Sunday, August 05, 2007

Dams, Bridges and Schools … Don’t Blame Pawlenty … Blame the system.

Our hearts go out to the victims of the I-35 bridge collapse. Blame is easy to dish out … and too often the response is “not me”. And “me” may be right … it’s “our” fault. No, not for this one calamity but instead for accepting the system. A system that allows shortsighted management without a regard for our future. Look at the Federal Deficit, the increasing National Debt, “borrowing” from Social Security reserves to pay current expenditures, funding an Iraq occupation on the next generation’s tax bills, forcing our disabled veterans to go through hoops to get anything they can, and the list goes on.

Why? Because we don’t demand the right things from our elected officials. We elect people for a set term --- two years, four years, or six years. Their focus is then only on that term … not what is best for the future. Too often, they respond to the campaigns of special interests in hopes of getting re-elected. It's bad for the ego, if elected officials get rejected at the polls. (Note to self : we have to find a way to stroke the Ego of politicians.)

In Minnesota, the Metrodome was deemed “antiquated”, an eyesore and financially unfeasible for the tenants who have called it home since 1982. And on the horizon, the Minnesota Vikings lease will expire in 2011. So after much lobbying by the “special interests”, the Governor and State Legislature addressed the issue. First a new University of Minnesota Gopher football stadium, that is budgeted at $289 million which the State Legislature agreed to pay about $136 million, was approved. The Twins will also have a new ballpark … the costs may be more than originally planned at $522 million
with Twins owner Carl Pohlad paying $130 million towards the stadium with the remaining three quarters paid through a a Hennepin County sales tax of .15 percent. The lone remaining tenant, the Minnesota Vikings, have been lobbying for a new stadium with a price tag of $996 million although owner Zygi Wilf has pledged about $250 million.

So, obviously lobbyist’s solution is to triplicate the “antiquated” Metrodome and the elected officials are agreeing.

There are other lobbyists, but maybe not as effective. Jennifer Byers of the MN Chamber of Commerce was recently in New Ulm presenting the issues for the next legislative session. Issues discussed included : Transportation, Education/workforce development, Sales tax reform, and Health care. In discussing Transportation, “No issue is more frustrating for the statewide business community. The last session once again produced zero new dollars for roads, bridges and transit. The continued gridlock presents an opportunity for someone to take the lead, and the Minnesota Chamber is committed to taking the next step by developing consensus for a moderate, balanced, and substantive package that can become law in 2008”

So the business community agrees that roads and bridges need to be addressed, but somehow the “gridlock” has prevented that from happening.

Some may attribute the “gridlock” to mean Governor V … as in Veto Pawlenty. But I disagree, if Pawlenty is the problem its not because he’s “Governor V”, instead it’s because he is “Governor No V” as in Governor No Vision.
Vetoes can be overridden. Governor Pawlenty may have vetoed a gas tax increase, but the veto fell 7 votes short of override … so the blame is shared with the House legislatures.
But it is No Vision Pawlenty that is the problem. The bill that he vetoed essentially allowed a "lights on budget" meaning only enough money to continue projects that are already underway. Further, that means that half of what many, including the State, say is needed to keep up and make progress has been funded.

And regarding the I-35 bridge, when Lieutenant Governor and Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau was asked whether budget considerations had anything to do with decisions on bridge maintenance, she responded : "We put together a system in this state that addresses the needs that we have within the fiscal restraints we have as well."

So that’s the problem … its fiscal restraints and No Vision.

The Governors vision is only for this session and his term.
“Antiquated” stadiums must be replaced, but bridges that opened in 1967 and that processed virtually a car every two seconds, would work fine until 2015 or 2020 (at least FOUR years after the Vikings lease expires) and long after the next gubernatorial election in 2012.

But its not just roads and bridges that should be a concern.
In Blue Earth County, there has been need for reconstruction of the Rapidan Dam.
State Representative Tony Cornish in discussing money needed for the Rapidan Dam warned "If there's one thing they should know about this governor by now it's that he's not going to raise taxes …" [Point of Explaination : This discussion was in May 2005. On July 26,2007, federal inspectors from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found what they suspect is a hole in the base of the Rapidan Dam resulting in a Blue Earth County campground being evacuated, a reservoir lowered and an observation deck closed.]

Now Pawlenty does not have the same vision as Governor Jesse Ventura. Ventura opposed a new stadium, remarking that the Metrodome is 60 years younger than the Minneapolis building where he attended high school: "When I see a new Roosevelt High School -- which is 77 years old -- then we'll talk about it.''
In my school district, the High School was in need of replacement. I recall talking with my neighbor about this when his daughter was starting kindergarten. I told him that even though we do not have any kids that we would vote for a school referendum. That referendum failed … so did the next one … and so did the next one … until finally, it passed and this winter, a new High School was opened … with his daughter in the first graduating class ! I supported those referendums because it was good public policy, but it can take a long time for these to pass.

So now we understand that stadiums take precedence over bridges, dams and schools.

And the solution is simple. We need elected officials with VISION. In business, when a asset is acquired, a useful life is determined and a responsible business will plan to replace that asset when its useful life is complete. That should be true with schools, dams and bridges. Financially, the State needs to TAX to incur a reserve during the asset’s useful life so that when it has to be replaced, there is not a financial drain. The same system should work for schools, dams and bridges. There won’t be “fiscal restraints” if we incur the tax bill before it becomes an emergency.

Competing with Vision is the current mindset that focuses only on this term. To change that, we need to bribe elected officials. What can the taxpayer’s use to bribe officials … not money - that would be illegal … but instead stroke their Ego with eternal recognition. From now on, for every new school, bridge or dam, name it after the Governor and the local members of the legislature. We’d do it when they were dead, but if it’s done now, they would probably get it done NOW and within cost budgets. President Bush talks about an “Ownership Society” … well, let’s make the elected officials “owners” of the infrastructure … if they own it, they will be more inclined to maintain it. The I-35 bridge is actually “Bridge No. 9340” … that looks more like a street address that no one would want to own. Put a name on it and they’ll take better care of it.

What have we got to lose ? Stroking their Ego just might do it. Think about it. That’s right we won’t be saying “Damn that Pawlenty”, will be saying “Com’n kids, let’s go to Cornish Park at the Pawlenty Dam.”

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