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Minnesota 2020 Journal: When Conservative Means Become Conservative Ends

May 28, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
The Minnesota State Auditor's Office released its annual Local Government Lobbying Report for 2009. It found that local governments' spending on lobbying state government increased by nearly 4 percent from 2008 to 2009, not quite $330,000. Local governments spent $8.9 million in 2009 representing their interests to state government.

Conservative public policymakers and conservative political activists jumped all over this report, expressing shock that not only do communities spend money advocating for community needs, but communities spent more money in 2009 than they spent in 2008. Given that Minnesota's biennial budget in that period was a bit less than $34 billion, a better question is why are communities spending so little to communicate their needs to the state?

Under Governor Pawlenty's leadership, Minnesota fiscal policy, following conservative dictates, has cut spending on communities, counties and school districts. In turn, communities have cut programs and services while raising property taxes to replace revenues unilaterally slashed by Minnesota. No  community service has been spared. Police and fire services have been trimmed; city workers have been laid-off; position vacancies are left unfilled; street maintenance is deferred; recreation centers are closed or hours are reduced, and the same goes for libraries.

My colleague, Minnesota 2020 Fiscal Policy Fellow Jeff Van Wychen regularly examines these issues. His four-part series, concluding with "No New Tax" Policy Shifts Public Costs to Property Taxpayers, is worth re-reading. Van Wychen writes, "The growth in property taxes is the result of a deliberate state policy to shift more public costs on to local property taxes." That, in a nut shell, is what "no new taxes" really means. It forces costs onto to someone else's back.

I've been mulling a singular question for some time: what is the conservative public policy objective?

No ideology remains carved in stone. The contemporary conservative movement is no exception. In fact, conservatives tend to cheerfully divide themselves into camps, declaring for social, economic, libertarian, religious and business conservative perspectives. Without getting into detail about how I perceive differences between the various factions, all seem compelled, with the possible exception of business conservatives, that government is the problem. Or, if not the total problem, then government exacerbates the problem, whatever that problem might be.

I take a more sanguine approach. Conservative public policy seeks to spend public resources on activities or embrace regulatory perspectives that benefit their narrow interests. In other words, they're happy to have a nice publicly funded park with good playground equipment for their kids but they don't want to share their park or park funding with the rest of us.

I grew up among fairly conservative people. Not reactionary types, mind you, but the hard-working, individual responsibility-bearing sort. I've previously written about my childhood school superintendent, the deeply conservative Glenn R. Shaw.  Despite a life-time in government employment, Mr. Shaw never bad-mouthed communities, counties or other school districts. He set a high standard and worked diligently to implement it.

I'm not sure that Mr. Shaw would be welcome inside the contemporary conservative movement's tents. He would be perplexed, I think, by the conservative policy determination to starve communities, counties and schools.

Which brings me back to my question: what is the conservative movement's public policy objective?

I don't know, and honestly, I don't think conservative activists know either. They've become so wrapped up in ideological orthodoxy and the absolute insistence that anything relating to government must be bad, that they've lost their way. The means have become their ends.

Under conservative public policy leadership, Minnesota has lost its way. Governor Pawlenty's no-new-taxes orthodoxy has created a Minnesota that is slipping. Schools are crumbling; healthcare is fast becoming unaffordable; transportation infrastructure is inadequate; and economic development is quite nearly an oxymoron.

Minnesota needs to move forward. There's no future in drifting, only in growth and prosperity's creation. This weekend, pause for Memorial Day and remember the men and women who fell in service to our state and nation. We best honor their memories when we make the most of their sacrifices by moving Minnesota forward. Investing in ourselves by investing in our communities makes us all stronger.

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