July 2011. The state is in shutdown mode. Some people miss meals, some people miss camping, some people miss getting their first Minnesota driver’s license. No one is better off, though some of us are worse off than others. Enough, already, of the false starts and the blame games. We Minnesotans are long overdue for some good-faith negotiations and sensible solutions for tackling the enormous state budget deficit. Why is this proving to be such a challenge?
We are the public that expects more from our leaders. We Minnesotans think about our elected officials as public servants. We elected them to represent our individual and shared interests. They are the stewards of our “public life,” and they are responsible for our common good. The most privileged among us and the most frail; the most politically engaged and the most apathetic; the urban, suburban and rural farm dwellers; the young and the old — all do connect around the public structures that make our lives “civilized.”
Shared values, shared benefits
We turn on the water and drink. This is safe because we have a shared investment in a government that protects and delivers our water, a government that keeps our food and water and streets and homes and businesses safe.
Education creates opportunities for individuals and a thriving economy that benefits all. So we have “public” schools that are available to support each child in learning and striving.
We value work and are a hard-working state. So we get in our cars — some with chauffeurs, others with cracked windshields — and we drive on roads that have paving (more or less), names and numbers, and are mapped to get us to our jobs, our meetings, our conferences, our job training. That, too, is because government works to serve the public. Sometimes government even enables us to get to work via public transit!
And there is more. No one is totally safe from crime, whether in a gated community or a rundown neighborhood. But government acts on behalf of all of us, enforcing the rules that we have set for protecting all of us from domestic assault, sexual violence, robbery, fraud, murder and more.
You get the point. We do have a public life, and all of us are part of it.
Only losers, not winners
We deserve to have those public servants whom we choose at the polls keep the structures working so that we can thrive and survive. We’ve seen the impact of the first days of a shutdown on the private, public, and nonprofit sectors — jobs, wages, opportunities, profits. It isn’t pretty. And there are only losers, not winners. How did we let this happen?
This is where the truth comes into question. In the last urgent meetings to try to avoid the shutdown, we now know that the governor made concessions, even on his most clearly stated commitment to raise taxes on the few high earners who pay a relatively low portion of their income in taxes. Gov. Mark Dayton sees increased revenue, raised fairly, as the only way to avoid such deep cuts that our public structures and shared quality of life would be permanently harmed. In hopes of keeping government in the public-service business, he moved from his initial budget proposal on multiple counts, even offering to narrow the field of taxpayers who would be impacted by an increase to those making over $1 million. Still no deal? How can this be?
‘Poison pill’ deal killers
Well, the story is out now, and it seems that in those last efforts to keep the lights on in Minnesota, the GOP leaders made offers that included clear and obvious “poison pill” deal killers. They added non-budget issues to the budget negotiations.
Now Minnesotans have a wide range of opinions about abortion rights, photo ID at the polls, and the political impact of political redistricting, but we all should be able to see that raising these already debated lightning-rod issues in the last hours of negotiation made any pretense at serious budget solutions a mockery! It is not possible that anyone is fooled into thinking that those were offers designed to get to an agreement about how to solve the budget crisis.
So now what? The consequences of resolving the budget problem just with cuts will mean deeper problems than we have now. Minnesota needs to be a highly functioning state, able to make strategic investments in structures and amenities that make ours the most livable communities. Otherwise we cannot thrive in a global and national economy. That’s a reality.
It is a political choice to be at a stalemate. GOP leaders have been focused on their loyalty to an old “no new taxes” slogan, not loyalty to their state. We deserve better. The more we allow elected leaders to avoid real compromise, to lie with impunity, to tell us that they are working for us when they have rigged negotiations to fail, the more all of us will find our shared public life diminished.
Citizens can play essential role
Again, the question. How did we let this happen? Citizens can play the most essential role in determining the quality of our public life. Every one of us needs to let our elected officials know that we thank them and respect them for good public service. And we must also tell them that we will no longer tolerate turning our public life into a political game. In the spirit of walking my talk, I thank Gov. Dayton for holding firm for a balanced approach to using both revenues and cuts to keep the state as strong as possible in this economic crisis. I urge Sen. Amy Koch and Rep. Kurt Zellers to be public leaders for all Minnesotans, not just partisans, and get serious about common sense solutions to our problems.
Fellow Minnesotans, now it’s your turn. Be a voice for honest, workable budget solutions, for keeping Minnesota strong in our 100 percent shared self interest, and for getting government back to work. Call, email, join with others in demanding accurate information and sensible solutions. And if our public servants have forgotten what public service is, help them remember in the next election!
Marcia Avner, of St. Paul, is a consultant to nonprofits and other institutions engaged in public-policy work. She is the author of two books, “The Lobbying and Advocacy Handbook for Nonprofit Organizations: Shaping Public Policy at the State and Local Level” (2002) and “The Board Member’s Guide to Lobbying and Advocacy” (2004).