MN2020 Journal: A Bad Idea is Still a Bad Idea

February 19, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
 
However bad things are in Minnesota, State Representative Paul Kohls and State Senator Amy Koch, are determined to make them worse. They're the next in a long line of conservative policy leaders regularly proposing a constitutional amendment limiting state spending to collected revenue. Despite their calm assurances, this plan won't instill fiscal discipline anymore than rearranging the Titanic's deck chairs forestalled sinking.

Kohls and Koch, in an op-ed column, advocate a disarmingly simple solution to a mind-numbingly complex problem. Minnesota's revenues--income generated from taxes and fees--are outpacing program spending. Revenue is down because economic activity is down. Minnesotans, like all Americans, are not buying, selling, reselling, financing, borrowing and spending the way we were even three years ago. Consequently, fees and taxes generated by business transactions are off as well.

This is in turn creates downward budgetary pressure, meaning that with reduced revenue, spending must be reduced. Alternatively, revenues could be raised by increasing taxes, an action that may or may not be paired with spending reductions. Because the State of Minnesota forbids deficit spending, the state's budget must balance. It is not an idle charge, involving periodic way-point markers reconciling reasonably projected revenue against anticipated spending obligations.

Kohls and Koch offer that simplest of conservative examples: personalization. "If you make $40,000 this year," they write, "you don't set a larger budget for next year based on the possibility that you will make more money." It's not that simple, actually, but that's a point they'd like Minnesotans to overlook.

Minnesota families don't build budgets or seek outcomes in the fashion of Minnesota's governments. As families, we ask government to do things for our collective good that we'd never ask ourselves. Families don't behave as governments anymore than governments behave as families. Why, then, do conservatives continually trot out the "family kitchen table budget" analogy whenever they want to reduce the accumulation of government's benefits to a smaller slice of the population?

Because, it's easy and misleading.

Throughout human history, people have proven remarkably entranced by the simple answer.  And, why not? We love a good story with a strong plot line, a cunning villain, a redemptive hero and neat resolution. Selective detail helps sell the whole thing.

For five nonconsecutive years in the 1870s, Charles and Caroline Ingalls made my hometown, Walnut Grove, their home and, in the process, shaped their daughter, future children's writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder's world view. Rather than focus on her father's inability to settle down and care for his family in one place, Wilder built an interpretive western story framework that reshaped the family's frequent moves as "opportunity." Failure recast as new challenge sits more lightly on memory's shoulders than boldly confronting the truth but the truth may not have sold as many books.

While the western self-sufficiency myth looms large in our Midwestern tradition, Charles Ingalls' final South Dakota resting place was delivered through a monumentally successful government program. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave settlers clear title to 160 acres of land provided that claimants construct a building and grow crops for five successive years. Along with the Railroad Act, the Homestead Act created public policy establishing unmatched prosperity and social stability.

It's not as juicy of a story as "winning" the West but it's true, powerful and instructive. Nineteenth century western expansion policy was imperfect, unfair and, as public policy objectives go, wildly successful. Understanding it requires considerable nuance to separate myth from fact because despite the temptation, finger pointing doesn't improve the retelling so much as it reveals an entirely different, contemporary agenda.

Standing tall at the "no new taxes" ramparts may make Kohls and Koch feel good but, down here in the recession-wracked trenches, the constitutional spending cap feels like privilege muscling aside the powerless.

Let's stop beating around the bush. Kohls and Koch's big idea is a grand distraction from eight years of failed conservative state public policy initiatives. Minnesota has tried to budget cut its way out of recession while other states raise taxes and cut spending. Pretending otherwise, no matter how constitutionally framed, doesn't disguise conservative failure.

Minnesota is overdue for progressive policy change. More of the same only means more failure.


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