Election 2018: Hennepin County Commissioner, District 4

Peter McLaughlin has been the District 4 Hennepin County Commissioner for approximately forever. (Okay, found it: since 1991. I was starting college in 1991 and didn’t move to Minneapolis until 1995.)

I have a long-running sense of not liking him very much, although in part this is because he was a close ally of Sharon Sayles Belton, who I didn’t like (I really disliked the projects the city undertook during her administration), although she got replaced by RT Rybak seventeen years ago now, so this is a somewhat outdated grudge.

My main ongoing grudge against Peter McLaughlin is that he is a big fan of spending public money on sports facilities. He helped pass a county-wide tax to build the Twins ballpark, and to circumvent the law saying they were supposed to hold a referendum on it. He was less enthusiastic about the county funding the Vikings Stadium, but had this hilarious/infuriating line about why referendums were bad:

A referendum “doesn’t make a bad idea any better,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who voted for Target Field but dislikes the Vikings stadium proposal. “I don’t believe in government by referendum. It lets elected officials off the hook for making judgments about these things.”

The point of a referendum isn’t to make “bad ideas better,” it’s to make it possible for people to shoot down the plan of spending their money on sports facilities. It’s not like Minneapolis voters shoot down every referendum that comes their way; they faithfully pass school-levy referendums. People want referendums on sports facilities because it appears to be the only possible way to keep politicians from cramming them down our throats over and over and over.

More recently, he tried to swing a deal for the soccer stadium whereby the “excess capacity” of the Target Field sales tax would go to pay for the soccer stadium, instead. What that means: currently, there is a 0.15% sales tax collected in Hennepin County. Out of that money, $5 million/year goes to libraries, youth and sports programs, and long-term ballpark maintenance. The rest goes to pay off the $350 million in bonds that were sold to fund the construction of Target Field. At the moment, that tax is collecting quite a bit more than they’d expected, allowing the county to pay off the debt early. (They’d planned on a 30-year repayment plan, and they’re going to be done in 20 years. At which point the tax is supposed to just end.)

I mean, there are a couple of ways to look at this. I tend to think, “no, you assholes, pay off the motherfucking debt and dump the tax we never agreed to.” It’s not entirely unreasonable to say, “hey, we’ve planned for that thirty-year term, so let’s just take the extra money and spend it on civic improvements,” but I don’t then say, “…like yet another sports facility!!!!” 

As it happens, that plan fell through and the stadium was built in St. Paul.

On the plus side, Peter is a big fan of bike paths and transit. I am also a fan of bike paths and transit, and I particularly love the Greenway, which he was one of the movers-and-shakers for.

But this is the first time in years that Peter has had any sorts of real opponent; last time, the only person running against him was Captain Jack Sparrow. So I’m excited at the possibility of someone who likes bike paths and transit, and is not and endless booster of circumventing laws about referendums to build sports stadiums. (If you’re a sports stadiums kind of voter, Peter’s your guy, but one of the bizarre things about the whole “yeah, let’s spent a gazillion dollars building yet another sportsball palace!” thing is that public sentiment runs so strongly against these projects!)

Here’s who’s on the ballot:

Peter McLaughlin
Angela Conley
Megan Kuhl-Stennes

Peter McLaughlin

I feel like I pretty much covered my objections to Peter up above. You could also see what I wrote about him four years ago. That post also includes some explanation of what the county board oversees — it is much more important than a lot of people realize.

Angela Conley

Angela is the candidate all my friends are excited about. (At least one friend was excited enough to go to the County DFL Convention and sit there all day, despite health problems, to try to get Angela the endorsement; at the end of the day, no one was endorsed, but Angela came the closest.) She would be the first Black person to serve on the Hennepin County Board (or maybe the first person who’s not white to serve on the Hennepin County Board? either is pretty shocking, in 2018, given the incredible diversity of Hennepin County). She’s a renter; she’s been “that single mother on the bus with a stroller”; she’s a county employee.

Ideas and progressive policies she’s pushing in her campaign:  creating a county-wide racial equity advisory council; passing the African-American Family Preservation Act; expanding the Transit Assistance Program; eliminating cash bail; increasing the use of restorative justice programs; and phasing out the garbage burner.

The main thing I’ll say about Angela is that a bunch of my politically-active friends are super, super excited about her; a bunch of my politically-aware friends who don’t usually work on campaigns are volunteering for her. I find that persuasive; my friends are cool people. I’m also really excited by the diversity she’d bring to the County Board — as a Black woman, as a renter, as someone who’s spent time truly dependent on transit, as someone who’s worked for the county. If I lived in Hennepin County, I’d vote for her.
Megan Kuhl-Stennes

Megan is Green-party endorsed (and her Twitter makes it clear she’s a fan of Russian stooge Jill Stein, which is a strike against her.) She works for Eureka Recycling and is genuinely passionate about a zero-waste approach, and that’s the main focus of her campaign: a zero-waste Hennepin County.

She also talks about the need for more affordable day care. The most radical proposals she makes: decriminalizing the use, possession, and sale of all drugs provided the user is over 18 (…which she seems to think could happen at the county level, even though the laws are passed by the state and in most cases enforced by the city police?) and a countywide Basic Income Guarantee.

She notes that 1 in 10 Hennepin County residents lives below the poverty level. “A basic income guarantee establishes a universal, unconditional, regular payment from the county that would be enough to live on. Enough for shelter, food, and clothing.” The current population of Hennepin County is 1,230,000 people. 1/10th of the population is 123,000. Providing enough for shelter, food, and clothing … let’s say $12,000/year for rent (that’s on the low end for Minneapolis), $200/month for food, and we’ll add on $1600/year for clothes and miscellaneous expenses, that comes out to $16,000/year. There are definitely people who live on less than this, but a lot of them are in subsidized housing or homeless, and the idea here is to provide people enough that they can just live on it, right?

So $16,000/year, 123,000 people. That comes out to about 2 billion dollars, annually. Here’s the Hennepin county budget for 2017. Total expenditures were $1.9 billion.

So if we are going to double the county budget, the money is going to have to come from somewhere. That Twins Tax that Peter McLaughlin helped push through, what does it actually bring in annually?

The so-called Twins tax is a 0.15 percent sales tax collected in Hennepin County. Even after the $5 million a year that goes to county libraries, youth and sports programs and a long-term maintenance fund for the ballpark, the tax is collecting more than is needed for its debt service. So far, the county has used the excess to retire some of the $350 million in stadium bonds early. County finance staff now thinks the final bonds would be retired in 20 years or so rather than 30 — by 2027 rather than 2037.

I’m not sure how much it’s bringing in, exactly, but given that they’re on a 20-year schedule to repay $350 million in debt, I feel pretty confident in saying that it’s bringing in a lot less than 2 billion.

Basically, from the rest of Hennepin County we’d need to raise an extra $1800/year, per person. That’s a lot. (And note it’s per person, not per household.) When you’re looking at the federal budget, you can propose “soak the rich” solutions, or point out that somehow, we found the money to invade Iraq. Hennepin County’s budget is things like roads and libraries. It has never invaded Anoka County and even if you decided that Rich Stanek sucks so much you wanted to just eliminate the entire public safety budget, that’s only $268 million, less than 10% of what would be needed, plus you’ll be super bummed the next time you need a water rescue, since it’s the county that does that.

I’m not sure how to find the number of very wealthy residents in Hennepin County, but if we used the top 10%, that would mean each individual would have to pay an extra $16,000/year (because it’s the same number of people as the bottom 10%). According to this article, nationwide the top 10% of earners make at least $133,445/year. (I suspect the top 10% in Hennepin County is working with a somewhat lower number, but I don’t know where to look to find it.) That’s plenty to live on comfortably! It’s not so much money that you’re going to say “ah, $16,000, no biggie, I’ll just dig it out from under the couch cushions” like Betsy fucking DeVos and her fleet of ten yachts, one of which got untied this week. The “we’ll run out of rich people!” problem is mostly bullshit on a federal or even a state level, unless you enact truly  punitive taxes or start guillotining people. But it’s just not that hard to move to St. Paul.

Anyway, I’m not sure how she actually imagines funding this, because she doesn’t talk about that anywhere on her site. It’s not that I object to socialist ideas; it’s more that I want to see some honest analysis of how this stuff would actually work. Health care is relatively straightforward: we could trade in a system where we pay a pile of money every year for health insurance and health care, for a system where we pay more in taxes, and we’d almost all come out ahead, we’d stop going bankrupt over health costs, and no one would die because they couldn’t raise enough from GoFundMe to buy their insulin.

I think the idea of UBI is worth exploring, for the record, but not on a county level.

Anyway, sorry, that was a massive rabbit-hole, especially since she surely knows this proposal would go nowhere so it’s not like she needs to be able to come up with a funding plan. Her real issue, her real reason for running, is zero waste. She works for Eureka Recycling, so she probably has some substantive plans around implementing zero waste. If that’s your #1 issue, you might consider voting for her? Although I’d still encourage you to vote for Angela, because she’s got a bunch of people excited and motivated and volunteering for her, and could realistically take on Peter McLaughlin. And I think she will make just as much progress on the environmental issues as Megan would.




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