The latest recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board hit with a force hardly seen since Prohibition: reduce the legal blood-alcohol concentration limit for driving to 0.05 percent from the current nationwide standard of 0.08 percent.
Alcohol dealers' trade groups quickly denounced the independent board's proposal, saying government should concentrate instead on stopping repeat offenders at the current level and, especially, super-drunks who can register fully blotto 0.30 percent BAC and beyond. Not even Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a unit of the U.S. Department of Transportation, expressed support.
The NTSB, best known for investigating airplane crashes, has pushed the envelope before regarding highway safety, calling in 2011 for a total ban on cell phone use by drivers -- hands-on or hands-free. Its latest crusade is likely to be met with the same inaction as that one, at least for the foreseeable future.
Of course, that's not to say there isn't solid science to support the benefits of either crackdown. Impairment of driving faculties occurs with as little as 0.01 percent BAC, and 0.05 brings a significant increase in the risk of fatal crashes, the board said. (There's measurable impairment of driving with talking on the phone hands-free, as well.)
Drunken driving crashes kill nearly 10,000 Americans a year, one-third of the total. That's down from 21,000 such deaths annually, nearly half the entire toll, in the early 1980s. Credit that progress to the Reagan administration's threat of lost highway money to get states to raise their drinking age to 21 and a long, later carrot-and-stick approach from Congress to set the national BAC threshold at 0.08. Minnesota, with licensed beverage interests lobbying to the max, was the last of the 50 states to fall into that line.
According to the NTSB, more than 100 other countries have adopted a 0.05 standard or lower, and in Europe it has cut the rate of drunken driving fatalities by more than half.
"Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman told the Associated Press. "Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents; they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will."
Progressives in Congress have shown some of that will. Conservatives have not, calling for Washington to butt out and leave drunken driving policy to the states. That's a likely prescription for the status quo.
Whatever we do, we probably won't ever get to zero highway deaths (or, for that matter, zero mass killings by unhinged gunmen). Each one is a tragedy, though. In the face of right-wing obstructionism, it's up to progressives to do what we can to limit the inevitable future tragedies.
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The non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has examined the outcome of Minnesota’s 2013 legislative session, concluding that the tax plan passed during the waning hours of the session “raises revenue to avoid more cuts and to make new investments that brighten the state’s economic future” and “modernizes the state’s tax system so that it generates adequate revenue for a thriving state in a 21st century economy.”
The CBPP’s upbeat conclusion is based in large part on the increased investment in education. In addition to a significant increase in per pupil funding, the CBPP notes that “Minnesota will provide free full-day kindergarten in more public schools across the state, and it will substantially improve access to high-quality preschool for underprivileged children — an investment that research has proven boosts the incomes and productivity of children when they grow up.” The CBPP also touts the decision of state policymakers to increase investment in higher education, reversing the 30 percent decline in state support for higher education over the last five years. The CBPP concludes that:
“These investments in the state’s education system will pay off with stronger economic growth in the future by producing a better educated workforce with the kinds of skills and training that employers — especially high-wage employers — will need in the future.”
Beyond education, the budget bills that were recently signed into law will increase funding for the Minnesota Investment Fund and the performance-based Minnesota Job Creation Fund, which provides loans to incentivize businesses to relocate to or expand within Minnesota and are expected to leverage $1.2 billion in private sector investment. In addition, the new state budget will bring broadband to underserved parts of the state, provide more affordable housing support business expansion, and establish new trade offices in foreign markets.
Conservatives complaints about “job killing tax increases” would be valid if tax dollars—once collected—were thrown into a hole and buried. In other words, the political right focuses on the economic burden of taxation, but ignore the economic benefit produced when tax dollars are spent on things like education, infrastructure, and other public investments that are typically not made by the private sector. Fortunately for Minnesota, thoughtful state policymakers have recognized that tax dollars—properly invested in things like education—can help stimulate long-term economic growth.
We all see solar panels daily, whether or not we register them. On the side of some telephone poles, on a few street signs, even small lamps in gardens. The technology of photovoltaic cells is becoming more compact by the year and efficiency is going through the roof. Literally.
But that still doesn’t mean everyone wants one on their home. Or even that they necessarily can. Renters may face the predicament of wanting to power their homes with solar power with an inability to do so. Home owners might not have the funds to cover expensive up-front costs of photovoltaic installation. What many are left with is a wish to utilize solar technology without anyone to grant it.
Until now. When you pair power grid advancements with recent legislation you get a winning combination. A previous MN2020 blog pointed to the new mandate in Minnesota, which is 1.5% of our energy being produced by solar power by 2020. The overall goal is to have 10% by 2030.
What we also got out of that bill was a push to promote community solar gardens. Community solar gardens allow Minnesotans to partake in clean energy with relative ease. They sign up, the group purchases panels to be installed in a common area, and group members reap the clean energy benefits. This takes away from the bother of multiple installations and grid hookups while promoting renewable energy and receiving cash credits on their electricity bills.
One Minnesota community solar garden has already been in the works. The Hennepin-Wright project in Rockford has started construction and is slated to be online soon. But these community solar gardens are not just for rural communities. They are coming right here to the Twin Cities.
When you head down Lake Street, look up. One is being built right in Minneapolis atop Northern Sun Merchandising. Applied Energy Innovations and MN Community Solar project will produce up to 40 kW, which could power up to 10 homes. The solar panels will be made right here in Minnesota while creating more than a dozen jobs.
With the economic and environmental benefits coming from community solar gardens, I have no doubt we can expect to see more of them popping up throughout the state.
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After more than a decade of rolling state budget deficits and finance gimmicks brought on by conservative cut-taxes-and-spend-anyway policies, it was heavy lifting for progressive leaders to return Minnesota government to structural fiscal balance and tax fairness. Not even progressives relish raising taxes, but it's a tough job and somebody's got to do it when the budget's busted.
Congratulations are due the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton for their good work finally getting the state's house in order. Unfortunately, that mighty task left no energy for attacking our state's transportation deficit, which may not be glaring to the eye, but is just as real as red ink in the state general fund.
"We are grossly underfunded," state Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle told the Brainerd Dispatch. "It's not politics; it's arithmetic."
More than half the state's roads are past their life expectancy of 50 years and in need of costly rebuilding, and more than 40 percent of the bridges are over 40 years old, Zelle noted. Meanwhile, fuel taxes haven't kept up with needs in the face of declining driving and greater vehicle efficiency. But, as Zelle pointed out, it's hard to arouse a sense of urgency for a long-term crisis.
Minnesota policymakers didn't totally ignore transportation this year. They authorized $300 million in trunk highway bonding, pushing the state near its limit for that financing tool. They appropriated $37 million in general funds to keep the Southwest light rail project on course after conservatives stonewalled a far better strategy for long-term capital investments: state borrowing at historically low interest rates. They filled statewide transit operating deficits with general fund money as well.
Despite a $11 million cash infusion for Greater Minnesota transit, it "will only allow the state to meet 60 to 65 percent of the identified transit needs rather than meeting the statutory goal of 80 percent by 2015," said Barb Thoman of the Transit for a Stronger Economy Coalition.
Proposals for local sales taxes for transit and higher fuel taxes for roads and bridges were left in the dust. A while back I called for a belt-and-suspenders approach -- bonding and sales taxes -- to support transit. Neither happened. Given the unpalatability of raising the gasoline tax for better roads and bridges, it's no surprise that went nowhere, either.
For the next couple of years, at least, it seems we're going sansabelt on transportation. Let's pray we don't get caught with our pants down.
Hours after the gavel ended 2013's legislative session, conservative leaders were holding press events and penning editorials to complain about the session’s outcome. Their principal talking points can be summed up in two catch phases: “overreach” and “soak the rich.”
The argument is that progressive leaders went too far in increasing taxes and spending and were victimizing the wealthy.
To rebut these arguments, one only needs to cite the facts:
- The state’s “Price of Government”—a measure of the size of government used by business and labor, conservatives and progressives—will decline over the next four years. (The precise magnitude of this decline will be known in a few weeks when Minnesota Management & Budget releases its updated Price of Government report.)
- In the next biennium, the growth in state general fund revenues and expenditures in the newly agreed to tax and budget bills will be less than the growth in the economy.
- The increase in revenue and spending agreed to during the 2013 session will replace only about a third of the real per capita spending decline over the last decade. Real per capita general fund revenue and spending in FY 2014-15 will be significantly less than they were in FY 2002-03.
“Soak the rich” is a reference to the 2013 omnibus tax act, which increased income taxes on the top two percent of Minnesota households by income. It is important to note that the state and local effective tax rate of the top two percent will remain less than what is paid by other Minnesotans. The truth of the matter is that the rich are not being soaked; rather, they are simply being required to pay taxes at rate somewhat closer to what other Minnesotans are paying. Overall, Minnesota’s tax system will remain regressive—just not quite as regressive as it was before the 2013 omnibus tax bill.
The 2013 legislature provided property tax relief, made long overdue education investments, and provided working parents childcare support through all day kindergarten funding.
Furthermore, a cautious DFL majority assiduously avoided excessive tax increases by only replacing a fraction of past spending cuts and by ensuring that growth in the state general fund did not out pace growth in the state’s economy. The outcome of the 2013 session was “radical” and “extreme” only by the standards of the tea party, which sees any spending increase and any infringement upon the privileged tax status of high-income households as anathema.
I love the idea of charter schools, and I love that many charter schools have stayed true to that idea. Schools designed by teachers to innovate, experiment, and share their findings with the rest of the world? Yes, please!
Many charter schools live up to this idea. Some take on kids at risk of dropping out of the school system entirely, even though this jeopardizes their ability to make performance targets. Many do innovative work with technology, culture, and pedagogy. There are good people leading and teaching in these schools, and we should applaud the individual successes when charter schools have found ways to help students who were struggling in their previous schools.
However (and you knew there would be a “however”), the charter concept has been shifted from its original purpose. It wasn't the hard workers building good schools that did this; it was a collection of market idealists, profiteers, and those with animus towards district schools.
At their best, these folks want competition between charter schools and district schools to “unleash the power of the market.” (I've explained why that doesn't work.) This comes from a misplaced idealism that assumes competition will drive increases in the quality of education, when really it just increases the importance of marketing.
At their worst, these folks want to use charter schools as a way to shame and starve district schools. This describes a small but influential fraction of charter advocates. They've rejected the spirit of collaboration and innovation that animated the early charter concept, preferring a crusade against local school districts. It's this approach that spreads the inaccurate picture of charter schools being generally superior to district schools. That's where conservative candidates get the idea that the best way to improve low-performing schools is simply to encourage more charters.
The transformation of the charter concept from a helping hand into a fist does a disservice to everyone working to make more schools good places for kids. There are many schools – district and charter alike – that are doing great work. Others need more resources and fresh approaches. Let's lower our voices, unclench our fists, and work together to build a range of schools that meet the needs of the full spectrum of students.
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One of the maddening things about the foreclosure crisis for housing activists is how simple it would be for banks to resolve many of the cases that end in eviction. Community organizations have expended significant energy and taken dramatic actions defending homes from the banks one home at a time for homeowners like Bobby Hull, Monique White, and Rose McGee, who should never have been at risk for eviction in the first place.
This session, many of those same organizations came together to ask the legislature to regulate foreclosures in Minnesota, dramatically reducing the number of Minnesota families displaced by banks. Directing the grassroots power of foreclosure victims and their neighbors directly against a powerful financial industry lobby, the coalition got off to a slow start and the bill initially seemed destined to die in committee. Activists staged call-ins and sit-ins in what looked very much like last-ditch acts of desperation to revive a dead bill.
Toward the end of session, though, elements of this legislation resurfaced in a new bill SF 1276 and made it to the Senate floor.* In the bright spotlight of a public floor vote, conservative Senator Branden Petersen was the only representative in either house willing to go out on a limb for the banking lobby against common sense reforms to help Minnesotans stay in their homes. The 61-1 vote in favor of the bill in the Senate was followed quickly by an even more resounding 123-0 vote in the House.
The persistence of grassroots activists at Occupy Homes MN, ISAIAH, MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, and the rest of the coalition paid off. Thanks to their efforts, the Minnesota legislature passed one of the most aggressive foreclosure prevention bills in the country, putting an end to “dual tracking,” requiring lenders to offer modifications to all eligible homeowners, requiring services to ease the paperwork burden for modification applicants, and giving homeowners a right to sue to stop a foreclosure if mortgage servicers fail to follow the law. Had this been enacted years ago, it could have already prevented thousands of foreclosures. It will prevent thousands more in the years to come.
The vote should serve as a warning to the “too-big-to-fail” set and encouragement to foreclosure activists around the country. No party is willing to stand with big banks in public in 2013. When the vote was called, the Minnesota legislature voted with homeowners.
*An earlier version of this story conflated two separate bills.
In the final hours of this year’s Legislative session, the Minnesota House approved a measure that gave in-home child-care providers and personal care attendants the right to vote for organizing. The victory drew applause from union members in the House gallery prompting Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington to angrily denounce the group, “We’re not in charge — let them applaud. They own the place!”
This might make you wonder, if not working Minnesotans, who would conservatives prefer “own the place!”? Don’t worry, here’s a top 10 list to answer that question.
1) ALEC – American Legislative Exchange Council
While in control of the state Legislature, conservatives got much of their worst legislation directly from this D.C. based group. Sure, it doesn’t represent Minnesotans but that never stopped conservatives from using ALEC bills verbatim to push extreme anti-immigration and anti-labor legislation during the 2011 session.
2) Big Corporations
They are people, too? Right? At a time when most middle class Americans are struggling to rebuild after the recession, conservatives took aggressive lengths to support big corporations instead of working Minnesotans. In fact, one conservative admitted, "When it comes to the corporate taxes, that's a very big concern for us too.”
3) Members of the National Organization for Marriage and Minnesota Family Council
Sure they skirted campaign finance laws, but these groups who go about their public accounting in non-traditional ways while supporting “traditional marriage” are friends with a lot of conservative Minnesota policy makers. Luckily, now they are on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of Minnesota law.
4) Bob Davis
Speaking about the families of the victims of the Newtown shooting, the ultra-conservative radio personality said, “I would stand in front of them and tell them, 'Go to hell.’” While most, you know, decent people would find the comment disturbing, that hasn't stopped conservative members of the Minnesota Legislature from being frequent guests on his show.
I really wish I was joking on this one.
During their short time in control of the Legislature, conservatives fought tirelessly to end job creating clean energy laws. Arguing that, "The climate changed before we were here; the climate will change long after we're gone." Conservatives continue to back carbon heavy forms of energy production over new, cleaner, forms of production that create more stable high-wage jobs for Minnesotans.
7) Wayne LaPierre of the NRA
Even after terrible national tragedies, conservatives successfully fought against common sense reforms that would have protected Minnesotans’ second amendment rights while making our communities safer.
8) #2 Pencil Producers
While progressives were busy passing a bold education bill that included all-day kindergarten for every Minnesota child, conservatives pushed the failed high-stakes-test policies of the past.
9) The 1%
Progressives created a 4th tier income tax rate so families making over $250,000 will pay their fair share. Minnesota conservatives, ignoring our history of economic success, argued that the new taxes would “threaten Minnesota’s competitiveness.”
Minnesota leads the country when it comes to tax revenue lost because of tax havens in other countries. Ending those loopholes will mean losing our #1 spot but it will also mean better funded schools. Conservatives fought to keep the loopholes but progressives won the fight. This one time, I think I’m happy that Minnesota will no longer be a national leader on an issue.
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Despite what most of us were taught in kindergarten, the American "ownership society," to quote George W. Bush, hasn't been very good at sharing. One example: We own millions more cars than there are licensed drivers.
But maybe the All Mine Culture is evolving, especially when it comes to urban transportation. Modern bicycle sharing is spreading to every corner of the country, so fast that the U.S. fleet of 9,000 shared bikes is projected to quadruple in the next couple of years as dozens more cities get on board.
Minneapolis, already served by Zipcar and HOURCAR auto-sharing services, is launching a two-year pilot program to make up to 250 vehicles available for occasional use.
Meanwhile, U.S. driving has been declining for nearly a decade. There are economic reasons for this -- Great Recession joblessness that reduced commuting and the $7,800 annual cost of owning and maintaining the average American private car -- but lifestyle changes of both younger and older Americans are playing a part, too.
Driving our own cars everywhere we go is still the dominant U.S. mode of mobility, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But as shared transportation choices proliferate and become more convenient, everyone benefits. Early adopters get better health and lower costs, drivers face less traffic congestion and we all share cleaner air.
Long before I started college in Fall 2010, MnSCU schools like mine (Minnesota State University Mankato) had been cutting course offerings and raising tuition thanks to a decade of declining state higher education funding.
As the graph below shows from 1999-2011, successive state legislatures have trimmed an astounding 48% from Minnesota’s public colleges and universities, when adjusted for inflation and student population. This far exceeds the nationwide 23% average higher education cut.
A February MnSCU report highlights that before Minnesota began disinvesting in education, the state’s “higher education appropriation per student was 24% higher than the national average; now it is 17% below.” This has shifted the education funding burden to the middle-income and working-class students that typically attend state colleges. In 2002, the state covered 2/3rds of the average MnSCU student’s costs. The state now covers only about 1/3rd of the costs.
Since I’ve been in college, there have been even more cuts. As part of the deal that ended the 2011 state shutdown, which covered fiscal years 2012-2013, lawmakers cut $170 million from MnSCU. As a result, my tuition has steadily risen, from $2,815.60 for fall semester 2010 to $3,175.04 this coming semester.
Fortunately for students, this year’s legislative majorities will raise higher education funding back to adequate levels. However, after a decade of cuts, it’s not likely we’ll see a major difference on campus. Still, it’s a step in the right direction. Furthermore, changes in how the state generates revenue will help us sustain proper funding levels for the future.
It might be a generation before Minnesota sees the true impact a decade of cuts yields. I can tell you form a personal perspective, however, having higher tuition debt going into a still fragile job market will likely lead to economic setbacks for my peers and I. We’ll be holding off on buying houses. We’ll have to get another 10-20 thousand more miles out of our old cares. And most of us will hold off on big ticket consumer goods.