Monday, March 09, 2009

Now Posting at ...

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:55 PM |  

I am now posting at the Minnesota Free Market Institute and True North. I am still taking comments via email at 

Thanks for stopping by.

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.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Transportation: Fighting over the spoils

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:54 AM |  

So the vandals have sacked Rome, and now they are fighting over the spoils. Ripped from the Pioneer Press headlines, 'Fight erupts over new sales taxes for transit. At issue: whether money should be used to bail out Met Council.' Wow. Even I thought the transit kids would play nice together a little longer than this.

A couple of weeks ago, I cited comments by Rep. Bernie Lieder, a DFLer from Crookston and architect of the transportation bill the Legislature passed over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto. Lieder said, in effect, that county board members had concerns about the Metropolitan Council's power and influence.

To address those concerns, the transportation bill created a joint powers board through which the seven metro-area counties would influence new spending on transit. And should the Met Council and this new layer of government disagree on transit spending, I predicted, one or the other would be back at the Legislature looking for new money.

And here we are. A combination of Pawlenty's proposed budget cuts and a sagging economy have created a $47.5 million hole in the Met Council's transit budget, which substantially exceeds the $30.8 million bailout funding earmarked in the transportation bill for Met Council projects. Whatcha gonna do?

Pawlenty's proposed $30 million reduction in state General Fund support of regional transit operations makes the Met Council's self-inflicted problem worse, but the response of transit supporters to the shortfall once again highlights their unsustainable economic model of massive public transit expansion.

Conrad deFiebre on the Web site of the progressive think tank Minnesota 2020 rants about the governor's budget cuts to transportation and notes the Met Council bailout money "was needed because of a big hole in transit budgets left by declining revenues from the motor vehicle sales tax, which in a slowing economy has consistently fallen short of projections based on auto sales."

A sagging economy may have hastened the process, but isn't the goal of progressive transit policy to get people out of their cars? If that policy is successful, won't it lead to people buying fewer new cars regardless of the economy? Shouldn't someone have accounted for falling tax revenue? Or do we expect people to buy cars and just not drive them for sake of the "common good"?

Of course, the dirty little secret is that no one really expects light rail to actually fulfill its promises, especially those supporting it. DeFiebre laments on: "So now the talk is of fare increases and service cuts, the familiar fallback that hits hardest those least able to pay. Metro Transit riders are already paying some of the nation's highest fares, financing 30 percent of bus operations and a remarkable 38 percent of the cost of running the Hiawatha light rail line."

Are those LRT riders from Bloomington going to work in downtown really those "least able to pay?" Those people cramming the train on Vikings game days or projected to flock to the new Twins Stadium, $200 tickets ($65 along the outfield baselines) in hand? What is "remarkable" is that anyone could term a 62 percent operating deficit acceptable, much less a "success" — an operating deficit that under the new scheme, according to Lieder, will no longer come out of general funds; counties had better look to property taxes.

As quoted by deFiebre, Dave Van Hattum of Transit for Livable Communities carries transit support duplicity to another level. "More people than ever depend on the bus system to get around," he said. "In a struggling economy, bus service should be the last thing we cut since it directly impacts many people's abilities to reach their jobs."

OK. Then why, independent of the governor's budget proposal, are we planning to cut bus service on University Avenue? We are because it was necessary to cook the books in favor of light rail to obtain federal funding for the Central Corridor project. So what if people have to walk farther to catch a train, which will run less frequently than the current bus service. How does that not affect people's ability to reach their jobs?"

Of course it does, but current transit planning is not being done for the benefit of the public. The transportation policy being railroaded through the Legislature is about convenience for the well-connected and a legacy for the legislative elite for which everyone else pays. It's cool. The current dust-up among the Met Council, the Legislature and the counties is just more of the $6.6 billion entertainment value of the "historic" transportation bill, which is the best most of us can hope for.

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Friday, March 23, 2008.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tacking into the Wind: Another argument for choice in education

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:49 AM |  

The Star Tribune is reporting today that Forest Lake Area High School Students abruptly canceled the appearance of the National Heroes Tour, featuring decorated veteran from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Steve Massey, the school principal, said the decision to cancel was prompted by concerns that the event was becoming political rather than educational and therefore was not suitable for a public school.

He said the school had received several phone calls from parents and others, some of whom indicated that they may stage a protest if the event took place.

"The event was structured to be an academic classroom discussion around military service. We thought we'd provide an opportunity for kids to learn about service in the context of our history classes," Massey said. "As the day progressed, it became clear that this was becoming a political event ... which would be inappropriate in a public setting.

I’m sure much of the furor surrounding this bit of news will focus on the fact that it is a patriotic event being canceled. But there is an underlying problem at work here: Contrary to the notion that public schools are a place for bringing together diversity, public schooling often forces people of disparate backgrounds into political combat, as the Forest Lake decision makes plain.

Think about it: Whether one opposes or supports the war in Iraq, don’t we have to ask ourselves how public education reached the point where political controversy is “inappropriate in a public setting?”

Such value-based clashes are inevitable in government-run schooling because all Americans are required to support the public schools, but only those with the most political power control them. Political conflict is an inescapable public schooling reality – to the detriment of actual academic activities. That observation passes the smell test and is well-documented by the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey (“Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict”).

Tacking into the Wind: To end the fighting caused by state-run schooling, we should transform our “public education system” system from one in which government establishes and controls schools, to one in which individual parents are empowered to select schools that share their moral values and educational goals for their children. Instead of an education funding formula that funnels money to district schools, we ought to have an education funding formula where money follows the student to district schools, charter schools, private schools, religious schools, online schools and home schools.

Of course, the problem is those with the political power to control education -- Education Minnesota, legislators and bureaucrats -- are not willing to consider parental empowerment at expense of their own power. But nonetheless, fighting to empower families with maximum educational choice is a battle worth fighting.