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MN2020 Journal: Change Minnesota's Policy Course Now!

February 05, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
It's not working. This conservative, starve-the-beast approach to government is thoughtless, ill-considered, haphazard and harmful. We are eight years worse for the wear rather than eight years better.

With the legislature now in session, everything is on the line. As State House and Senate members settle in for the session, they'll confront eight years worth of data revealing a single truth: the current plan is failing Minnesota.

Last week, Minnesota 2020 released Fiscal Policy Fellow Jeff Van Wychen's annual rankings report. "On Our Way to Average: Ranking Minnesota's Economic Performance," examines the consequences of persistent, regular public disinvestment.

What was pitched as a policy of belt-tightening is revealed as a noose. While other states invest in economic growth-generating human capital and public infrastructure, Minnesota has pulled back. The decline is revealed in Minnesota's sinking state ranking, relative to other states. Where we were once well above average, we're now middling and heading south.

Let me share two examples. In 2002, Minnesota was ranked 25th in public schools student-teacher ratio. Most recent data has us slipping to 39th. Similarly, our state mediocre roads rating slipped from 8th in 2002 to 27th. We now have the average number of poor roads rather than having the fewest. Given that, as the Winona Daily News' recent editorial observed "the Legislature has two jobs - fund schools and fund the state trunk highways. That's it," these declines don't bode well for Minnesota's future. We are, candidly, heading in the wrong direction.

If I were governor -which I'm not- and I had higher leadership aspirations -which I don't-I might be alarmed by this trend. I might even take steps to slow or reverse it.

Governor Pawlenty, Minnesota's chief public policy leader and principal architect of Minnesota's failed "no new taxes" stratagem, is doubling down on his public policy bet. Despite mounting evidence of geometrically expanding problems, caused by public disinvestment, Pawlenty refuses to consider increasing revenue while simultaneously cutting state spending.

In order to maintain the conservative no-new-taxes policy illusion, state public policymakers have slashed revenue sharing with counties, cities and school districts. They've insisted that communities demonstrate the fiscal discipline -cutting budgets, reducing services and raising property taxes to compensate for lost state revenue- that the State of Minnesota refuses to embrace.

This slavish devotion to failure carries an Orwellian tinge, suggesting that conservative public policy rhetoric simply masks the policy's true intent.

 George Orwell, Eric Blair's pen name, was a 20th century, middle class English writer. Despite his socialist leanings, he became a fierce critic of totalitarianism which, in practice, meant publicly condemning the Soviet Union. Orwell was a prolific writer yet we only consider his two best known books, "Animal Farm" and "1984". They were, however, important, language altering works.

Few authors create a narrative so profoundly revelatory that they expand the language. Orwell was one. "Orwellian" means an idea or situation destructive to a free society's welfare. In a simplified version, it can be understood as saying something that deliberately means the opposite. In "1984," for example, the Ministry of War is called the Ministry of Peace. More than just a rhetorical dodge, the Ministry of Peace's purpose is to perpetuate the state-sustaining public crisis. Freedom is sacrificed before the totalitarian state.

Over the past eight to ten years, Minnesota has lurched from one financial crisis to another, passing disproportionate responsibility to counties, communities and schools. We are not, it's safe to say, focused on what really matters. This isn't a conspiracy among state public policy leaders but it is certainly the path of least resistance. Persistently short-term strategy eventually compounds as the absence of long-term vision.

Things can change. With the state legislature back in session, state public policymakers have another opportunity to correct Minnesota's present course.  The turnaround will be slow, for sure, but we can and must move in a different, progressive direction. By focusing on what really matters -education, healthcare, transportation and economic development- making difficult budget and revenue generating decisions truly becomes easier.

Now, make them.

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