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MN 2020 Journal: Hamstringing Minnesota's Progress

March 05, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
Note: Late Friday afternoon, Governor Pawlenty and State Legislative leaders announced a GAMC "rescue" compromise. Assistance recipients will not be whole-sale enrolled in Minnesota Care but will continue receiving care, albeit under new terms shifting financial responsibility away from the State of Minnesota's general fund. Schools, communities and counties will recognize this maneuver.

As with most Friday afternoon, late news cycle announcements, this triumph isn't as triumphant as policy leaders declared. It's a short-term fix, pushing real health care reform's hard choices into the next biennium.

This deal renders my column's GAMC policy presumption inaccurate. My concluding observation remains, however, on the mark.

In short order, the General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) program will expire and 32,000 aid recipients will be transferred to the Minnesota Care health insurance program because the Minnesota State House of Representatives failed to override Governor Tim Pawlenty's veto of the program extension. We knew this was coming. The final vote contained all the drama of, say, the tide receding.

What happened and who's responsible?

Tactically, Governor Pawlenty and his conservative allies triumphed. By insisting that Minnesota's on-going budget deficits may only be balanced through budget cuts rather than revenue increases, conservative policy preserving a favorable tax burden responsibility among Minnesota's highest income earners, relative to the support borne by lower income earners, is preserved. But, it's more complicated than that.

Minnesota has quietly but determinedly restructured its successful state-local revenue sharing policy over the past seven years. The state is sharing less revenue, derived from more efficient and diverse state taxation authority, with school districts, communities and counties. Unilateral state reductions force local service cuts and property tax increases, the outcome that the original "Minnesota Miracle" was precisely created to avoid. We are replacing progressive tax policy with regressive tax policy.

Here's the rub: it's a bipartisan policy change. Whether deliberately, inadvertently, mistakenly, reluctantly or through sheer ineptitude, the Minnesota state legislature has backed Governor Pawlenty's revenue sharing cuts. Yes, Governor Pawlenty has obstinately rejected state tax increases, boosting revenue flow. Yes, the State House of Representatives minority caucus has blocked the majority's veto override with just three votes. But, stepping back and casting a cool eye, a pattern emerges.

Minnesota state public policymakers are trading a successful, efficient use of state tax authority for a return to higher cost, locally funded community services. With every state budget deficit, a remarkably regular occurrence over the past ten years, refusing to honor revenue-sharing promises gets a little easier.

I don't envy majority caucus state legislators. Conservative members, following the "starve-the-beast" anti-government mentality, clearly aren't interested in any governing role beyond repeated declarations of government's failing while exercising the authority to ensure exactly that outcome. They seem inured to the idea that elected state officials must lead the state. Opposition to, well, everything, may be principled in principle, but it's no substitute for the responsible exercise of leadership and policy creation.

Or, as any forestry management expert knows, there's a world of difference between a growth stimulating controlled burn and an out of control, all-consuming forest fire.

My chief concern involves the lack of a plan. Conservative legislators appear content with any outcome that shrinks any part of any government. Progressive legislators appear determined to repeatedly execute the same legislative strategy, the one that isn't working. Minnesotans are the losers, caught in the middle.

I'll be the first to admit that GAMC's assistance recipients could be more effectively served through something other than GAMC. It's become a little too much of a catch-all when better, need-specific assistance is required. The answer won't be found in preserving a program, exactly as it is, simply for preservation's sake. The goal is, and must always be, moving Minnesota forward through the best, most efficient service possible.

We regularly observe in the national healthcare debate, conservative policymakers criticizing specific reform package elements without ever offering a clear, alternative proposal. The same is true of Governor Pawlenty's GAMC unallotment and directed recipient enrollment in the Minnesota Care health insurance program. The encoded yet never openly expressed conservative policy is, in truth, quite simple: we don't want to pay for you but you must pay for us.

I wish conservative policy leaders would declare that priority in unequivocal terms. I mean, honestly, that's what's really going on so why not own up to it? Masquerading policy priorities behind rhetorical subterfuge is, at its core, ignoble. Dismissing government's critical public safety, public health, educational, infrastructure and regulatory functions is a luxury of the secure.

Minnesota prospers when we invest in education, health care, transportation and economic development. It's time for state public policymakers to stop Minnesota's slide to mediocrity and place our state on smart, competitive footing. As the GAMC vote reveals, Minnesota has reached a crossroads. Will we move forward or will we continue falling behind?

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