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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

December 17, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Last weekend’s winter storm dumped a foot and a half of snow, shutdown much of Minnesota for a day or more, and provided entertaining, barely concealed political finger-pointing. Problem is, however, the finger pointers were pointing at the wrong people.

It snows in Minnesota. Regularly. For at least half of the year. We know this. Sometimes, like last weekend, it snows a lot. While we prefer our winter snowfall in evenly blanketing, one or two inch accumulations, creating a Currier and Ives tableau, the truth is inconvenient.

Meteorological data strongly suggest that Minnesota winters feature snow, ice and below-freezing temperatures. The same data can’t tell us exactly how much snow will fall on any given day, week or month. This makes snow removal planning problematic.

We’ve built a culture around overcoming winter’s limitations. Minnesota’s manufacturing and food processing base may be inconvenienced by a snow storm but not prohibited by it. The same holds with information industries. We’ve learned to transform limitations into assets. Not only do we enjoy winter as an outdoor recreational activity, people travel to Minnesota for winter vacations. Taking this one step further, despite Minnesota’s flatness, we have a small but successful downhill ski industry.

Vigorous commercial innovation aside, winter storms remind us that we can’t control everything. It’s only in the past thirty or forty years that a two-day blizzard didn’t shut down the state for the four or five following days. Digging out, clearing streets and rail lines, shoveling sidewalks and restoring full driving access used to take more time than we’ve become accustomed to allowing.

Acceleration is modern life’s blessing and curse. Because we can achieve more in less time, we’re now accustomed to a relentlessly increasing pace. Is that a reasonable expectation, particularly when confronting the fifth largest metro area snow storm in recorded weather history? If we stop to think about it, digging out takes more time than we would like but not necessarily more than is required.

Contemplating St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s frustration with the St Paul Public Schools’ decision to remain closed on Tuesday, along with Superintendent Silva’s polite pushback, strikes me as misdirected finger pointing. Conservative state public policy is the real culprit.

Saint Paul, like most Minnesota cities, has experienced a real and substantial reduction in state revenue sharing. While Governor Pawlenty forbade considering state revenue increases, insisting that government budgets were too large, he forced city, county and school districts to raise property taxes, cut programs and reduce budgets. Minnesota’s state budget, in comparison, has only been modestly affected. Pawlenty compelled communities and schools to do what he was unwilling to do.

Minnesota extends its wide-ranging taxation authority through revenue sharing with cities, counties and school districts. Local governments are limited to regressive property taxes for revenue. They quickly outstrip property’s capacity to support communities’ educational, public safety and service needs. Rather than allow local governments the same wide taxation authority, Minnesota chose to share state-generated revenue.

Then, Minnesota, facing rising recession-driven state budget deficits, unilaterally started pulling the plug on revenue sharing. Minnesota, despite its policy promise, shared less and less. Cities, counties and schools raised property taxes, slashed programs and cut budgets. As a consequence, fewer city snow plows are available to roll at the moment when they’re needed most.

Over the past several days, I’ve heard plenty of snow removal related frustration. I haven’t heard leaders calmly and repeatedly saying, “this is the limit of our snow plowing capacity because conservative ‘no new taxes’ policy has forced us to cut back on everything, including street snow removal.” It’s not an excuse; it’s truthful observation.

Robert Frost, the American poet, wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in 1922. On the surface, it’s a winter poem anchored by the protagonist’s pause in his journey. It certainly works at that level but listen to Frost’s language. He’s suggesting darker motivations and disturbing themes. He’s not stopping to admire the quiet but to contemplate, perhaps, taking his own life. He rejects the notion but isn’t freed of depression’s burden.

After a blizzard’s logical complications, we could, in frustration, turn against our community interests, playing a relentless blame game. But if we take that path, we’ve allowed conservative policy to defeat us. Communities, counties and schools struggle to meet our rising expectation on reduced budgets, not by choice or by local vote but because state policymakers have forced that outcome while ducking the consequences’ responsibility. Rather than point fingers in frustration, let’s assign responsibility where it belongs.

Local workers are doing an amazing job with diminishing resources. If we value strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust job growth and promptly cleared roads after a blizzard, we need a policy change. Conservative ideology is leaving Minnesota behind. It’s time to move forward.
 

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