Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Minnesota 2020 Journal: Leftovers as Anchors, Not Excess

November 23, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

We don’t eat day-to-day as we eat at Thanksgiving. In the same way, we don’t craft public policy as if every day were a holiday. It’s important to distinguish exceptions from the rule.

Over the past five years, every community has experienced the decline narrative. It’s the story of learning to do with less, played out in every public budget in every city, county and school district across Minnesota. It’s not a redemptive tale but a jeremiad. The chronicle is Old Testament, not New.

If the past five years feel like they been a grind in public policy, community services, investment opportunity, business growth and general compassion terms, it’s because they have. Contrary to conservative policy advocate claims about out-of-control government spending assertions, Minnesota, like other states and the nation, have experienced a revenue problem, not a spending problem.

Conservatives insist that government spending is out of control. Already enjoying a state tax structure that places the interests of Minnesota’s highest income earners over middle and low income earners, conservative policymakers refused to increase state revenue streams. Consequently, over the past dozen years, Minnesota cut state budgets while also dramatically reducing progressive state revenue sharing with communities. That decision logically led local governments to cut local services while also increasing property taxes. Conservative no-state-tax-increases piety crumbles as a defense against steaming mad homeowners contemplating skyrocketing property tax bills.

But, we know this. We’ve known it for 12 years. The question now, with realigned state government policy leadership, is how to move forward. Let me suggest an approach drawn from Thanksgiving dinner.

After a monster meal, we have leftovers. There’s a temptation, I think, to approach leftovers as discardable excess. They’re not. Thanksgiving meal leftovers are unconsumed prepared food. Yes, a leftover turkey sandwich, the bread smeared with cranberry sauce, is a terrific football game watching snack but that misses leveraging Thanksgiving’s leftovers into multiple meals.

The Thanksgiving leftovers/state public policy lesson is to stop thinking of the Thanksgiving meal as the meal equivalent of zero-based budgeting and to start thinking of it as an anchor for additional meals. Look past the microwave and use every kitchen tool available.

Zero-based budgeting is a popular “conservative reform” government budgeting process that up-ends traditional budgeting methods. Traditional budget planning assumes that if revenue sources remain constant and that the activity supported by the budget is deemed appropriate and successful, then the previous year’s fiscal budget plus an inflationary increase becomes the following year’s budget baseline. Zero-based budgeting challenges this notion, requiring managers to defend all operational spending on a line-by-line basis. It’s like managing a forest by individually examining a million trees rather than looking at the entire forest.

I’m exaggerating to illustrate my point but zero-based budgeting is rooted in conservative suspicion that any government activity is suspect. Starting from zero, every year, is a strategy for increasing government inefficiency and, by design, fostering public discontent with government. Instead, let’s establish fiscal and budgeting policy that leverages budgeting processes by adopting a common sense approach.

Five years of financial crises and budget cuts have caused every service activity to be scrutinized. We’ve collectively looked long and hard at how we’re spending public resources. Let’s turn now to investing and moving forward, beginning with leveraging core assets. This is where the Thanksgiving leftovers come in. Assembling a big meal is rewarding but the next day’s meals don’t have to start from scratch. Maximizing leftovers, however, requires planning and forethought.

Make stock from the turkey carcass. Leftover mashed potatoes become croquettes or part of a Sheppard’s Pie. Leftover sweet potatoes can become a soup or, pureed, a pasta sauce. My point is to stop thinking of Thanksgiving dinner in isolation. It’s a grand meal, certainly, but it also contributes to family sustenance for several more days.

The same is true of government’s role in our lives. Community services are not barely-tolerated evils. They’re the public manifestation of our collective desire for safety, security and prosperity. We are better and stronger because we’ve invested in ourselves by investing in government.

As you contemplate Thanksgiving dinner’s leftover, see opportunity. Turkey with all the fixings can be leveraged into more meals that are more than more of the same. It’s the same perspective that should guide Minnesota public policy planning. When we focus on what really matters, Minnesota moves forward.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.