Star Tribune of Minneapolis, Sept. 3
Federal courts need relief from sequester
Minnesota's seven federal judges will still be on their benches if the federal funding sequester lingers past Oct. 1, the start of the new federal fiscal year. Courthouses will still be open — most days, anyway — because federal rules require that facilities payments to the General Services Administration (in effect, the courthouses' landlord) have first claim on courts budgets.
Beyond that, "our infrastructure will crumble," Michael Davis, chief judge of Minnesota's federal judicial district, told U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and staff representatives of the other nine members of Minnesota's congressional delegation at a breakfast briefing last week. "The quality of justice will diminish. We do not want that to happen."
It was a rare public plea for support from one Minnesota branch of the federal government to another, delivered in heartfelt terms by a chief judge who rightly fears that something crucial to America's rule of law — access for all to efficiently administered, capably staffed courts — is threatened by misguided fiscal austerity in Washington. Other sequestration cuts are similarly counterproductive to the national interest. But cuts to the courts damage one of government's core functions, in ways that could deprive them of the public trust that's essential to democracy.
Sequestration has cost Minnesota's U.S. district courts 15.7 percent of their expected budgets in the current fiscal year. That would be bad enough if it had been spread across a full year. It's worse because it was imposed on March 1 for a fiscal year that will end on Oct. 1.
A variety of temporary measures are getting the district through this year. But cuts that cause lasting damage will follow after Oct. 1 if Congress does not send relief, said Davis and other court officials. The ranks of federal public defenders — who in Minnesota are already outnumbered by prosecutors, 8 to 46 — will shrink. So will the security forces needed to keep courthouses safe. So will the number of released offender supervisors, who are among the nation's leaders in finding employment and deterring recidivism among offenders.
The courts' ability to pay salaries commensurate with the private sector will further erode at a time when specialists in business-related law and information technology are already being lured away. Minnesota's reputation as a court of choice for complex business litigation — and hence as an asset to this state's Fortune 500 companies — will diminish.
Minnesota has four federal courthouses — in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Fergus Falls. One of them could close — an option Davis was plainly loath to mention and says he would vigorously oppose on accessibility grounds. Trial by a jury of one's peers is denied to accused people if jurors can be reasonably drawn from only one part of the state.
Another unwelcome option, worker furloughs that darken courtrooms periodically, is more likely. But that, too, makes little sense for a district that already has a disproportionately large caseload and relies on nearly full-time work by three retired judges to keep up.
Delays in the administration of justice are sure to be the upshot of so much austerity. Public confidence in the courts is on the line.
"I've never begged. I'm too proud to beg," Davis said. "This is one of the few times. I want you to think very closely about this. Keeping those (courthouse) doors open to people. It's what makes us a great nation."
Well said, Your Honor. The partisan budget game is due to resume next week when Congress is back in session. No matter how else the two parties play that game, both should see the restoration of courts funding as a national imperative.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, Aug. 31
Minnesota Gov. Dayton may be sincere about the 'Unsession,' but his is a tax-and-spend party
Gov. Mark Dayton's "Unsession" agenda will have some stiff competition from high-profile issues when the Legislature convenes in February.
The initiative to make government better, faster and simpler will fight for attention -- in an atmosphere of election-year posturing -- with a mix of issues that includes business taxes, bonding and a contentious debate about the minimum wage.
Nevertheless, the governor's reform agenda is worth pursuing, and the administration this summer is inviting Minnesotans and state employees to weigh in with ideas. They should take Dayton up on the offer. Who knows? As the campaign says, "Your idea might just be the next big reform measure."
Ideas are being collected at mn.gov/governor/unsession.
The website, which also allows Minnesotans to review and comment on submitted ideas, describes the Unsession as a first-of-its-kind effort "to improve service, shorten wait times, eliminate old and outdated rules and undo anything else that makes government nearly impossible for people to understand."
The drive for reform and redesign of state government -- with cost-cutting and productivity improvements -- gets a good reception on these pages. It should at the Capitol, as well.
But how will it fare without the lever of a struggling economy and imminent state budget deficits?
"From our perspective, there's no less motivation," the governor's chief of staff, Tina Smith, told us.
Taking a long view, she said, the cost pressures on state government "are only increasing."
An aside: Yes, they are. This year, by spending at a much faster rate than the economy is growing and raising every tax it could get its hands on, the governor's DFL Party made the hill steeper. The governor might be sincere about efficiency, but there's little evidence that his party wants anything but higher taxes and more spending. Demographic trends being what they are, they can reckon now or reckon later, but a reckoning is coming, and it will favor restraint, not the DFL's lack of it.
Back to the idea of the Unsession: In addition to containing costs in such areas as health care and higher education, a more efficient state government will be better prepared for added strain on public resources as the "gray wave" of retiring baby boomers hits.
And, Smith said, as times change, "so will the expectations of citizens for a government that serves them 24 hours a day with new technology."
Smith suggests that a better economy could help encourage suggestions from state employees: "Whether in the private sector or the public, employees are naturally concerned that if you want to cut costs, you want to cut jobs. It's human nature that you might be less likely to offer up that idea because you could be brainstorming yourself out of a job."
Now, with more stability, she said, it's "easier to build trust and excitement for this among employees, who often have the best ideas."
The efficiency-productivity agenda has been a theme of Dayton's administration since Inauguration Day, Smith said, when he "talked about the importance of a government that delivers great service and is one that works better."
In two-plus years, "we've made real progress in a lot of areas," Smith told us, citing changes in the way the state pays for health care, which saved a billion dollars.
Then, too, she said, there are "smaller -- but really meaningful examples," including reducing the waiting times for vehicle registrations from 90 days to just 10 days.
Among others are cutting environmental permit waits by more than 40 percent and making hunting and fishing licenses available on smartphones.
Efforts like those are worthy, convenient and customer-friendly. They've saved Minnesotans time and money.
But to live up to its promise, the Unsession should take advantage of the full potential for reform and redesign of state government. As it formulates the Unsession agenda -- some of which might move forward with executive, rather than legislative action, Smith said -- Dayton and his staff should be ready to apply valuable lessons from the private sector. There, tough business decisions about what to continue, what to stop and how to adapt to changing conditions are a way of life.
The will to make choices in the face of resistance to change will help keep state government ready and resilient. Legislators should be ready to listen.
The Free Press of Mankato, Sept. 4
People lose link to democracy
Two recent reports should concern anyone who still believes average citizens can influence their government and political leaders.
One report showed that for the first time in Minnesota history, spending by outside groups such as political parties and political action committees outpaced spending by the candidates themselves in Minnesota legislative races.
The other report noted that members of Congress have significantly cut back on their town hall meetings for fear they will be hijacked by special interest groups that show up en masse as part of a plan to embarrass a candidate and divert the attention of the meeting.
Taken together, the reports suggest that representative democracy is being undermined by special interests, further distancing elected representatives from their constituents.
The details are unsettling. The Star Tribune reported that the cost of campaigning for House or Senate seats in Minnesota has nearly doubled in just 10 years. The newspaper's research showed that spending for the average House race went from $50,000 to $91,000 from 2002 to 2012 and for a Senate race, the spending went from an average of $78,000 to $171,000, a 120 percent increase.
In one key race for a Senate district where 50,000 votes were cast, DFL candidate Melisa Franzen and Republican Rep. Keith Downey each spent about $110,000 on the race. But outside groups spent about $300,000 to defeat Downey, while the groups spent about $150,000 against Franzen, the newspaper reported.
Another report Monday in the Star Tribune detailed the decline of the typical town hall meeting among Minnesota's members of Congress. Candidates' representatives say they choose other means of meeting constituents in lieu of the open town hall meetings that can be subject to a "takeover" by interest groups bused in to create embarrassing confrontations with elected representatives on video that may be put on the Internet and go viral.
The representatives cite meetings with groups of citizens at the State Fair, for example, as places where they can meet constituents face to face. Others conduct more controlled town hall meetings via teleconference call where they can screen those who get to ask questions.
Critics of opposing parties dismiss these alternatives and say elected representatives should attend meetings where they can hear from people who don't agree with them. Some have resorted to putting cardboard cutouts and pictures of the representatives in empty chairs at meetings where they don't show.
At some point, elected leaders have to be willing to face "real" constituents no matter what their political views. And at some point, these interest groups that would hijack a normally civil meeting to score some Internet viral videos of representatives need to be shown the door.
When real people can have reasonable and regular access to their elected leaders, better policy comes forth, and there won't be as much of a need for defensive tactics. But that also might help solve the other problem: special interest money pouring in to influence elections and, in some cases, flipping the entire state government from one party to the other.
Legislative races in Minnesota used to be relatively quiet affairs. Campaign spending by each side remained in five figures. Now the spending is six figures and beyond. Outside interests can take out attack ads at will. Candidates are hit by surprise. It's the new political reality in light of the recent Citizens United Supreme Court case that opened the floodgates on political spending.
But when elected leaders represent the real people of their district, there won't be as much incentive for special interests to turn on the money spigot to garner outcomes that are often not what the people ordered