Chanting Points Memo: Their Masters’ Voice

As the GOP in the Minnesota Legislature drives toward a budget – and does it a solid month earlier than the Democrats managed it in the past session – the Dems’ latest chanting point is that “the budget doesn’t’ agree with the fiscal notes!”

And it sounds pretty serious…

…oh, who am I kidding.  As much as I’ve followed politics over the years, as of yesterday I had absolutely no idea what a “fiscal note” was.

I have to confess – I thought it sounded like one of those fussy little bits of adminstrative ephemera that people who fuss over credentialing and rules at Congressional District conventions or take notes on their neighbors’ lawns and home paint jobs like to obsess over.

So I figured I’d ask some experts – a group of DFLers.  Senators Dick Cohen, Ann Rest, LeRoy Stumpf and Don Betzold:

Turns out I overestimated the moral weight of “Fiscal Notes”  – according to some of the same DFLers who were whinging about their ephemerality last session.

But – what are they?

I asked one of my overworked Capitol Hill friends what the fuss was about.

The answer was something like this:  in the US Congress, all financial proposals – taxing and spending and bonding and such – are validated by a non-partisan, rigorously unaligned group of accountants.   They issue “fiscal notes” that actually verify the numbers.  And – this is important – they don’t report to the Speaker, or the Senate Majority Leader, or even to the President himself (not directly).  Their jobs are kept scrupulously non-political.

And Minnesota has no such analogous group of vigorously independent accountants.

So all budget proposals are passed through Minnesota Management and Budget.  Which was – back when Senators Cohen, Rest, Stumpf and Betzold were feeling queasy about its fiscal notes – a part of the Pawlenty Administration, with leaders appointed by the governor and who served more or less at the governor’s pleasure.

And yes, today it’s part of the Dayton Administration.   Its director, Jim Schowalter, is a political appointee – and political appointees are appointed to help advance the Governor’s agenda.  It’s one of the spoils of the governor’s victory.

It’s Schowalter’s job to help advance Dayton’s all-tax budget policy.

Which is why MMB’s “fiscal note” on, say, consolidating the state’s Information Technology (they say it’d take ten employees and cost tens of millions of dollars) goes so far out of its way to discredit the GOP’s budget proposals.

Fiscal notes are a political tool on Capitol Hill. No more.

The DFL would like you not to know that.

5 thoughts on “Chanting Points Memo: Their Masters’ Voice

  1. Having personally seen the boondoggle that is the state’s IT department, I can emphatically state that consolidation would be the best thing that ever happened there! There are far too many redundant layers. You know, a lot like a government that has been under DemonRAT rule for the past few decades!

  2. Jim Schowalter, is a political appointee:

    Jim received his Master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and his Bachelor’s degree with a major in economics from Macalester College. Schowalter originally hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

    That might almost make one feel all squishy.

  3. I worked for Mn/DOT when personal computers first came out. There was no IT department for desktop PCs – instead, each office found some interested person to act as IT helper for co-workers. I was the guy with the DOS manual on my desk. We learned the software used in our respective offices – CAD in the Bridge Design office, Payroll in the Personnel office, etc.

    Then IT was consolidated into one Help Desk concept where users phoned in complaints to be written on tickets to be called back in turn by Help Desk phone answering gurus who knew enough to ask “is it plugged in” and “try rebooting” but couldn’t explain why you’ve lost the pop-up toolbox of pre-calculated bridge spans or how to get it back. Also, a ticket phoned in by Joe Schmedlap always seemed to get handled AFTER the tickets phoned in by the big-shots on the Fourth Floor, meaning a question that I could have answered in seconds now got answered in hours, if at all.

    So each office informally found tech-oriented people who answered tech questions in parallel with the Help Desk, under the radar, so to speak, which undermined and infuriated the IT department and the Help Desk, whereupon intra-department tech help again was banned and help was centralized again . . . .

    Endless cycle of central command and control versus individuals making do to make things work. From what I hear, it’s no better these days.

    Is it like that in private industry, too?

  4. Consolidation is always a contentious issue. It was difficult to get “no-brainer” applications (like email) consolidated, but I have seen enough “consolidation good, fire bad” attitudes to know it can be taken to absurdity. The help desk is especially touchy: push it too close to the desktop, and it’s really expensive; pull it too far away, and it’s useless (and colleague support isn’t free, organization-wise, either). I could see central IT doing a lot of good in the area of standards, but too often people don’t know what constitutes a standard (as opposed to a “vendor”, a “product”, or a “specific version of a product”).

  5. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive

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