents (and voters around the country) are clamoring to tell her, and then she takes that message back to Washington regardless of whether its popular or not.

Third, we have proven that the GOP should not write off ANY group of voters just because of past history. As they say in the financial world, “past performance is not indicative of future results”. The election of Chip Cravaack still has the Washington establishment shaking their heads in disbelief. They still think it was a weird fluke, that he can’t possibly get re-elected. The resignation to lose in certain districts among certain demographics is so ingrained that it will take a superhuman effort to instill a new paradigm of fighting for every district, every seat, every time. That’s what we did in Minnesota in 2010, and it worked. Every arm of the GOP – state party and house and senate caucuses – worked nearly seamlessly to recruit top quality candidates who fit their districts, train them, raise money and turn out the vote. Imagine what we could accomplish if we had the same level of teamwork on the national level among the RNC, the NRCC, the NRSC and the RGA?

Fourth, we are showing the nation what is possible when you have elected officials who deliver what they promised. Our Republican candidates campaigned not just on fiscal responsibility, but a complete overhaul on how government runs and a line by line review of what government should actually be doing according to our state constitution. Now that they’re in office, they’re doing exactly what they said they would do. Imagine that. Our Republican majorities are focused on narrowing the scope of government to align with our constitution and allowing Minnesotans to figure out the rest. This new paradigm is something our nation desperately needs. Americans want to trust their elected officials, but they’ve been betrayed and hoodwinked time and time again. Minnesota proves that politicians can and do follow through on their promises.

Minnesota has much wisdom and inspiration to offer the rest of our country at a time when it is sorely needed. That the wisdom and inspiration are coming from Republican leadership in a traditionally Democratic state only shows how truly progressive we are. Ya, you betcha.

Monday, February 28, 2011


Minnesota’s newest revenue forecast came out today showing that the state will collect about a billion dollars more than previously expected. Democrats immediately went into spin mode about how, now that we “only have a $5 billion deficit”, it might be easier to convince us to raise taxes to close the gap – after all, raising taxes is the only sane thing to do to solve a state government budget crisis in the middle of a recession.

The problem is that the current budget assumptions increase spending nearly 30%, at a time when the rate of inflation is closer to 2%. We will take in almost 9% more revenue than we did the previous budget and yet the Democrats are still whining that we have to raise taxes. The problem is not that we don’t have enough money. The problem is that the Democrats want to spend still more money than we have. This is what we call a false crisis.

Imagine, if you will, that you are doing your own budget projections for your home or business. Over the next two years, you expect that you will bring in 9% more money than you did the last two years. First of all, most of us would be grateful that we’re seeing any increase at all considering the state of the economy. Secondly, we would go about planning our expenses to fit that revenue. That does involve having to prioritize our budgets and then sticking to our plan. If healthcare or energy costs go up more than planned in our own budgets, we cut back on other things. The same is true for governement spending.

Democrats are trying to create a false crisis to generate sympathy for their projects and bully us into extracting more money out of the private economy for their wish lists. Voters told us in no uncertain terms in November they aren’t interested in that agenda. By voting overwhelmingly for fiscally conservative candidates (remember that 56% of Minnesota voters voted AGAINST Mark Dayton), voters told us they want government to spend less money. They told us to focus on the few things that government is actually supposed to do, and cut the rest.

Lawmakers and the governor would do well to heed this advice. Voters want government to spend less money, but they also want to change the budgeting process on a fundamental level. Most of us are not strangers to this prioritization process, but it seems there are some folks who don't seem to understand how it works. For review: First, fund mandated/essential functions. Second, fund, as best as possible, the things that have a serious impact on the quality of performance and service. Lastly, look at funding the things that are nice to have but not really necessary. This process removes a lot of the personal biases and ties that inevitably grow up around any budget line item. It also prevents politicians from using certain hot button expenses like police and fire as political footballs to generate sympathy for spending. Essential services like law enforcement funding comes first. Effective initiatives to improve economic development are not mandated, but they can make a big difference to the health and productivity of the state, so they might fall into the second category. Items like park improvements and arts grants, while nice to have, would most likely fall into the third priority category in the middle of a recession. Within those categories, how do we most wisely spend the money we have?

By prioritizing categories and remaining committed to our promise to the voters that state government will live within its means, we can achieve a balanced budget without raising any taxes. #falsecrisis solved.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Trickle Down Economics Goes Negative

It is amazing how short-sighted some people can be. In all the talk about Governor Dayton's tax plan (let's face it, it wasn't a serious "budget proposal"), folks seem to have gotten caught up in the idea that it's ok to raise taxes on the richest Minnesotans because they should pay their "fair share". We need a little clarity on what this plan really does before we get too comfortable with the concept of soaking the rich because they won't really miss it anyway.
This plan is not about whether a few dozen ultra rich people will leave Minnesota altogether to avoid taxation or will stay to ante up their "fair share". This plan isn't about whether those ultra rich people will take their income and spend it elsewhere, or even whether business owners in S corporations or LLCs will move their headquarters elsewhere to avoid the tax increase. That's not the real problem with Mark Dayton's tax plan.
Here is the sneaky truth of how Dayton's tax plan will kill jobs:
Dayton's tax plan affects any single filer with a taxable income of $85,000 and joint filers with a taxable income of $150,000 or more. The biggest group of people who will be affected by this tax increase will be people with jobs that pay between $90,000 and $130,000 per year. What kinds of jobs are those? They're upper middle management jobs - the department heads, the project leaders, the division managers. Those are the jobs that will start to dry up first. They are positions that can go unfilled in a recession if necessary.  If you do have them, they can be relatively portable (depending on industry) - even outsourced on a contract basis to consultants and free lancers using modern technology like that newfangled internet the kids keep talking about. Let's say I am a job seeker looking at two jobs in that pay range. One is in Minnesota, where the tax rate just shot up to the highest in the country, and one is just over the border in Wisconsin, Iowa or the Dakotas where the income taxes and the cost of government are much lower.  Which job do you think I'll take? If I have any flexibility at all, I’ll take the job in the lower-tax state.
Project leaders, division managers and department heads lead other employees. If you don’t have those positions, or if those positions move to another state, you don’t have the same division, department or project member positions either – the $50,000 to $80,000 a year jobs shrink even more. Without those division, department and project teams on site, their support employees aren’t needed in the same number either so those jobs shrink as well – those are the $35,000 to $50,000 a year jobs.
The loss or transfer of those jobs costs outside businesses as well: the dry cleaners, the lunch spots, the suppliers who base much of their revenue from the business of daytime workers also see their revenue drop in the absence of these positions. When revenue drops for these small business owners, they cut their own employees’ hours.  The slowdown continues to every aspect of life for any population center: without your leading community base (several studies show correlations between those who make $50,000 a year or more and those who contribute most to their local community activities), communities lose their vitality and their tax base.

Then the reality of tax increases on the “wealthy” shows its negative trickle-down effect on the rest of the economy. To put it simply, the loss or transfer of one $100,000 Minnesota job can easily lead to the loss or transfer of dozens of other jobs and their related economic activity, resulting in higher unemployment and lower tax revenues and, ultimately, the decline of entire communities. It doesn't happen overnight, but it happens as surely as the sun rises in the east.  This is the wrong direction for Minnesota. Governor Dayton’s proposal to raise taxes on $85,000 a year jobs will result in job loss for Minnesota. Republicans should relegate it to the trash heap and find ways to encourage employers to expand in Minnesota rather than take their jobs - and their prosperity - elsewhere.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

21st Century Public Education: Remodel the Framework

There is no doubt that the 1950s factory model of education no longer works.  The needs and expectations of our students is vastly different now than it was 60 years ago (subject for an upcoming post).  Just like teaching our students out of 1950s textbooks would be useless, trying to force-fit the needs and expectations of today's students into 60 year old operational framework will only stifle innovation and impede our students' future success.  We routinely update and remodel outmoded HVAC systems, electrical wiring and other physical plant features to keep up with today's needs.  We need to remodel the framework of our public education system so school board, administrators, teachers and parents have flexibility to design modern operational systems that work for today's students.

Did you know:

1. Local school boards are not allowed to determine their school calendar - the school calendar is dictated by a "meet and confer" committee of classified employees.

2. There is no formal, standardized performance evaluation measurement system that school districts can use to evaluate teacher performance.  Some districts have developed their own; most have not.

3.  Education Minnesota, the statewide union that all public school teachers must currently belong to, consistently ranks in the Top Five of expenditures on lobbying the legislature, which does not include the union dues that are contributed to candidates for office.

We need to shift this balance if we are going to succeed in remodeling our public education framework to meet the needs and expectations of 21st century students.  Here is what school districts need:

1. Decide whether teachers fall into the "essential employee" category that already covers firefighters, police and school principals.  If they don't, we need to give school board the latitude to make significant changes to teachers' Master Agreements.  If they do, the legislature needs to classify them as such, eliminating their ability to strike over contract disputes.

2. Upgrade teacher and administrator training programs to require mastery of data use to improve student instruction and outcomes.

3. Modify PELRA (state laws governing contract negotiations) to ensure that school districts can retain the most effective teachers, not just the teachers with the most seniority, and give teachers and other staff assignments that best fit their skill sets and the district's needs rather than simply by who has "bumping rights".  Allow districts to modify or eliminate the "steps and lanes" automatic increases that classified employees now enjoy as needed to fit budgetary requirements without having to renegotiate the master agreement.

4. Create an independent arbitrator corps that can only consider "last, best total offer" proposals on contract negotiations rather than acting as a negotiator in their own right, or allow districts the ability to implement a contract without the labor unions' agreement.  This modification would go a long way toward balancing the needs of individual school districts that must, by law, negotiate individually against the power of the statewide union organization.

5. Allow school boards to determine school calendars, including staff development days and other non-student contact work days.  Set a minimum school year length (there is currently no standard; each district's number of student contact days is set by the teacher committee).

By remodeling the framework by which we operate our schools, we will go a long way toward modernizing our publica school system and meeting the Minnesota constitutional requirement of "thorough and efficient schools".

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

21st Century Public Education: Enact Funding Flexibility

Most people have no idea how complicated and painful education funding is. Virtually every dollar that comes into a district has strings attached in the form of mandates, restrictions and requirements. Some administrators have estimated that the staff time needed to keep up with all the mandated reporting and submission requirements amounts to nearly half of every full time employee in a school district. If you wonder why the ratio of administrators to teachers is so high, this is one big reason.
For instance, did you know:
1. School districts are required by law to keep separate accounts for capital, food service, debt service, future retirement benefit exposure, and operating funds, and those funds may not be transferred from one fund to another, even if they are not needed in their area;

2. Two percent of the budget every year is mandated to be set aside for staff development (continuing education, etc.), AND the locally elected school board has no control over how those funds are spent – those decisions are made by teachers and school building administrators according to state law;

3. If school boards don’t reach a contract settlement with their teachers’ bargaining unit (Education Minnesota) by January 15th of the contract year, the district is assessed a $25 per pupil penalty;

4. There are myriad “special pots” of money from state and federal sources that can only be used for specific things. Eligibility, submission and compliance requirements are often conflicting and negatively impact other sources of funding;

5. Various districts around the state have special local levying authority that other districts don’t have, and these authorities arise purely out of the clout their local representatives wield in the legislature (it's another form of earmarking). This creates a confusing and unequal playing field.

An economic downturn is the worst possible time for any government entity to ask for more funds. Minnesota’s school districts need funding flexibility. Here is what Minnesota’s public schools need right now:
1. Allow districts to transfer operating money from one fund to another. Locally elected school board members, accountable to the taxpayers, ought to be able to use capital, food service and staff development funds elsewhere depending on the needs of the individual district;

2. Minnesota’s state government should eliminate the 2% set aside for staff development, or at the very least, waive it for the next biennium so school boards can use that money where it is needed most in their districts. Additionally, the law should be amended to give school boards the final authority in how the money is spent to ensure that staff development programs are in alignment with the district’s goals for performance and student achievement;

3. The deadline for settling contracts, and the penalty for not meeting that deadline, needs to be eliminated, pure and simple. This requirement and penalty threat is one of many things that makes it very difficult for school boards to effectively negotiate labor contracts that are in the best interest of the school district;

4. Every “special pot” of money that is currently in existence, whether it’s a grant program, a local levy authority, or something else, needs to be carefully examined for relevance, effectiveness and ease of use, with most of them sunsetted. If the state of Minnesota adopted the same mantra that most moms use during spring cleaning, “for every one thing kept, two things must be tossed”, we would have a cleaner, easier to navigate, more transparent and equitable system of education funding in this state. Reserve special pots for top priority policy items: innovation, outstanding performance, substantial cost savings. Get rid of all the dust bunny programs hiding under the file cabinets because people never bothered to sweep them out.

5. The notion of creating "special" levy authorities for specific budget items like technology, health and safety equipment, etc. is silly.  Local school boards should be able to assess their budgetary needs in total and assess property taxes with the approval of the taxpayers with one number.  Trying to get around that accountability by creating all these special little categories is intellectually dishonest, takes too much staff time, and forces districts to make budget choices that may not best fit their needs.  This line of thinking falls into the dust bunny category above.  Instead, the legislature should craft language that grandfathers any existing special levy now in force into the local districts' current local operating levies (in the odd event one doesn't exist, the special levies would be pooled together to create a standard levy), and let districts work with the aggregate funding without worrying about whether they comply with each special levy's restrictions.

6.  Here's another, bolder thought: in an effort to stabilize education funding while we work out the budget and restructuring at the state level, the Minnesota legislature could authorize an automatic extension for two years of any local levy scheduled to expire within the next biennium.  Why would that be helpful?  First, it would remove the huge budgeting uncertainty that exists in every district where a levy is scheduled to expire during a biennium when the state budget will almost certainly have to cut (or at best, hold steady) education funding. Second, it would maintain stable tax rates for local communities.  Granted, tax rates would not decrease, but they would not be threatened with an increase either.  Third, it would relieve everyone involved from having to go through the process of a levy referendum - expensive and time-consuming for district staff who have to prepare all the data and deal with submission, approval and reporting requirements, divisive for communities during a time when communities are already exhausted from financial pressures.  A two year extension would, in effect, 'calm the system', and provide some breathing space for everyone from MDE to the legislature to school boards to communities while we restructure our public education system in Minnesota.

Simplfiying the budgeting and allocation process will allow school districts the ability to focus on their most important priorities, ease the contortions that legislators, staff members and the public have to go through to understand and administer the process, and might even save a little money to boot as districts spend less time searching for all the little scraps they can find to make up for general fund formula reductions. 

21st Century Public Education

Minnesotans believe in public education. Our state's founders believed in it so strongly that it was written into Article 13, Section 1 our state's constitution: "UNIFORM SYSTEM OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state."

In the last thirty years of the education wars, Minnesotans of various stripes have tried to reinvent, circumvent, shut down and compete with our statewide public school system. I have been one of them, because I believe that parents should be able to choose how their children are educated and that competition improves performance in any endeavor.

However, I'm also a Constitutionalist.

As a Constitutionalist, and as a Minnesotan, I have to understand that Minnesotans value public education. It is the most accessible, most affordable means of education that most families in Minnesota have. Abolishing or dismantling public education in Minnesota would be unconstitutional. And since the reality is that public education will remain the most accessible, most affordable form of education for most families, we should also heed our state constitution's requirements to make it thorough and efficient.

Note to Governor Dayton: that doesn't mean throwing more money at the system.

I've spent nearly 8 years serving on a local school board here in the Twin Cities. We have made some amazing progress in transforming our district's educational systems to better serve our students. Our high school has been listed in Newsweek's Top 1,500 High Schools for three years in a row. Our AP and other exceptional learner programs have some of the highest per capita ratios of disadvantaged students of any district our size. We serve a higher proportion of special needs students than most other districts in Minnesota because parents have confidence in our capabilities to educate their children. Our district's superintendent was the first superintendent in the state of Minnesota to base her entire potential salary increase on merit alone.

And we've done it with lower tax rates and lower per-pupil spending than almost any other district in the metropolitan area.

In this series of posts, I will outline the kinds of reform that public education really needs to allow it to perform in the 21st century. I believe in competition as much as I ever did, and I believe that public education can perform just as well as any other educational option if we have the flexibility and call to innovation that our districts need to get the job done. Public education is a core Minnesota value: let's get it right.