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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Challenge Poor Public Policy Ideas

November 01, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Public policy and politics are inseparable. We can’t pretend otherwise. Good policy is almost always good politics but the reverse is rarely as neatly congruent. Much as the Rolling Stones’ nameless protagonist in “Street Fighting Man” asked, “What’s a poor boy to do except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?”, what’s a responsible public policy-focused Minnesotan supposed to do when prospective statewide office holders outline a radical conservative leadership vision?

Sing for a rock n’ roll band.

Minnesota’s next state-wide election is a year away. Since we organize our elections around political party designation, separating partisan advocacy from policy analysis requires equal parts balancing act and blunt disregard of partisan perception. The first step isn’t especially difficult; legislative analysis always reveals far more bipartisanship than partisan disagreement because most bills pass with bipartisan support. The second almost always causes a firestorm from aggrieved conservatives.

It’s a neat trick. Share budget and policy analysis casting conservative proposals in critical light and conservative activists immediate accuse the analyst of partisan bias. This tactic also provides great cover for avoiding the core analysis’ conclusion. Last week, State Representative Greg Davids (R-Preston) and State Senator Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson), responding to Minnesota 2020 property tax analysis, penned letters to the editor accusing us of partisan bias.

Faced with strong, clearly reasoned and impeccably researched budget analysis observing that Minnesota’s increased Local Government Aid allocation created space for local governments to appropriately hold the line, or in some cases lower property tax levies, Newman attacked the messenger. Calling Minnesota 2020 “an ultra liberal political action group,” Newman deployed a rhetorical fallacy. He attempted to confuse the readers with attention-grabbing emotional appeals. By trying to convince readers that Minnesota 2020 is a bunch of bad people, our findings must be undoubtedly wrong. In short, I’m expecting more, not fewer attacks in the coming months as we contemplate and assess conservative policy proposals.

Politically, conservative activists appear to be doubling-down on conservative policy prescriptions. There’s an interesting, constant argument that past legislative efforts—shutting down government, slashing food assistance, attempts to defund or repeal the Affordable Care Act—didn’t go far enough. Based on rhetoric to date, we’ll experience this phenomenon in a surprisingly mainstream fashion. Otherwise seemingly responsible community leaders will, with great sincerity, argue for a radical reduction of government.

I don’t mean “radical reduction” in a savory, fat-drenched bacon cheeseburger mouth-feel fashion but in an explicit “starve the beast” prescription. The last couple of election cycles, particularly at the federal level, have regularly observed calls for the wholesale elimination of the national Department of Education. Listening to conservative reasoning for this radical change, there’s a subtle, potent and dangerous argument that education isn’t an appropriate function of government. Taking this a step further, eliminating an entire federal agency will not inflict pain, but will create unclear and somehow impressive cost savings, proving government’s pointlessness.

I anticipate that at least one conservative gubernatorial candidate will call for something in the range of halving Minnesota’s budget. It’s sounds dramatic and will grab conservative activist attention, critical in the who-can-reasonably-sound-crazier endorsement contest. Both major political parties have a handful of rhetorical touchstones. Candidates seeking party endorsement must communicate support for the principles. For conservatives, small government is an article of faith.

Halving Minnesota’s state budget is a terrible policy idea. It would have disastrous consequences for every Minnesotan. I shouldn’t even have to write that halving Minnesota’s state budget is poor policy but it’s time to stop letting bad ideas go unchallenged.

Here’s the quick version. Minnesota’s present biennial budget is $38.5 billion. Biennial means two years. We spend about $19 billion every year to do the massively complicated work that Minnesotans have asked government to do. Some of the work is complex such as monitoring water quality but much is straightforward like road and bridge maintenance or facilitating public health and safety regulatory standards. Halving Minnesota’s state budget doesn’t mean bearing brief public pain as Minnesotans adjust.

Halving Minnesota’s state budget isn’t the equivalent, as some conservative policy advocates would have you believe, of stubbing your big toe. Instead, it’s more like a tidal wave tearing across the state. True, the water will eventually recede but widespread devastation and disruption will be genuinely unimaginable.

I don’t write this with enthusiasm. I recognize rhetorical flourish desperately recast as public policy proposals. I don’t believe that any governor or state legislature will ever pass laws halving the state budget. But, I believe that even outlandish public policy prescriptions require some basic analysis. Spending, for example roughly $7.2 billion, of a currently budgeted $15.4 billion, less on K12 education will create a poor educational outcome in very short order. It’s a bad idea.

Despite the personal attacks, we’re going to keep climbing the stage and sharing our analysis. Public policy is the plan for putting public money to work achieving security, stability and prosperity. Poor proposals achieving poor outcomes, coming from the left or the right, deserve to be identified for what they are.

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  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    November 4, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Will you and members of your writers’ group be writing letters to the editor and op ed articles for the local press and other media? 

    (While we’re on the topic of elections, the far-right, sometimes Christian fundamentalist candidates for state and district judgships will be back again.  They want to abolish the Minnesota system by which the governor receives a slate of possible candidates from a nonpartisan commission and appoints the one he/she believes would be the best judge.  The appointee serves one term and then runs for re-election.  If this system is abolished, candidates can hint in their ads and speeches their positions on hot-button issues like abortion to attract like-minded voters.)