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Minnesota 2020 Journal: My Own Private Wisconsin

June 17, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

We were kidding ourselves, in retrospect, watching Wisconsin’s political and policy ugly turn mean. We told ourselves, it can’t happen here. That kind of angry division just isn’t Minnesota. Despite substantive public policy differences, we convinced ourselves that Minnesota’s legislative leaders wouldn’t take the Wisconsin beat-down road. We thought that, given Minnesota’s public support for a tax increase, a balanced approach could work.

Now, just a couple of weeks away from a Minnesota state government shutdown, it’s increasingly clear that conservative policy advocates were never interested in a balanced approach, pairing spending cuts with a modest tax increase. They were just marking time, waiting for their disruptive conservative policy implementation moment.

Last January, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and conservative Wisconsin legislative leaders, controlling both the executive and legislative branches of government, came out swinging. Their first objective? Crushing Wisconsin’s labor movement.

I don’t understand how forcing pay cuts on state government clerks and prison guards, for example, while functionally forbidding them from having a labor union creates jobs or even stimulates Wisconsin’s economy. But, I understand what happened next. Wisconsin, already roiling in discontented, recession-stressed populist upheaval, turned that anger outwards. The opportunity to heal and move forward disappeared as tens of thousands took to the streets, choking the state capitol’s halls and grounds.

It’s still not over. And, given the recall elections in progress, it won’t be over for quite some time providing a terrific demonstration of what not to do. And, yet, Minnesota’s legislative chamber leaders appear determined to find their own private Wisconsin.

Divided Minnesota government meant that Minnesota’s conservative legislative leaders had to wade through an entire legislative session before they could inflict Wisconsin-style policy chaos on the entire state. Now, that moment is upon us.

On July 1, Wisconsin comes to Minnesota. Not the charming, like-minded souls who value strong schools, people-oriented community services and a good day’s work’s rewards but Wisconsin’s ugly, reactionary conservative side.

You’ll recall that Wisconsin Governor Walker wasted little time, using legislation to attack his opponents. He may have been elected on a job-creation promise but he came to the state capitol in Madison to settle scores. Wisconsin is worse for Walker’s actions.

Wisconsin isn’t alone. Conservative policy advocates in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana have done much the same. They promised economic stability and job creation then, after taking office, revealed another, deeply conservative policy agenda. Now those same chickens, flapping west, have come to roost.

Minnesota’s conservative legislative leaders would rather shutdown Minnesota’s state government than negotiate a budget compromise. Since the legislative session closed without a budget deal, State House of Representatives Speaker Kurt Zellers and State Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch have pursued a communications strategy that offers process rather than progress. They steadfastly refuse to consider any budget compromise that raises new revenue.

As we’ve observed in Wisconsin, right-wing social engineering disguised as fiscal discipline only makes a bad situation worse. Minnesota’s conservatives seek no less a radical reinvention of our state. Their budget’s details—still somewhat unclear despite earlier legislative efforts—would permanently and negatively alter Minnesota’s human care landscape. Their plans curtail and cancel efficient, effective human services programs. They continue defunding Minnesota’s schools and universities. They ignore Minnesota’s mounting transportation infrastructure deficiencies. They inhibit and destroy job growth, destabilizing Minnesota’s too-slow economic recovery.

Over the past week, Minnesota’s executive branch announced the painful, difficult steps it would take to shutdown state government. Over 36,000 pink slip lay-off notices were issued to state workers. The Governor’s Office release its list of “priority one and priority two critical services,” petitioning the Minnesota courts to direct emergency funding to continue the listed activities. Minnesota is spending a great deal of money just to disrupt normal government functions.

Last November, Minnesotans elected a progressive governor and conservative state legislative majorities. Minnesotans voted for compromise. It’s time for Minnesota’s legislators to embrace a balanced approach, pairing tough budget cuts with new tax revenue generated by raising taxes on Minnesota’s top two percent of income earners. This fair approach will move Minnesota forward, focusing on Minnesota’s priorities: strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust infrastructure and job creating economic development.

Or, Minnesota’s conservative policymakers can throw Minnesota under a bus. That’s what’s happening in Wisconsin. Governor Walker and legislative leaders are putting the needs of a narrow, wealthy few ahead of the state’s interests. Their actions are inflicting long-term damage on our eastern neighbor. We don’t need that angry division here. And yet, we’re two weeks away from exactly that.

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  • KJC says:

    June 21, 2011 at 8:35 am

    When all this started I noted that we were just “one governor” away from being Wisconsin.  I’m obviously agreeing, and Gov. Walker got into office by making huge promises about jobs.  Not a credible plan for them, just promises.  What he has done afterwards, well, good manners prevents me from using the language that comes to mind.
    He’s failed every test of leadership.  First, you lead by example.  You make the first gesture of conciliation, etc.  Second, you build consensus.  Quite the opposite was done.  In fact you could make a case for this:  what many divisive politicians do today, to get elected, makes it nearly impossible for them to govern.  How do you build a consensus when your campaign mostly consists of picking groups to “throw under the bus?”  Riling people up, so you can “play” them might get you elected, but how do you build a genuine consensus out of that?  You can’t, so thoughtful leaders refrain from trying to win elections that way… they want a shot at actually being able to govern if/when they get into office. 
    If you’re a leader, and sacrifice is what is needed?  You propose Shared Sacrifice, because that’s the only kind that is acceptable in a democracy.  What you wouldn’t do?  Say things like “no new taxes.”  Why?  It declares that some group will be exempt from the sacrifice.  Whenever you do that, in a blink the game is changed.  Everybody is looking to get into some kind of “protected” group, rather than having a discussion about what they will accept for themselves.  So any talk of sacrifice that exempts groups, especially groups that have the means to contribute, is doomed to fail because it isn’t shared sacrifice.
    Even the whole subject of taxes that gets involved in this often is misunderstood.  I only count people who don’t run up deficits under them as truly anti-tax.  Why?  Because borrowing is just taxing The Future.  Looking at the huge deficits run up in the 80’s and in the 2000’s nationally (MN by law has to have a budget that at least appears to be balanced) you could only conclude that whomever was in power then wasn’t anti-tax, were they?  Yet they passed huge tax cuts.  For themselves and their friends.  The truth comes out, they aren’t anti-tax… they don’t mind taxing the future at all, apparently.  They are against taxes for themselves, and their own groups.  Whatever that it is, it isn’t a principled stand against taxes.
    Such is the environment of today’s discussions, where tactics for self-interest are usually dressed-up as some principle.  How often does it really hold up to critical scrutiny?
    I doubt we’ll genuinely fix our budget problems without some real straight talk, not empty rhetoric, between each other and with our elected officials.  Hoping for a breakthrough in that…

  • polly says:

    June 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    This should be in the mainstream media! There’s an education/PR void on the DFL side?