Archive for July, 2009

Real Experts Invited, or Just Another Dog & Pony Show?

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

In an effort to get Democrats back in the headlines, and give the impression that they are doing something about the economy, Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher recently announced a “leadership summit” and a “jobs task force.” Mary Lahammer wrote about the leadership summit. The stated intention is to hear from experts in economic development and state fiscal health. The list of people who have been invited include former Governors and Minnesota House Speakers. If there were any private sector leaders who have experience in job creation invited their names weren’t mentioned. It leads me to believe that the emphasis is on bringing policy wonks together to talk about how there isn’t enough (tax) revenue for state and local governments to operate. Especially given the fact that most former Governors and Speakers from both parties have drunk the kool-aid of tax increases to balance the budget.

Lahammer quoted House GOP PR guy kwatt as saying, “”I find it ironic that the same people who dropped the ball last session are now calling for a ‘leadership summit’.” Great point. In a personal conversation with kwatt, he suggested to me that they invite Governor Pawlenty to speak and turn the leadership summit into leadership training.

Speaker Kelliher also announced in this press release the formation of a jobs task force. She mentiones in the press release how “capital inventment” (read: building government projects on the state’s credit card) creates jobs, and how the people need to know that state government is working for them. Again, no mention of any involvement by successful private sector employers.

Nothing will likely come out of either of these dog & pony shows, but with Governor Pawlenty grabbing the positive attention in Minnesota and national Democrats losing favor with the public, Kelliher got the press she is desperately looking for.

Franken Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

When the long episode known as the 2008 U. S. Senate election in Minnesota was finally decided by a few state Supreme Court judges, and Senator Norm Coleman conceding the race, Al Franken told us he was going to represent all Minnesotans, not just the ones who voted for him. He also said he was going to take his job seriously.

On both counts, Franken hasn’t gotten off to a very good start.

Franken’s Votes

While Franken showed some independence from his party’s leader, Barack H. Obama, on his very first vote in the Senate, it turns out that Franken actually positioned himself as a bigger spender than Obama, if you can imagine that’s possible.  Not exactly the kind of independence the vast majority of Minnesotans expect.

Franken had another chance this week to show that he wants to represent Minnesotans rather than his party’s liberal base when South Dakota Senator John Thune offered his amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill. Thune’s amendment would allow holders of conceal-carry permits to carry guns in other states, as long as they abide by the laws of the state they’re in. Most Minnesotans support gun rights and would agree that the Thune amendment is a good idea.  But not Franken. He and Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined 35 other Democrats and two Republicans in voting against the Thune amendment. (Although 58 Senators – 38 Republicans and 20 Democrats – voted for the Thune amendment, it fell short of the required 60 votes for the amendment to be adopted. Go to this page on the U. S. Senate website for a full breakdown.)

Franken’s conundrum – who is he going to be?

Al Franken was a comedian (although I say that loosely – I’ve personally never found him to be funny). When he became a candidate for U. S. Senate he was no longer a comedian, but a satirist. And now he’s neither a comedian nor a satirist. We’re supposed to take him seriously as a Senator.

This poses a problem for Franken. Because a Senate term is six years – well, in this case five and a half –  and over that amount of time a person’s true colors come out. If Franken wants the media and the public to take him seriously, he has a long way to go. According to this account, he evoked titters from the press gallery during the Sotomayor hearings, even when asking the bone-driest of questions. And of course, we all know about Franken asking Sotomayor the challenging Perry Mason questions, and joking around with other members of the committee, including an impersonation of the chairman during a break in the action.

Franken’s conundrum is that he needs to decide whether he is going to be a serious policy w0nk, or a comedian. Don’t get me wrong. There have certainly been funny people in the Senate during our nation’s history. But Franken’s mocking, Saturday Night Live, slap-stick, gutter-style (caution: R-rated content at this link) humor is the kind that just seems out of place in the United States Senate.

You see, former U. S. Senator Bob Dole of Kansas is funny. Unfortunately, most of the public wasn’t aware of this fact when he ran for president in 1996. That is, until after the election when he did commercials for Pepsi and Pfizer (for that little blue pill). Anyway my point is, if politicians let people get to know their real selves, it goes a long way in personal approval ratings. Unfortunately, Bob Dole’s handler’s didn’t let Bob Dole be Bob Dole, and we ended up with a second term of Bill Clinton. Two examples of politicians on opposite ends of the political spectrum who were successful because people of all political persuasions respected that they were genuine and sincere are Ronald Reagan and Paul Wellstone. (Personally I think Wellstone was a snake in the grass, but I’m in a tiny minority with this opinion – he somehow had people convinced that he was genuine and sincere.)

So back to Franken and his conundrum. If he wants to be taken seriously, he has to turn away from his clownish ways and act seriously. In which case he won’t be sincere and genuine. If he acts like the natural Al Franken, people may recognize that he is being real, but they will still have trouble taking him seriously as a Senator.

Time will tell. Maybe he’ll find his niche and his groove as a Senator. But so far, he is just an embarrassment to Minnesota.

I agree with Bachmann on the Census

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

I hesitate to write anything about Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota’s sixth congressional district. I’ll admit, I’m conflicted. As a center-right conservative with a libertarian streak, I agree with the Congresswoman on most issues. If I were a member of Congress, I would probably be voting the same as her 90-95 percent of the time. However as a Republican, she frustrates me. Bachmann represents what is supposed to be the safest Republican congressional district in Minnesota. Yet because of her, shall we say eccentric and erratic ways, my party ends up putting precious time, money and other resources into pulling her out of the fire at election time when she should be winning by decisive margins.  Precious time, money and other resources that could be put into other close races.

And personally? Michele Bachmann doesn’t care who she steps on as she climbs the ladder of her political career. Now, this may not be an unusual attribute for many politicians, but I guess I’m a little too close to the situation to look the other way. I have good conservative friends who have been stepped on by Michele Bachmann – people whose own careers in politics suffered because of her ambition to advance her own.

But anyway, this is the East Central Truth Detector, and there are some misconceptions out there regarding what the Congresswoman said or didn’t say about the census which I will attempt to clarify.

Michele Bachman is not refusing to have herself and her household be counted! Yet everyone from the media to Sen. Amy Klobuchar are out there seem to be saying that that Bachmann does not want to be counted. This Los Angeles Times Blog is a good example of the conflicting information that is out there. The headline reads “Count Rep. Michele Bachmannas Unwilling to be Counted in the Census”. Yet the article goes on to state that a bill she is sponsoring a bill that requires people to provide to the Census Bureau name, date, contact information and the number of people living at the same address.

What Bachmann is saying is that there are too many invasive questions that go along with the census that the government has no business asking. And I agree. Here is Bachmann’s statement to Fox News, as quoted in this Minneapolis Star Tribune article: “I’m saying, for myself and my family, our comfort level is we will comply with the Constitution Article I Section II,”  Bachmann told a Fox News interviewer. “We will give the number of people in our home, and that’s where we’re going to draw the line.”

Giving credit where credit is due, at least the Star Tribune reported Bachmann’s position correctly when the news first broke. But now people including Klobuchar are wailing and gnashing their teeth saying that Minnesota could lose a congressional seat if everyone isn’t counted. They are saying that Minnesota is on the bubble of losing a congressional seat, and congressoinal representation is at stake. 

No, it’s not. Bachmann is saying, count me and my household, but don’t ask me all the other questions that go with the census. There is nothing about that position that puts our congressional representation at stake. Furthermore, given the overall representation Minnesota has in Congress right now, I say no big loss.  If the issue is money, any money appropriated from the federal government based on population will not be in jeopardy if people are willing to be counted, but refuse to answer the invasive questions.

So I agree. Count me and my household. I’ll even throw in our ages and genders and number of pets (zero). But I consider it to be none of the federal government’s business (though they can probably find out through other means) what my income is, what my race or ethnicity is, my commute time, or anything else. As far as I’m concerned, dollars allocated from the federal government based on these questions should be sent back to the people who earned those dollars in the first place.

Now they say it’s a violation of federal law to not fully fill out the census form, subject to a fine of up to $5,000. But a little civil disobedience now and then is a good thing, right?

Update on potential sale of old jail to Pine City

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Pine City’s City Council met this evening to discus space issues and the potential of purchasing the former sheriff’s offices and jail from Pine County (asking price of $200,000).

Although the council as a whole seemed less than enthusiastic about purchasing the old jail, they asked for further details in terms of potential renovation costs. No decision was made by the council, but the goal is to form an answer for the county at the August 5th city council meeting.

Other options were discussed such as leasing space for city offices, at least temporarily, until more permanent property could be purchased, or the current city hall could be expanded. Why wait when construction bids are at bargain basement prices in the current economy? It goes back to money. Or lack thereof. Pine City has no money set aside for purchase of property or construction on property the city owns. On the other hand, no money is budgeted for leasing office space, either.

Potential lease options includes Evergreen Square property owned by Jim and Candy Koppen, and various downtown buildings that are currently vacant, as well as the space at the former Jubilee Foods (by the new post office location).

Going back to one of the reasons this is being discussed is that the library is purportedly bursting at the seems and needs more space. An anonymous donation for library expansion is pending if a plan is soon put in place. Rumor has it that the donation amount is in the neighborhood of $200,000. However, Councilmember Paul Janssen rightly pointed out that forcing the city out of city hall to make room for the library is not right. After all, the likely recipient of the $200,000 donation is the library foundation, not the city.  Janssen also stated that he feels that city hall belongs downtown, but the library’s locatoin is not as important.

Councilmember Brian Scholin, who also sits on the library board, stated that other locations were considered for the library, none of which were deemed feasible by the board, and besides, its easier to move city offices than it is to move a library. Additionally, the city would have more options available, Sholin stated, because nearly anything can be adapted to make city offices. 

Councilmember Scholin also stated that he had heard a rough estimate (not an official bid) that renovating the former jail could cost in excess of $1 million. Hence the reason the council seemed less excited than expected about purchasing the property. The perspective from business-minded people on the council and in the audience was that city hall belongs downtown and it would be more feasible to expand city hall at its current location than to purchase other property, especially if that property has significant renovation costs.  However Rick Herzog, (owner of the Pizza Pub who was in attendance) stated that the library attracts much more traffic than city government offices. They felt that if the city has to lease space until expansion is more palatable to the taxpayers, that would be OK.

Councilmember Paul Miller kept talking about planning for the future, and how the city should plan for more than the projected minimum 7,500 square feet of city office space that city staff thinks it needs.

Of course, no one on the city staff will look at it from the perspective that I mentioned in my previous post.  Rather than conforming space needs to growing staff, bureaucracy and paperwork, maybe the city should conform staff with existing space. Pine City is a city with a population of 3,200. Yet the city has an administrator, an assistant administrator, a planner, a treasurer, billing clerk, receptionist and public works administrative assistant. And that’s just the administrative staff. Staff was larger for a while, until the city did away with the failed experiment of having a full-time paid fire chief  overseeing a volunteer fire department. Business owners and people working in the private sector (aka taxpayers are doing with less. Maybe the city should also consider doing with less, at least until the economy recovers. That could eliminate the immediate need to buy, lease or expand at this point in time. As for the library, for the most part it is not a creature of the city. I’m not sure why the city should give up city hall for the library’s perceived space needs.

Legitimate offer by Pine County, or Bait and Switch?

Monday, July 13th, 2009

The City Council in Pine City convenes a special meeting this Wednesday eventing to discuss the possibility of purchasing the old Pine County jail from the county for possible use of city hall offices. The county is asking $200,000 for the former sheriff’s office and jail.

“Wait a minute,” I hear readers asking, “I thought the asking price was $50,000! What happened?”

Well, in case you aren’t keeping up, the asking price for the former courthousewas $50,000. That was before the present county board determined that the new courthouse facility, which if memory serves me correctly was built at a cost of $28 million, is not big enough for all the county’s space needs. Yes, I’m talking about the courthouse facility that the county has been in less than two years. So rather than offering the former courthouse, which at one time the county board determined was uninhabitable and too far gone to fix up, to the City of Pine City, the county is now keeping the facility for its own use.

Although there is only one county board member who is still on the board from the entire episode of the county split issues and the attempt to move the county seat to Hinckley, my cynical side says the county board saw an opportunity to extract more money from the Pine City taxpayers than originally planned.

From Pine City’s perspective, or at least from the perspective of a Pine City resident, there is one issue that remains constant. Money. Or lack thereof. PIne City does not have in its 2009 budget any money for the purchase of the old courthouse or the old jail. In the era of reduced Local Government Aid (LGA), it makes one wonder where the money will come from. The old jail is reportedly valued at over $1 million, making the $200,000 asking price appear to be a good deal. But if the money isn’t budgeted, a “good deal” is still a burden on the city taxpayers.

A secondary issue is priorities. Pine City needs a new fire hall. Nearly everyone in the city is in agreement that the need is there. The only question that remains is what are Pine City taxpayers willing to pay for one? Yet not one dime has been put away for the construction of a new fire hall.

But back to the city hall/courthouse issue. The issue that is driving this whole thing is space. Or lack thereof. Or, should I say a perceived lack thereof.

You see, the library in Pine City is bursting at the seems, or so it seems. The Pine City Library Foundation is expecting a sizable and generous donation for library expansion if they get the plans put together and move forward. Well, guess what? the most obvious place for the library to expand is in the building that it shares with city hall. So that means city hall will have to move somewhere. The old courthouse for $50,000 would have been a good deal, assuming the city had any money set aside for it, in spite of the fact the old courthouse is three times bigger than the city needs for its offices.

But the county has space issues. So the county needs the old courthouse building that a few years ago was uninhabitable and too far gone to save. So in its generous offer to resolve the city space isues, it offered the old jail, which is one-third the size for four times the money. Maybe this is all legitimate, but is sounds like a classic “bait and switch” to me.

Amongst the library’s space needs, the city outgrowing its offices at their current location, and the county outgrowing its new facility before its “new” smell has disapated, I’m wondering whether anyone considered looking at it from a different perspective. Rather than expanding space to facilitate growing government bureaucracy, why not streamline staff and paperwork to fit current space? I know it sounds crazy, but I can’t be alone in this thought. You see that big chunk of “free money” for the library expansion isn’t free after all if the city ends up having to pay $200,000 it doesn’t have to move its offices a couple blocks over. By the way $200,000 is only the beginning, as major renovations will be necessary to make the old jail habitable for city offices.

Cities and counties are cash strapped, and taxpayers are resistant to the idea of giving up more of their money for government facilities as evidenced by the struggle to get a new firehall in Pine City.

Maybe I’m all wet. But I hope to make it to the city council meeting Wednesday night and report back here on the East Central Truth Detector if I can make any sense of the whole situation.