Thursday, January 25, 2007

Senators Coleman & Hagel debate Iraq Resolution

Watching the debate in the Foreign Relations Committee over Senate Concurrent Resolution # 2 (essentially stating that it is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq, particularly by escalating the United States military force presence in Iraq), I had to wonder what was discussed between the two Republican Senators seated next to each other. Both came from their home states to Minnesota and now find themselves in the US Senate. No doubt, their backgrounds and life experiences – and even their time in Minnesota – had to shape their viewpoints.

The sound bite that made the evening news, was Chuck Hagel imploring his fellow Senators to take a stand :
This is a very real, responsible addressing of the most divisive issue in this country since Vietnam.
Yes, sure, it’s tough. Absolutely. And I think all 100 senators ought to be on the line on this. What do you believe? What are you willing to support? What do you think? Why were you elected?
If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes.
This is a tough business. But is it any tougher, us having to take a tough vote, express ourselves and have the courage to step up on what we’re asking our young men and women to do? I don’t think so. When I hear, on both sides of this argument, impugning motives and patriotism to our country, not only is it offensive and disgusting but it debases the whole system of our country and who we are

Selling shoes may be something that Chuck Hagel knows about … as well as Vietnam. As I recall during his student days at Brown Institute in Minneapolis, he worked selling men’s clothes. After graduating Brown, Hagel returned to Lincoln, Nebraska to work for a radio station only to find out that Uncle Sam wanted him. He faced the draft, applying for a college deferment, or enlistment. He volunteered knowing that Vietnam was where he would most likely end up. Going over as a private, he returned as a squad leader with two Purple Hearts for battle wounds.

No doubt those experiences shaped Hagel’s viewpoints of America’s role in Foreign Relations.

Sitting next to Senator Hagel was Norm Coleman. The days of Vietnam were a little different for Senator Coleman as documented by City Pages which published photos of a “long-haired radical protesting the draft at Hofstra University” in 1970.

Those that served in battle seem to have a different vantage point than those that have not. Bush and Cheney have been criticized for where they spent their time during the Vietnam conflict. Meanwhile, John Abizaid, George Casey, and Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker have made no secret of their strong reservations about sending large numbers of additional troops.

But this battle for Hagel did not start yesterday. Anyone who watched the Sunday talk shows before the liberation began will remember the concerns of Dick Lugar, Joe Biden, and Hagel. In their mind, there was never a doubt of America’s ability to depose Saddam Hussein, but the concern was also about the exit strategy. How many troops? What would be the mission? How long would we be there? What would be the costs? These are the same questions that all Americans are asking today.

Previously Coleman stated that he opposes the troop escalation in Baghdad (but would allow more troops in other areas.) After the State of the Union Address, Coleman said he was swayed by the President’s plea. His vote against the SR 2
was wrong. In the weeks to come, a resolution will be passed – maybe not Biden’s, maybe Warner’s – but a message will be sent to the President. Coleman will eventually fall in line, but in his first test in battle, he failed to heed the wisdom of a seasoned veteran.

Some may see the Senate Resolution as a rebuke of Bush’s decision to escalate the military action, but it has other important recommendations. Reading the resolution it encourages other nations in the Middle East to work toward peace and a reconciliation process for Iraq.

Engaging other countries is the crux of the solution. This week, Henry Kissinger writes :
Diplomacy must mediate between Iraqi sects which, though in many respects mortal enemies, are assembled in a common governmental structure. It needs to relate that process to an international concept involving both Iraq's neighbors and countries further away that have a significant interest in the outcome.
Two levels of diplomatic effort are necessary
(1) The creation of a contact group, assembling neighboring countries whose interests are directly affected and which rely on American support. This group should include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Its function should be to advise on ending the internal conflict and to create a united front against outside domination.
(2) Parallel negotiations should be conducted with Syria and Iran, which now appear as adversaries, to give them an opportunity to participate in a peaceful regional order.”

Coleman has just been named the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs. In his press release discussing Iraq, he states “the need for an even-handed approach to Middle East peace and an end to terror.” I hope that Coleman heeds the Kissinger’s advise including a personal visit to Syria. This is not the time for partisan politics – mindless attacking or supporting the President – it’s a time for Congress to be involved in Foreign Relations.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Senator Coleman needs to follow Sen. Specter’s path in Foreign Relations.

On Sunday’s This Week program, Senator Sam Brownback was asked to explain his reversal of position from supporting a temporary troop surge on December 31 to being against it on January 10th. His response was that he visited Iraq. A simple answer. He went and talked with the participants (Prime Minister Maliki. Kurdish leadership, U.S. Generals Raymond Odierno and George Casey, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, etc.) and gained a better appreciation of the problems. Brownback stated “We cannot achieve a political solution while a military solution is imposed.”

Brownback is just the most recent of our elected officials who after visiting Iraq have changed their thinking. Senator Norm Coleman, Senator Susan Collins, Senator John Warner, Representative Chris Shays, former Representative Gil Gutknecht are all Republicans who changed their positions after being able to discuss the situation face-to-face with principals in the country.

This commentary is not about troop surges and military tactics; it is about political dialogue.

Foreign policy is best practiced when Senators receive a wide range of opinions from experts and most importantly interact face-to-face with other country’s leadership.

Today, the Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a hearing and among the experts is Robert Malley. He is the Director of the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group and advocates “a clean break in the way the United States deals with the Iraqi government and the region. The United States should seek to enlist broad international support for a new political compact among Iraqis; cease treating the Iraqi government as a privileged partner and start seeing it as a party to the sectarian war; and engage in real diplomacy with all Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria included.”

The last part is the key – a diplomatic discussion with Syria.

The Iraq Study Group recommendations stress dialogue with Iran and Syria. If productive discussions can be held with Syria and relations improved, then that may lead to discussions directly with Iran.

Discussions with Syria does not mean going in with a blank checkbook willing to concede everything … just the opposite, we find joint interests and expand upon them.
Syria clearly has problems. They, as well as Jordan, have a refugee problem and an uncontrolled border. Syria should want a stable Iraq as it wants to run an oil pipeline from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to an outlet at the Mediterranean.
America also has goals. An independent Lebanon, free of Syrian interference, would be a big step toward a peaceful region. Syria is seen as being behind the arming Hezbollah and that needs to stop. The Iraqi Sunni population may be more supportive of the US if they feel that Syria is supporting America's desire for a stable Iraq.
Clearly, the State Department has a role in this, but so does the Senate.
Senator Coleman sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. He needs to follow the paths of Senators Arlen Specter, Bill Nelson, Christopher Dodd and John Kerry and visit Syria first hand. They visited Syria this past December and Specter after meeting with Bashar Assad, stated "Assad stated an interest in negotiating with Israel to try to bring a peaceful settlement to the Syrian-Israeli dispute under the U.N. doctrine of land-for-peace."

Not only do Jim Baker and the Iraq Study Group feel that engaging Syria is part of the Iraq solution , so does Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Just last Sunday, he said “I will seek to encourage our American friends to have a dialogue with Syria." "Syria wants ... stability in Iraq and is backing us in fighting terrorism. There is no justification for a stern (U.S.) stance on Syria," said Talabani, who lived in Syria in exile in the 1970s.

Coleman and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should not follow the path of blindly accepting the Bush Administrations viewpoint, they must visit the areas and engage in dialogue themselves.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Spotlight pointed at NBL Walz while OOS Bachmann spins

Regardless of your opinion of Tim Walz political viewpoints, you have to admit this guy is no shrinking violet.

The spotlight is firmly focused on Congressman Walz. No, I am not referring to his giving the Democratic Radio Address last week, nor his TV debate with Republican Party 2008 Presidential candidate, Duncan Hunter on Hardball. What I am referring to is his House Committee assignments.

Walz has been assigned to the Committee on Agriculture, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

These committees are not going to be easy assignments.

The main legislation in the Agriculture Committee will be a new Farm Bill. The Washington Post has been running articles for over two years on inequities in the current legislation and editorialized about it as Congress convened. Lame Duck Bush, who now all of sudden realizes that deficits do matter, will complain about the high cost, trade objections from the World Trade Organization, and of course, the appropriateness of subsidies. In the end, something will get resolved, and no matter how well Walz fights, the Republican challenger will claim that Gutknecht would have done a better job and that farmers made a mistake electing Walz.

The Transportation Committee is behind the 8-ball thanks to the previous Congress. FY2007 SAFETEAU-LU bill, like many other spending bills, was left incomplete by the 109th Do-Nothing Congress. Through a continuing resolution, projects were kept afloat, but based on overall budget imbalances and the desire to achieve a balance budget, Transportation funding could be jeopardized. Overall, the Federal Aid Highway Funding is technically facing cuts of $4 Billion dollars that would impact 192,000 jobs (Minnesota's portion is just under $50 Million dollars and 2,370 jobs.) Restraints on earmarks may help in the future, but current projects may be partially underway and difficult to terminate. Once again, there will be a resolution, but since Don Young (Republican – Alaska) still has clout within the committee, the likelihood of cutting Alaskan pork-barrel projects may be difficult without effecting all other 50 states’ projects. Since Transportation projects generally are years in the making and Gutknecht was never good at getting projects for Minnesota, Walz will be blamed. In many ways, SAFETEAU-LU should not be a budgetary problem … motorists pay gas taxes that Congress redistributes … the key is to ensure that Minnesota gets in return what Minnesotans paid in. Reviewing the FY2005 SAFETEAU-LU bill, I compared the Iowa projects to the Minnesota projects and it was easy to see that our Congressmen did not get fair value. Leaving road projects aside, DM&E presents a real challenge … if Walz (and Coleman) affect major changes, they will be viewed favorably by many voters; if not, once again, Republicans will claim that Walz is ineffective. Lastly, the Transportation Committee needs to address port safety and incoming cargo inspections. In summary, another difficult committee assignment.

The Veterans’ Affairs Committee may seem to be the easiest assignment. But with 47,657 wounded (so far) in Iraq/Afghanistan, the care for our soldiers will be daunting. There is generally agreement of the need to boost veterans' health spending by $3 billion. Pentagon officials argue another $4 billion is needed for housing and other construction projects, while $700 million is needed to meet the healthcare needs of active-duty military personnel. In summary, the demand for dollars is there, the question is where will Congress get the money?

Customarily, first year Representatives are limited to two committee assignments, so why did Walz get three ?

Simple answer – NBL.
The Democratic leadership recognizes a Natural Born Leader. Walz may be the exception that will work for the betterment of the District even if his votes do not please everyone. His assignments reflect someone who is truly working without considering re-electablity. Funny, but the main characterization that I heard during the campaign was that Walz was just another teacher who would go to Washington to spend money on schools … looks like he is truly interested in caring for the country as a whole.

Now as the First District has a NBL Congressman, Minnesota’s Sixth has an OOS Congresswoman.

The first few weeks of the session has found Michelle Bachmann Out Of Step with Majority.

By Majority, I am not referring strictly to the Democratic Majority in the House. But before I discuss the 110th session of Congress, let us recall how the Hastert-Delay Congress operated. The House was managed by a “Majority of the Majority”. During caucus meetings, if a majority of the Republicans wanted a bill brought forward, then it would. If not, it just languished … such as the bill to negotiate drug prices which had support, but only the support of a minority of Republicans. Now, in the new Congress, Republicans feel free to vote their conscience and district sentiments.

The first six bills passed by the House have had an average of 62 Republicans joining with the Democrats.

For illustration, the House voted on HR 5 to cut the interest rate on many student loans in half. The legislation would lower the rate from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent in stages over five years for need-based loans. The proposal would cost nearly $6 billion and affect nearly 5.5 million students who get the subsidized loans each year. Although all Democrats voted to approve this legislation, the Republican vote was 124 to 71 – a clear Majority of Republicans thought this was good legislation. Bachmann voted against this legislation stating "Unfortunately, this bill does nothing to help lower-income students pay for the skyrocketing cost of college tuition.” A nice Spin answer … ignore over five million students and blame it on the bill not being more expansive.

Bachmann might become the Mistress of Spin based on her inability to define where she stands on the “surge” troop question. The Star-Tribune has a great recap of SpinMistress. What we know is that Bachmann supports Victory in Iraq … what we don’t know is what strategy she supports although as President Bush told Jim Lehrer on the News Hour that the current course was a “a slow failure.”

Now, let's look at the committee assignments for Representative Bachmann. She has been appointed as the 32 ranking member (out of 33 Republicans) to the Financial Services Committee. The Financial Services Committee is chaired by Barney Frank, who George Will described as "what today's liberalism looks like when organized by a first-class mind", and Frank should provide an excellent debate advocate for how widing income inequalities have caused insecurities of millions of families … but then again, Bachmann is already concerned about the lower-income families.

It is interesting that John Boehner has also announced that he currently has vacancies on the Government Reform and Science & Technology Committees (those committees were previously served by Gil Gutknecht) – quite an accolade that even Boehner doesn't have confidence to give her more than one committee.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bill Buckley says Bush Needs a new Coalition of the Willing

William F. Buckley, arguably the Father of the Conservative Movement, came out about a year ago questioning Bush’s Iraq policy. In his recent column, Buckley determines that the American role in Iraq is not critical.

Read it here

Further, he writes “A geographical division of Iraq is inevitable. The major players are obvious. It isn't plain how America, as an outside party, could play an effective role, let alone one that was decisive, in that national redefinition. And America would do well to encourage non-American agents to act as brokers — people with names like Ban Ki-moon.”

So now to the bane of the neo-conservatives and others such as Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, the resolution of the Iraq situation may require the United Nations under the leadership of Ban Ki-moon to act as brokers. Buckley’s opinion is not alone. Many in the region, including some Iraqi leaders, believe that outside help may be needed … but not led by the United States. Just this week, Adnan Pachachi, an experienced Iraqi politician and former head of the Iraqi Governing Council, argued that US troops should be replaced by an Arab and Islamic force under UN military control, since the Americans are an occupation force and the Sunni Arab guerrillas will never accept them.

Bush needs a new coalition of the willing.

His old coalition is leaving him.

Domestically, Senators Coleman, Hagel and Brownback are leading the Republican charge away from Bush’s decision to escalation the number of troops in Iraq and the mission of those troops in Iraq.

Internationally, the coaltion is shrinking fast. There are approximately 16,860 non-US troops in Iraq today. Last week, when Bush announced his escalation plan, Britain, in contrast to the United States, said it would not send more troops to Iraq and would press ahead with plans to scale back its presence in the key southern city of Basra. Britain has some 7,100 troops in southern Iraq and will cut troop levels in Iraq by almost 3,000 by the end of May. The South Korea government intends to withdraw 1,100 troops of its 2,300-strong contingent in the relatively peaceful, northern city of Irbil by April. Poland has 900 troops and has a target of withdrawing completely by the end of this year.

Buckley’s point is one that we’ve heard before - the resolution of the Iraq crisis must be through a political solution - yet Bush is pushing the police action of a military solution.

With various countries in the region readying troops to enter Iraq in case of a government collapse, wouldn’t Bush be prudent to engage the UN to create a new coalition of the willing to provide security and negotiate a peaceful political power sharing between the sectarian factions. America has left it to the Iraqi elected politicians to resolve the crisis, but with so many political parties representing the three main ethnic groups, the politicians have failed miserably. Resolving the key issues of distribution of oil revenues, reversal of the de-Bathification process, Shiite death squads, Shiite militias, etc. can lead to a national reconciliation – but the political leadership is so emerged in religious and ethnic concerns that resolution may only occur with the involvement of an outside mediator.

If this works in Iraq, could it be the basis for resolution in Lebanon? Palestine? It may be worth a try.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Which job “suits” Pawlenty best ?

Before I answer the question, “Which job “suits” Pawlenty best ?”, a quick trivia question.

In the classic television show, The Brady Bunch, there was an episode entitled "Adios, Johnny Bravo". After a musical audition during which he is picked to become a rock star, Greg gets a big head and is ready to skip college.
Question : Why did the producers pick Greg to be Johnny Bravo ?
Answer : He was only chosen because he "fit the suit."

Hence it is with so many politicians, they are selected because they fit the “suit” (or image) that can easily be sold to the voting public. Look at George W. Bush … failed in a run for Congress in 1978, used family connections to achieve some personal business success (-- err, make that personal financial success as these businesses were not successful) then a stint as Governor of Texas. Resume and qualifications were not his strong suit, but his image was presented as a Compassionate Conservative who promised straight talk and high moral standards, opposed nation building and advocated tax cuts. Bush fit the suit of what could be sold to the social and religious conservative voters who in the end only got tax cuts (deficits don’t matter). In virtually one year, the Iowa caucus will be held and voters will notice how the candidates are morphing into a “suit” that can be sold to their perceived base.

Now we come to Tim Pawlenty … a man who wears many suits. He has a radio program that is broadcast throughout the state via WCCO. He is currently Vice Chair of the National Governors Association (NGA) and Chair of the NGA Center for Best Practices and next fall, he assumes chairmanship of the NGA. Monday, John McCain’s presidential exploratory committee announced that Pawlenty will serve as National Co-Chair of Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign should he decide to run. Oh, and he’s also our current Governor and according to his campaign manager, he may run for a third term if he is not selected to run for Vice President.

Remember when Governor Ventura was criticized for various personal appearances and private business endeavors. In fact, then Representative Carol Molnau (current Lt. Governor) requested a ruling by the Office of the Legislative Auditor whether it was appropriate for the state’s taxpayers to be obligated to pay for security costs for state troopers and support staff expenses during book tours.

What I find concerning is that when Pawlenty was asked during the 2002 campaign whether he would pursue other endeavors, he stated that he would only be the Governor. Now, as McCain’s National Co-Chair, will he be actively sounding out donors and rounding up supporters at dinners in key primary states during the all-important financial primary? How many trips to Iowa ? How many TV appearances ?

Pawlenty was elected for a reason – to be Minnesota’s Governor. Tim Penny and Kevin Featherly penned a great Op-Ed in The Pioneer Press assessing Pawlenty’s talents and encouraging him to take some BOLD steps at leadership.

Listening to Pawlenty’s State of the State Address, he opted to address the easy issues that everyone can agree upon – better government, energy, education and health care. These issues were actively debated issues in the past election, and based on the legislative race results he has a pretty easy idea how the legislators feel. Hence, we heard revamping of his prior proposals using the term “compromise” and updating the version -- i.e. “Achieve II”. But there were other issues that the Governor did not mention – transportation and illegal immigration. These issues may not “suit” the image that he wants to project. He is adamant that he will veto a gas tax to address the state’s transporation needs. He knows that the illegal immigration issue is an exploitive wedge issue but the solution is politically very dicey. One comment that I can agree with him on – the need to stop paying for good intentions. To me that means the legislature should look at the subsidies that are on the books. He may be right that Minnesota is not overtaxed, but that does not mean that there is not inequity in the tax system. Subsidies transfers the tax burdens to ordinary citizens.

Although he addressed the issues, the solutions he offered were minmalistic yet somehow seemed to be adequately “suited” to resolve problems. He advocated additional opportunities to allow private business to obtain state spending (i.e. establish $4,000 scholarships for at risk students that may be used for private pre-schools.) In some cases he promotes rewarding the performers instead of elevating the underperformers (i.e. 2% increased additional funding if standards are achieved without consideration that some districts that based on Pawlenty’s own comments can be categorized as affluently educated communities which may easily achieve the targets.)

I believe that we can all agree with Pawlenty when he said "The state of our state is great, but we can make Minnesota even better," but to do that we need a BOLD Governor 100% committed to being the Governor.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

House Republican flip-floppers … now vote against bills they sponsored.

The Washington Post has a piece indicating that House Republicans might be voting their conscience more this session. Well, if this is their conscience, then they are still not in sync with the majority of Americans.

Case in point. The vote approving the Medicare Prescription Drug Price Negotiation Act was passed with 24 Republicans joining the Democrats to pass the legislation while 170 voted against. Although many seniors have come to accept the new Medicare Part-D program, polling has been done that indicates that seniors also feel the Government should negotiate and get better prices. Roy Blunt, the Republican Minority Whip, commented that Democrats are passing “issues that poll at 80, 90 percent” -- so how do Republicans vote against legislation that Americans clearly want?

The pharmaceutical industry lobbyists are working hard against this legislation yet independent advocacy groups cite a recent study by Consumers Reports that finds that prices paid by seniors in the Medicare drug program are more than twice that paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which negotiates prices.

What is sad about this is that some Republicans seem to have changed their stance from last session. Part-D was considered too expensive for many fiscal conservatives. Republicans tried to alter the program last session to affect the prices that consumers pay. Jo Ann Emerson authored a bill that would have allowed price negations and Gil Gutknecht offered legislation that would have allowed re-importation of prescription drugs. These pieces of legislation had Democrat and Republican support but the Hastert-Delay K-street crowd would not permit a vote. Looking at the cosponsors and Friday’s vote, it would appear that the following Congressmen have decided it is better to vote for K-street than Main Street.
Elton Gallegly (CA-24)
Mike Simpson (ID-2)
John Boozman (AR-3)
Ginny Brown-White (FL-5)
Jeff Flake (AZ-6)
Trent Franks (AZ-2)
Wayne Gichrest (MD-6)
Doc Hastings (WA-4)
Steve King (IA-5)
Donald Manzullo (IL-16)
Chris Shays (CT-4)
Tom Tancredo (CO-6)

While the House bill has been approved, the Senate bill has not yet been voted upon. Norm Coleman has indicated that he will not support Main Street. Minnesotans need to contact Coleman’s office and indicate their displeasure. President Bush indicates that he will veto this legislation. To override a veto would take a 2/3rds majority, so it is important that Representatives Bachmann and Kline hear from their constituents and reconsider their votes.

Fiscal conservatives and consumer advocacy groups agree, America can save money with an improved Medicare Prescription Drug.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Is Norm Coleman repeating Kennedy's mistakes ?

November’s election was not only an opportunity for voters to elect members for the 110th Congress, but also send a message to those that were not up for election this term.

A lot will be written that voters sent a message concerning Iraq that President Bush is ignoring, but was there also a message that Norm Coleman is not hearing ?

A main issue in the Klobuchar-Kennedy race was Medicare Part-D Prescription Drug program. Kennedy proudly defended his vote and ran alarmist commercials that "Klobuchar's plan would ration prescription drugs, increase wait times for medicines, limit choices and take drugs like Prevacid and Lipitor completely away." Klobuchar issued a quick and dramatic response stating that she would never do anything that would impact the medications that Minnesotans including those that her Mother uses. Klobuchar’s plan cited the Veterans Administration as a good example of the government negotiating for lower drug prices.

Tuesday, Coleman said “We’ve got a system now that’s working” and that he would continue to oppose government involvement in Medicare drug prices as he is concerned that price negotiation would “add another layer of bureaucracy.”

Coleman doesn’t get it. The question is not whether the system is “working”, but is it working in a cost effective manner? "Working" does not mean efficient. "Working" doesn't mean that it should not be improved.

On July 18, 2006, The New York Times reported :
The pharmaceutical industry is beginning to reap a windfall from a surprisingly lucrative niche market: drugs for poor people. The windfall, which by some estimates could be $2 billion or more this year, is a result of the transfer of millions of low-income people into the new Medicare Part D drug program that went into effect in January. Under that program, as it turns out, the prices paid by insurers, and eventually the taxpayer, for the medications given to those transferred are likely to be higher than what was paid under the federal-state Medicaid programs for the poor.

Fiscal conservatives like myself have long complained about the cost effectiveness of this program. During the last session, the Senate passed legislation that would have improved the program, but the Republican House leadership would not bring the legislation forward. The Democrat-lead 110th Congress has already moved HR4 to the Ways and Means Committee. The bill has 196 co-sponsors including Minnesotans Elison, McCollum, Oberstar and Walz. Senators Snowe (R-Maine) and Wyden (D-Oregon) re-introduce their legislation on January 10 - S250. Snowe and Wyden count 58 Senators as supporting their legislation.

Some form of this legislation will pass. Why Coleman does not see that he is not serving his constituents is beyond me. Alas, since the 2008 election will cost millions, he may be valueing donations and support from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America greater than an improved and cost effective program that users and taxpayers will like better.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Should JOBZ include a Health Care Insurance Requirement ?

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has described the Health Care Crisis as “the most pressing domestic policy issue in the country. We have healthcare costs going up so quickly, so rapidly, that they are suffocating the abilities of individuals, family, businesses and governments from advancing other priorities.”

While Pawlenty recognizes dilemma of Health Care, he also proudly points to the success of the Job Opportunity Building Zones program (JOBZ). Pawlenty describes JOBZ as “the mother of all tax incentives to grow or establish businesses in parts of rural Minnesota. In a JOBZ area there are no corporate income taxes, no property taxes, no taxes on goods purchased and used in the zones, and no taxes on investments made in the zone for a period of up to twelve years[2016].”

Since the JOBZ program is over two years old, Center for Rural Policy and Development has reviewed the data and issued its findings last month. As indicated below, most of the projects were expansions from companies that were already in the community, but the encouraging finding was that the jobs created were in greater number and at a higher wage than pledged. In the data pool, there were 1,985 jobs pledged at a wage of $12.37 but the actual data indicates that 2,601 jobs were created at a wage of $14.86 with 69% of the companies achieving their wage target. The other interesting aspect is where some of these jobs were located … many in counties that border other states … with Fairborn County showing 418 jobs created, 270 in Lyon County, 236 in Chisago County, 177 in Olmstead County, 175 in Jackson County, etc.

What we don’t know is true influence of the JOBZ tax-benefit program in attracting jobs. Would these companies have expanded due to the overall economy? Did some of these companies build for other logical business reasons (i.e. there are a number of ethanol facilities included on the list and aligning processing facilities to where the soybeans, or corn, are grown make sense)? How do eliminating corporate income taxes help small business when most small business owners are not incorporated?

In an editorial, The Star-Tribune asked the question “the more the tax forgiveness program succeeds, the more it poses a fairness question: Is it right for only some employers to be excused from the obligation to pay for government services -- especially when excusing them causes taxes to increase for a community's other employers, not to mention its homeowners?”

Pawlenty is correct to encourage business to create new jobs, but the major problem for all business (and families for that matter) is health care. Although jobs are being created, is the health care problem being exasperated? If the JOBZ legislation has a wage requirement that the wage be at least 110% of the Federal Poverty Rate for a family of four – or $10.23, then why not a program to require minimum health care?

Senator David Durenberger, who was selected by Pawlenty to lead the Minnesota Citizens Panel on Health Care Costs, has stated that the resolution of the health care crisis is universal participation. In other words, everyone must pay in. With the creation of JOBZ, universal participation should be a requirement of any deal.

If a business has an existing health care benefit, it would be exempt from this requirement. If not, the State should create a pool, whereby using bulk purchasing power, it can provide minimum coverage for affected employees and their families. The cost would be a separate tax based on the number of full-time employees. NOTE : Massachusetts used a rate of $295 per year (or less than fifteen cents per hour) to establish its Universal Health Care Coverage. California is now considering a 4% tax on wages to create a program that would provide medical coverage for all residents.

Failure to address the Health Care problem will just create additional burdens on hospitals to provide Uncompensated Care which in the end is paid by all other users.

Since the program’s inception in 2003, there have been 282 deals completed by cities, counties and other governmental agencies. The committed number of new jobs is 4,147 and anticipates retaining 9,080 jobs with an overall wage of $11.37.
The state’s website lists the projects approved.
There are nine deals that involve retaining more than two hundred employees :
Polaris Industries in Roseau is an expansion project to retain 2,000 jobs and create 4 new jobs.
Benchmark Electronics in Rochester is an expansion project to retain 937 jobs and create 56 new jobs.
Mayo Collaborative Services in Rochester is expansion project to retain 459 jobs and create 92 new jobs.
ITRON in Waseca is an expansion project to retain 450 jobs and create 50 new jobs.
Innovance Inc. in Albert Leas is an expansion project to retain 386 jobs and create 10 new jobs.
DB Industries Inc. in Red Wing is an expansion project to retain 322 jobs and create 10 new jobs.
Columbia Gear in Avon is an expansion project to retain 234 jobs and create 38 new jobs.
Lexington Mfg. in Brainerd is an expansion project to retain 223 jobs and create 15 new jobs.
DB Industries Inc. in Red Wing also has a relocation project to retain 210 jobs and create 50 new jobs.

There are five deals that involve creating more than fifty jobs.
Iowa Turkey Products in Marshall is classified as a Move In project and pledges to create 200 jobs.
Total Card Inc. in Luverne is classified as a Move In project and pledges to create 150 jobs.
Polaris Industries in Wyoming has a relocation project and pledges to create 143 jobs while retaining 39.
Anderson Corp. in North Branch has a relocation project and pledges to create 135 jobs while retaining 33.
AMPI in New Ulm has an expansion project and pledges to create 122 jobs while retaining 118. NOTE : AMPI had a fire that forced a shutdown of the facility, so I do not know it this deal was as a result of that fire.

The remaining projects involve a lower number of jobs … with more than a few that only involve one job.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Is Norm Coleman Using Soldier’s Families while Pawlenty & DFL Propose Real Assistance?

Maybe I’m being too cynical, but is Norm Coleman resorting to gimmickry in his proposal to address the financial plight of our soldier’s families ?

Coleman’s Press Release of January 5, 2007 identifies the problem :
“All too often, the families of reservists and National Guard members must contend not only with the physical absence of a loved one but also with the loss of income that makes meeting house payments, car insurance, medical and other bills too great of a burden to bear without help. Some 55 percent of married Guard members and reservists have experienced a loss in income, with nearly 50 percent experiencing a loss of $1,000 in pay per month and 15 percent experiencing a loss of $30,000 or more in pay a year. With our Guard and reservists putting their lives on the line, they should not also have to put their families' financial lives on the line due to their service.”

In a previous commentary, I stated that the best book I read last year was David Kuo’s Tempting Faith – An Inside Story of Political Seduction. Kuo was Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He was drawn to Governor Bush as a Christian who cared about the issue of poverty and his fellow man, but after serving in the White House, he came to realize that many issues were just window dressing to entice religious groups of voters to support him.

Kuo’s essential thesis is that politicians understand the benefits of talking up issues in terms of legislative proposals, funding goals and methods yet realizing that Congress, or the Administration, will never agree to the funding levels. Want proof, read any State of the Union address.

So Coleman has identified a real problem … one that most citizens realized much earlier when Reservists were put on active duty, not years later. His solution is not a Government Funded Program … but a Voluntary Donation Program. Specifically, Coleman plans to propose legislation entitled the Voluntary Support for Reservists and National Guard Members Act which would provide taxpayers the option of contributing part of their tax refund to an income support fund that will help those families who have experienced an income loss due to a call-up to active duty.

Does the Coleman solution, of asking citizens to donate money to the government which would coordinate spending for a specific needs, sounds familiar?
Do you remember in June of 1999 when Governor Ventura proposed to set up a state-run gift fund for new sports stadiums? Taxpayers were given the option to donate their rebate checks – and/or make a cash contribution – so that baseball and/or football stadiums could be built. Ventura kicked in $1,000 to the fund. While Ventura described the proposal as "democracy at its finest," others responded that it was “laughable.” When asked by reporters then St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman did not comment on Ventura’s proposal. We know now that voluntary stadium fund did not work.

Bush campaigned for the US Government to send government funds to faith-based groups and according to Kuo, the program has not been supported by Congress. If charities could obtain ample donations, they wouldn’t have needed government involvement.

Voluntary contributions are at the whim and financial capablities of the donors. When 9/11 happened, many people shifted their donations to 9/11 funds in lieu of their regular sponsored charities. Income tax check-offs may be a simple way to designate a few dollars to a government election campaign fund (or monies to support Wildlife) but there is no guarantee that citizens will contribute the monies that are needed.

Coleman’s proposal is weak in that it does not address how many families could receive assistance. Nor, how much would be available. Nor, who would administer the program. Nor, the requirements that families would have to meet to receive the aid. Since Minnesota already has a program Comfort For Courage that assists families, would there be an overlap such that some of the 2,981 Minnesota National Guard troops currently deployed, may not receive any benefits.

At the same time Coleman is offering his limited proposal, Governor Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota DFL members
are proposing real changes that could impact military families significantly. The key elements of the proposed legislation are : a 100 percent exemption from state income taxes for military pay and pensions; and a state version of the GI Bill, providing additional financial benefits to veterans and some dependents who attend college. It would affect 33,000 National Guard members, reservists and retirees and an unknown number of Minnesotans serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. There is a cost of $75million funded by the State’s taxpayers.

Pelosi Gets Black Eye for Football

When Speaker Pelosi announced the end of the Speaker Hastert-ThreeDayWorkweek, some squawking came from Republicans that it was anti-family if they had to be available for votes from Monday evening until Friday afternoon.

Well, on Monday, when the House was not in session, Rush Limbaugh scoffed on his radio program that this was due to The Ohio State University versus The University of Florida football game to be played that evening. Quickly, Jay Leno included a zinger in his monologue Monday evening.

So Mouths-that-Roar will chastise the Democrats, but the Internet site Raw Story reported that the request was initiated to the Democratic Leadership by Rep. John Boehner, the Republican Minority Leader in the House of Representatives.
"Mr. Boehner made this request, and in the interest of comity, Democrats granted it," a senior Democratic aide stated.

Since Boehner is from Ohio that would not be a surprise that he may have some interest in the game.

A word of advice to Speaker Pelosi : Next time little Johnny wants to go to a football game, use your Mother-of-five voice and tell him that he is excused, but that the other 433 members must join her to work on the country’s problems. Also, watch your back, those Republicans may seek comity with you in person, but then let their lackeys attack.

An aside to any of you that do not know the outcome of the football game, to use President Bush's parlance ... “It was a thumping” … Congressman Boehner probably would have enjoyed negotiating a minimum wage bill with the Democrats better than watching that game.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Pelosi bungles opening of Congress

The 110th session of Congress opened last week and Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the mistake of not challenging the integrity of the voting process.

Unlike the previous Congress when House Democrats voiced concern of the election process, this time the Democratic Party leadership was remarkably silent.

Let’s roll back in time to one of the first assignments of the 109th Congress which was to certify the vote of the Electoral College. Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Senator Barbara Boxer spoke eloquently about the problems that voters had in Ohio. George Bush had won Ohio by over 118,000 votes and John Kerry had conceded that whatever irregularities existed may have not been to affect the overall outcome. In the end, the Senate voted 74-1 and the House 267-31 to reject an objection to the certification of Ohio's 20 Electoral College votes and select Bush as President. The point was that Democrats saw problems and voiced their concerns.

This past November had a number of close elections. But at the start of the 110th Congress, Democrats were notably silent on the issue of voting irregularity. The lone exception was Representative Rush Holt who made a Parliamentary Inquiry by stating that “there are nonpartisan and partisan lawsuits under way with regard to Florida's 13th Congressional District and that the votes of 18,000 voters were not recorded on the paperless electronic voting machines in an election decided by only 369 votes.” Aside from this Parliamentary Inquiry, there was no other comments ... just let's get the session started.

That’s correct -- Congress has given the Oath of Office to Vernon Buchanan despite the questionable election results. Meanwhile, Democrat challenger, Christine Jennings has filed suite asking a judge to order a new election because of problems in Sarasota County, where more than 18,000 voters who cast ballots in other races Nov. 7 failed to vote in the congressional contest. That rate is nearly six times higher than in the other counties in the congressional district.

Democrats need to lead to ensure the integrity of the election process. The Help America Vote Act gave States monies to update their election equipment and Congress has the responsibility to review the processes to insure that every vote is counted. Under the Federal Contested Elections Act, the House Administration Committee should hold hearings on the Florida selection … err election.

Why should you care? Think about it, if 18,000 votes were not recorded in Minnesota’s First District, Gil Gutknecht could still be the Congressman. In fact, there were a number of close elections with 15 Republicans and 2 Democrats winning by less than 3% -- well within the margin where voting irregularity could create an undeserving winner.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Good Construction Project ?

Government spending is always a concern, so politicians use phrases such as “Investing in the Future.” Hence, government officials like to invest in infrastructure since it creates jobs, provides visible accomplishment, and shows government responding to citizens and businesses needs.

Sounds good doesn’t it. Well if it can work here … why not in Iraq ?

Some politicians have stated the case that creating jobs for Iraqis will encourage out-of-work males to reject the opportunity to become insurgents and put down there weapons. Newsweek reports :
“The White House insists it knows that simply adding more troops isn't the answer. The plan being considered is far more nuanced than what has been reported in the media, a senior aide to Bush, who would only discuss the talks in Crawford anonymously, told NEWSWEEK. He said it includes money for new jobs programs and reconstruction aid for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, as well as efforts to further shore up his political base.”

There should be some concerns based on the US Government’s past performance. Previous rebuilding programs in Iraq, which, according to one expert, have been a "dismal failure" that have "left a legacy of half-built projects." One of the goals was to create jobs for 1.5 million Iraqis, but USAID said they've only managed to get to 77,000.

Further, last week, The Washington Post reported “inspector general audits that show the Defense Department ended up wasting of dollars when it paid the Department of the Interior to arrange some of its contracts. The purchases totaled $1.7 billion, and procurement officers failed to meet some of the most basic contracting rules.”

For discussion sake, let’s ignore the question of the Government’s competency to properly manage the program, and consider current projects that have been approved.

Last week, the Department of Defense awarded contracts including :

Watkinson L.L.C.*, Houston, Texas, was awarded on Dec. 21, 2006, a $13,251,442 firm-fixed-price contract for design and construction of a heavy aircraft parking apron and open cargo storage yard. Work will be performed in Al Asad, Iraq, and is expected to be completed by Sept. 17, 2007.

This project is not about improving sanitation, improving electricity availability, nor improving schools … the things that ordinary Iraqis want in their daily lives. This is about building aircraft bases in Iraq.

This project could further incite terrorism, since it might help to confirm theories that the United States plans to have a permanent presence in the country for economic reasons.

The other obvious concern is that it is a US based business. Are there are provisions in the DOD contract that require (or at least encourage) the use of Iraqi subcontractors ?

The last Congress was remiss in its oversight responsibilities … the 110th Congress need to make it a top priority. As the question of troop levels is being discussed, so should the question of permanent bases in Iraq.

Defense Contracts

Newsweek article

Washington Post

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Military Poll : Send More Troops To …

There has been a lot of media attention and discussion concerning a “surge” (better defined as an escalation) of troop levels. Everyone is weighing in --- the Iraq Study Group, Senators who visited Iraq over the holidays (McCain : send more; Coleman : no more), and military leaders. But a poll of one group that has the most at stake has not received the media attention that it deserves.

Military Times commissioned a mail survey of its readers which generally are on average older, more experienced, more likely to be officers and more career-oriented than the overall military population. This is the fourth year of the survey and over time there have been results indicate an increasingly pessimistic chances for victory.

The results are most interesting to say the least.
First the question was posed as do you believe the war in Iraq to be part of the war on terrorism that began on September 11, 2001 or do you consider it to be an entirely separate military action? The answer was split down the middle – in other words, half the respondents could not make the connection of Iraq and the fight against al-Queda.
Second, questions were asked to about troop levels. The responses were reducing to zero, lower levels than current level, maintaining the current level and increase the troop levels. Separate questions were asked about Iraq and Afghanistan. The answers were similar that 38-39 % believed the troop levels should be increased. The most common level of increase was to increase troop levels in Iraq by 25 % while the increase in Afghanistan was to double the troop levels. 13% of the respondents did not believe that there should be any troops in Iraq while 8% did not believe that there should be any troops in Afghanistan. So, in other words, troops feel there is a greater threat in Afghanistan than Iraq and that America is understaffed for the mission significantly in Afghanistan.

Bush will make announcement in the next few weeks concerning Iraq … but why is Afghanistan being ignored ?

The news of 3,000 American deaths in Iraq was a milestone that was reported widely. But not mentioned is that there have also been more than 500 coalition deaths including 353 Americans (and 1,084 injuries) as of January 1st. Since there are only 18,000 American troops in Afghanistan that is a fairly high percentage.

Why should we care about Afghanistan? First, that is where al-Qaeda called home base prior to 9/11. Second, the Taliban is actively engaged trying to overthrow the President Hamid Karzai’s government. Third, the dependence of opium as a primary economic product will undermine all efforts in the War on Drugs. In fact, the White House’s Office of National Drug Policy states Afghanistan is now the largest illicit opium-producing country in the world acknowledging that it accounts for 87 % of the world’s production.

As Richard Clarke pointed out in the December 31st edition of The Washington Post Op-Ed piece entitled “While You Were At War" : for the Bush Administration “national security issues remain unattended, deteriorating and threatening, all while Washington's grown-up 7-year-olds play herd ball with Iraq. [snip] From relatively low levels of heroin production in 2001, Afghanistan's economy is now dependent upon the widespread cultivation of heroin that is flooding black markets in Europe and Asia. With most of the U.S. Army either in Iraq, heading to Iraq or returning from Iraq, insufficient U.S. forces were available to prevent the once-liberated Afghanistan from morphing into a narco-state. [snip] if there is a solution, it lies on the other side of the Khyber Pass where a sanctuary has emerged, a Taliban-like state within a state in western Pakistan. Dealing with that problem is more than Washington has been willing or able to handle.

When Senator Coleman, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and so quickly after two visits states the troop levels in Iraq should be lower, needs to respond to what are America’s responsibilities in Afghanistan. Coleman so quickly wanted to get his views out for the 2008 election that he called reporters from Iraq to tell them. Politicians need to define the mission and then give the military what they need ... the question of troop levels should not be made by someone whose exposure to the military was as a student protester in his college days and now has taken a whopping two trips to Iraq in five years ! Heck, hasn’t Al Franken been to Iraq and to Afghanistan at least four times? Admittedly, Franken is going on an USO tour, but why is that our elected politicians have not accepted the responsibility to see the situation first hand? It might be because every time, they go they come back questioning the mission (Gutknecht, Shay, Warner, Coleman, Collins, Wilson,…). Iraq is a quagmire and a civil war. Afghanistan is where the War on Terror originated and needs to be completed there.

Military Times Story and Poll

White House Office of National Drug Policy

Clarke Op-Ed

Republicans comment on “surge”

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

MN AG Swanson IDs the problem

The first step in resolving a problem is to identify the problem.

Well, Minnesota’s new Attorney General Lori Swanson is off to an impressive start. Already she has announced her intentions to better protect the Minnesota’s citizens in the areas of :
Predatory lending;
Updating cyber crime laws specifically those related to child pornography;
Cell phone contract terms; and,
Tuition aid and financial support for Veterans.

Addressing these issues indicates that Swanson is listening to the citizens and seeking pro-active resolution.

Last week, she announced that she intends to extend the curbs on the business use of Social Security numbers.

Identity theft is too easy due to lackadaisical protection by companies and governmental agencies that have your information.

Social Security Numbers have a definitive purpose, but are used too often when they are not needed. Essentially, the Social Security Number should only be required for tax reporting purposes. Your employer, savings bank, mutual fund investment provider, mortgage lender, Medicare provider, etc. need the number, but many others do not. Yet, many ask for it. Why? Most likely because it’s a unique number that every citizen has … and that is not good enough of a reason. How many times last year did we hear about problems concerning missing personal data that contained Social Security Numbers? When an employee of the Veterans Administration laptop was stolen, it was a breakdown in protocol. Similar problems occurred at Visa, Wachovia, Equifax, ING, AIG, many colleges, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When MN Tax Revenue mail containing tax returns was misrouted, it was a harried time for the Department, but most likely human routing errors – yet scary none the less. Many of these intrusions were on agencies that had a rightful need for our SSN … but what about other companies that do not need that information but have it?

Recently, I wanted to update my Internet service to broadband. The company wanted my SSN. I explained that there were no tax implications and that I was willing to prepay for the service or commit to a long term contract. The clerk could not explain why it was required, so I asked for a contact name at their corporate offices. The clerk stated that they do not give out corporate contacts. As you can imagine, I promptly left the store … and placed a call the office of the Minnesota Attorney General. I expressed my displeasure of this unwarranted intrusion into my private records. The staff attorney stated that my complaint would be recorded, but advised that under current law, a company may “request” that information and I had the right to seek out another service.

At the Federal level, new regulations mandating tougher online financial security measures will took effect yesterday. Banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions must begin using enhanced technologies to protect customer data against identity theft. Some online services will use “fingerprint” technology to identify you and your computer. Laptops may be better secured by requiring a separate encrypted password stored on a USB device or smart card that is not attached to a laptop.

These provisions are steps in the right direction, but the best protection is to limit who has this information … and that is where Attorney General Swanson can lead. I am glad that she recognizes the opportunity and is being responsive to the citizens concerns.