here for PDF format
Meeting with Bill Blazar
8301 Creekside Circle,
Guest speaker: Bill Blazar, senior vice president, Minnesota
Chamber of Commerce
Attendance: Verne Johnson, chair; Chuck Clay, Paul Gilje,
Jim Hetland, Jim Olson (by phone), and Clarence Shallbetter (by phone)
A. Introduction of Bill Blazar--Paul
introduced Blazar, who for several years was a co-worker with Paul in the
Citizens League. Blazar is a graduate of Northwestern University (B.A. in
political science) and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the
University of Minnesota (M.A. in public affairs). After leaving the
Citizens League, Blazar was manager of government affairs for Target
Corporation, 1987-1992, before joining the Minnesota Chamber, where he is
senior vice president of public affairs and business development.
B. Comments by Blazar--In his comments
and in discussion with the Civic Caucus, the following points were made:
1. Review of the history of the transportation
constitutional amendment--Blazar reviewed the history of how a
constitutional amendment on transportation funding, to be presented to
Minnesota voters in November 2006, was adopted by the Legislature.
Chamber had supported a 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax in
the 2005 Legislature. A 10-cent-a-gallon increase was included in a bill
that reached the governor's desk. Among other provisions in that bill was
a constitutional amendment to dedicate sales tax receipts from the sale of
new and used motor vehicles to transportation. The governor vetoed that
bill, but to the surprise of many, his veto could not cover the
constitutional amendment. The Legislature submits constitutional
amendments to the voters without going through the governor.
Consequently, the constitutional amendment remains valid, even though
other provisions, including the 10 cent gasoline tax, were vetoed.
proposal would guarantee at least 40 percent of the dollars for transit.
The other portion, up to 60 percent, would flow into the highway user
trust fund and be distributed in the same manner as current highway user
funds are distributed (62 percent, state; 29 percent, counties, and 9
percent, cities.) The transit dollars would flow into a separate
dedicated fund that the Legislature would have to create. Blazar doesn't
know how "transit" is defined. For example, he doesn't know if HOV lanes
would come from the highway fund or the transit fund.
Chamber didn't originally advocate this specific amendment, but now, with
the amendment the only opportunity for more transportation funding, the
chamber is supporting the amendment.
2. Why the Legislature turns to the constitution--Blazer
was asked why the Legislature would propose an amendment to the
constitution when the Legislature itself could do everything the amendment
mentioned two main reasons. One reason is the deeply divided nature of the
Legislature. The House is 68-66 for Republicans and the Senate, 37-30 for
Democrats. The divisions on social issues such as gun control, abortion,
and gay rights are very strong. Now, social issues have so affected the
Legislature that their impact is felt on all other questions.
reason is that the Legislature lacks a working theory on solving community
problems. Some Democrats want to run state government much as they did 25
years ago. Some Republicans don't want government to do anything. And
some Republicans, just like Democrats, would pour money back into the
bureaucracy without seeking any change in service delivery. He mentioned
that a House committee dealing with employment and training, now headed by
a Republican, accepts to a significant degree the way administrative
functions are carried out by state agencies, just as a previous Democratic
general public is so skeptical and cynical about government that they
generally ignore what's happening.
3. A new theory for dealing with community
problems is needed--Blazar suggested we need to look outside of
government for new ways to deal with community problems. As an example he
mentioned a 10-year-old program of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce
called "Minnesota Waste Wise", involving about 500 businesses in voluntary
programs of recycling and in saving energy. At a business' request the
Chamber conducts audits of what the business is doing and makes
suggestions for improvement. One successful aspect of Minnesota Waste
Wise has been to encourage removal of mercury switches from junk cars that
removed 80 to 90 pounds of mercury that otherwise would have polluted the
air and groundwater. Blazar sees opportunities for such
non-governmental action in many areas, including child care and job
4. Opposition to initiative and referendum--Blazar
said the chamber's support for the constitutional amendment does not
indicate the chamber supports initiative and referendum, which he called a
simplistic solution to complex problems. He said the chamber and
organized labor stand to together on that position. The chamber is
supporting the transportation amendment because one needs to play the
cards you are dealt. Its impact would be to add $300 million a year for
transportation. Given the state's long term infrastructure needs, the
chamber cannot pass up this opportunity.
5. Relative interest in investment in education and
health versus transportation--Blazar was asked why the chamber
would support a proposal that could reduce the access of other public
services, such as education and health, to sales tax revenue. It was
noted that business has been less critical in its evaluation of the
effectiveness of certain transit expenditures, such as light rail, than it
has been in its evaluation of the effectiveness of education and health
6. "Yes" to spending, and "no" to taxes--A
questioner wondered if the state is following the lead of the federal
government, taking convoluted approaches to finding money to spend without
facing up to the hard realities of taxation. Blazar responded that what we
are seeing reflects the skepticism of the public regarding public spending
and services. Itís especially great with respect to the stateís general
fund and any tax increase for the general fund.
7. Influence of special interest
groups--Another questioner wondered whether the state has caved
in to the no-tax-increase special interest groups. Blazar said the
chamber talked about how to find $80 million a year for the state to meet
federal clean water standards. The chamber supported a special tax or fee
to be paid by farmers, businesses and homeowners. The key thing is that
the new dollars are aimed at solving a specific problem thatís recognized
by the business community as well as environmental groups and local
question was raised whether some people would just as soon have paralysis
in government because they think Minnesota is already taxing too much.
Blazar said he doesn't believe businesses are all opposed to taxation.
For example, the state urgently needs to find a way to generate more
electricity in coming years. There will be a bill for this and businesses
will pay a large share of it. But, as a recognized need, business will
pay its share. He went on to say that chamber members are practical
people, not civic types. They want to solve the transportation problem
first, rather than deal first with reforming the Legislature and its
procedures. Someone else probably needs to lead on reforming our policy
development and adoption process.
8. Avoid making the use of constitutional
amendments a precedent for solving public problems--Blazar said
he is working so that the transportation amendment does not become a
precedent for others to follow.
9. Achieving smarter spending--The
business community for many years has had an agenda for the state to
deliver more value to taxpayers. He said that the public sector is not
getting the value it should from its compensation, health benefits and
pension benefits provided to public employees. Right now we're talking
about $1 billion just to bail out the
teachers' retirement fund.
10. A possible Civic Caucus seminar on the
constitutional amendments--In response to a question, Blazar
said he would not be averse to the Civic Caucus' undertaking a series of
meetings this summer on the general question of whether revenue-raising
measures for specific functions should be placed in the constitution. He
doesn't like the proposed natural resources-arts amendment, for example.
He acknowledged that it is possible that the Civic Caucus could end up
opposing the transportation amendment. But he sees that such opposition
would be from a civic standpoint not a transportation needs standpoint.
11. A passing phase?--Some of Blazar's
personal associates, including family members, aren't overly worried about
the Legislature's inaction today, he said. They regard current
developments and behavior as a passing phase and wonder if any structural
change would result in real change. Time may be the best cure.
12. St. Paul Ford plant question--In a
response to a question, Blazar touched briefly on likely pressures for
tax-increment financing and other public subsidies in redeveloping the
Ford plant site. He said the chamber generally doesn't favor these
policies, because they sometimes end up subsidizing some businesses at the
expense of others.
13. Thanks--Verne thanked Blazar for
meeting with us.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting
years of leadership in politics and business.
A working group meets face-to-face to
provide leadership. They are Verne C. Johnson, chair; Lee
Canning, Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland,
John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and John Rollwagen.
Click Here to
see a biographical statement of each.