The Revenue Blues

November 02, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

Next week, voters in roughly one of every three school districts will face a difficult choice. Do they vote for a property tax increase, or do they vote for further defunding of schools?

Minnesota 2020 has covered the long-term disinvestment in Minnesota schools before. We've reported on the 13% decrease in state funding for schools since 2003, a number that accounts for both inflation and the $50 per pupil “pity increase” from the last legislative session.

Begun under Tim Pawlenty's “No New Taxes” regimen and sustained by conservative intransigence in the post-Pawlenty legislature, this failure of the state government to follow through on its commitments to local districts has forced next week's touch choice for voters. In a cruel twist, the choice is even tougher in the districts that need funding the most.

We didn't have to put this pressure on middle-class property taxpayers. We could have better funded schools through  progressive income taxes at the state level.

Instead, anti-revenue ideology forced the state to let inflation chew away at school investments, forcing communities make up the difference through education cuts and tax increases. Unfortunately, the only revenue source available for these communities is the regressive property tax that hits the least well-off the hardest. Lower income communities therefore have the hardest time scraping together enough local money to balance the state's failure, and these communities tend to be the same ones whose schools are struggling already.

Conservative tax opposition wasn't always this extreme. Here's what got them into trouble. Supply-side economics' great promises of  increasing tax revenues with lower rates never quite materialized.

This was based on a flawed interpretation of the nebulously-defined Laffer curve, but at least it granted the premise that more revenue can be a good thing (especially when it comes as a result of increased economic activity).  It shows that at one point conservatives were willing to admit we have a revenue problem not a spending problem.

Unfortunately for most of us (99%, perhaps?), anti-tax rhetoric twisted into anti-revenue dogma. In some cases, this may simply have been a case of the mask coming off. In other cases, however, it represents a true shift in governing philosophy. No matter the case, this anti-revenue dogma is dangerous for our country and our state.

The debt ceiling travesty, the insistence on linking disaster relief to cuts elsewhere, and the persistent refusal to acknowledge any good that comes from government spending all reveal a conservative ideology that is no longer about efficiency. Conservatives no longer want “to do more with less.” Instead, they want something for nothing, and they'll throw a tantrum when they don't get their way.

School funding is a good illustration of this case. A 13% inflation-adjusted, per pupil reduction over eight years is a substantial cut, but not enough for some conservatives. As we and others have reported, some conservatives tried to start an anti-levy campaign across the state based on misleading math. The end result? Conservatives encouraged some voters not just to vote down levy increases but to vote down levy renewals, meaning further funding decreases. 

This is no longer about what the “right” level of revenue is. This is about reducing revenue for the sake of reducing revenue. It is about something for nothing.

It takes something to make something. In education, it takes adequate revenue to make high quality schools.

If we want to get serious about teacher evaluations and professional expectations, we need revenue to develop better assessments, create a better development system, and offer potential teachers better pay in exchange for accepting those high expectations.

If we want to get serious about using education as a tool to fight poverty, we need revenue for excellent early childhood programs, for strong summertime opportunities, for tutors, for more amazing teachers, and for robust systems that engage families.

If we want to get serious about gifted and talented education, we need revenue to better research and improve the programs we have in place, as well as to develop new and better programs.

Our society cannot function by demanding something for nothing. Public services exist to invest in and support growth of  communities, especially in areas where there isn't much profit to be made. It's time to call out contemporary conservative dogma for what it is: a sad, fantasy that won't move Minnesota forward.

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