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Minnesota 2020 Journal: The Choices before Us

October 29, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Growing up on southwestern Minnesota’s central plains, I internalized the landscape. Years later, living in St Paul, I miss the land’s gentle roll, swelling westward like a sea. The unimpeded horizon creates a subtle expectation. Not only can we see what’s coming quite a ways off, we always keep one eye open for it.  

As a practical Anne Township, Cottonwood County matter, that distant early warning system revolves around weather. Will it storm? Is the storm clearing? Should we turn alfalfa windrows yet this afternoon or wait until tomorrow? Weather carries hugely practical consequences, facilitating, stopping or inconveniencing work. Monitoring the horizon isn’t an idle exercise but a practical one.  

This orientation has, I’ve discovered, proven to be a great boon living in the city and working with public policy issues. Both threat and opportunity have a way of creeping up on us in unexpected fashion.  

Minnesota has reached a public policy crossroads. Over the past dozen years but particularly accelerating during the last eight, Minnesota state government has unilaterally disengaged from its commitment to partner with communities, counties and school districts. Where Minnesota used its broad taxation authority to progressively and fairly generate revenue to fund activities most efficiently and responsibly conducted at local levels, it is pulling back.  

That revenue gap, created by state elected officials’ policy decisions, forced hard community choices. School boards, city councils and county boards cut budgets, reduced or eliminated programs, and raised revenue through the only mechanism available: property taxes. Local service missions –schools, public safety, road and bridge maintenance, government’s workaday functions- haven’t changed. The desire for strong, safe communities; good schools; and economic prosperity is not only deeply entrenched, it’s entirely reasonable.  

It yields the most basic public policy question: how do we act on our priorities?  

As a matter of state policy, Minnesota is turning away from a preference for and an embrace of progressive taxation –chiefly but not exclusively income tax- in favor of growing dependence on localized regressive property taxes. Minnesota isn’t the first state to take these steps. Wisconsin has historically relied more heavily on property tax-based revenue generation methods. South Dakota does the same but to a much greater degree.  

South Dakota is a far less populous, less prosperous state than either Minnesota or Wisconsin so its experience and policy tradition is instructive but not in a good way. You might want to move your bank to South Dakota; you just wouldn’t want to live there while running it.  

As Minnesotans, we like living here. This is a pretty great place. That greatness didn’t happen by accident but was created from hard work, sacrifice and choices manifested in public policy decisions. Investing in strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust transportation systems and job-creating economic development reflected personal and community values that in turn helped Minnesota outperform other Midwestern states. Our higher standard of living is a direct result of those choices.  

Over the past decade, we’ve coasted on past performance as conservative policy decreased public investment. Yes, the frustrating, persistent recession complicates the public desire for strong, safe communities. Business cycle downturns reduce public revenue. With more economic uncertainly, people reasonably respond by buying less, creating a downward vortex that seems to feed off of its own destruction.  

Conservative communication strategy exploits this anxiety, relentlessly grinding toward putting the needs of a few ahead of the needs of many. Conservative policy offers the same prescription for every problem. Is the economy booming? Cut taxes. Is the economy tanking? Cut taxes. A single, repetitive answer reveals itself as no solution at all.  

On Election Day, Minnesotans will have the opportunity, by choosing candidates for elected office, to chart Minnesota’s public policy course. It’s fair to say that we face some pretty clear-cut options. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for or even my choice. We don’t do that here at Minnesota 2020. We’re focused on moving Minnesota forward by making the case for smart public policy that invests in schools, healthcare, transportation and jobs.  

This Tuesday, will Minnesota move forward or will we continue retreating? Minnesota, like the nation, will eventually put the recession behind us. It may take another year or two before people feel secure enough to start buying homes and taking vacations again but it will happen. Minnesota’s investments now, in schools, healthcare, transportation and economic development, will shape Minnesota’s future prosperity. If we invest, we grow; if we follow the “no new taxes,” conservative policy dictates, we will stumble and fall.  

When you vote Tuesday, keep one eye cast on the horizon. You might just see something coming that shapes your present actions and choices.  

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