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Pawlenty’s budget solution would exacerbate Minnesota’s problems

John Van Hecke
 John Van Hecke

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget-shortfall solution pits education investments against affordable health care, pushes real budget choices into the next biennium, and, unremarkably, lacks imagination.

Facing a $935 million budget deficit, Pawlenty promptly toed the conservative policy line: cut taxes, cut government. It’s the stock conservative response to any situation. Times are good? Cut taxes. Times are bad? Cut taxes.

How unimaginative. Honestly, after five years in executive office, you’d think that Gov. Pawlenty would recognize a changing policy landscape and postulate a new response. Rather, he embraces a failing policy and, in doing so, exacerbates rather than solves Minnesota’s problems. It’s an unfortunate routine.

Normally, routine is a wonderful thing, the snuggy bear of human experience. We find extraordinary comfort in sameness. Ritual elevates routine, attaching meaning, usually spiritual, that in turn connects us to our past and too each other. When I married, our marriage service order was straight from the book. The same will hold for my funeral: flip to the “f” section and proceed accordingly.

Slow change yields to the dramatic

I value ritual’s community creation and connection, yet a funny thing happens over time: It evolves. Ritual’s power remains constant while circumstances imperceptibly change. That’s normal. Sometimes, though, imperceptible change yields to the dramatic and obvious.

We witnessed this phenomenon on Aug. 1, 2007. The I-35W Mississippi River bridge’s collapse caused a significant perceptual shift. Minnesotans were confronted with a hard truth: Transportation infrastructure is nonpermanent. Bridges, roads, rail lines, etc., are not one-time investments.

Gov. Pawlenty briefly recognized this, immediately signaling support for a modest gas-tax increase to fund backlogged transportation-infrastructure projects. But, within days, he snapped back to the conservative public policy hard line: no gas tax increase.

Despite Pawlenty’s determined resistance, Minnesota changed and moved forward. A substantial transportation- investment package passed the Minnesota Legislature and, through a veto override vote, became law.

A bridge collapse can have that effect.

A yearning for the return of routine

People wanted their routine back. We want to live our lives, raise our families and do our jobs. We want to volunteer, engage our communities, and leave this world no worse than we found it – and, maybe, improve it a little. We don’t want to worry about collapsing bridges. We want our routine to affirm the human condition rather than undermine it.

Elected officials mess with that desire at their own risk. Now that Gov. Pawlenty pits education against health care, he chances additional irrelevance. Minnesotans can and will move past Pawlenty if he continues to oppose collective change.

Schools or health care? That’s his solution?

Perhaps the governor missed the public’s imperceptibly changing attitude: Minnesota is not a half-assed state content with half-assed solutions. If long winters teach us anything, it’s to carefully consider our lives and our needs, and then act accordingly. Warm seasons, like life, are entirely too short. We routinely focus on what really matters.

A $935 million budget deficit merits both our close attention and our leaders’ best efforts but, don’t forget, this is no moment for failing imaginations. The real question isn’t “how do we close the budget deficit?” Instead, we must ask ourselves, “What’s our progressive budget?”

The answer moves Minnesota forward.

John Van Hecke is a fellow and director of operations and planning at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on 2020’s website


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Craig Westover on 03/17/2008 - 12:57 pm.

    Van Hecke writes – The real question isn’t “how do we close the budget deficit?” Instead, we must ask ourselves, “What’s our progressive budget?” He implies that semantic differentiation is indicative of change. He’s wrong. Budgeting more money to do the same things is not change.

    Instead of asking “What’s our progressive budget?” shouldn’t we be asking “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” Focusing on actions rather than money would indeed be a change.

    In education, the latter question means getting away from the outmoded idea that there is a one-size-fits-all-one-best-way to educate children in a diverse society. The problem we’re trying to solve is how best to educate individual students, not how to fund a monopoly education system. “Change” is creating a funding formula where money follows the student and students are free to use that money at any district school, charter school, private school, religious school, online school or home school that best meets their individual needs. What a progressive idea.

    In health care, the latter question means recognizing that managed care, whether health care is managed by private companies operating in a heavily regulated environment or care managed by government under a single-payer system, is a failure: It provides lower quality care at higher costs to fewer people. Again, “change” is not dumping more money into a bad system. Change involves putting money and health-care decision making back in the hands of patients, care decisions and procedure pricing back in the hands of doctors, actuarial factoring and insurance pricing back in the hands of insurance companies free of government mandates. Change is allowing individuals to set up tax-deductible health savings accounts and purchase catastrophic insurance across state lines. It is taking the money spent on government health care programs for low-income people and putting that money into health savings accounts and insurance policies for them and letting those individuals make their own health care decisions just like everyone else.

    In transportation, the latter question means thinking about individual mobility, not creating a transportation system for the legacy of the political elite. Mobility is enabling people to get from where they are to where they want to go when they want to go to do what they want to do. It does not increase mobility when you sink nearly $1 billion into a light rail system and to justify the train you have to discontinue bus service that results in people walking farther to catch a train that runs at less frequent intervals than the bus. How does that benefit the individual commuter?

    So-called “Progressive” solutions, as evidenced by Van Hecke’s focus on budget rather than actions, are little more than more of the same under a different name at higher cost. It’s Progressive insistence on one-size-fits-all government programs that blocks forward movement. Ironically, Conservatives, when they return to their classical liberal roots, will be the ones leading the charge for true change.

  2. Submitted by Mike Keliher on 03/17/2008 - 01:23 pm.

    I hope the author is not suggesting that the opposite — “more money, more money” as opposed to “no taxes, no taxes” — is a more suitable as a rule. Neither is. The priority should be on making sure the money we currently have is being spent as effectively as possible before daring to take more from taxpayers, be they individuals or businesses.

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