Friday, February 29, 2008

Unity08 and Ballot Access Requirements


Dear fellow members of Unity08,

One of our principles at the outset of this audacious project was transparency and openness. Too often in our recent political history, what you see is not what you get.

For this reason, we are writing you today to lay out the current status of Unity08 and possible paths going forward.

First, however, it's important to reflect upon what we - together - have accomplished in shaping the current political discussion and building a sense of what is possible in this crucial election year. Two of our core ideas - the importance of a centrist, bi-partisan approach to the solving of our nation's problems and the possibility of an independent, unity ticket for the presidency have already gone from far-out to mainstream.

Barack Obama, for example, has made the theme of unity and the necessity of bridging the partisan divide an absolutely central theme of his campaign. And just last week, a group of former and present national office holders - independents, Republicans and Democrats - met in Oklahoma for the sole purpose of stating their belief that at the present perilous moment, a unity government is the only hope of solving the nation's mounting problems. When you have agreement among the likes of former RNC chairman Bill Brock and Gary Hart, you're onto something.

And, of course, waiting in the wings should the divide persist, is the potential of a serious non-partisan candidacy in the person of the Mayor of New York (two of our founders Doug Bailey and Gerald Rafshoon have stepped down from the board and may have more to say about their plans in the near future).

Can Unity08 take full credit for these remarkable developments? Of course not, but through this website, your active involvement, innumerable news stories, op-eds, and public appearances by friends like Sam Waterston, we certainly have helped to bring these ideas to the forefront of the current political discussion.

So in a larger sense, we have accomplished a major portion of what we set out to do. But in the specifics and logistics, we have fallen short.

At the current moment, we don't have enough members or enough money to take the next necessary step - achieving ballot access in 50 states - to reach the goal of establishing our on-line convention and nominating a Unity ticket for president and vice president this coming fall.

The past year has taught us that it's tough to rally millions to a process as opposed to a candidate or an issue. In the past, third party movements that have broken through the monopoly of the established parties have always been based on a person (Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 or Ross Perot in the last decade) or a burning issue (slavery in the case of the insurgent Republican party in 1860). Stirring people and moving them to action about a process change - replacing the quirky primary system that tends to drive candidates to the extremes with something more inclusive and sensible - has proven to be a lot harder than we expected.

And the Federal Election Commission hasn't helped. The Commission has taken the position that we are subject to their jurisdiction (even though two United States Supreme Court decisions hold exactly opposite) and, therefore, that we are limited to $5000 contributions from individuals (even though the Democrat and Republican Parties are able to receive $25,000 from individuals). Needless to say, this position by the FEC effectively limited our fundraising potential, especially in the crucial early going when we needed substantial money fast to get on with ballot access and the publicity necessary to build our membership.

We were caught in a peculiar catch-22; we wanted to break the dependence on big money by getting lots of small contributions from millions of members, but needed some up-front big money to help generate the millions of members to make the small contributions. And the FEC (in effect, an arm of the parties) didn't let that happen. We have challenged this ruling in the federal courts, but are still awaiting a decision and time is running out.

And so reluctantly, especially given the volatility of the present situation, we're forced to scale back - not cease - our operations and suspend our ballot access project. Our website will become less interactive (it takes staff to answer hundreds of e-mails a day) and we can't in good faith make the $5 million commitment necessary to make a serious start on ballot access.

But we're not closing our doors. We believe it is important to see our case against the FEC through (both for Unity08 and any similar movement in the future) and be ready to gear up if (when) we win our case and political circumstances warrant later this spring. Unity is in the air right now, and Mayor Bloomberg seems poised to run on his own (and the fact is that two independent candidacies wouldn't work) if the parties leave the sensible center open - but all this could change in a matter of weeks.

We still believe strongly that we have the right idea, but it just might (emphasize might because who knows what can happen in the next month) not be the right time. In the meantime, a sincere, profound thanks for your help, involvement and support so far and please keep pushin' - for the simple but very powerful idea that solutions to our nation's problems are going to take ideas and hard work from all sources, and that a political system whose stock-in-trade is division may well be the biggest problem of all.

Please know that you have already made a difference and are at the forefront of a movement that may yet save the country.

Robert Bingham
Angus King
Peter Ackerman
Zach Clayton
Lindsay Ullman

Board of Directors, Unity08

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Obama Craze: Count Me Out



Part of me shares the enthusiasm for Barack Obama. After all, how could someone calling themself a progressive not sense the importance of what it means to have an African-American so close to the presidency? But as his campaign has unfolded, and I heard that we are not red states or blue states for the 6th or 7th time, I realized I knew virtually nothing about him.

Like most, I know he gave a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. I know he defeated Alan Keyes in the Illinois Senate race; although it wasn’t much of a contest (Keyes was living in Maryland when he announced). Recently, I started looking into Obama’s voting record, and I’m afraid to say I’m not just uninspired: I’m downright fearful. Here's why:

This is a candidate who says he’s going to usher in change; that he is a different kind of politician who has the skills to get things done. He reminds us again and again that he had the foresight to oppose the war in Iraq. And he seems to have a genuine interest in lifting up the poor.

But his record suggests that he is incapable of ushering in any kind of change I’d like to see. It is one of accommodation and concession to the very political powers that we need to rein in and oppose if we are to make truly lasting advances.

THE WAR IN IRAQ

Let’s start with his signature position against the Iraq war. Obama has sent mixed messages at best.

First, he opposed the war in Iraq while in the Illinois state legislature. Once he was running for US Senate though, when public opinion and support for the war was at its highest, he was quoted in the July 27, 2004 Chicago Tribune as saying, “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.” The Tribune went on to say that Obama, “now believes US forces must remain to stabilize the war-ravaged nation – a policy not dissimilar to the current approach of the Bush administration.”

Obama’s campaign says he was referring to the ongoing occupation and how best to stabilize the region. But why wouldn’t he have taken the opportunity to urge withdrawal if he truly opposed the war? Was he trying to signal to conservative voters that he would subjugate his anti-war position if elected to the US Senate and perhaps support a lengthy occupation? Well as it turns out, he’s done just that.

Since taking office in January 2005 he has voted to approve every war appropriation the Republicans have put forward, totaling over $300 billion. He also voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State despite her complicity in the Bush Administration’s various false justifications for going to war in Iraq. Why would he vote to make one of the architects of “Operation Iraqi Liberation” the head of US foreign policy? Curiously, he lacked the courage of 13 of his colleagues who voted against her confirmation.

And though he often cites his background as a civil rights lawyer, Obama voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act in July 2005, easily the worse attack on civil liberties in the last half-century. It allows for wholesale eavesdropping on American citizens under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts.

And in March 2006, Obama went out of his way to travel to Connecticut to campaign for Senator Joseph Lieberman who faced a tough challenge by anti-war candidate Ned Lamont. At a Democratic Party dinner attended by Lamont, Obama called Lieberman “his mentor” and urged those in attendance to vote and give financial contributions to him. This is the same Lieberman who Alexander Cockburn called “Bush’s closest Democratic ally on the Iraq War.” Why would Obama have done that if he was truly against the war?

Recently, with anti-war sentiment on the rise, Obama declared he will get our combat troops out of Iraq in 2009. But Obama isn’t actually saying he wants to get all of our troops out of Iraq. At a September 2007 debate before the New Hampshire primary, moderated by Tim Russert, Obama refused to commit to getting our troops out of Iraq by January 2013 and, on the campaign trail, he has repeatedly stated his desire to add 100,000 combat troops to the military.

At the same event, Obama committed to keeping enough soldiers in Iraq to “carry out our counter-terrorism activities there” which includes “striking at al Qaeda in Iraq.” What he didn’t say is this continued warfare will require an estimated 60,000 troops to remain in Iraq according to a May 2006 report prepared by the Center for American Progress. Moreover, it appears he intends to “redeploy” the troops he takes out of the unpopular war in Iraq and send them to Afghanistan. So it appears that under Obama’s plan the US will remain heavily engaged in war.

This is hardly a position to get excited about.

CLASS ACTION REFORM:

In 2005, Obama joined Republicans in passing a law dubiously called the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) that would shut down state courts as a venue to hear many class action lawsuits. Long a desired objective of large corporations and President George Bush, Obama in effect voted to deny redress in many of the courts where these kinds of cases have the best chance of surviving corporate legal challenges. Instead, it forces them into the backlogged Republican-judge dominated federal courts.

By contrast, Senators Clinton, Edwards and Kerry joined 23 others to vote against CAFA, noting the “reform” was a thinly-veiled “special interest extravaganza” that favored banking, creditors and other corporate interests. David Sirota, the former spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, commented on CAFA in the June 26, 2006 issue of The Nation, “Opposed by most major civil rights and consumer watchdog groups, this Big Business-backed legislation was sold to the public as a way to stop "frivolous" lawsuits. But everyone in Washington knew the bill's real objective was to protect corporate abusers.”

Nation contributor Dan Zegart noted further: “On its face, the class-action bill is mere procedural tinkering, transferring from state to federal court actions involving more than $5 million where any plaintiff is from a different state from the defendant company. But federal courts are much more hostile to class actions than their state counterparts; such cases tend to be rooted in the finer points of state law, in which federal judges are reluctant to dabble. And even if federal judges do take on these suits, with only 678 of them on the bench (compared with 9,200 state judges), already overburdened dockets will grow. Thus, the bill will make class actions – most of which involve discrimination, consumer fraud and wage-and-hour violations – all but impossible. One example: After forty lawsuits were filed against Wal-Mart for allegedly forcing employees to work "off the clock," four state courts certified these suits as class actions. Not a single federal court did so, although the practice probably involves hundreds of thousands of employees nationwide.”

Why would a civil rights lawyer knowingly make it harder for working-class people to have their day in court, in effect shutting off avenues of redress?

CREDIT CARD INTEREST RATES:

Obama has a way of ducking hard votes or explaining away his bad votes by trying to blame poorly-written statutes. Case in point: an amendment he voted on as part of a recent bankruptcy bill before the US Senate would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent. Inexplicably, Obama voted against it, although it would have been the beginning of setting these predatory lending rates under federal control. Even Senator Hillary Clinton supported it.

Now Obama explains his vote by saying the amendment was poorly written or set the ceiling too high. His explanation isn’t credible as Obama offered no lower number as an alternative, and didn’t put forward his own amendment clarifying whatever language he found objectionable.

Why wouldn’t Obama have voted to create the first federal ceiling on predatory credit card interest rates, particularly as he calls himself a champion of the poor and middle classes? Perhaps he was signaling to the corporate establishment that they need not fear him. For all of his dynamic rhetoric about lifting up the masses, it seems Obama has little intention of doing anything concrete to reverse the cycle of poverty many struggle to overcome.

LIMITING NON-ECONOMIC DAMAGES:

These seemingly unusual votes wherein Obama aligns himself with Republican Party interests aren’t new. While in the Illinois Senate, Obama voted to limit the recovery that victims of medical malpractice could obtain through the courts. Capping non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases means a victim cannot fully recover for pain and suffering or for punitive damages. Moreover, it ignored that courts were already empowered to adjust awards when appropriate, and that the Illinois Supreme Court had previously ruled such limits on tort reform violated the state constitution.

In the US Senate, Obama continued interfering with patients’ full recovery for tortious conduct. He was a sponsor of the National Medical Error Disclosure and Compensation Act of 2005. The bill requires hospitals to disclose errors to patients and has a mechanism whereby disclosure, coupled with apologies, is rewarded by limiting patients’ economic recovery. Rather than simply mandating disclosure, Obama’s solution is to trade what should be mandated for something that should never be given away: namely, full recovery for the injured patient.

MINING LAW OF 1872:

In November 2007, Obama came out against a bill that would have reformed the notorious Mining Law of 1872. The current statute, signed into law by Ulysses Grant, allows mining companies to pay a nominal fee, as little as $2.50 an acre, to mine for hardrock minerals like gold, silver, and copper without paying royalties. Yearly profits for mining hardrock on public lands is estimated to be in excess of $1 billion a year according to Earthworks, a group that monitors the industry. Not surprisingly, the industry spends freely when it comes to lobbying: an estimated $60 million between 1998-2004 according to The Center on Public Integrity. And it appears to be paying off, yet again.

The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007 would have finally overhauled the law and allowed American taxpayers to reap part of the royalties (4 percent of gross revenue on existing mining operations and 8 percent on new ones). The bill provided a revenue source to cleanup abandoned hardrock mines, which is likely to cost taxpayers over $50 million, and addressed health and safety concerns in the 11 affected western states.

Later it came to light that one of Obama’s key advisors in Nevada is a Nevada-based lobbyist in the employ of various mining companies (CBS News “Obama’s Position On Mining Law Questioned. Democrat Shares Position with Mining Executives Who Employ Lobbyist Advising Him,” November 14, 2007).

REGULATING NUCLEAR INDUSTRY:

The New York Times reported that, while campaigning in Iowa in December 2007, Obama boasted that he had passed a bill requiring nuclear plants to promptly report radioactive leaks. This came after residents of his home state of Illinois complained they were not told of leaks that occurred at a nuclear plant operated by Exelon Corporation.

The truth, however, was that Obama allowed the bill to be amended in Committee by Senate Republicans, replacing language mandating reporting with verbiage that merely offered guidance to regulators on how to address unreported leaks. The story noted that even this version of Obama’s bill failed to pass the Senate, so it was unclear why Obama was claiming to have passed the legislation. The February 3, 2008 The New York Times article titled “Nuclear Leaks and Response Tested Obama in Senate” by Mike McIntire also noted the opinion of one of Obama’s constituents, which was hardly enthusiastic about Obama’s legislative efforts:

"Senator Obama's staff was sending us copies of the bill to review, and we could see it weakening with each successive draft," said Joe Cosgrove, a park district director in Will County, Ill., where low-level radioactive runoff had turned up in groundwater. "The teeth were just taken out of it."

As it turns out, the New York Times story noted: “Since 2003, executives and employees of Exelon, which is based in Illinois, have contributed at least $227,000 to Mr. Obama’s campaigns for the United States Senate and for president. Two top Exelon officials, Frank M. Clark, executive vice president, and John W. Rogers Jr., a director, are among his largest fund-raisers.”

ENERGY POLICY:

On energy policy, it turns out Obama is a big supporter of corn-based ethanol which is well known for being an energy-intensive crop to grow. It is estimated that seven barrels of oil are required to produce eight barrels of corn ethanol, according to research by the Cato Institute. Ethanol’s impact on climate change is nominal and isn’t “green” according to Alisa Gravitz, Co-op America executive director. “It simply isn’t a major improvement over gasoline when it comes to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.” A 2006 University of Minnesota study by Jason Hill and David Tilman, and an earlier study published in BioScience in 2005, concur. (There’s even concern that a reliance on corn-based ethanol would lead to higher food prices.)

So why would Obama be touting this as a solution to our oil dependency? Could it have something to do with the fact that the first presidential primary is located in Iowa, corn capitol of the country? In legislative terms this means Obama voted in favor of $8 billion worth of corn subsidies in 2006 alone, when most of that money should have been committed to alternative energy sources such as solar, tidal and wind.

SINGLE-PAYER HEALTH CARE:

Obama opposed single-payer bill HR676, sponsored by Congressmen Dennis Kucinich and John Conyers in 2006, although at least 75 members of Congress supported it. Single-payer works by trying to diminish the administrative costs that comprise somewhere around one-third of every health care dollar spent, by eliminating the duplicative nature of these services. The expected $300 billion in annual savings such a system would produce would go directly to cover the uninsured and expand coverage to those who already have insurance, according to Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program.

Obama’s own plan has been widely criticized for leaving health care industry administrative costs in place and for allowing millions of people to remain uninsured. “Sicko” filmmaker Michael Moore ridiculed it saying, “Obama wants the insurance companies to help us develop a new health care plan-the same companies who have created the mess in the first place.”

NORTH AMERICAN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT:

Regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement, Obama recently boasted, “I don’t think NAFTA has been good for Americans, and I never have.” Yet, Calvin Woodward reviewed Obama’s record on NAFTA in a February 26, 2008 Associated Press article and found that comment to be misleading: “In his 2004 Senate campaign, Obama said the US should pursue more deals such as NAFTA, and argued more broadly that his opponent's call for tariffs would spark a trade war. AP reported then that the Illinois senator had spoken of enormous benefits having accrued to his state from NAFTA, while adding that he also called for more aggressive trade protections for US workers.”

Putting aside campaign rhetoric, when actually given an opportunity to protect workers from unfair trade agreements, Obama cast the deciding vote against an amendment to a September 2005 Commerce Appropriations Bill, proposed by North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, that would have prohibited US trade negotiators from weakening US laws that provide safeguards from unfair foreign trade practices. The bill would have been a vital tool to combat the outsourcing of jobs to foreign workers and would have ended a common corporate practice known as “pole-vaulting” over regulations, which allows companies doing foreign business to avoid “right to organize,” “minimum wage,” and other worker protections.

SOME FINAL EXAMPLES:

On March 2, 2007 Obama gave a speech at AIPAC, America’s pro-Israeli government lobby, wherein he disavowed his previous support for the plight of the Palestinians. In what appears to be a troubling pattern, Obama told his audience what they wanted to hear. He recounted a one-sided history of the region and called for continued military support for Israel, rather than taking the opportunity to promote the various peace movements in and outside of Israel.

Why should we believe Obama has courage to bring about change? He wouldn’t have his picture taken with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom when visiting San Francisco for a fundraiser in his honor because Obama was scared voters might think he supports gay marriage (Newsom acknowledged this to Reuters on January 26, 2007 and former Mayor Willie Brown admitted to the San Francisco Chronicle on February 5, 2008 that Obama told him he wanted to avoid Newsom for that reason.)

Obama acknowledges the disproportionate impact the death penalty has on blacks, but still supports it, while other politicians are fighting to stop it. (On December 17, 2007 New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine signed a bill banning the death penalty after it was passed by the New Jersey Assembly.)

On September 29, 2006, Obama joined Republicans in voting to build 700 miles of double fencing on the Mexican border (The Secure Fence Act of 2006), abandoning 19 of his colleagues who had the courage to oppose it. But now that he’s campaigning in Texas and eager to win over Mexican-American voters, he says he’d employ a different border solution.

It is shocking how frequently and consistently Obama is willing to subjugate good decision making for his personal and political benefit.

Obama aggressively opposed initiating impeachment proceedings against the president (“Obama: Impeachment is not acceptable,” USA Today, June 28, 2007) and he wouldn’t even support Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold’s effort to censure the Bush administration for illegally wiretapping American citizens in violation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In Feingold’s words “I’m amazed at Democrats … cowering with this president’s number’s so low.” Once again, it’s troubling that Obama would take these positions and miss the opportunity to document the abuses of the Bush regime.

CONCLUSION:

Once I started looking at the votes Obama actually cast, I began to hear his rhetoric differently. The principal conclusion I draw about “change” and Barack Obama is that Obama needs to change his voting habits and stop pandering to win votes. If he does this he might someday make a decent candidate who could earn my support. For now Obama has fallen into a dangerous pattern of capitulation that he cannot reconcile with his growing popularity as an agent of change.

I remain impressed by the enthusiasm generated by Obama’s style and skill as an orator. But I remain more loyal to my values, and I’m glad to say that I want no part in the Obama craze sweeping our country.

Matt Gonzalez is a former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

feedback at beyondchron dot orgsource:http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/The_Obama_Craze_Count_Me_Out_5413.html

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Transportation bill got my vote because ...


By NEIL PETERSON

I supported the transportation bill for several reasons:

• I supported the bill not because I believe in more taxation but because I believe in less.

A gas tax is a user fee, plain and simple, and for 20 years it has not been increased. This additional user fee will cost each of us less than a cup of coffee each month.

But the user fee for gas is just one part of the bill. In the bill is municipal state aid, with $11 million for Bloomington, $4.8 million for Edina and $150 million for Hennepin County. This money will be available for street repair and improvements over the next 10 years.

If these dollars do not come to our county and cities through this allocation, residents in my district will eventually pay for the improvements through increased real-estate taxes. That is the bottom line. The cities and the county will have no other choice but to go to their primary source of funding, our real estate taxes, to get transportation needs met. With this bill, I voted to avoid higher property taxes.

• I supported the bill because we have a slowing economy in our state.

People have suggested that an economic downturn is not the time for a bill like this. I believe it is the time. This bill will support thousands of jobs -- jobs with salary dollars that will stay in Minnesota.

What is the remedy for a slowing economy? Jobs. We need these dollars in Minnesota. Our way of life here and our future depend on a strong economic base. We bemoan the loss of 900 jobs at Macy's downtown, but we are losing many times that number in our construction industry alone. Think of the positive effect of thousands of Minnesota jobs in the next decade. With this bill, I voted for a stronger economy.

• I supported the bill because of the recently released legislative auditor's report.

Legislative Auditor James Nobel used the words "downright grim" when looking at the current status of roads and bridges. In his testimony, he gave me no reason to question the talented men and women who are engineers and planners in the Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

He did give me the reason MnDOT is in such a mess. Follow the money. We are asking MnDOT to do more and more with less and less. It is a shell game with horrific outcomes. Maintenance deferred, construction postponed -- it is all part of the MnDOT mantra.

A MnDOT employee I know well said that it is hard when you can't be proud of the place you work. Without funding. MnDOT's hands are tied. With this bill, I voted as a legislator to accept my part of the transportation problems in this state.

• I supported the bill because as a solo business owner, I know the reality of inflation.

Over the last three years, we have lost two opportunities to adequately fund road maintenance and construction. This is the third time that a transportation bill has been passed and vetoed. Over this same period, according to the auditor's report, the cost of construction has gone up almost 40 percent. It will continue to escalate, and a transportation bill will keep coming back, each time with a higher price tag, not to do more, but to do less. The reality is the old adage "pay now or pay more later." With this bill, I voted against inflationary increases for transportation.

• • •

I supported the bill even though I wasn't crazy about the quarter-cent sales tax for transit. I believe in public transit, and I know it is necessary with more than a million more people coming into the Twin Cities in the next decade. Except for the occasional trip on light rail, I don't use public transit on a daily basis, so I don't think about it as much. However, as a user of the freeways, roads and bridges, I need transit to exist and expand if I want to continue to drive without additional gridlock and wasted time. We need public transit to exist for persons who are aging and no longer drive. We need mass transit for cleaner air. With this bill, I supported transportation and the environment of our future.

I supported the bill and was encouraged to do so by the endorsement of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota League of Cities, the Environmental Partnership and the president of the University of Minnesota, plus countless other organizations and, believe it or not, constituents.

I supported the transportation bill in spite of the pain that it personally causes me. It pains me to be at odds with the governor, a man I personally like. It pains me to hit a bump in my relationships with some caucus members. But it pains me even more to consider the consequences of doing nothing again this year.

With this bill I voted to represent what I believe to be in the best interest of my cities, my constituents and, ultimately, my conscience.

Neil Peterson, R-Bloomington, represents District 41B in the Minnesota House.

Source: http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/16001922.html

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Dennis Kucinich Being McKinney'd?

By KEVIN ZEESE

On the Hill some call it being McKinney'd--the treatment Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney received when she was in Congress. Twice, rather than protecting the incumbent, the Democrats put up well funded challengers against her. Now, it looks like Dennis Kucinich may be facing the same treatment in Cleveland.

There is a report circulating the web that before the Nevada primary Kucinich was visited by representatives of Nancy Pelosi and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the right wing Israeli lobby. They told him that if he would drop his campaigns to impeach Cheney and Bush, they would guarantee his re-election to the House of Representatives. Kucinich threw them out of his office.

Kucinich has aggressively challenged the Democratic Party leadership in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail on the issues of war, civil liberties, impeachment and big business control of government. He's even refused to pledge to endorse the party's presidential nominee.

The Democratic leadership has insisted that impeachment was off the table since taking control of the House in 2006. Congressman Conyers, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, has even refused to investigate whether President Bush and Vice President Cheney have violated the law. But Kucinich pushed the issue. He introduced articles of impeachment against Cheney, then against Bush and he brought the issue up on the House floor. He pushed and pushed to try to make sure the president and vice president were not above the law.

On the campaign trail he didn't let Senator Clinton or Obama get away with campaign peace rhetoric in the Democratic primary while they voted war funding with no strings attached in the senate. He pointed out that their rhetoric was not consistent with their actions. He pushed the issue of all troops being removed; while Obama and Clinton parse their words carefully making it clear they will withdraw only some of the troops and neither promising a complete troop withdrawal even by 2012.

And he pierced the veil of campaign rhetoric of Democrats who call for "universal health care" but put forward plans that will enrich their donors in the private health insurance industry.

On issue after issue Kucinich pushed against the Democratic Party leadership--now, it seems he is paying a price.
In Cleveland, Kucinich is being challenged by several candidates. The one that is getting the most attention and funding is City Councilman Joe Cimperman. He's served on the council for ten years and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from real estate interests to challenge Kucinich. He's been saying that Kucinich focuses too much on campaigning for president and not on the district. The Mayor of Cleveland and the Cleveland Plain Dealer has endorsed Cimperman.

Kucinich, who has been focused on the presidential campaign, has very little money in the bank (reportedly only about $30,000). He's been putting out fundraising appeals (see, e.g., http://www.youtube.com/) and has a fundraiser planned with Sean Penn.

Back home the issue of right wing Israeli lobby funding is becoming an issue. Cimperman put out a press release that urges Kucinich to refute a report in the People's Weekly World Newspaper that said the "Kucinich campaign charged" that Cimperman's effort to unseat Kucinich was financed in large part from "a right-wing pro-Israel group."

Cimperman has been somewhat theatrical in his campaign. He's been putting up signs "Where's Dennis?" and describing him as a "Missing Congressman." Cimperman took the poster to Kucinch's office and delivered a copy on videotape. Kucinich responded by asking Homeland Security to investigate the filming of government property. Cimperman responded with another video calling Kucinch a hypocrite for violating his privacy while railing against government intrusion into people's lives.
No doubt if Kucinch had kow-towed to Nancy Pelosi, been less aggressive in his comments in the presidential debates and agreed to endorse the Democratic presidential nominee, the Democratic Party would be discouraging opponents and coming to the aid of an incumbent who has been in the House since 1996.

But elected officials like McKinney and Kucinch who challenge the Democratic Party line--who think for themselves and feel a responsibility to fight for their constituents and challenge corporate power--are a hindrance to the party leadership. They get in the way and let the public know what is really going on. So, they must be either tamed or made an example of. If Kucinich gets McKinney'd you can be sure the message will be received. Those, like Congressman Conyers, who've been around for awhile (Conyers has been in the House since 1965) know better than to step too far out of line. So, Conyers has remained silent on Bush's law breaking--protecting his committee chairmanship by being afraid to use it. Conyers has been tamed but Kucinich hasn't. So, Kucinich needs to be taught a lesson that other members will learn from. The growing revolt of the "Out of Iraq Caucus" needs to be kept impotent. Knocking out Kucinich will prevent others from too loudly disobeying leadership.
Kucinich has faced tough battles in Cleveland before. When he was mayor he stood up to corporate interests that wanted to take over Cleveland's public utility and survived a recall election. And, Cimperman is not the only challenger, there are several, so the anti-Kucinich vote may be sufficiently divided for the congressman to retain his seat.

If he doesn't Kucinich may find new political opportunities that give him a bigger platform. Perhaps he will leave the Democratic Party with whom he has had so much disagreement and join Cynthia McKinney in the Green Party (see -a party whose platform is consistent with his. If so a McKinney-Kucinich ticket could be an interesting development in the 2008 election year. The Democrats may regret their punishment of both McKinney and Kucinich.


Kevin Zeese is Executive Director of Voters for Peace www.VotersForPeace.US.

source: http://www.counterpunch.org/zeese02082008.html

Could Nader be the Come-Back Kid of 2008?Down But Not Out

By CHRIS DRISCOLL
CounterPunch


As a life-long activist in the labor, peace and social-justice movements,
I've watched with amazement, wonder, and exhilaration as the American
people gave us the most surprising primary races in decades; and that was
just the first month! We have eight months to go and undoubtedly many
surprises yet to come. The race among major party candidates has provided
more highs and lows than a calliope on rocket fuel. However, we've already
entered a new phase of the election cycle: the Republicans are putting
aside their differences in order to unify around a strongly pro-war
position. The Democrats have coalesced on a neck-and-neck race between two
"triangulating" Iraq war funders whose differences are more about race,
gender and style than substance. And the progressive left has, as usual,
fallen into lockstep behind one or another corporate-owned Democrat like
some enabling abused spouse. Honest progressives will admit that neither
Sen. Hillary Clinton nor Sen. Barack Obama offer us - at this point - a
seriously better chance of ending the war on Iraq and turning our
attention - and tax dollars - toward desperate domestic needs than Sen.
John McCain does.

Sen. Obama on his official campaign website says he will "immediately
begin to remove our troops from Iraq. He will remove one to two combat
brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq
within 16 months." The last I heard, removing "combat brigades" could
leave as many as 80,000 American troops in Iraq, not to mention the
thousands of American mercenaries from companies like CACI, Titan and
Blackwater, and a flood of American commercial vultures who have been just
as destructive to that war-torn country as the troops and mercenaries have
been.

Sen. Clinton's deceitful plan to continue the war and keep U.S. forces in
Iraq in perpetuity is not any better than Obama's. Neither Sens. Clinton
nor Obama have agreed even to pledge to get the U.S. military out of Iraq
by the end of their first term in 2013! And history is brutally clear on
one important point: while Democrats in the last century have often
promised to studiously avoid war while campaigning for president, they
have never followed through once in office. President Lyndon B. Johnson,
for a typical example, campaigned by casting Barry Goldwater as the guy
who would turn Vietnam into an all-out war zone, but it was Johnson
himself who did that as president. And this "talk peace, wage war"
strategy goes way back with the Democratic presidential candidates:
Woodrow Wilson in his 1916 campaign for re-election stumped on the
slogans, "he kept us out of war," and "peace with honor." Yet by April
1917, the United States had entered the war that even Wilson himself later
admitted was a fight between international commercial interests over who
was to control lucrative international markets.

Are the Democratic Party leaders of today any different; any better; any
more courageous and committed to creating a world without war, even if
corporate profits suffer as a result? Most Americans know at some gut
level that for Democratic Party politicians commercial concerns always
trump moral concerns or the concerns of the hard-working people. We've
seen it far too often to deny it, even when we wish it were not so. Both
Sens. Clinton and Obama are following a campaign model in regard to the
War on Iraq that is most reminiscent of President Richard M. Nixon when in
his 1968 campaign he promised to get us out of the Vietnam War in 6
months. That was even quicker than Obama's 18 month promise. But after
Nixon was elected, there were "complications," just as we can expect there
will be "complications" for Sens. Clinton or Obama. When you know in
advance that these "complications" will develop unless we are successful
at building a powerful and large enough anti-war juggernaut, you can
understand why some prefer the brutal honesty of a Sen. John McCain, who
is at least truthful about his intentions.

>From the perspective of the labor, peace and social justice movements, we
are now left with little-to-no maneuvering room within the Democratic
Party, the party progressive movements traditionally have looked to since
the 1930s for allies and alliances. With the withdrawal of Dennis
Kucinich, Bill Richardson and John Edwards, there is little chance that
the pro-people, anti-war position will have any leverage at the Democratic
Party nominating convention, not inside the convention hall in any case.
The demonstrations outside the hall will probably remind us of the 1968
Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Corporate America has already won the election. With Sens. Clinton, Obama
and McCain, their interests are hedged three ways while the rest of us
lose on all counts. The presidential campaign will be at the center of the
public discourse from now till November 4. We are left with only one
reasonable alternative if we hope to force our issues into this year's
national public debate: support the independent peace and justice
candidate with the biggest megaphone, Ralph Nader!

Alone, Nader still has huge name recognition and a large and faithful
following. If he is joined by the larger social movements, and by the
working families so threatened by the acts of a Democratic Congress and
Republican president, he could turn that solid base into a powerful
campaign for the people insuring that the people's concerns are addressed.
At best, that could be turned into a three way race that would for the
first time in a century give the progressive left a much needed face lift,
opening up the prospect of building a mass, independent political force to
the left of the Democrats.

Ask yourself, why do Democratic Party politicians take you for granted?
Why do they count on your votes but ignore your needs? Why do they talk
like they care about you but act like they care a lot more about your
boss? Could it be that you are so utterly dependable to them that they
simply have no need to do any more than pretend to address your interests?
They make you the same promises election year after election year, yet the
rich keep getting richer, the poor, poorer, and the peace, labor, woman's,
minorities', environmental, and other people's agendas keep getting the
short shrift.

Now, I know that among some right-leaning Progressive Democrats, just the
mention of Ralph Nader will elicit fits of rage followed by volleys of
hate speech more violent than even the worst Nazi or KKK invectives. Talk
show host Ed Schultz calls these people "hate merchants," and it's hard to
argue with him.

But in my experience over the last 8 years as a Nader supporter intimately
involved in the labor, peace and social-justice movements, I've found that
for every hate merchant there are dozens of honest progressives who know
full well how important Ralph Nader has been to our movements and what a
great potential he offers as an effective incentive for a Democratic Party
presidential candidate to be more accommodating and attentive than they
have been in the past.

Among the honest majority, all acknowledge that Ralph Nader has been the
single most effective and important social reformer in the last half
century. In nations across the world when reformers look for models, they
look to Ralph Nader, who is almost as well known abroad as here in
America. Honesty compels us to admit that we have no greater asset to run
as a center-left counterbalance to the corporate-dominated Democratic and
Republican candidates, even now, after a concerted and well financed,
8-year corporate-Democrat smear campaign against him. I know of no other
person in American history who, after doing so much for our people, has
withstood such a sustained campaign of malicious character assassination.

But a single viewing of the documentary, "An Unreasonable Man," reminds us
that Nader is a political pugilist who's been through the worst corporate
America and its two parties can throw at him, and he's still standing!
What's even more amazing, he's still ready and willing to serve our cause,
to serve the American people, as he has been unfailingly for more than 40
years. Americans who have been fooled by the triangulators usually fail to
understand that when you stand up to the warmongers and corporate
criminals, you will always elicit a violent reaction. A test of political
maturity and determination so crucial to our success is how well we are
able to inoculate ourselves from the slings and arrows of these political
opponents. Is it any wonder that the people who most fervently support the
Democratic Party war funders are also the most likely to turn to hate
speech against our most effective social reformer?

I expect the hate merchants to throw their best punches at Nader and
anyone else who dares to suggest the emperor has no clothes. That's no
surprise. What's been more surprising in the last 8 years is the number of
otherwise honest progressives who have chosen to avoid objecting to the
Democratic Party's ad hominem crusade against America's preeminent civic
reformer. The damage they have inflicted on Nader's reputation harms us
all. Their every success is a blow to the entire effort for political
reform, peace and prosperity. In warfare an enemy strikes at your
leadership, and wise armies protect their generals knowing as much.

But it's not too late. We have the ability to turn this situation around
if we choose to, and by turning it around for Ralph Nader, I believe we
can redeem our own fortunes as well. To start that process, we need to
shine a light on the corporate-Democrats' subterranean hate campaigns,
aimed at selected leading reformers, but designed to damage our movements.
The honest progressives, laborites, populists, Greens, civil libertarians,
radicals and reformers of this country have the power to stand up and say,
once and for all, "Ralph Nader is not the problem, untrustworthy
Democratic and Republican politicians are." In fact, Ralph Nader
represents everything positive about our movements for social change and
has for decades acted as a leader, a catalyst and an organizer for those
movements.

Often when you hear the axiom, "the left is like a circular firing squad,"
it turns out to be a false analogy. The so-called "leftists" we supposedly
fire upon are revealed to be fakers, not the genuine article. Like wolves
in sheep's clothing, they talk the people's talk, but walk the corporate
walk. Listen to Sens. Clinton or Obama on any given day, and then compare
that to their votes in Congress. Their votes to fund Bush's war on Iraq
are well publicized, and contrast critically with what they say about the
war. But you would find the same incongruity between what they say and how
they vote on just about any economic, labor, peace or social justice
issue. And the contrast with Ralph Nader's 4-decade record of public
service is instructive.

Only the most dishonest person would claim that Ralph Nader is not a
genuine reformer on behalf of the people. We truly become a "circular
firing squad" when we allow others to fire on him without coming to his
defense, which is the best way we can come to our own defense. We are no
better than those who stand aside and watch a violent crime against a
helpless individual if we don't speak out against it. And when we stand by
and watch the innocent mugged and raped in our communities, our
communities suffer by becoming the victims of spreading crime.

One thing that decades of experience in the labor movement has taught me
is that "solidarity" with your co-workers, co-thinkers and co-activists is
useless if it is only a hollow phrase. For it to be successful, solidarity
must be an act of courage, not just a rallying cry. It must represent a
willingness to band together and defend the weakest or the strongest among
you when they are attacked. The current weakened state of the labor
movement undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that "solidarity"
frequently appears in the speeches of labor leaders, but seldom as a
strategy or tactic in our day to day labor rights struggles. Given Ralph
Nader's record of promoting successful pro-labor legislation and
movements, the way the leadership of organized labor has joined in the
corporate smear campaign against him is doubly unconscionable, although it
is not universal among them. There have been some exceptional labor
leaders who stuck by Nader in the true sense of the term "solidarity."

I believe in the power of the "come back." Maybe I read too many novels,
but in the case of Ralph Nader, I look as objectively as I am able to at
the numbers, the positives and negatives, and I continue to conclude that
a Nader 08 presidential campaign offers a better chance for the
progressive left to make a serious "come back" than any other opportunity
we have available to us today. If the honest progressives stand up to the
triangulators and war funders, the fake friends of labor, women and
oppressed minorities, and say, "hey, we can do better - we have to do
better," we will have what it takes to run a powerful, insurgent, Nader
reform campaign for president, and together we can accomplish what seems
impossible. If we allow ourselves to be browbeaten by the fraudulent peace
candidates, the triangulators, the corporate-controlled politicians and
the hate merchants, we might as well give it all up and acknowledge that
the faceless corporate powers have won, our republic is as dead as the
Roman Republic on the day Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and we'd
better start practicing our goose step.

We've arrived at the leading edge of a historic watershed, a unique period
in which the American people are obviously alarmed over the coming
economic crisis; outraged over the mortgage debacle that was engineered by
the Federal Reserve, Congress and the last two presidents; angered by an
unrestrained corporate crime wave that has wiped out the pensions of
millions and put millions more out of work; dismayed by the deregulation
and privatization that has sold our nation off to the highest bidder; and,
feed up with a costly corporate-inspired war that has siphoned off the
funds needed to avert domestic catastrophe. We are equally weary of the
bumbling destructive Bush administration and the backboneless Democratic
Congress that enables the bumbling Bush. We've not seen such incompetence
in the White House and Congress since the 1920s! And we are ready to
change course and seek out real solutions.

The polls showing historic low ratings for the president and Congress are
key indicators that the American people are approaching a breaking point.
As a people, we have declared our independence in ever greater numbers and
expressed our discontent with the direction in which the president and the
Congress have taken us. Nearly half of us (48 percent in a 2006 CNN poll)
have expressed support for a mass third party. In a more recent NBC
News/Wall Street Journal poll taken from Dec. 14-17, 2007, 76 percent
characterized the American two-party system as having either "real
problems" in need of repair or as "seriously broken." A Fox News poll in
July 2007 found that " more than twice as many voters think it would be
good for the country if an independent candidate were to win the White
House in 2008 than think it would be bad (45 percent good, 19 percent
bad). In addition, there is rare partisan agreement on the issue as 42
percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans think electing an
independent candidate would be good for the country, as do 56 percent of
self-described independents." The Fox poll also found that 67 percent
would consider voting for an independent, "including more than 6 in 10
Democrats and Republicans."

Americans are still unsure of how to fit into our new role as a nation in
rebellion. Those who last lived through such a time as adults are now in
their late 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. It will take time for us to grow sea
legs, to relearn the lessons of our forefathers and foremothers about how
to reform corrupt government and recreate the balance we once had between
the rights of the people and the rights of commercial business. But I am
convinced that enough of us are ready to make history this year with a
Ralph Nader campaign, enough of us at least to offer a successful
incentive to the major party candidates to be better and act better, and
that's why I've urged Ralph Nader to run. And you can be ready as well, as
long as you first learn to defend one another from the "divide and
conquer" strategy of America's corrupt corporate elite. If you are able to
recognize that the Democratic Party slander campaign against Ralph Nader
is part and parcel with other corporate strategies, like their union
busting strategy or their subtle use of racism, sexism and classism to
divide us from one another, then you'll be ready too. As a first step,
please visit http://www.naderexplore08.org.

Chris Driscoll, a science, environmental and technology trade journalist,
was the 2006 Populist Party nominee for Governor of Maryland. He also
serves as the state chairman of the Populist Party of Maryland.

World's Best Pancake Recipe ( Kevin Chavis )

  • 1C---All Purpose Flour
  • 1C---Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1/2C--Teff or blue corn flour ( or an alternative flour of your choosing )
  • 3tsp--baking powder
  • 2T---raw cane sugar
  • 1 rounded tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 -- cage-free Eggs
  • 2C -- milk
  • 1/2C - vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp.- vanilla
  • 1C --- Water ( *Use all organic and fair trade products if possible )

Mix dry with dry. Mix wet with wet. Combine.

This recipe has received wide acclaim! Healthy and yummilicious !!

Show Me The Money: The 61B Race

By Ray Neset


DFL micro-managers just don't seem to be able to control themselves. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, or worse yet the voters, more party lapdogs piled on board the Jeff Hayden bandwagon. As of Monday, Hayden is the only DFL candidate running in the HD61B "race". Until now, the pre-caucus endorsement of a candidate would rightfully be perceived as meddling, but the Minnesota DFL doesn't seem to care. It seems that for some, brazen machine-driven dirty politics, knows no boundaries.

According to sources in 61B, Hayden who's never held public office, added to a campaign literature drop that began arriving in Monday's mail (1/28/08), the additional endorsements of Minneapolis School Board Chair, Pam Costain, State Senator Linda Berglin District 61, Karen Clark 61A, Frank Hornstein. State Rep / Dist 60B and Hayden's aunt, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Vice President, Mary Merrill Anderson. Hayden had already announced at his January 17th Meet and Greet, endorsements by Minneapolis Council Members Glidden, Remington, Schiff, Lilligren, Goodman and Ostrow, CD5's Keith Ellison and Hennepin County Commissioners Peter McLaughlin and Gail Dorfman.

A former 61B resident characterizes the situation this way, " The dynamics of this campaign really illustrate the limitations resulting from a one-party town. Where a party endorsement is deemed to determine the winner of the election, a candidate only has incentive to obtain the support of a very small number of people who have power to determine that endorsement, instead of coming up with any sort of innovative program to impress voters."

How ironic that endorsements would come from the likes of Glidden and Remington, when in 2005, the Camp Wellstone classmates endorsed each other in the City Council race in which Glidden defeated Hayden. The endorsement of Merrill Anderson was no surprise, since Jeff's aunt doesn't have to worry about mixed loyalties in this election. Her former fellow Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board member, Marie Hauser, isn't running against her nephew this time, so she can forego any disputed claim that her image was used without her express permission in the race.

Hayden's parade of names was printed prior to the announcement by fellow DFL candidate Michael Katch, that he would be bowing out of the 61B race. According to Katch's January 28th announcement in the MPLSMirror, "the upper levels of our party are apparently not interested in working with me; how stupid would I be if I were to spend all that money and energy to get to the position and not be fully effective?"

So I asked Katch why would someone who has been as actively involved in grass-roots Minneapolis politics as he, be shut out by politicos without any kind of public dialogue, especially when Katch had suggested a public debate to which Hayden reportedly agreed? Why would they choose to shoot this messenger and opt to laude Hayden, who seemed to drop into the abyss after his failure to win the Ward 8 race in 2006 against first-timer Elizabeth Glidden?

We had the effect, but what was the cause? Katch suggested that I take a close look in the Mayor's 2008 budget and the May 2006 report by the Minnesota Center for Public Finance Research.

So I took his advise. As verbose Ward 10 Council Member Remington seems to love to remind taxpayers, elected officials are the keepers of the "public purse", and it would appear that the purse's lining has developed an enormous hole. But never fear, it appears that Minneapolis leaders might have a plan to fix everything. It's not an original one, but a plan taught in economics classes across the land. Spend, spend, spend, then divest yourself of all valuable assets like parkland, public libraries and their book collections, municipal parking ramps, etc. Eliminate as much oversight by independent boards as possible and drive the bus straight into bankruptcy and hope the federal government bails you out. Just look at the example of Orange County, CA, where every county program was cut, about 3,000 public employees were discharged and all services were reduced. When Orange County filed for Chapter 9 protection on December 6, 1994, it became the largest municipality in United States history to declare bankruptcy and it underlines the dangers inherent in a freewheeling bull economy and the imperatives of local and state governments to protect fiscal assets. Yes Mr. Remington, you do control the community purse. The question is whether or not you will be so cavalier about responsibility, when the money is gone?

Based on my pedestrian interpretation of the City and State's financial situation when viewed through the Mayor's budget and the May 2006 report by the Minnesota Center for Public Finance Research, a 16-page analysis of the public employees' pension funds, the outlook is frightening.

The public employees' pension funds were going strong back in the mid-80's, but the market downturn beginning in 2000 and the post 9/11 economic environment took its toll on fund health. I'll leave you to make your own assessments of their findings.

Here are some excerpts from Public Pensions in Minnesota: Re-Definable Benefits and Under-Reported Performance Published by the Minnesota Center for Public Finance Research.

According to the report's Executive Summary:

In September 2005, the Council of State Governments estimated that the liabilities owed by state government-operated retirement plans nationwide exceeded assets by some $292.4 billion...This report focuses on six major pension plans: the three major independent teacher plans (St. Paul, Duluth, and Minneapolis Teachers Retirement Fund Associations) and the three major statewide public employee plans (MSRS or Minnesota State Retirement System General Plan; PERA or Public Employees Retirement Association General Plan; and TRA or Teachers Retirement Association). Minnesota’s public pension system includes many more plans than these six. There are a total of eighteen statewide public pension plans and four other plans that cover the employees of individual cities. There are also several hundred locally administered volunteer firefighter pension plans (mainly operated by townships) and some locally administered plans whose members are police and professional firefighters. However, the plans studied in this report are the three largest statewide public pension plans, accounting for about 80% of the retirement funds under the control of the State Board of Investment, and the three largest city-operated pension plans in Minnesota. The six plans combined cover more than 600,000 active and retired public employees. Even though a review of the status and performance of the other state and local pension plans is beyond the scope of this report, taxpayer risk issues discussed in this study apply to these plans as well.

According to the report's Findings on the Current Health and Status of Public Pensions in Minnesota:

As of June 2005 the six plans comprising this study had reported unfunded pension liabilities totaling $6.1 billion. Although the funded ratios (defined as total assets divided by total accrued pension liabilities) have mostly improved over the past thirty years, the $6.1 billion in unfunded liabilities is greater in absolute terms (inflation adjusted dollars) than in 1975.

The Minnesota Post Retirement Investment Fund (Post Fund), the fund exclusively for the assets and liabilities of existing retirees from statewide pension plans, also has unfunded liabilities totaling $3.7 billion for PERA, MSRS, and TRA retirees. These liabilities are not reported as part of fund actuarial reports. If these liabilities are included, total unfunded pension liabilities in these six funds totaled $9.8 billion as of June 2005.

The health of the plans is mixed. None is fully funded. Two of the plans, MSRS and TRA, are above 95% funded. PERA and St. Paul Teachers have less than 80% of the assets needed to pay the benefits owed to active and retired plan members. Minneapolis Teachers Retirement Fund had less than half of the assets needed to pay benefits owed to its plan members.

Five of the six plans also had contribution deficiencies, which means that too few contributions are being made to close their existing funding gaps. The size of contribution deficiencies for MSRS and PERA are the greatest in 30 years. Since 2002, PERA has added over $500 million in unfunded pension liabilities as a result of contribution shortfalls alone. The magnitude of contribution deficiencies for all three major independent teachers plans are all greater than the state plans and also are approaching or exceeding 30-year highs. Only TRA had a contribution surplus, which means that progress was being made on reducing their unfunded liabilities.

Contribution increases are already in law to begin to remedy these shortfalls. However, these increases are not without real cost. If all the approved increases to fix the PERA funding gap occur, local government spending will increase by $380 million through 2010, in the form of city and county governments’ pension contributions (the employers’ share only). The employees’ share of these increased contributions also create wage increase pressures for local governments to compensate employees for lower net pay. Real life divergence from the assumptions actuaries have used to calculate future pension liabilities has had a major influence on reported pension fund health. Changing mortality rates, rates and timing of employee retirement, and related demographic issues added nearly $4.5 billion in unfunded liabilities to the six funds since 2002.

Under the section Findings Regarding Legislative Decision-Making in Paying for Future Pension Costs:

To determine whether or not a pension fund will have enough assets to meet the liabilities owed to current and future retirees, the state makes an assumption about what annual average rate of return it will earn on its investments in perpetuity. The 8.5% assumed rate of return that the Minnesota legislature has adopted is among the highest assumed rates of return used by any state managed pension fund in the nation. Of 127 state managed funds surveyed by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators in 2004, 85% assume more conservative rates of return. Only 2 funds reported using a higher assumed rate of return.

Reported pension fund health is very sensitive to changes in assumed rates of return. If Minnesota used an 8% assumed rate of return—the norm for most state managed plans—PERA’s reported funded ratio would decline to 70.03%, which translates into an additional $1.02 billion of unfunded pension liabilities.

From 1985 to 2001, pension funds made steady progress toward reducing unfunded liabilities by consistently out-performing the 8.5% assumed rate of return. However, the market downturn beginning in 2000 and the post 9/11 economic environment took its toll on fund health. In only four years, the three state funds added back over 50% of the unfunded liabilities they had managed to reduce through investments over the previous sixteen years (1985-2001). Over the same time period, all of the reductions in unfunded liabilities from investment gains made by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Teachers Funds were reversed.

The effects of failing to achieve assumed rates of return—and the resulting taxpayer exposure—can in part be seen in the contribution rates of struggling pension funds. In the Minneapolis and St. Paul Teachers funds, employees contribute 5.5 percent of their salary to the pension fund, more than the three state funds. However, taxpayers in those school districts contribute over 8% of salary through school district employers. This employer contribution rate is more than twice the percentage state taxpayers contribute to the statewide MSRS fund.

According to the report's Findings Regarding Legislative Decision-Making on Pension Benefits

The policy of turning investment gains into permanent benefit increases has had significant negative impact on the health of public pension funds:

The state Post-Retirement Fund’s position changed from a $4.3 billion surplus in 1999 to a $4.1 billion deficit in 2005. Even if the investments in this fund return 9% annually going forward, it will take until the year 2033 for this fund to be restored to full funding. The permanent benefit increases also hindered the ability of the Basic Funds to achieve fully funded status because transferred assets were used to pay post retirement increases.

It has created major fairness and equity problems among public employee retirees. Those who were fortunate to have benefited fully from the 1990s markets have retirement benefits today often in excess of their working salary. The story is completely different for public employees retiring recently under much different market and fund conditions. Those in the three state plans have little hope of seeing anything other than inflationary adjustments – especially since the Post Fund for retirees will have unfunded liabilities for years to come. The “winners” under this system have been persons who retired between roughly 1981 and 2001, and the “losers” have been those persons retiring since 2001.

It has exposed taxpayers to significant risk. If the state’s pension fund managers are unable to realize returns of at least 8.5%, retirees do not have any risk of reductions in benefits. Because public employee retirees no longer make contributions to the funds, governments—and by extension taxpayers—will be liable for any long-term deficiency that threatens benefits.

The report also found Findings Regarding Accountability in Public Pension Asset Management

Applying value added performance auditing methods yields insights into the current situation faced by the Minneapolis Teachers Retirement Fund. Between 1982 and 2005 approximately $1.78 billion of investment returns were available through efficient investment in its own policy. However, $667 million of this total was not realized due to poor investment decision-making. In other words, 68% of the current $972.5 million deficit plaguing the Minneapolis Teachers Retirement Fund (according to the 2005 actuarial report) could have been avoided with better investment management of the fund’s assets.

Past efforts to adopt value added performance auditing in Minnesota were first championed then resisted by the Office of State Auditor. Future attempts to institute this methodology may require moving the performance auditing function into a state agency less subject to the political pressures of elected officials.

The type of investments made by public pension funds can also introduce accountability problems. Growing interest in “alternative investments” – such as private equity funds – is being fueled by returns superior to those offered by investments traded publicly on organized exchanges. However, investment performance in these vehicles comes at the expense of transparency and accountability. Alternative investment managers don't price their assets as often— and only they know if that pricing is accurate. Often the valuations are merely estimates.

So to bring it to the street, one simply has to connect the dots that lead right to the City of Minneapolis' purse. In the The Southwest Journal's City looks to Legislature for pension funds help by Brady Gervais writes:

The City Council is increasing its efforts at the state Capitol this year to change the managing structure of the city's closed police and firefighters' pension funds. Chief among the city's concerns is that it's financially obligated to cover costs and make up for investment shortfalls of its closed pension funds, but it plays a limited role in investment decisions. The funds' boards, which include two city appointees, manage the investments and administer the benefits. Officials are also worried about growing costs to the pension funds. The city estimates it will owe $255.8 million — roughly the equivalent of what it spent on five services in 2007 — over the next 20 years. During the next two years, the city's contribution to the closed funds is expected to increase by $14.2 million, not including debt service. "We have to write these blank checks, and yet we don't have any way of controlling what those checks are," said Patrick Born, the city's chief financial officer.

That's why the city wants the Minneapolis Police Relief Association (MPRA) and the Minneapolis Firefighters' Relief Association (MFRA) funds to be transferred to the state-run Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) and to be managed by the State Board of Investment (SBI). The city believes the state board can better manage the funds and that the administrative costs will decrease if the two funds are merged with the larger, single-fund PERA.

Now why the hell would they want to do that, if according to the report by Minnesota Center for Public Finance Research Board of Directors, "PERA and St. Paul Teachers have less than 80% of the assets needed to pay the benefits owed to active and retired plan members." and "The size of contribution deficiencies for MSRS and PERA are the greatest in 30 years."?

Steve Berg illuminates us in his MinnPost article Just like the movies: Minneapolis cops and shaky pension funds rattle City Hall:

As might happen in an old black and white movie, the funds are controlled, almost exclusively, by the same people who get the pensions. No one has to lose sleep over bad investment decisions because, if stock market bets go bad, the city has to pick up the tab anyway. Not only that, the pensioners get a raise every year based on how much the city pays cops and firefighters who are still working. In the police fund, hundreds of pensioners get raises based on how much three particular high-level officers get paid, including overtime. So, if there's a crime wave or, God forbid, a bridge falls down and the cops have to work lots of overtime, well, ka-ching, ka-ching. The pensioners make out like bandits...There's more. The pension funds don't have to sweat administrative costs, like legal fees, because the city has to pay all of those, too. The funds are organized in ways that seem to invite court challenges if, for example, the city wants changes on how the funds manage taxpayer contributions. When the disputes get inevitably to court, guess who pays the legal fees on both sides? The city. And the more the cases get stretched out in court, the more the city pays.

Gervais also sheds a little light on why:

In 2004, Mayor R.T. Rybak organized the Blue Ribbon Commission on Pensions, which was charged with analyzing the closed pension funds, including the Minneapolis Employees Retirement Fund (MERF), and coming up with solutions to the city's pension problem.

The funds enjoyed the economic boom of the '90s but suffered stock market losses shortly thereafter. The losses, along with earlier-than-expected retirements and state funding formulas contributed a rise in city contributions, according to the Blue Ribbon Commission report. The city, which uses property taxes to pay for the pension funds out of its General Fund, started issuing bonds in 2002 to pay for its pension obligations.

The commission recommended merging the pension funds, along with MERF, into PERA as a way to address long-term issues. Jay Kiedrowski, the commission's chairman and a former Minneapolis budget director, said he still stands behind the recommendation. SBI has an excellent track record, and because it has billions worth of assets under management, it is able to bargain for the lowest possible price to manage those assets, said Kiedrowski, who is currently a senior fellow at the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

According to the SW Journal article, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, (DFL-59B) originally elected in 1974, and sits on the Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement, said 'the idea that anyone would issue bonds for pension payments is "fiscal outrage."'

Why "fiscal outrage"? Because if you bond the interest, you are paying interest in interest, which would be considered by most to be very bad public policy.

In Gale force win: How neighborhood activist R.T. Rybak's unconventional campaign toppled the mayor of Minneapolis - Case Study, Adam Graham-Silverman describes how Rybak ascended to power:

As the only major candidate who did not hold elected office, Rybak adopted an outsider stance. "The one candidate who didn't cause the problems at City Hall has the unique skills to fix them," his literature repeated again and again. Later in July, a New York bond house downgraded the city's top rating one notch. As Rybak noted in countless literature pieces, it was the first time since 1963 that the city did not have a perfect bond rating.

The problem with the whole bankruptcy scheme is that Minneapolis would likely be prohibited for years from borrowing after declaring bankruptcy, since it would loose its AAA bond rating. Since Mayor Rybak took office, the city of Minneapolis paid off $450M of general obligation bonds to enhance the cities bond ratings. This payment caused the rating agencies to not look as closely at the books as they might have.

Under analysis of the Mayor's 2008 budget and statements made by City officials, the City has been paying down the general fund in an effort to steal from Peter to pay Paul. For example, according to the Mayor's "pie in the sky" budget, crime will be going down 20%. Therefore, Minneapolis won't need to allocate as many resources to fight it. But, crime rates are cyclical, dependant on many factors, like the economy and some question whether or not crime has actually gone down or the lack of trained police officers and slow response time has skewed the numbers downward.

Since the City is self-insured and by extension, Minneapolis fire fighters, the budget claims fire fighters' injuries will also be decreasing by 20%. The Mayor doesn't explain how this will be achieved.

Under lawsuit settlements against the City, supported largely by property taxes, the Mayor only allocated $4 million for 2008 in spite of the $7 million paid out by Minneapolis in 2006. Perennial litigant Al Flowers must be giving the City a break in 2008.

In spite of County Commissioner Gail Dorfman's ambitious plan to end homelessness in Hennepin County, requiring an investment of $144 million, the Mayor plans to contribute only $100,000 for Minneapolis' share of Heading Home Hennepin. Talk about spit in a bucket.

There is $500K budgeted for the repair of the 12 bridges under the City's responsibility. This is bad news for anyone waiting for repairs to the City owned Camden/St. Anthony Bridge that crosses I-94, the Mississippi river and the BNSF railroad. According to State nears end of nearly 4,000 bridge inspections by Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio, December 13, 2007:

The city of Minneapolis also placed a weight restriction on the St. Anthony Parkway bridge in the northeast part of the city. Mike Kennedy, the director of transportation, maintenance and repair with the city of Minneapolis, says the city made repairs to the bridge after MnDOT inspectors found some problems. He said they will also monitor the bridge monthly until it's replaced within the next two years. "Because this is a 'fracture critical bridge' and it's in the condition that it's in, and now that MnDOT has made us aware of some additional issues out there," says Kennedy. "This one is the one that is being watched the most. The rest are being watched pretty much on a routine basis...Fracture critical" means like the 35W bridge, a failure of one component could cause the entire span to fall down.

The City touted the sale of a valuable Minneapolis asset on its website. On July 20, 2007, the Minneapolis City Council approved the sale of the eight municipal parking ramps included in this RFP package to three private purchasers. On October 30, 2007, the City closed on the sale of five of these ramps to Alatus Management, LLC with proceeds to the City totaling about $65 million. However, in The City Pages article How Much for the Washington Avenue Bridge? by G.R.Anderson Jr., describes the sale of this supposed drain on the City's budget this way:

Nearly 100 representatives from real estate, construction, and parking lot interests attended the weekday afternoon event. According to Diedre Schmidt, a vice president of Brighton Development, "It really was a who's-who of downtown developers."...All of the structures lay in white-hot sectors of what is apparently an ongoing, odds-defying development boom in downtown real estate. Some ramps, city reps suggested, could be used as part of residential or office projects.

"Some of them had opportunities for housing and retail," offers Bill Bloomberg, who brokers development deals independently. "It was, I thought, an unusual offering."

So unusual, in fact, that most folks can't recall another recent time when the city held such a sale of its assets. The scenario laid out by the city goes like this: For nearly 10 years, a section of the budget called the Municipal Parking Fund has been racking up debt, in part, to prop up the general fund. In short, the city has been taking extra money from the parking fund to the tune of $1 million a year to ensure that other basic services don't go wanting. And in the process, the parking fund has actually become a drain on the city's coffers...The more pressing matter for Born and the city—which has its finance, public works, and planning and economic development offices reviewing the proposals together—is what will happen to the city's bottom line. The city's overall budget for 2007 is $1.3 billion, with $327 million in the general fund. The Municipal Parking Fund budget is $58 million, down $2 million from 2006. In the complicated world that is the Minneapolis city budget, the parking fund has long been a source for "transfers" as high as $10 million to the general fund, and a few years back, city leaders started tapping the fund for an additional $1 million a year. Born says the city's current goal is to get the transfer amount down to $5 million annually in a few years

"Nearly all of the capital costs of the ramps have been financed by debt," the 2007 budget says. "The Parking Fund cash balance for year 2005 was negative $13.9 million." "I was part of the evil cabal that started doing it," admits Steve Minn, a City Council member in the mid-1990s who is now a developer, with respect to the siphoning of extra cash from the parking fund. "The idea was to not have to raise property taxes. It was supposed to be done once."

I may be misunderstanding the situation, but it sounds more like an asset than a liability and since most of the developers that purchased the ramps intend to use them as ramps, how could this have been a wise business decision on the part of the City?

According to a communication from CBAC (Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee), which advises the Board of Education on matters of budget and finance, Minneapolis Public Schools are looking at a $13 M budget shortfall this year and a projected $25 M next year. It asks, "if some board members want smaller schools, special schools, ask how they would recommend paying for it? It is time to get out of the rhetoric, and into the reality. If they do not know, then they need to examine and study the budget and figure it out? They need to decide what they want to give up or sacrifice to achieve this goal." This sounds to me like spending is out of control by MPS. After six years of Rybak rule, the MPS is ready to close its doors.

Additionally, the City is proposing to give Allina, partner in one of their pet projects Midtown Exchange, a gift of $250K from already dwindling NRP funds. Allina promised 650 high-paying jobs to the neighborhoods at the beginning of the project. Allina also promised to help employees relocate to the Phillips neighborhood. Although Allina has backed out of nearly everything promised, they still expect their $250K and threatening to move their operation to St. Paul if the City didn't cough up the money.

In Steve Brandt's Star Tribune piece City kept saying yes to loans for bureau, detailed how Meet Minneapolis borrowed millions from the city, $9.1 million to be exact, to bail out a deal with a Singapore software developer that still isn't making a profit for the city. The "loan" to be paid back to the City in 10 years, was referred to as "start up costs" in the budget. Local activist Jim Graham wrote regarding the controversy, "A couple of months ago I became aware of the "Meet Minneapolis" boondoggle when being shown some problems in the Minneapolis budget. Afterwards in a meeting with a NRP official I laughed that the same elected officials who questioned the investments that neighborhoods made with NRP funds and the same officials who were attempting to kill NRP were making investments as unreasonable as this. What a joke!" Well Jim, it's no joke! It's in the budget.

According to Steve Brandt’s Star and Tribune article Council Begins Trimming Budget, he mentioned that the “committee withheld final approval of two spending proposals by Rybak that some members believed haven't been fully thought out. One would spend $250,000 from water bills on pedestrian drinking fountains that Rybak proposes to combine with a marketing effort to draw in new suburban customers for Minneapolis water. The council wants more details early next year before it votes on releasing the money.” The proposal has since been approved. It would seem Minneapolis has money to burn for the Mayor's pet projects.

The most devastating blow came to Minneapolis residents when it was announced in 2007 that due to a the loss of local government aid (LGA), Minneapolis Public Libraries would be reducing their hours and mothballing three of their branches, Webber Park, Southeast and Roosevelt. The City began the process of divesting itself of this "financial burden". Star Tribune's Steve Brandt describes the way the deal went down in 12-1 vote by City Council closes the book on Minneapolis-county library merger:

The council vote was 12-1, with Cam Gordon opposed. He said the city should have held a referendum on the merger rather than seeking legislation. He also objected to the loss of an elected library board, felt the city should have better representation on the county library board and wanted the city to be able to recapture proceeds if any libraries are sold. The city will bring a substantial dowry to the wedding of the systems. The $13.9 million it planned to levy for libraries will be forwarded to the county in 2008. Starting in 2009, city residents will pay the county library levy. The city also will pay the county an added $7.8 million in 2008, most of it from state aid that it has used to support libraries. That amount shrinks annually until the last payment in 2017. The city also will pay the county $2.1 million over two years that's mostly intended to cover the cost of reopening the three libraries. City residents also will pay $10.6 million to cover annual payments for bonds already issued for its library construction program and pensions. They'll also pay off $18.1 million in city debt planned to support library construction.

According to the overview of the Mayor's 2008 recommended budget:

· $140 million in bonds approved by voters and $110 million for Central and another $30 million for community libraries.

· $9.3 million in property tax levy for the library referendum included in the 2008 budget.

· Remains a city obligation until 2032.

The City gave approximately $200 million in buildings and another $240 million in collections to Hennepin County because the it was unable to come up with $5.4 million in budget shortfall. I guess the 2002 referendum wasn't enough to tell politicians how much we valued our city libraries. But look at the bright side; we got a brand new library, designed by C├ęsar Pelli. I haven't heard whether or not we're off the hook for the $2.1 million that Minneapolis was supposed to have set aside for building improvements to the Webber Park library in north Minneapolis. Shucks, with a little creative accounting, that can go to pay for the Mayor's new fountains.

So if you're still with me, you're probably wondering what all this has to do with the 61B race. Here's the rub. If you're a politician who is beholding to AFSCME and their endorsement, they're the last group you want to piss off, even if they're sucking the City dry. The candidate, who gets their endorsement, gets access to their precious AFSCME phone bank. The phone bank translates to votes, which translates to winning elections, which translates to control and power. Katch had made the unforgivable mistake of mentioning aloud that he wanted to address the under funding of the public employee pension funds. While City leaders can ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room, not everyone else is so short on spine or character.

Hayden claimed in a January 6th KSTP interview, "We have to keep the seat in the DFL if we're going to get things done in St. Paul. The DFL has to keep the majority and hopefully get the super majority," he said.

I guess voters need to ask Jeff, if he and his endorsers in the DFL get what they hope for, what will they do with it? Will they be making backroom deals with AFSCME to keep the pension discussion off the table? Does Hayden plan to commit political suicide by addressing the under-funding crisis when he gets into office? Would he go to AFSCME and ask them to restructure their contribution plan? Is he even capable of comprehending the current plan? Does he have the political where-with-all to work across the political aisle to resolve this catastrophe? Are any of Hayden's political supporters willing to cross the aisle or openly and honestly discuss the financial situation with constituents? If and when the City and possibly the State are forced into bankruptcy by the pension under-funding disaster and its enormous drain on the public purse, will there even be an AFSCME left to utter an objection? Already, many new government workers are only working part-time and not contributing to the retirement fund. Is this part of the DFL plan too?

According to one calculation based on the plans' under-funding, the outrageous expectation of an 8.5% return on fund investment, projected rate of retirement of government workers, adjustments for inflation built into the plan, etc., in addition to what we are currently paying, we will be paying a property tax increase of $1382 per year per household. Of course, that's assuming that the fund is actually able to achieve an 8.5% rate of return, which all any one has to do, is check out the rates of 30 year bonds on MSNBC.com to see that that's not happening. The 8.5% rate of return is after the money manager has taken his 1-2% cut for managing the fund. For example, if the fund managers were investing in AAA mortgages, how could they possibly return at a higher percentage rate than the mortgage rates charged to the borrower? Any rate of return of 9.5% to 10.5% would have to be in extremely speculative investments, a.k.a. a high risk ventures, like sub-prime lenders, junk bonds, etc. Are you getting the picture as to how all of this might have started?

Is there a solution to all of this? Providing we haven't waited too long, here's what Minnesota Center for Public Finance Research suggested in May of 2006:

To Improve the Design and Function of Minnesota’s Defined Benefit Pension System

Permanently end benefit increases based on superior investment returns and provide only capped inflationary adjustments.Develop quantifiable standards of replacement income to be achieved through pension benefits.When the Basic Funds are under-funded and the Post Fund is fully funded, transfer only the fractional reserves necessary to keep the Post Fund “whole.”

Should conditions return that result in surpluses for both the Basic and Post Funds, give first priority to reducing employee and employer contributions, then possibly to providing for self managed accounts or “13th checks” for retirees, but only when an established “maximum funded ratio” in the Post Fund is exceeded.

Was Michael Katch the answer to all of our problems, the proverbial Golden Boy? Could he have magically restored the fund levels to where they need to be to meet the demand of present and future retirees? Could he have saved the City from the fiscal mismanagement of City leaders and the greed of the unions? No, but he was willing to speak openly and frankly about the unpleasant reality of our City and State's current financial situation. He's someone who understands the numbers and these are some big numbers. Since the DFL lapdogs have made the decision for us, I guess we'll never know.

Associated links:

http://www.swjournal.com/index.php?&story=10878&page=152&category=63

http://www.ci.mpls.mn.us/council/2008-meetings/20080118/docs/NRP_Allina_RCA.pdf

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/12/13/bridgereport/

http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/parkingrfp/

http://citypages.com/databank/28/1361/article15025.asp

http://www.startribune.com/local/west/12758977.html

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2519/is_1_23/ai_82757253/pg_4

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