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If GOP keeps austerity promises, big metro projects on rail, housing and research may be pared or eliminated

Tuesday’s sharp turn to the right casts a long shadow on the nation’s — and the Twin Cities’ — metropolitan agenda. Public investments in transportation, urban education, and university-based research and development may be pared or even sacrificed if the new conservative majorities make good on the tax-cutting and deficit-reducing promises made in their campaigns.

With austerity the new watchword, and with cuts to the military and middle-class entitlements difficult to achieve, all other government functions are on the chopping block. That means smaller federal and state appetites for metro projects like high-speed rail, mass transit, freeway and bridge repairs, harbor and airport improvements, early childhood education, job training, affordable housing, parks and trails, and university-based research aimed at strengthening innovation and competitiveness.

For older cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, it also means a continuing slide in state aid and a heightened pressure on local property taxes, leading to more cuts in police, schools, street repairs and other basic urban functions, prompting, perhaps, an even deeper separation between the urban poor and everyone else.

High-profile metro projects such as the Southwest light-rail corridor and high-speed rail connecting Minneapolis-St. Paul to Chicago are also in jeopardy. The stunning defeat of 18-term Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House transportation committee, was a major blow to the Twin Cities’ ability to get federal help on infrastructure projects.

A shift to local economies
Despite these new realities, leading thinkers are confident that a new pragmatism will emerge from Tuesday’s election, one that propels a few metro regions to make targeted public/private investments that generate new export-based local economies while providing the kinds of high-value jobs that Americans need so badly.

Those innovations, they said, are more likely to come from metro regions than from a national government paralyzed by ideological rivalries and media sideshows. If the Twin Cities can overcome a few nagging obstacles, especially its reluctance to commercialize university research, it has a chance to emerge as one of several U.S. metro regions benefiting from this localized, public/private approach, according to Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, and Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities, a consortium of foundations and financial institutions. More about that later.

Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz

It’s not that the big problems have changed. The nation must still deal with global warming, energy dependence, an aging and increasingly diverse population and an economy that cannot seem to pick up any speed. What has changed is the set of solutions that voters are willing to consider. Carbon taxes, for example, are off the table, at least for now. For metro areas, that means the cost of driving will continue to be held artificially low and the pressure for spread-out, inefficient development will continue when building resumes. Cuts to programs that promote walking, biking and community design are likely as the so-called livability agenda takes a hit, at least in the short term.

Meanwhile, Oberstar’s defeat, coupled with the GOP takeover in the Minnesota Legislature, throws into doubt the future of several major Twin Cities transit projects, including the Southwest and Bottineau light-rail corridors, the Northern Lights Express rail line to Duluth, and Hennepin County’s Transportation Interchange next to Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. A full revival for St. Paul’s Union Depot also seems in jeopardy with the election of Republican Scott Walker as governor of Wisconsin. Walker has promised to block the proposed high-speed rail connection between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

Despite those potential setbacks, local and national leaders on the metropolitan agenda took a measured approach to the election results in interviews on Wednesday.

Suddenly, a different world
Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell, a Republican, said that many metro services, especially transit, are in a stronger position now than they were eight years ago, but that money to operate and expand will now be harder to come by.

Peter Bell
Peter Bell

“From my perspective, public support for investments in improved transit has not waned, but securing federal and state funds will be more difficult because of budgetary constraints,” he said. “The election reaffirms the policies that the Council has pursued over the past eight years, which emphasize the efficient delivery of essential government infrastructure service without increasing taxes.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a Democrat, said that progress will be harder and slower but that the metro region will find pragmatic, cost-effective ways to produce transportation infrastructure.

“It’s a different world today than it was yesterday, no question,” he said. “But we have to retool for a new century, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’ve had a centrist, bi-partisan approach on the County Board and it has worked. Now we have to get rid of the hyper-partisanship that has hurt us at other levels of government. People have had their switchblades out. Now it’s time to put them away and get to work.”

McLaughlin said he doubts that big business interests aligned with Republicans would like to see further cuts in research and development at the University of Minnesota or in job-training programs at community colleges. He’s eager to find out, he said, whether GOP interests will favor scrapping the Southwest LRT line (which would run through Republican suburbs). “The whole transit issue depends on whether it has moved beyond partisanship, as it has in a lot of places,” he said.

“The loss of Oberstar is a huge loss for the whole country and for Minnesota,” McLaughlin continued. “He’s been able to push the infrastructure issue in a way that makes it clear that it’s part of our ability to compete with China and other economic competitors, and it’ll be unfortunate if we lose that focus.”

Caren Dewar
Caren Dewar

Finding a simpler message
Caren Dewar, executive director of the Urban Land Institute-Minnesota, said the election illustrates a basic disconnect in the public mind. “People don’t want to pay for what they want,” she said. That, in turn, places a greater burden on political, business and civic leaders to explain the importance of metro investments in simpler terms because complex messages cannot win elections. “The case that we need to get our house in order and to reduce the deficit is a compelling one for me,” she said. “But so is the case that we need to make investments in our future. We must find a way to convince people that there’s an important return on those investments.”

Lee Sheehy, director of the region and communities grant program at the McKnight Foundation, said his organization remains committed to advancing sustainable economic development for the metro region. But he said the election result “increases the need to get maximum and multiple benefits from public investments in transit, housing and parks, for example.” The Twin Cities’ success last month in winning $21 million in grants and loans from public and private sources (HUD and from Living Cities) to leverage housing and economic development at transit stations illustrates the kind of big-bang-for-the buck collaboration that voters seem to calling for, he said.

Ben Hecht, the Living Cities CEO, said that Tuesday’s election result may well reduce the federal role in metro decisions, but that many communities have the assets to solve their own problems if they align public, private and philanthropic sectors.

“No one segment has the answer,” he said, referring to the hopes and dreams of many that Obama would turn out to be some kind of miracle worker. “Our model is that government is just one of the players at the table,” he said. While political climates change in historically predictable cycles, communities must find stable and robust ways to solve problems, he said.

On transportation, for example, he said he’s confident that a public/private infrastructure bank will emerge as a financing source. The private sector will be a player in future transportation investments he predicted, much as it has invested (perhaps overinvested) in building the broadband network.

Key challenge: Not leaving low-income citizens behind
Minneapolis-St. Paul is accustomed to the kind of public/private collaboration that will be increasingly required, he said. The key challenge, he added, is to make sure that low-income citizens are not left behind, as they were in the last several economic upturns.

Bruce Katz of Brookings said the new political reality in Washington and in many state capitols opens the way for states and metro areas for forge their own economic futures, almost apart from the federal government. The emerging economy will be less national than a sum of local economies, he said.

“Minneapolis, after all, is very different from Miami. And that’s how it should be,” he said. What’s holding the Twin Cities back is a lack of entrepreneurship, he said, particularly on converting university-based research to locally produced products. If that begins to happen, the region could emerge as a winner in a new export-driven economy.

“The Twin Cities is at a juncture,” he said. “You need to take advantage of entrepreneurial startups and the commercialization of ideas. You need to get beyond just the focus on transportation and land use and pay attention to what it is you want to produce with the resources you have.”

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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 11/04/2010 - 11:35 am.

    Tuesdays sharp turn to fiscal reality cast a “new dawn” of opportunity along with an open rejection of the “tax and spend” agenda that has caused economic paralysis’s and ever increasing debt accumulated by the Obama administration.

    Those who are dependent on big government spending (big education, big environment, and big unions) are increasingly showing “panic” as the country strongly vetoed the their agenda and embrace the new dawn of unleashing America’s potential through less government and lower taxes.

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 11/04/2010 - 11:47 am.

    Minnesota is already on a decade-long slide in public investment. This will bring it to a halt.

    The real disconnect isn’t that they don’t want to pay for it, it’s in that they don’t know they need it. My father-in-law’s Republican girlfreind is a classic case in point. On one hand she complains about all the money spent and that people ought to learn to do without. On the other hand, she comes up with more public projects than anyone else I know. But it’s all about her. They all selfishly deal with her own small world, like guardrails on the highway near her house, or more public purchase of land on her lake, or more money spent on schools where here grandchildren go. Somehow, she thinks we should only spend money on things that benefit her.

  3. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 11/04/2010 - 12:30 pm.

    All whistling past the graveyard. The public, as the Onion (as always) anticipated a few months back, has voted that “it does not want to have a country anymore.” No investment in human or fixed capital as a foundation for private productivity, no managing the “resources of the commons,” no cooperation on shared goals (i.e., government). Let Mr Murdoch and Mr Koch scrape out the little bit of social wealth they haven’t yet harvested and it’s on to China. PS Mr Gotzman, you won. You can stop with the silly words now.

  4. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/04/2010 - 12:46 pm.

    “If GOP keeps austerity promises, big metro projects on rail, housing and research may be pared or eliminated”

    Borrowing a title from a Ben Stiller movie, “Reality Bites”. Will my bank account support a family vacation to an attractive coastal location next summer, or is it indicating to me a week of tenting at a state park? If it is the latter, I will not choose the former.

    Hard decisions and hard work lie ahead regarding our economy, and in particular debt and deficit. Reality Bites.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/04/2010 - 12:57 pm.

    Jeremy–
    You’ve got in in a (wing) nut shell.
    This election was a victory for something for nothing — tax cuts, but no program cuts specified.
    Prediction:
    Your father-in-law’s Republican girlfriend is going to find increased class sizes in her grandchildren’s schools; radically so if Emmer somehow wins.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/04/2010 - 12:59 pm.

    Steve–
    You are likely to find that state park closed, or not well maintained if the State’s budget is cut.

  7. Submitted by David Thompson on 11/04/2010 - 01:24 pm.

    As long as the metro area’s population is growing, the state has no choice but to continue investing in regional transit, whether highways or rails. On the other hand, the high-speed rail to Chicago has always struck me as a solution in search of a problem. Whatever happened to “think globally, act locally”?

  8. Submitted by John Jordan on 11/04/2010 - 01:43 pm.

    But Ron, don’t you know that without the trillions in spending on these “necessary” big government projects we’ll all be riding our horses on dirt roads to one-room schoolhouses taught by spinster non-union teachers? Cold Mississippi, I hear.

  9. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/04/2010 - 01:52 pm.

    Paul (#6):

    I am willing to take a wager with you that I am able to find a state park suitably maintained to pitch a tent for a week.

    The point I was making is that we need to live within our means. I think it is extreme to think that we cannot afford to operate any state parks. It is also true that underutilized facilities should be evaluated for closure. That would help Minnesota to live within it’s means.

    The Minneapolis neighborhood in which I grew up has a city park which is two city blocks. In the center of the park was a solitary drinking fountain. That fountain was dry my entire childhood. Those who wanted to play tennis, brought their own net. The park house had more bare wood than painted wood. I loved that park, and it served the community well. I did have to bring my own water or swipe a drink from a neighbor’s garden hose. That park has been transformed into one lacking nothing. Nice park, but I don’t think it serves the community any better than it did in it’s former austere condition.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/04/2010 - 02:19 pm.

    My own partisan shot will be noting that the programs most likely to take hits from the sharp turn to the right are precisely the ones that provide at least some plausibility for our ridiculous level of military spending. Without affordable housing, health care, education, recreation, safe roads and bridges, R & D, and small-scale capitalism, there’s not much to “protect,” and even less to justify spending a soldier’s life.

    The election is over, Mr. Gotzman. At least nationally, it’s up to the people who put us into the ditch in the first place, now that they’ve been given the keys again, to get us back on the road. Whether Republicans can do that remains to be seen, but in any case, some of us get up at dawn every day, no matter who’s in the governor’s chair or the legislature.

    Good piece, Steve, and a nice representation of what I assume – as a newbie – to be major players in the metro area. Much of what I’ve been reading lately in the planning literature supports two of the points made by your panel: first, that metro regions seem increasingly likely to be the primary drivers of not just local and regional economies, but the national economy as well; and second, somewhat related, that we need a fundamental change in attitude about public expenditures if we’re to maintain any sort of competitive position in the global economy.

    With capital fungible and increasingly mobile, the areas that have made the necessary investments in advance are more likely to be the ones attracting new enterprises and the jobs that go with them. It behooves the Twin Cities to see to it that this area remains attractive – increases its attractiveness, actually – to individuals and companies with capital to invest. Income tax policy, as opposed to property tax policy, is a minor part of that sort of decision. More important, according to the literature, are the quality of the prospective workforce, transportation and other infrastructure, including regional utility services, and – if it’s a new facility under consideration – the cost of land and development. Property taxes fall into that latter category, and it’s those taxes, not income taxes, that might get the attention of shareholders and executive committees. As a newbie here, I have no idea how the Twin Cities region compares in that regard to other metro regions that would be our economic competitors.

    Then there’s the attitudinal shift. As long as infrastructure, transportation, education, recreation and health care are viewed solely as costs, we’ll be reluctant to make the necessary expenditures, and that mind set seems likely to have serious negative consequences for the long term. Based on what I’ve read locally since moving here – both in the ‘Strib and on MinnPost, as well as some other sources, I’m wholeheartedly in agreement with Caren Dewar of the ULI about the public disconnect. Many of the same people ranting on MinnPost against “wasteful government spending” still want paved roads, fire and police protection, public parks, housing, places to shop, and so on, including new, “good” jobs. I think her phrasing is quite accurate: “People don’t want to pay for what they want.” My own amateur’s phrase for the same phenomenon is “The Free Lunch Syndrome.”

    Convinced as I am that there’s no “free lunch” in terms of services, amenities and infrastructure, I’d argue that the fiscal discussion ought to revolve around which choices to make in terms of spending, and – this part doesn’t get the attention it deserves – why. We aren’t going to have as much money as we need for… a generation? Ever? We’ll have to choose, and those who make the choices should be able to explain every choice, yea or nay. Should that discussion take place in the legislature and/or the governor’s office, as a citizen I want someone to make the case for these outlays as investments from which we will reap a sizable return, not simply as costs to be avoided.

    It’s easy to be at the bottom of the pile, ranking near-50th in those qualities that seem likely to attract investment. Staying near the top is harder. Especially because we can’t afford to fund everything on everyone’s wish list, it’s important that the choices we make are smart ones. A Colorado friend teaches a course at the University of Denver that’s accurately titled “Hard Choices in Public Policy.” There’s never enough money to do everything, and even less so now. The choices aren’t easy, but if we don’t make them intelligently, we (Twin Cities, Minnesota, the Midwest, the U.S.) will end up a backwater.

  11. Submitted by John Sinna on 11/04/2010 - 02:50 pm.

    The horror!

    Cut bloated pensions and benefits to levels that people who don’t work for the nanny state can expect; stop linear thinking (more money = better outcomes); stop looking to the government to provide answers to everything.

    The dumb liberal “sky is falling” crap is over, done, very 2008.

  12. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/04/2010 - 02:59 pm.

    How long can the Republican members of Congress pretend that only they know how to create jobs and then cut off the federal dollars that both create jobs and meet the dire need for infrastructure improvement in the states and cities????

    We are all in this together; we all do better when we all do better (even rich people are more healthy if the entire population has access to care); business does better with a strong local infrastructure and educated employees. But some of us don’t seem to realize it.

    The biggest need may be for public education to counter the Rovian propaganda to which we have been exposed for several decades.

  13. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/04/2010 - 04:17 pm.

    “Many of the same people ranting on MinnPost against “wasteful government spending” still want paved roads, fire and police protection, public parks, housing, places to shop, and so on..”

    Erm, yup, that ‘s right…what’s your point?

    I want paved roads, fire and police protection, public parks, housing, places to shop, and so on, and am willing to pay to have that.

    Triply redundant governmental bureaucracies; “bicycle advisory” boards; rooftop gardens for new government buildings; new government buildings of any sort while so many stand empty?…not so much.

    A common sense fiscal conservative can find hundreds of millions of wasted tax money without breaking a sweat…and thankfully, we’ve just sent a plethora of them to elected offices.

  14. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/04/2010 - 04:59 pm.

    It would be willful idiocy to argue that the stimulus, TARP etc. didn’t help. We have no counter factual and they probably did help, maybe a great deal.

  15. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/04/2010 - 05:00 pm.

    Bernice (#9):

    “How long can the Republican members of Congress pretend that only they know how to create jobs and then cut off the federal dollars that both create jobs”

    What federal dollars? Stop the printing press; no more dollars. The trillion stimulus has proved ineffective. The goal of creating 3.5 million jobs missed the mark by 6 million jobs.

    Don’t worry about public education; they are countering the Rovian message everyday. I have a child in public education; it still leans quite left in Minneapolis. I spend more time unteaching that message than I spend helping with academic homework.

  16. Submitted by William Pappas on 11/04/2010 - 06:05 pm.

    Obviously, without Oberstar, our light rail projects would never have happened. He had to counter our do-nothing governor who did not believe in any kind of transit investment. That two billion dollars of growth along the Hiawatha line that is mostly private dollars would not have occurred. The growing construction activity along the Central Corridor of new apartment and retail construction would not even be on the drawing board. The public wants rail transit, both urban and regional. It will make this metropolitan area much more attractive to growing comopanies. Do-nothing republicans who will shift dollars to private charter schools and allow our public schools to deteriorate. They’ll refuse to properly fund the University, allow very expensive to maintain sprawl development and defund the very programs that are designed to make our metro area livalbe. That strategy, more than anything, will keep new companies away.

  17. Submitted by Faith Cable on 11/04/2010 - 08:21 pm.

    Welcome to what life is like in tax-averse Colorado Springs: “More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops — dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.

    The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.

    Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.

    Water cutbacks mean most parks will be dead, brown turf by July; the flower and fertilizer budget is zero.

    City recreation centers, indoor and outdoor pools, and a handful of museums will close for good March 31 unless they find private funding to stay open. Buses no longer run on evenings and weekends. The city won’t pay for any street paving, relying instead on a regional authority that can meet only about 10 percent of the need.”

    Read more: Colorado Springs cuts into services considered basic by many – The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_14303473#ixzz14MlmG8SX

    For the folks who want to use parks: You might want to consider bringing your own lawnmower and garbage cans with you first. If there is grass to mow. Or maybe play in the dirt?

  18. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/04/2010 - 09:22 pm.

    Faith (#17):

    I read that article that you linked in the Denver Post. You failed to mention that the solution the voters turned down was a tripling of their property taxes. Do you really expect that voters would agree to that? You might have had a chance with a fifty percent increase.

    Another excerpt from that same article:

    “The deep recession bit into Colorado Springs sales-tax collections, while pension and health care costs for city employees continued to soar. Sales-tax updates have become a regular exercise in flinching for Mayor Lionel Rivera.

    “Every month I open it up, and I look for a plus in front of the numbers instead of a minus,” he said. The 2010 sales-tax forecast is almost $22 million less than 2007.

    Voters in November said an emphatic no to a tripling of property tax that would have restored $27.6 million to the city’s $212 million general fund budget. Fowler and many other residents say voters don’t trust city government to wisely spend a general tax increase and don’t believe the current cuts are the only way to balance a budget.”

  19. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/04/2010 - 09:41 pm.

    “A common sense fiscal conservative can find hundreds of millions of wasted tax money without breaking a sweat.”

    Tom, you forgot to mention: “fraud and abuse.”

    Our “fiscally conservative” Governor Pawlenty campaigned on the promise to cut the “billions and billions in wasted state spending”. And that was eight long years ago. Pawlenty did in fact nick LGA a few hundred million dollars. But no where near the mythical “billions and billions” that the governor claimed existed.

    Seeing as our “fiscally conservative” governor was unable to find and cut that “wasted tax money”. Is that an admission that it is a lot harder to find than heclaimed? Or that it doesn’t exist at all?

  20. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 11/04/2010 - 10:48 pm.

    Steve (#18): You ask, rhetorically, if folks really can be expected to vote for a tripling of their property taxes. Well, it depends on what the taxes are to start with. I’m not an expert, and this is just a random link from a Google search, but the Colorado Springs Gazette indicates that the three-fold increase would vault the property tax on a $200,000 house from $79 to $238 annually … still less than one-tenth what we pay in Minneapolis. So, if that’s accurate, I’d say yes, I’d expect reasonable folks to be willing to vote for that.

    http://datageek.freedomblogging.com/archives/tag/taxes

  21. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 11/04/2010 - 11:10 pm.

    I think Minneapolis and Saint Paul will survive if government aid gets cut, but it will be a tight squeeze. We need to encourage people to move into our core cities to boost revenues. Minneapolis as it stands was built for a population well beyond 520,000, but it currently only has around 385,000 residents. Of course, the city was built on the old streetcar system, which was both good and bad. Just as we fret about sprawl from suburban/exurban planners in modern times, I suspect Thomas Lowry and other land speculators of his time miscalculated when they put up housing developments along the streetcar lines. You really need about 16,000 people per square mile to sustain a good transit system, and there are very few places in the Cities that can boast that level of density today.

    Both Minneapolis and Saint Paul probably need to grow to 850,000-900,000 people or more. There must be a lot of disaffected suburban voters who believe in the common good and are willing to pay for infrastructure. I’d love to see them move into town. Will there be enough people to trigger important thresholds? Well, it’d be a long shot. However, I suspect a population boom will happen someday anyway, and I’d rather see it happen now in a relatively controlled fashion rather than in a full crisis mode a few decades down the line.

    Some shades of Kunstler there, I suppose. But densifying the cities would have some pretty great benefits. We could reopen many schools that have now closed. With more people closer together, the give-and-take necessary for good public policy and an educated and innovative population would be significantly boosted. We’d have enough money to build things for ourselves without begging for cash from the state or federal government. That’s the theory, anyway.

    You could call it the 2022 plan. Underlying the shift in population would also be a boosting of Democratic/liberal ideas within the population. If Minneapolis and Saint Paul were both to double in population, our cities’ political influence would also jump after redistricting from the 2020 Census — unless there’s obscene levels of gerrymandering, I suppose. But heck, all I care about is being somewhere that is financially sustainable and able to do the right thing independent of other governments.

  22. Submitted by dan buechler on 11/05/2010 - 08:11 am.

    #21 I liked your comments. I made similar one a few weeks ago but without the numbers. In my former career I would see hardware stores closed and I would have to drive further for a small supply. Someone else promoted the walkability and coffee shops of the southsides but I still think that transit and hardware stores are more important.
    I would like to read more comments from you. I don’t know if it possible for the metro area to densify like you project with the change in family struture. But perhaps more duplexes and tall apartment buildings could be in order.

  23. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/05/2010 - 10:56 am.

    Chuck (#18): When a person is asked to agree to triple their property tax, their reaction might not be to look around the country to find someone who has it worse. However, if they did, they could find it here. Tripling is a big pill to swallow; clearly the Colorado Springs electorate agrees.

    Hennepin County jacked my property taxes 85% in 1992. At that time, there was no annual cap; the county was free to tax you out of your house. They did offer to stop by to review my appraisal. I declined, as I saw through their opportunity to raise my taxes yet higher.

    It seems, you kind of need to bring people along in small steps. Otherwise, it seems over-reaching. I think we just saw a reaction to over-reaching on Tuesday.

  24. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/05/2010 - 01:06 pm.

    I liked your comments, too, Mike (#21).

    It took us more than a century to adopt the idea of “suburban living,” so I expect it will take more time than I have left to largely undo the mind set we created. 16,000 people per square mile rules out single family housing, and in order to make that livable for families, there have to be amenities in the form of parks and “tot lots,”and mixed retail (in both size and type) to support the residential repopulation. Both grocery and hardware stores will have to return to the core cities. What I’ve seen of Minneapolis in 18 months supports the notion that this is a city with a commitment to recreational space, so in the long term, genuinely urban density is not out of the question.

    There may be hints of Kunstler, true – I read him every week – but The New Republic had a good piece this week on the effects of an era of scarcity on our political process that seems pretty much on-target as an explanation of what we may be seeing play out here in the latest election.

    Indeed, the fatal flaw of suburban life and development is that it’s not sustainable in its current form, either ecologically or fiscally. Some areas that are now suburbs may “densify” enough to make a go of it as real cities down the road a few decades, but that won’t be the case for many.

  25. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/05/2010 - 01:21 pm.

    Richard, you may recall that T-Paw was faced with a Democrat legislature. He did well to beat back all the added waste that crossed his desk, much less actually make a dent.

  26. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/05/2010 - 03:02 pm.

    Chuck (#18): When a person is asked to agree to triple their property tax, their reaction might not be to look around the country to find someone who has it worse. However, if they did, they could find it here. Tripling is a big pill to swallow; clearly the Colorado Springs electorate agrees.

    Hennepin County jacked my property taxes 85% in 1992. At that time, there was no annual cap; the county was free to tax you out of your house. They did offer to stop by to review my appraisal. I declined, as I saw through their opportunity to raise my taxes yet higher.

    It seems, you kind of need to bring people along in small steps. Otherwise, it seems over-reaching. I think we just saw a reaction to over-reaching on Tuesday.

  27. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/05/2010 - 04:26 pm.

    Steve’s argument in #25 has some merit. Having just moved a year ago from Colorado, I can vouch for the huge difference in property tax rates. Colorado has a constitutional amendment that artificially holds down residential property taxes (the revenue difference is made up by business property taxes, which are, as you might imagine, not universally popular), while Minnesota has the odd (to me) “homestead” tax rate differential. Every area has its quirks in this segment of taxation.

    I agree that most people aren’t going to look around the country to make comparisons. I certainly didn’t before moving here, and it was an unpleasant surprise to find my property taxes more than doubled for similar housing. When you have to deal with that sort of increase all in one shot, it IS tougher to support. For me, it was easier to survive because Minnesota is not a “destination” in the sense that Front Range Colorado is, so housing prices are far more affordable here than they are in metro Denver. The savings on the price of my house compared to what it would have cost me in Denver more than offset the higher tax bill for at least a decade.

    But that only works because I moved here from a high-price, low-tax area. If I were a native – anywhere – a 150 percent increase in property tax, or even the 85 percent Steve mentioned, would be hard to swallow, no matter how public-spirited I might be.

    I also agree that tax hikes are far easier to accept when they’re done in increments, and it ought to be axiomatic that a good case should be made for why they’re necessary. My school district needed 7 consecutive annual “yes” votes from the district’s population to finance a new high school, and it’s hard to hold the public’s attention about ANYTHING for that long. It was easy to make a good case when the existing high school was so crowded that double sessions were necessary. Once a second high school was built (but not yet paid for), it got a little trickier, but everyone was on board, from teachers to administrators to PTAs to school board members, and the case was laid out very thoroughly all over the district for months before the first vote, and annually after that until further votes became unnecessary. The lowest majority, I think, was 69 percent, so even something like that can be done if the public is convinced it’s worthwhile. Tax hikes have to be “sold” just as effectively – actually, MORE effectively – as any other expensive product.

    But unless you genuinely want to return to the early 19th century, there are going to be property taxes. Things have gotten pretty ugly in the ‘Springs. Some folks don’t like the lack of street lighting, others are very tired of packing their trash to the El Paso County landfill, and so on. Quite a few people who voted against the taxes are having second thoughts, or “buyer’s remorse.” Others are holdouts and insist that city administrators are purposely cutting funding in areas that they know the public won’t like, which illustrates a level of naiveté far beyond my own. There ain’t no free lunch, and there are different kinds of reasons for not liking that little bit of reality.

  28. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/05/2010 - 07:42 pm.

    With all due respect Tom. Is Pawlenty a different kind of fiscal conservative? He made promises and I personally see only minor results.

    What you are saying amounts to a
    “Yeah, but”….. which is nothing more than an excuse. If Pawlenty wants to be a straight shooter he’ll need to shoot straight.

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