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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Lead, Don’t Distract

April 29, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

I can’t escape the feeling that Minnesota’s conservative legislative leaders will do almost anything to avoid saying or doing anything about Minnesota’s persistently underperforming economy. This week, as the April Case-Shiller Home Prices Indices report reveals that home values continue falling, conservative policy makers announced a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage.

Raising the public policy distraction ante doesn’t change the fact that conservative policy is failing Minnesota.

Over the past week, I’ve reached my breaking point. I’m ready for spring. Specifically, I’m ready for some reliably pleasant, non-winter weather. In the spirit of ripping off a band-aid, I deliberately drove past four winter snow removal mountains: Midway Stadium, the Rice Street Sears, the University of Minnesota-St Paul campus/State Fair Grounds, and the Har-Mar Cub Foods. I confronted my pain.

The parking lot snow mountains are still there. They’re melting, just not fast enough.

Several months ago, as the snow removal effort pushed snow piles towards the heavens, folks speculated on mountain melt down dates. Most declarations—April, May, I heard one boastful June—carried a giddy edge. February is a reliably winter month in Minnesota and accumulated snow fall suggested a record-breaking winter. That sense of bring it on bravado unified us even as the winter’s end stretched interminably into an inconclusive future.

Today, those parking lot snow piles are problems that just won’t pass. We’d like to have our spring, not in dribs and drabs but as a whole. We’re not people who let a little gray rain get in our way. If that were the case, half of us would’ve decamped for Florida.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, the 20th century American poet, explored April’s emotionally unsettling ground in her poem, “Spring.” It opens with, "To what purpose, April, do you return again.” I love that line. It’s an honest query, it’s defensive and it’s accusatory. Millay’s sentence only works in its April setting. March is too early; blizzards remain a real possibility in New England or in Minnesota. May is too late; however imperfect the spring, we’ve moved on, past winter. But, April anticipates, in equal parts, spring’s arrival and winter’s passing. We’re right to feel suspicious of April.

Minnesota experiences four distinct seasons. We like it that way. Trap us in one season for too long and we’re all capable of going a little stir crazy. I’d like to suggest that conservative policymakers are just feeling the delayed spring’s effects, that the gay marriage ban constitutional amendment is a goofy by-product of being trapped in the State Capitol.

But, it’s not. The proposed constitutional amendment is a public policy distraction designed to misdirect Minnesotan’s attention from what really matters. Rather than create jobs, fund schools, rebuild crumbling roads and expand affordable healthcare, conservative lawmakers are working overtime to preserve their “no new taxes” policy. It’s not working, binding conservative policymakers.

Minnesota faces a projected $5.2 billion budget deficit, putting state elected officials hard up against Minnesota’s constitutional balanced budget requirement. Conservative policymakers insist that the budget deficit only be resolved through program cuts. They refuse to consider revenue increases. Conservative tax bills, generated by State House and State Senate conservative leadership, cuts just $4 billion, leaving an outstanding budget deficit of $1.2 billion. They have no answer when asked why their numbers don’t add up. Instead, they’re creating a regular series of public policy distractions. The gay marriage ban as a constitutional amendment is the latest.

Conservative policymakers are hoping for more than single-subject cover with this week’s distraction. Minnesota’s unemployment numbers are stagnating, economic growth is virtually non-existent and, now, we learn that Twin Cities’ home prices are falling again. Consequently, Minnesota and the nation could tip back into recession. Rather than confront the fundamental problems challenging our state, conservative policymakers are electing to distract us. They’re hoping that we don’t notice.

Like those eye-sore, thaw-resistant parking lot snow mountains, we’ve noticed. And, we’re not distracted.

Minnesota does best when Minnesota public policy focuses on what really matters: jobs, schools, healthcare and roads. Minnesota prospers when Minnesotans progressively and equitably share community costs. Conservative “no new taxes” policy is failing Minnesota. State policymakers must swallow hard and compromise, cutting budgets and raising equitably borne new revenues. Shared pain yields shared gain. Shared gain moves Minnesota forward.

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