Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Bonding Bill: From the taxpayer's side of the looking glass

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:27 AM |  

How doth the loyal St. Paul rep
Improve her bonding tale,
And pour on language full of pep
To try to make the sale!
How righteously she speaks her piece,
How neatly spreads her view
That general welfare will increase
With taxes paid by you.

— With apologies to the Rev. Charles Dodgson.

Better known as "Lewis Carroll," Charles Dodgson penned, "How Doth the Little Crocodile" as a parody of Isaac Watts' poem "Against Idleness and Mischief." Watts uses the busy little bee to personify the virtues of diligence and hard work. In Dodgson's parody, the "virtues" of the predatory crocodile are deception and guile — it lies in wait "with a cheerful grin" and "welcomes little fishes in."

St. Paul DFLer Rep. Alice Hausman and the Capitol hive have been busy as little bees pollinating key districts with construction projects that will bloom come November. But beware the "Jabber-talk," my son; there is much predatory guile and deception in Alice's wonderland.

In her rebuttal ("What's Essential," April 6)to my criticism of her bonding bill, Hausman pours nuance upon nuance on the word "essential" to improve her bonding tale and sell $925 million ($717 million after the governor's line-item veto Monday) worth of state spending. Hausman uses "essential" to mean whatever she needs it to mean.

Hausman believes "job creation is essential." The bonding bill, she says, is expected to create 10,000 good-paying jobs. In the bonding process, the Legislature gave preference to projects ready to go so that jobs would be created as soon as the bonds were issued.

In other words, it's not the projects themselves that Hausman regards as necessarily "essential;" that the projects are ready to go makes them "essential." Putting people to work is "essential," not necessarily the work they will do. That has a nice progressive ring to it, but as economic principle it is a clanging symbol.

When government builds projects that people would not willingly pay for themselves, the nonessential jobs it "creates" are at the expense of productive jobs lost elsewhere in the economy. In simple terms: A state-paid carpenter building a new house for a gorilla in St. Paul (vetoed by the governor) gets his job at the expense of a privately paid carpenter not building a new home for a family in Roseville.

As if it suddenly just happened, Hausman sees an infrastructure in decay — bridges are falling down, there is a backlog of basic maintenance of university buildings, and sewer and water systems are in need of repair. Spending to fix that is "essential." Tough to argue with that, but that is where deception, guile and predatory taxing comes into play. We find our infrastructure in such a state because legislators elect to spend available tax dollars on other non-essentials that litter current and past budgets and bonding bills.

For example, the state's complex highway funding formula, based on politics, not priorities (which legislators are too timid to tackle), virtually ensures that highway maintenance is deferred in favor of new but not necessarily "essential" road construction. In large measure the $6.6 billion transportation tax increase was "essential" because in this wonderland bonding for absolutely necessary state roads and bridges would suck too much money away from local legislative pet projects masquerading as "essential" state investments.

Hausman gives "essential" a nuanced local meaning. While I find the Rochester National Volley Ball Center a non-essential project for state funding (which the governor vetoed), Hausman says it is "essential" for Rochester; ergo it should be funded by state money collected in part from Duluth. But not to worry, Duluth, you'll get state money for a hockey arena (which the governor, inconsistently, did not veto) funded in part by Rochester. Of course, taxpayers in Rochester and Duluth and across the state, not the legislators bribing each other with ribbon-cutting opportunities, are actually picking up the tab.

But in Alice's wonderland, trading in "pork" futures, so to speak, "for better or worse," is "essential to getting the (bonding) bill passed" — even if it means sleeping with the enemy and trading local road funding for an override vote. Heaven forbid a legislative leader should actually show a little leadership and try to reform a bad system.

"Right now," writes Hausman, "DFLers think putting people back to work and protecting investment ... in our infrastructure are essential." Tomorrow they might think that a state-run health care system is "essential." Next, we'll need another "essential" light-rail line.

Essential ought not be simply a word reflecting Hausman's preferences. On the taxpayers' side of the looking glass, essential has an objective meaning. It is essential that Hausman and the DFL come to understand that.

Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the Pioneer Press Opinion page and a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute ( His e-mail address is

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Wednesday April9, 2008

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Eliot Spitzer: This is just too easy.

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:27 AM |  

ABU DHABI (AFP) - The crown prince of the United Arab Emirates of Dubai has bought a female camel for a record 2.72 million dollars, an organiser at a camel beauty pageant said on Monday.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktoum "bought camels... worth 16.5 million dirhams (4.49 million dollars), including a female camel... for 10 million dirhams (2.72 million dollars)," Hamad bin Kardoum al-Amiri said.
Drum roll, please ....

The Sheikh paid more per hump that Eliot Spitzer.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Render onto Caesar ...

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:49 AM |  

Interesting email from AM 950 KTNF this morning that highlights the difference in the way the political right and left look at religion. The email promotes the Progressive Faith Conference, "Voting Justice, Voting Hope." It reads in part:

Get Ready to Change the Way You Think About Faith and Politics at the national gathering "Voting Justice, Voting Hope: Progressive Faith Taking Action in 2008" sponsored by the Plymouth Center for Progressive Christian Faith.

While there is certainly room for debate on the role religion should play in politics, nonetheless, the left and the right take fundamentally different approaches to the question. On the right, the moral question is, “How does one reconcile one’s faith with politics?” On the left, the question , “How does one incorporate religion into one’s "progressive" politics?” That is a substantial difference.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Bonding Bill: "Essential" or not, period

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:33 PM |  

Back in the days when grammar, not global warming, was taught in public schools, we learned that some adjectives can't be modified. "Unique," for example. Either something's unique — that is, one of a kind — or it isn't.

"Essential" is another. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, the chief House sponsor of the bonding bill, must have missed class the day they taught grammar; she most certainly missed the day they taught economics. Everything you need to know about bad bonding policy, you can learn from Alice Hausman.

On Wednesday the Minnesota House and Senate passed a capital investment "bonding" bill that authorizes the state to borrow $925 million to finance public works projects. Gov. Tim Pawlenty threatens a veto, saying $925 million is too much; it surpasses the state guideline for debt service of 3 percent of state revenue.

But, Hausman told the Star Tribune, the bill spreads out the bond sales without violating the 3 percent guideline. Thus, lawmakers can throw more money down the rabbit hole leading to Alice's wonderland of grammatical and economic nonsense. Let's start with the grammar.

In Alice's wonderland, words mean whatever legislators need them to mean. Hausman defends the size of the bonding bill, saying legislative negotiators pared nearly $4 billion in requests to less than $1 billion in "most essential" projects. Not to pick nits here, but dictionaries define "essential" as "absolutely necessary; vitally necessary; indispensible."

If a project request is "essential" to the state, then there are dire consequences to the state if it's not funded; if it's not essential, state government shouldn't be funding it. "Most essential" is as nonsensical a concept as ever uttered by a mad hatter.

Consider the "most essential," $3 million expansion of the National Volleyball Center in Rochester: absolutely necessary, vitally necessary, indispensible or no? Dire consequences for Minnesotans? Or no?

Responsible legislators might say "no," but in Alice's wonderland when some dodo makes a suggestion, everyone races around in a circle and everybody wins — and Alice doles out the comfits.

In Alice's wonderland, everyone eats from the side of the mushroom that makes spending grow. Grinning like Cheshire cats, they ponder "how much the state CAN spend" rather than "how much the state SHOULD spend."

Back in March, before the House and Senate agreed on $925 million as the "right" number for the bonding bill, Hausman hesitated to call a conference committee, which would determine the projects and funding that would make it into the final bill. Her rationale was: "Without agreement on the size of the bill, it is hard to write the first line." Nonsense.

Hausman is absolutely wrong; the first line of the bonding bill is easy to write. It is an appropriation for an "essential" capital expenditure, which means the capital investment relates to a constitutional responsibility of state government that should not be delayed for another year. The second line meets the same criteria. So does the third. The last item in the bonding bill is the line above the first constitutionally legitimate expenditure that isn't absolutely necessary.

If the bonding bill at that point is a mere $600 million, then that's the appropriate and legitimate level of state bonding. If indeed everything on the list is both a constitutional responsibility of the state and essential to the state and the total is $1.25 billion, well, then legislators do have to look for other sources of revenue - first eliminating non-essential expenditures elsewhere in the budget.

In fairness, we should note that Hausman's approach to bonding is not unique. Although the governor says at $925 million the bonding bill is "too much," he is still on the same side of the looking glass as Hausman. He, too, starts with a bonding bill cap instead defining which projects are essential and which are not. Nibbling on the other side of the mushroom to shrink the bonding bill to a mere $825 million is less damaging to taxpayers, but no less a mocking of fiscal responsibility.

In Alice's wonderland, the bonding bill is a croquet game without rules where taxpayers take the roles of flamingoes (mallets) and hedgehogs (balls) and get knocked around and rolled through hoops at the whim of legislators. Sadly for taxpayers, the bonding bill is not a fantastical dream; it's simply fantastical. How the state can refuse to bond for essential roads and bridges while at the same time eagerly passing on to our children the debt on local hockey arenas and polar bear exhibits is beyond my per diem level.

Go ask Alice, when she's 10 feet tall.

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press Friday, April 4, 2008.