Baucus, Food, Garfield, McGovern, Otter, State Budgets, U.S. Senate, World War II


I’ve had the fortune – mostly good and a little bad at times – to have lived all my adult life in two states where Democrats have become endangered species – South Dakota and Idaho.

The news this week that former South Dakota U.S. Senator George McGovern is in the last days of his 90 years is a reminder once again that even given our nasty, polarized, hyper-partisan politics one man can have an impact. The fact that McGovern, an unabashed liberal, made his impact for so many years in South Dakota, a state almost as conservative as Idaho, is remarkable. No less remarkable than the long runs of Idaho Democrats Frank Church and Cecil Andrus.

McGovern has known ever since 1972 that the first line of his obituary would reference his historic presidential loss to the future unindicted co-conspirator Richard Nixon. An historian by training and temperament, McGovern could take comfort in the verdict of history that, while describing his national campaign in ’72 as quixotic and chaotic, would also come to judge him more right than wrong on Vietnam, Watergate and a host of other vital issues. And, of course, the contrast with Nixon, given the perfect lens of hindsight, couldn’t be greater.

My memories of McGovern start with the personal. He spoke at my high school graduation in 1971. No one remembers a high school graduation speech, but I certainly remember the speaker. When McGovern ran for re-election in South Dakota in 1974 – ironically against a Vietnam Medal of Honor winner and POW Leo Thorsness – I was a college-kid-aspiring journalist who filed his one and only NPR piece on Thorsness’ announcement of candidacy.

Years later I heard McGovern, a part-time Montana resident, deliver a moving memorial speech for the great Sen. Mike Mansfield. More recently I happened to be in Washington, D.C. at a time when McGovern was back on Capitol Hill to talk about his then-latest book a biography of Abraham Lincoln. McGovern took to the Lincoln project – one of the slim and wonderful volumes in the American President Series – with a level of personal understanding of what it must have taken for Lincoln to strive for the presidency, win it against great odds, withstand immense criticism and then die in the cause of Union and justice. A signed copy of the little book, which I highly recommend, is a treasured part of my collection.

George McGovern is the kind of political figure that truly intrigues me; a man running against the odds, who writes his own books, speak with passion and candor about hard issues and ultimately has always been comfortable in his own skin. He is far and way a different man from the “loser” image that some have used to define him for 40 years.

Three aspects of McGovern’s life where little know beyond the borders of South Dakota. First, as a young college history teacher he decided that no one else would take on the task of building a competitive Democratic Party in South Dakota in the 1950’s – so he did. Traveling the state, meeting one-on-one with thousands of people, McGovern organized, planned and plotted. In the process he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the state from the timberland of the Black Hills to the dry land farming country east of the Missouri River. As my friend Mark Trahant writes McGovern won his first senate race, by a whooping 597 votes, because he appealed to South Dakota’s Native American population, a segment of the state’s population that most politicians had marginalized and ignored prior to 1962. George McGovern was a builder.

Historian Stephen Ambrose’s book The Wild Blue told the story of McGovern’s 35 combat missions as a B-24 pilot over Europe. The young McGovern, piloting the Dakota Queen, survived tough and extraordinarily dangerous duty and he memories of war dogged him all his days. His service won him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ironically – or cynically – McGovern, the legit war hero, was branded by Nixon during that 1972 race as soft on national defense and defeatist about Vietnam. To his personal credit and to his political detriment, McGovern never traded on his remarkable military record. Imagine that. Unlike a lot of national security hawks who never experienced war up close, McGovern did and conducted himself accordingly.

The third little know fact about McGovern is his life-long devotion to the cause of world hunger. From his earliest days McGovern never grew tired of talking about, nor grew cynical about, the need for the world’s wealthy countries to put aside differences and provide the most basic need – food – to millions of people around the world. McGovern traced his concerns about hunger back to his military days in war ravaged and hungry Italy. He told moving stories about young kids begging in broken English for a candy bar from the American GI’s. It marked him.

By the way, McGovern teamed with another World War II hero, Republican Sen. Bob Dole, to write most of the nation’s food security legislation – WIC, school lunches and food stamps, included. Talk about an historic bipartisan effort.

George McGovern – historian, politician, failing presidential candidate, hunger advocate – will be treated better by the history books than he has been by his contemporaries. If you believe, as Tom Brokaw has dubbed McGovern’s contemporaries, that the World War II generation was America’s greatest, then the gentleman – the gentle man – from Avon, South Dakota was a genuine example of personal greatness. Dare I say it – the U.S. Senate could use a few like him.




Higher Education, Iran, Judicial Elections, State Budgets


How Educated are State Legislators?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is out with fascinating new research about the educational attainment of all of the country’s 7,000 state legislators.

Key nuggets in the report: while only about 28% of adult Americans have an undergraduate degree, in no state – New Hampshire is dead last as a percentage – do less than 53% of legislators have a degree. It also doesn’t make much difference to a legislator’s support for higher education where they went to college and most, like most college going Americans, went to a public school.

The Chronicle also ranks the most and least educated state legislatures. If you think your elected officials have to be the best (or the worst), you can now confirm or deny that opinion. By the measure of having earned at least a bachelor’s degree, California has the most educated legislature with nearly 90% of lawmakers have a degree. Oregon checks in at 84.5%, Utah is nearly 80%, Washington at nearly 75%, Idaho just over 73% and Montana, Nevada and Wyoming are all in the mid-60% range. The Chronicle’s profiles of each state are fascinating including detail on the schools where most lawmakers attended and how many stayed home for college and how many went out of state.

The Chronicle says: “Like most American students, the vast majority of state legislators went to public colleges. And most of them stayed close to home. In Louisiana, four out of five legislators never went to college outside the state. Across the nation, many lawmakers attended community colleges. Over all, about one in four don’t have bachelor’s degrees.”

This finding will send a shudder down the back of any president of a public college or university: support for higher education budgets seems to have very little to do with where lawmakers went to school.

More than a third of South Carolina’s state legislators went to the University of South Carolina, but it hasn’t stopped them from cutting the university’s budget by 25% over the last five years.

As Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education William A. Sederburg told the Chronicle: “My conclusion is that higher education has won the academic argument with policy makers. However, we haven’t been able to convert the academic argument into political action. The big question is, Why not? One Utah legislator answered that he simply doesn’t hear from constituents about supporting higher education, because they’re more concerned with roads, unemployment, and taxes.”

All this insight from the Chronicle just makes the dilemma swamping higher education all the more obvious. Shrinking state budgets have forced colleges to turn to higher tuition and fees in a wicked race to keep current. Meanwhile, financial aid is dwindling, with loans picking up the slack. As one observer noted recently, it is not inconceivable that today’s college students will be paying off loans when their kids are in school.

Obviously – and the Chronicle research supports this – there are a lot of smart lawmakers in state capitols. Yet, all these college grads turned state legislators seem, through their votes at least, to devalue the very higher education that most of them have used to help get ahead in life. I continue to wonder how we build the 21st Century economy we say we want, and create the next big wave of good jobs, without a national commitment to invest more and more wisely in higher education.


Egan, Idaho Politics, Judicial Elections, State Budgets

Budget Blues

utahLessons from The Beehive State

The Utah state budget is far from flush. The Salt Lake Tribune laments, as legislators do, a $313 million “structural deficit” in Utah. Having a “structural deficit” essentially means the state is spending more than it takes in. Most states have this problem, Idaho included.

As noted here yesterday, the Brookings Institution’s Mountain West Project has identified a variety of reasons for the fundamentally unbalanced nature of western state’s budgets. The reasons range from tax policies that gave away the farm in the form of tax breaks during flush times to antiquated tax structures – like Nevada’s – that overly rely on tourism and home building.

As for Idaho, some have long argued that the state’s tax structure, essentially unchanged since the sales tax was put in place in 1966, no longer reflects an economy built around high tech, services and recreation. If you buy that argument it begins to explain why Idaho, even given the deep cuts in state budgets over the last three years, is likely to continue – post-recession – to have revenue problems. That is a structural deficit.

Still, even with its underlying budget problems, Utah looks pretty good right now having avoided much of the fallout from the burst housing bubble and having in place a sound approach to budgeting and managing state government. And, by comparison to most of her neighbors, Utah is ahead of the game in addressing its structural problems.

Utah lawmakers so far are resisting further dips into the state’s rainy day fund and the state’s overall approach to budget and policy making continues to earn kudos from independent analysts.

In 2008, the Pew Center on the States called Utah “the best managed state” in the nation. Utah got a A- (so did Washington) in the sober, technical Pew study. Idaho, by contrast was back in the pack with Wyoming with a B- grade. Nevada, Montana and Oregon got gentlemanly C+ grades.

One reason Utah scored so high in this analysis was the management systems instituted during the governorship of Jon Huntsman. Huntsman, who recently resigned as U.S. ambassador to China in order to reportedly launch a Republican presidential bid, instituted a number of wonkish, but effective management approaches that impressed the Pew folks.

Here’s some of what was said: “Utah manages all facets of state government well, emphasizing long-term goals and performance outcomes. The executive and legislative branches work together effectively to align expenditures with the strategic direction of the state. Utah has also changed the organizational structure of agencies in order to ensure success, embedding human resources and information technology staff in every state agency to better assist with long term management needs.”

The Pew study concludes with this about Utah: “In sum, routine, evidence- and process-driven review has enabled one Mountain West state to catch an incipient structural deficit early and act intentionally to rectify it before it becomes entrenched.”

Words to budget – and make policy – by.


Egan, Idaho Politics, Judicial Elections, State Budgets

The State Fiscal Crisis

budgetIt’s Worse Than You Think

California’s new – old – governor, Jerry Brown, delivered his State of State address to the legislature last night. Lots of gloom and doom, not surprisingly, and calls for more drastic spending cuts and the extension of taxes.

California’s budget deficit is $25 billion – with a B. That amounts to 30 percent of the state’s budget and, if that problem and the certain prospect of additional cuts in education and social services weren’t bad enough, the painful reality for California and many other states is that a sizable portion of these huge deficits are literally baked into the fiscal cake of state governments for years to come.

The Brookings Institution’s Mountain West project, in cooperation with the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at Arizona State University, recently analyzed these so called “structural deficits” in four western states, California included.

Researchers concluded that the structural portions of the current state deficits are “the more or less permanent imbalances of revenues and expenditures that can arise from flaws in a state’s fiscal structure, fundamental changes in the regional economy or the state’s demographics, or, especially, imprudent or shortsighted policy choices.”

The study also looked at Arizona which “gave away the store in better times by handing out a series of ill-advised tax cuts (total value, adjusting for inflation and growth: $2.9 billion since 1993);” Nevada where a “narrow, consumption and real estate-oriented revenue system may well now be ill-attuned to a post-Recession “new normal” in which migration, homebuilding, and gaming are permanently depressed;” and Colorado were a “taxpayers bill of rights” has crippled revenue options and the funding for public education.

As for California, the study concluded that the state had “basically enacted too many permanent spending increases (notably on education) during the boom and more recent good times even as it left in place a series of rigid voter mandates and tax limitations.”

To put the situation even more bluntly, many states have for two decades been spending, tax forgiving and limiting their fiscal options; in essence behaving as mini versions of the federal government. So, while the economy will eventually recover and grow again, some of these state policy choices involving taxes and spending are truly “baked” into the system.

Idaho lawmakers had a rude awakening to this structural reality with the sudden discovery last week that a renewable energy tax credit coupled with routine conformance with the federal tax code is costing the state huge amounts of money. Many folks would rush, as the legislature did a while back, to embrace a tax credit to encourage renewables and the policy obviously worked. What is often missing when these policy choices are adopted is the long view. It is one thing to embrace an immediately attractive tax policy today, it is something else to consider that the diverted cash, now missing from the state budget, will come at the expense of an education or human services budget in the future.

The Brookings report offered four sensible policy suggestions. States should, and I quote from the report:

  • Commit to a balanced approach. Massive budget gaps cannot be responsibly closed by only cutting spending. Budgetary balance and revenue diversification are crucial. In addition to balance and diversification, broad bases and tax system responsiveness should be mantras of fiscal system repair. Tax policies that increase the base and elasticity of state tax systems reduce the need for discretionary and unpopular rate increases.
  • Maintain adequate rainy day funds. Most of the Mountain states exhausted their rainyday funds well before relieving their acute fiscal stress. As the economy gets back on its feet, state governments need to not just replenish, but increase their rainy day funds so that they can better weather protracted economic downturns in the future.
  • Increase local flexibility and control. States have a history of passing measures that constrain local governments’ ability to raise revenues and respond to changing fiscal circumstances. Those local governments need greater control over revenue generation and public service.
  • Improve budget processes and information sharing. Good policy decisions rest on good information and common-sense processes for delivering that information to the people who need it. Decision-makers need to have good data clearly presented about real and projected conditions, the range of policy options, and their consequences.

It must be noted, in contrast to those policy prescriptions, that Idaho lawmakers are still vowing to hold the line on any revenue diversification even as the state’s economy has changed dramatically in the last 30 years and more drastic cuts loom.

The state’s reserve funds are gone and the idea of more local control for local governments is about as popular as a skunk at a garden party. In fact, the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey reported that some lawmakers have hungry eyes focused on that portion of the state sales tax that flows to local government. That’s not more local control, but less.

And, while Idaho has a long history of transparency in its budget process, missing until last week the multi-million dollar impact on state revenues of an established tax credit indicates there is a lot of room for improvement.

The Brookings report is a sobering assessment of the state budget troubles that loom ahead even as the economy starts to recover.

Tomorrow, why Utah is in considerably better shape than much of the rest of the west.