James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Northwest Airline feasts in Land of Pawlenty

In the piece directly below this one, a couple of readers have told me, I made it appear as though Tim Pawlenty, who calls himself governor of Minnesota, really works solely for the Taxdodgers League of Minnesota.

If that is the impression I gave, I apologize.

Tim also works for Northwest Airlines.

In fact, he works for Northwest – widely known in the Twin Cities as Northworst – with such zeal and focus that it is impossible not to speculate on what he’s getting from the airline, or what he expects, and when. Large campaign contributions are assured, obviously, but is there something more?

I am not suggesting anything remotely so crude as bribes.

The governor is much too smart and much too ambitious to get mired in gross criminality. It’s also probable that he’s more motivated by power than money. And Tim and his wife, a judge, have made it clear to the public that they pray a lot.

(She prays over decisions from the bench, she says. Don’t know about you, but I prefer that judges base their decisions on the law. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Anyway, it is indeed fortunate for the governor for all wealthy Minnesotans that the interests of the Taxdodgers League and the airline, which has been screwing over Minnesota’s residents since Tim was a pup, almost always coincide. It’s a very safe bet that many of the Taxdodgers own substantial blocks of Northwest stock.

After he was elected in 2002, but even before his inauguration, Dapper Tim dashed to the Northwest executive offices, wherein he got on his knees and promised the airline bosses in unmistakably plain language that he would do whatever he could to see that they get whatever they want from the state. Anything, anything at all. He wanted a "partnership" with the airline, he said.

Well, OK. The bit about his being on his knees may be a slight exaggeration. The rest of the statement is true; it’s on record.

Note that he did not make similar public visits to other major employers in Minnesota – not to 3M, nor General Mills, nor Hormel, not even to Ford Motor Co., which has held a threat of plant closing and job loss over the heads of its St. Paul assembly plant employees for decades now.

The Northwest visit was a clear statement to all – airline employees, legislators and especially members of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC, about which more shortly) that Tim was handing the keys of the state, including the treasury if needed, to the airline big shots.

Jump to September 2004:

Pawlenty holds a press conference to announce that Northwest has drawn a detailed plan for the expansion and reordering of Twin Cities International Airport and that, he, Tim the Gov, endorsed every single line of that plan without reservation. The plan lays out exactly what goes where and who gets what at the airport for the next 15 years.

Airports in the Twin Cities, of which the international airport is by a huge amount the largest, supposedly are governed by the MAC, an appointed body that is charged with acting in the public interest. In fact, the commission, with the exception of two or three members, has behaved so subserviently in relation to Northwest over the past decade or two that many people routinely refer to it as "Northwest’s most important subsidiary."

The international airport is the seventh busiest in the world, in terms of takeoffs and landings.

Despite their fawning ways, members of the MAC, with the likely exception of its chair, Vicki Tigwell, a long-time pal of the gov’s and appointed by him, had no information on what the Northwest plan entailed until the gov’s press conference.



In fact, all they had heard was rumors to the effect that the airline had a plan. Tigwell’s reaction to the gov’s act as spokesman for the airline in the unveiling of that plan – one could say plot -- was to say how wonderful it was that the airline had saved the state the cost of designing airport expansion and remodeling.

Withholding information from MAC members was done despite the fact that the governor appointed ten of the 15 commissioners. (He’ll get to appoint at least two more this year.)

Tim’s press conference was organized by Northwest Airlines personnel, not the governor’s staff. It is likely that the gov’s talk was written by airline employees, though I have no evidence of that. His staff didn’t know squat about the airline’s plan, and it’s a 1,000 to 1 shot against Tim having written his own little speech.

Fortunately, and uncharacteristically of late, the Star Tribune has done an excellent job of reporting on the situation in recent days. (In fact, it’s the second or third good job of original reporting done by my old newspaper in the past month, after many months of looking like the Businessman’s Promotion Sheet. Hoodamnray!)

Because of that, we know what Northworst wants. Or, rather, expects.

With Timmy’s blessing, it is insisting that all airlines other than itself and three other companies with which it has "alliances" – KLM, Delta and Continental, which get gates only insofar as they are cooperating with Northworst – be booted out of the airport’s main terminal.

Northwest already controls 80 percent of the gates at the main (Lindbergh) terminal – 101 of 117 gates. Under the plan, that terminal would be expanded to 153 gates and Northwest would have them all.

All other airlines are to be relegated to the Hubert H. Humphrey terminal, which is somewhat awkwardly located and still is basically set up for charter airlines, although it underwent an expansion and remodeling a few years ago. One combination charter/scheduled airline, which has only a few daily scheduled flights, operates out that terminal.

The Northwest plan ever so generously allows further expansion of the Humphrey terminal, from 10 to 20 gates.

(Got that? Total 153 gates at the main terminal for Northwest, 20 gates in the substandard Humphrey terminal for all competitors.)

Of course, there is, and would be, very little in the way of amenities at the smaller terminal. There are only two or three shops, for example, and the place has only one or two fast food restaurants, no better restaurants. No good coffee shops, no book/magazine store. Not much of anything.

Do you see a certain – shall we say – imbalance here?

We’re just getting started.

The 15-year plan supposedly would (will) cost an estimated $862 million. There is absolutely no doubt that the actual cost would/will be higher. Travelers will pay about half the cost through ticket surcharges. Northwest generously agreed to pay just $92 million of that $862 million, apparently on the grounds that it needn’t pay more for what amounts to total control of the airport because what’s good for Northwest is good for Minnesota. But (you knew there was a "but" didn’t you?) it plans to borrow the entire $92 million from the MAC.

A brief pause for a little history here, things not reported by the newspapers in recent coverage:

Northwest has borrowed from the people of Minnesota before, and been subsidized in various ways by the public. And – you’ll be shocked, no doubt – it hasn’t always (or usually) lived up to its end of the bargains.

In 1992, Northwest was in some financial difficulty, the seriousness of which it exaggerated greatly. The state provided the airline with $761 million in financing and the airline borrowed an additional $270 million from the MAC. That was the same year Northwest’s employees made huge concessions, giving back about $900 million in pay and benefits.

Part of the deal for the public financing was that Northwest was to build an aircraft maintenance center at the Duluth airport that would have a minimum of 350 employees. It also was to open a reservations center in the Iron Range region of the state and build an engine overhaul facility in Hibbing, another Iron Range town.

By 1995, Northwest, having slashed the pay of its employees, was reporting record profits. In 1996, a reservations center was opened in the little city of Chisholm and the Duluth maintenance base also opened. Neither had anything like the number of employees they were eventually supposed to have, although the Duluth base did get up to snuff later, for a brief period.

In 1996, the airline again hit new highs in profits. The following year, still rolling in dough, the company paid off what remained of the MAC loan. It also announced that it would send its jet engines to France for overhaul, thus arrogantly refusing to honor the financing agreement with the state that called for an engine plant in Hibbing. It suffered no consequences for that action.

I haven’t yet found numbers on employment at the Chisholm reservations center, although some reports indicate employment never has reached promised levels. Just last June, Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson pretty well told the story of what has happened at the maintenance base in his city.

Bergson sent a letter to the airline’s chief executive officer, Richard Anderson, saying that only 217 mechanics – not the promised 350-plus – worked at the base and demanding that the other jobs be provided. He also noted that Duluth still is paying out $875,000 a year on $46 million in government bonds sold to build the base. He said Duluth is looking at a budget gap of "at least" $3 million this year.

So much for history.

Gov. Tim knows all that, of course. Bergson copied him on his letter to Anderson, for one thing.

But Tim is unreserved in his support for whatever Northwest wants.

Obviously, it’s because Northwest provides and will continue to provide so many (roughly 6,000) jobs in the Twin Cities, right?

Well, the second phase of the new plan, to be acted on three or four years from now, calls for tearing down maintenance hangers on the west side of the airport, as well as the building of a new passenger concourse.

There is nothing – not one word – that suggests the hangers would be replaced.

Since Northwest has shown a considerable enthusiasm for shifting major maintenance to Asia, where mechanics come much cheaper than in Minnesota, the mechanics' union rationally suggests that up to 2,000 jobs will disappear from the Twin Cities if Northwest gets all it wants.

Given Pawlenty’s behavior and a lot of nudging by the mechanics union, the State Senate decided hastily, shortly after the 2005 session opened, that it needed to look at the Northwest plan. A hearing before the Senates Transportation Committee was quickly scheduled.

Airline execs declined to testify.

Yup. Refused to show up.

The excuse for their arrogance was that Northwest is in contract negotiations with the mechanics' union – it instigated the negotiations to push for major contract cutbacks – and the union was going to have spokesmen at the Senate hearing and probably wanted to talk about possible pay cuts and job losses right there in front of the Senators and even – ohmahgawd – reporters.

Given all the other problems, as suggested above, one would have to assume that for the gov to be so eager to give Northwest the moon and the stars, the airline must do other wonderful things for the state.

Well, there are some advantages to being a hub for a major airline. Lots of direct flights to other cities and the like.

However, Minnesota has been paying through the nose for that dubious advantage for decades.

Two new studies, one commissioned by the Star Tribune, show that people flying in and out of the Twin Cities pay an average of $60 more per round trip than the national average for comparable trips, and if they fly Northwest, they pay $92 more than the average price at other airports. Passengers on trips that began or ended at the Twin Cities paid a total of $456 million more than the national average for comparable flights in 2003, the Strib reported. According to that same study, the newspaper said, the cumulative extra cost to Twin Cities travelers since 1995 – their penalty for flying in and out of Northwest’s home base – totals $4.4 billion. In the first half of last year, the Strib reported, fares at the Twin Cities airport were 21 percent above the national average.

There are many more numbers, but they all come to the same thing: If you have to fly from/to the Twin Cities, you’re getting screwed.

The new studies, incidentally, are just the latest. At least four others were done over the past couple of decades by different research organizations. All of the previous research came up with the same basic results.

Northwest responded this time as it has to every study in the past: The reports are wrong, the research is flawed, prices in the Twin Cities are "competitive" with those elsewhere, the researchers were biased. It offers few facts to back its claims, and those it does offer are tainted. Like the Bush administration, it just keeps shouting the lie.

At this point there appears to be almost no chance that Northwest will be thwarted in any significant way. It’s even likely that the stinking mess that should be piling up all over and around our charming governor actually will leave him untouched, clean and smiling. Teflon Timmy, some folks are starting to call him.

Only two things could make a difference, and both are less likely than our seeing Paris Hilton settle into a mature and serene for-life marriage within the next six months.

One is that the public gets angry enough to demand and keep demanding, a new deal at the airport. The other is that state legislators – make that Senators, since right wingers still control the House – find the guts to stand up to Tim and Northworst.

One step in the right direction would be to make the MAC an elected body, but it ain’t gonna happen.

Oh. About how important it is to have a hub airport?

With the amount of traffic in and out of the Twin Cities, how likely is it that Northwest would walk away from its hub here if it doesn’t get all or even most of its wish list?

If the execs did get insanely huffy and take a hike, how long do you think the airline industry would leave a vacuum at busy Twin Cities International? Ten minutes? Sixteen seconds?

Monday, January 10, 2005

A state of disrepair

It’s time to turn a small spotlight on my home state of Minnesota.

Readers from elsewhere may want to skim this little essay as a possible check on what’s happening in their own states. Many of us are in states of disrepair.

In 2002, Minnesota, a traditionally liberal state, elected Republican Tim Pawlenty governor.

We’ve had many Republican governors before, and mostly they turned out to be reasonable men who truly cared about the welfare of the state and its residents.

This time it’s different. A tall, handsome fellow with an easy manner and warm smile, charming Timmy is a cuthroat conservative. Actually, not a conservative but a right wing nutter. He would fit perfectly into one of the square holes in the Bush administration and, in fact, people began talking about his likely future on the national political stage within months of his election.

His main support is in the lily-white third ring of Twin Cities suburbs, where most of the residents have (mostly foolish) hope of being rich one day, and where SUVs outnumber sedans in the double and triple garages. However, he also got a fair amount of support in rural areas – particularly from hardscrabble regions in the northern part of the state, where people don’t read newspapers and think attempts to limit ownership of machine guns is anti-American, and other places where the spreads are big and government subsidies provide serious wealth for anti-government farmers.

However, polls generally show that a majority of the public even in the cities still hasn’t caught on to the fact that while Tim is smiling benignly, he’s wielding knives with both hands, slashing at everything that made this state famous for livability and civility.

Of course, he couldn’t do it alone. Tim was blessed with a House of Representatives entirely controlled by right wing extremists. They came to power through adherence to the will of antiabortion and antigay groups and – like Tim – a pledge of allegiance to a group that calls itself the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, but which most informed citizens call the Tax Dodgers League. Democrats held, and still hold, a small majority in the Senate.

Tim and most of the House Republicans actually pledged to the Tax Dodgers – a very small group of very rich people – that they would not countenance any new taxes of any kind. They stood firm on their pledge.

The 2003 session of the State Legislature was a mess. The 2004 session was a disaster and is almost unanimously recognized as such by those people of Minnesota who know what happened. Only the Tax Dodgers would disagree with that assessment. A great many of Tim’s supporters probably have no idea what went on in the session.

What happened is: Nothing. The Legislature finally adjourned without passing any major legislation, including badly needed bonding bills. It was a total failure.

That happened because the Republicans in the House kept yelling for compromise, but their definition of compromise was complete capitulation to their desires on everything. They would give nothing.

Soooo....This past November, the Republicans lost 13 seats in the Minnesota House, bringing their edge over Democrats down to a very thin 68-66.

Given that reality, the 2005 session began a few days ago with Cute Tim and some of the Republican House members calling for reason and compromise. They weren’t in session two days before it became clear that what they mean by that is exactly what they meant a year ago: Our way or no way.

Whether a more moderate Republican here and there will vote to break the logjams remains to be seen. Mostly the more rational Republicans are in hiding. The Tax Dodgers, combined with the rabid antigay and antiabortion crowds scare the hell out of them.

It’s understandable, but a Minnesotan can’t help but wish a few of the Republicans would root around in their torsos and find guts.

Except for disgust at the performance, one has to ask whether all that animosity, anger and "my way or die" attitude actually means anything for the state. Americans have always had a tendency to think that a do-nothing legislature is the safest kind of legislature.

So let’s take a look at just a couple of things the Republic stubbornness as done:

Because of the refusal even to consider tax increases of any kind, let alone income tax increases, Minnesota now has been through several years of deficits, and another big'un is looming for 2005. The Pawlenty/Tax Dodgers League/House answer to that has been to cut. And cut. And cut.

While that handful of millionaires preen and stroke each other in their country clubs, and send their kids to very expensive private schools, public schools throughout the state have taken major damage, with worse to come. Teaching staffs have been slashed. Many buildings are falling or have fallen into serious, even dangerous, disrepair. Basic supplies are lacking, particularly in schools in the state’s larger cities (except for a couple of big suburbs, of course). All sorts of programs, including classes for "special needs" kids and for immigrant kids (almost all in the central cities, of course) are gone, or reduced to uselessness.

Social services throughout the state – mostly operated by counties, but funded to a large extent by the state – have been slashed, and are facing destruction. One of the less life-threatening but still interesting examples I ran across in the last day or two involves handling of drunk drivers.
A guy from a metropolitan county was arrested on a DWI charge in a rural county and found guilty. The judge in his case ordered an evaluation for alcoholism. The county where he was arrested won’t pay for the assessment, which costs about $150, because it says that’s the responsibility of the county where the guy lives. (Technically, that’s probably correct.)

Anyway, the counties wrestle over the lousy $150 and the guy doesn’t get his court-ordered assessment; and he probably won’t get the treatment that’s almost surely called for either. Eventually he’ll be back on the road, and drunk, again. Maybe he won’t kill or injure anybody.

Multiply that little scrap by hundreds – over all sorts of things – and you have just a glimpse of what’s not being done.

And speaking of health care: My state has something called Minnesota CARE, created to see that the poor and underinsured, or uninsured, can get necessary health care (no tummy tucks).

Tim & Co. have cut the living hell out of that program, and are looking to cut it more. One of the major Twin Cities television stations, WCCO Channel. 4, recently did a story about a woman who has breast cancer. She’s a widow who was a stay-at-home mother – a life choice that Tim’s crowd strongly advocates – and lost her health insurance when her husband died.
Because of the budget cuts, Minnesota CARE payments now are limited to $5,000 per patient per year. That covers just two months of care for that breast cancer patient. Come March 1, give or take a few days, treatment for her cancer will stop. She will die.

There are an estimated 6,000 other people in the state in similar situations. Please note that most of them are not in the mess they’re in because of improvidence. Some lost insured spouses, some lost the jobs through which they got insurance, and not through any fault of their own in most cases. There are dozens of ways a responsible adult can come to be without health insurance in this country, and at least as many ways a child can land in the same situation.

Here’s another little story, one that any good member of the Tax Dodgers League and probably most residents of those third-ring suburbs will find trivial. I think it speaks to how the Republicans are destroying the long-heralded Minnesota quality of life:

KBEM is a small radio station run by the Minneapolis school district. It is a (literally) unique and quite wonderful educational tool. It draws eager students of all races to the city’s North High School, in the heart of Minnesota’s largest black neighborhood. The station is run, with supervision, by high school students on weekdays throughout the school year.

The state’s only jazz station, KBEM has for 15 years provided the metropolitan area’s public with another service – one which for at least 10 of those years I have considered invaluable. It has had a contract with the state’s Department of Transportation to provide regular on-air traffic reports during prime morning and afternoon drive time and any other time there is a serious problem on the roads.

On normal days, the reports by transportation department employees, monitoring all of the area’s major roads via the departments television system, are on every 10 minutes or so during peak hours. If there is a serious crash, flooding or some other event that causes a tie-up, the reports sometimes are continuous for as much as an hour. Smart folks can and do change routes when already on the road if problems pop up where they intended to go.

However, that is about to end. The transportation department, like all state departments, is under budget pressure. It abruptly canceled its contract with KBEM, leaving the station about $150,000 short for the fiscal year, which closes at the end of June. The station now is begging for public help in making it through this school year. The future beyond that is very dim. It’s likely the station will shut down, or shrink drastically, putting an end to the educational program as well as those useful traffic broadcasts.

I’ve heard some speculation among other listeners about whether the plug would have been pulled if that station was in Eagan – Pawlenty’s suburb – rather than Minneapolis. But would I suggest such a thing?

Hell, yes.

Wouldn’t surprise me if a couple of years down the road some sort of a state-funded broadcast program shows up in Eagan or one of those other cookie-cutter burbs.

There are countless other examples of what catering to the smug millionaires is doing to Minnesota: cuts to important and even essential programs for the mentally ill, handicapped, chemically dependent, just plain physically ill and many, many others.

Welcome to New Minnesota. Bring lots of money.


You will find two new links to other Web sites in the list of links on the right side of this page.

One is Bumpasblog, run by Andy Driscoll a peace and justice activist who often provides his readers with information they won’t find elsewhere without hard searching.

The other is by Jim Klobuchar, who – as we say of the true masters of our business – writes like an angel as well as seeing the world clearly. For those who miss his often brilliant columns, now too long gone from the Star Tribune, the blog is the place to find him.