Monday, September 1, 2014

An Interview with Jen Schultz the DFL Candidate for District 7A

I was introduced to Jen Schultz at an art opening earlier this year. We struck up a conversation that ultimately led to this interview. Schultz is an economics professor at UMD here and is vying for the seat in the Minnesota House for District 7A. It's easy to see why she got the endorsement. She's intelligent, engaging and passionate about her convictions.

EN: What are your ideas on Minnesota health policy and how do they differ from what everyone else is saying?

JS: Following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) in Minnesota we have seen better than expected numbers in terms of people getting insurance through the MNSure program and a greater than expected drop in the number of uninsured people – a fall of just over 40%.

We need to continue the program to encourage further enrollment of people who need insurance and further reductions in lack of insurance, but we also need to move ahead in working on cost and quality of health care.

Under the ACA model, cost control is expected to be due to competition among insurers. Unfortunately, Minnesota has a very small number of insurers. To create the kind of competition needed to control or even decrease costs, the ACA allows for several innovative approaches. The first is insurance co-ops: the creation of insurance programs owned by the people who are insured, in a model similar to the Whole Foods Co-op here in Duluth. To implement a co-op, we need to apply for a waiver from the federal government, but these waivers have been granted in several other states. A second approach to increase competition and control prices would be for the state itself to create a “public option,” an insurance program owned by the state itself. By enrolling state employees, employees of the universities and of school systems, and county and local government employees, we could create a pool of people that would be large enough to avoid overexposure to risk, spreading the risk over hundreds of thousands of people. This could then compete in the exchanges with private insurance programs. Application for special waiver would be required here as well, but the ACA envisions states launching experiments to make the program work best.

Implementation of these programs, along with quality assurance programs and fixing remaining glitches in the operating system purchased from private information technology companies, would put Minnesota in the forefront of providing maximum access to health care with best control of cost and quality.

EN: What the public wants and what is in their best interest can often be at odds with one another. How will you deal with that when you are in office?

JS: Unfortunately, the public often imagines that government can provide them with what they want and need at no cost to themselves and at no compromise of their own lives.

A classic example of this is taxes. No one really wants to pay taxes. However, as the Minnesota Republican Governor Elmer Anderson said, “Taxes are how the people join together to do good things.” In fact, Minnesota’s higher than average taxes have led to a much better than average economy in the state. By providing the best education possible, by maintaining and strengthening our infrastructure, and by providing financial incentives for innovative businesses, Minnesota has consistently been the top performing economy in terms of growth and employment in the Midwest, with the recent exception of the North Dakota oil boom. States that have cut taxes have found that they must cut services, as we found during the Pawlenty years, and have in turn found that that leads to weakened economic performance, as we are now seeing in states like Kansas, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Minnesota ranks in the top ten states for business environment in evaluation by Forbes Magazine and CNBC.

In order for people to understand this they must be well informed. Unfortunately, people are deluged with false information about these issues by news media due to either poor or dishonest reporting and the propaganda of the wealthy people who benefit greatly from low taxes. In order to be a leader, I will need to be an educator. Fortunately, that has been my career for the last 20 years.

EN: So much of politics involves compromise. How do you feel about some of the compromises you see being made in government today?

JS: Compromise is the essence of political leadership. The Affordable Care Act represents a good example, with Democrats developing a program based primarily on the use of private insurance, following a model developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Conservatives are dissatisfied because it is a government run program, progressives are unhappy because it is dependent on private for-profit businesses. But over 14 million people are now insured, at least 8 million of whom were previously uninsured. Costs of health care are rising more slowly than ever in the last four decades, and Medicare has seen its financial integrity improved to make it solvent for at least two decades more than was anticipated before the program.

Progress is evolutionary in our system, not revolutionary. In the words of Mick Jagger, you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

As a representative, I will be a pragmatist, working for the goals I think are important but moving forward through the possible, rather than holding out for the perfect.

EN: What would you consider to be “adequate funding” for public education? Where are the shortages occurring and why?

JS: Minnesota education at all levels, pre-K through graduate school, is suffering because of two things. The first is the gutting of education funding at all levels under the Pawlenty administration when education funding was diverted to pay for tax cuts that primarily benefitted the rich. The second is the imbalance of resources among school systems, with greater Minnesota and inner city schools suffering from a lack of funding due to lower tax bases per capita than wealthy suburban districts. The first fix is obvious: we need to pay back education programs the money diverted by the GOP, and we need to bring funding levels back to where they were, with additional funding to cover inflation. Thanks to tax reform under the DFL, we now have the money to do that over the next two to three years while still balancing the budget and setting aside a rainy day fund. The second problem was what was once addressed by the “Minnesota Miracle,” in which the state took over a large portion of funding for education in order to balance funding between wealthy and poor districts. We need to explore that again. We need to move to establish universal pre-K in Minnesota as a way to address the achievement gap, we need to lengthen school days and school years – a solution that has worked for the best Charter School systems in other states in dealing with the achievement gap. We need to improve teacher training and to retain good teachers. We need to make higher education – including technical schools, bachelors programs, and graduate programs – affordable for all students. Some of this will cost money, but education is the best possible economic investment. Reforming the education system will pay dividends from reduction of prison population to improved family stability to making our citizens into productive taxpayers. Plus a well educated work force that can add value for businesses is Minnesota’s best way to continue our successful state economic performance and to compete in the global environment.

EN: Where do you see unfairness occurring in our state tax policy and how do you hope to address this?

JS: The primary unfairness is lack of progressivity – the principle that people with high incomes should carry more of the tax burden than low income people. The DFL improved that during the last legislative session, but unfortunately we still have a system where low income people often pay a larger share of their income in taxes – income tax, sales tax, property tax, gasoline tax, and so on – than the wealthy. That needs to be fixed. Families in higher income brackets can afford to pay a larger percentage without suffering, lower and middle income people are more likely to put the money they have directly back into the economy by buying goods and services that drive the economy, and pure fairness requires that a billionaire should pay a higher tax rate than his secretary, not the other way around.

The wealthy are actually the greatest beneficiaries of government spending, receiving personal and business benefits that help make them successful. I just saw and article that noted that the federal government spends $15 billion a year on doctors’ training, reducing the amount they have to pay themselves, with the states pretty much doubling that amount. I do not think that is a bad thing – we need doctors. But I do think that doctors who benefit from that government largess should be willing to pay a fair tax when they finish training and earn six and even seven figure incomes.

EN: Who are you running against?

JS: My opponent in this election is Becky Hall, the endorsed Republican candidate and a founder and major leader of the Tea Party in Duluth.

There is a third party candidate, Kristine Osbakken, a Green Party member running on the premise that there is no significant difference between the DFL and the GOP. That premise was last tested in 2000, when a strong Green Party candidacy provided the margin of victory for George W. Bush over Al Gore. Bush went on to start wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, create the Homeland Security apparatus, gut environmental and labor protections, and appoint a Supreme Court that has devastated the rights of common people in favor of the wealthy and business. Al Gore went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming.

There is a huge difference between the DFL and the GOP, and between me and my Tea Party opponent.

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