Last night Senate minority leader Tom Bakk was gracious enough to appear at SD50's new winter fundraiser (which, by the way, was a huge success!). He first spoke about the evils being perpetuated by the Republicans in Saint Paul and then allowed for a little Q&A. Though he was saying things that Democrats love to hear, I was struck by the complete lack of an articulable plan to ensure that Democratic priorities become Minnesotan priorities.
Time and time again I hear people wondering what the plan is. Platitudes serve their purpose but they do not fill the 20% hole in Minnesota's budget. The way I see it, Democratic leaders are serving the party's faithful water. Water is good. It is refreshing, delicious and life-giving. Water, however, does not get you drunk. After the beating we took in November many of us are sick of water - we're craving a big ol' shot of whiskey.
For example, Democrats love to talk about how tuition rates are out of control, which adversely affects the ability of low-income students to pursue higher education. Tuition at the University of Minnesota has doubled in a decade.  Lenders provided $95 billion in student loans federally in 2008-2009, and tuition has increased since then. But when one member of the audience asked how Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) gave bonuses to their administrators while simultaneously laying off employees and raising tuition, Bakk did not seem to have any concrete comfort to offer. It seems that Bakk, like many Democrats, wants to value higher education without offering any real solutions to how to keep tuition from continuing to skyrocket.
K-12 education is another priority area for Democrats. Anybody familiar with the public education system knows three things. First, public education achievement is on the decline. American students are quickly falling behind their global peers, ranking 14th, 17th and 25th in reading, math and science respectively.  Second, teachers are grossly underpaid, with median teacher salaries at less than $45,000 at all levels.  Third, where teachers were traditionally responsible for passing on knowledge, they have become more and more responsible for developing the next generation of American citizens. Accountability not only for imparting knowledge but for creating an ideal learning atmosphere has become the norm for 21st Century teachers, yet we pay them less and give them fewer resources from which to develop an atmosphere conducive to student achievement. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are telling us that additional cuts to the K-12 system could be devastating, without proposing how to prevent said cuts from happening.
Democratic priorities are not limited to issues of education. We love to talk about "creating jobs." I've gotten to the point now where I envision Mark Dayton standing on the capital steps and bellowing, "Let there be jobs!" to be the best approximation of any real "jobs plan." We are quick to point out that tax cuts to businesses do not create jobs (as Republicans love to claim) but instead create additional incentive for businesses to drive up profits by lowering costs. Yet we still concede tax cuts to corporations and other businesses while claiming we are going to "tax the wealthy." Meanwhile, people are still out of work or underemployed and are praying to whatever god will listen to create some meaningful jobs since the mortals we have to deal with on Earth cannot seem to come up with any real plan.
While we're on the subject of taxes, let's talk about how we need to "generate revenue." I like to fancy myself a reasonably intelligent person, so I'm going to call this what it is: more taxes! We want to tax - whether we're raising existing taxes (cigarettes, I'm looking at you), "taxing the wealthy", or taxing goods and services previously untaxed (clothes and legal services, for instance) the fact of the matter is that the government wants a bigger slice of the proverbial pie. But they won't tell us which parts of the pie they are going to take. They have a lot of ideas but none that they will stick with. Tom Bakk mentioned that adding a tax on clothes would generate something like $330 million a year. That's great, but it's only 4.5% of the solution. We are going to need our Democratic leaders to commit to more than adding a tax to clothing. What they don't realize is that they've gotten us to accept they are going to take more money, but they won't even tell us where they are going to take it from.
Finally, I asked Senator Bakk about the recent news related to the threat of judicial backlogs giving rise to Speedy Trial claims which would allow many alleged criminals to go free without ever having faced trial. I asked how Democrats planned to address this issue in light of the deficit and whether there were any reforms in criminal sentencing or the criminal code in the mix to ensure persons accused of violent crimes are answering for their charges within a Constitutionally alloted period of time. His only suggestion was to remind Republicans and the voting public that the courts are a part of the larger "public safety" structure and that cuts to the courts could adversely impact public safety.
"Keep tuition down," "Make K-12 a priority," "Create jobs," "Generate Revenue," "Keep the public safe," these phrases are all water. I would like to add to the list concepts such as "fairness" and "equality" as well as the idea that the public sector is somehow supposed to "compete" with the private sector. These are all water - they can sustain you but they cannot lower your inhibitions enough to do something really stupid, like accept more taxes as inevitable. The Democratic party faithful are at the bar, poised to drink whatever our leadership are prepared to serve us. It's true that we would prefer to be served a quality single malt Scotch, but we're willing to swallow Canadian Mist if that is what is available. Unfortunately, Democratic leadership cannot even seem to muster up Canadian Mist; they just cannot answer the hard questions. How, specifically, are you planning to keep tuition costs from continuing to rise at such staggering rates? What, in particular, do you see as needing to be taxed to save Minnesota from it's crippling budget deficit? How do you envision jobs in the public sector as competing with jobs in the private sector? We're ready for the shot - we just need you serve it up.
*My apologies to any recovering addicts, various religious adherents, and non-drinkers who are alienated by my metaphor.