Someone once said all politics are personal. Maybe it was John Edwards, but I can’t remember.
So when Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer pronounced recently that Local Government Aid funding should be re-examined and fixed, I took it personally.
Not because I sit home at nights investigating spreadsheets comparing LGA funding differences between Blue Earth and Wilkins counties, but because of one particular thing that Rep. Emmer stated a couple of times on his bumpy campaign trail.
Here’s what he said at the State Fair debate last Friday: “LGA should be applied to what it was intended for. It should pay for essential services defined as police and fire service and sewer and water infrastructure. That’s what it should be going for, not to etch poetry in sidewalks in St. Paul.”
This is where it got personal. You mean those poems that I step on while walking on Valentine Street near my house? They were paid for with LGA dollars? Some spike-haired bohemian in a loft is getting government funding to write haikus about compost while police officers are getting laid off? This is wrong, really wrong.
I got mad as hell, and I couldn’t take it anymore. First person to confront was the president of Public Art St. Paul, a suspect named Christine Podas-Larson. Can’t trust those arts administrators of 501(c)(3) groups, you know. Turns out she had heard of Emmer’s assertions and was stunned, just stunned.
LGA money for sidewalk poems in concrete? Nope, not true, she said. She knows because she’s written every check that’s every been written the past three years for St. Paul’s Sidewalk Poetry project
“And if he wants to come and look at all my canceled checks, he’s welcome to,” Podas-Larson said, challenging the former hockey player.
Now in its third year, the program has cost a total of $80,587.97. All of Public Art St. Paul’s work is funded by foundations, small contributors and even the poets themselves. It costs $3 to submit verses for possible inscription along the mean streets of St. Paul.
A poetry user fee, for gosh sakes. Sounds downright Pawlentian.
Yes, the city promotes the poetry etchings on its website — aren’t cities supposed to encourage public art and culture? — but her staff processes all the poems, works with the hired contractors and tells them where to stamp the poems.
As for the sidewalks, themselves, this year it will cost the city slightly more than $1 million to maintain them, said Mayor Chris Coleman’s deputy chief of staff, Bob Hume. All of that funding comes from assessments to home owners or bonding. Not from LGA.
That controversy resolved, I went off to the next, and that is the restrictions, if any, on LGA funding from the state. For that I traveled over freeways and sidewalks to chat with Gary Carlson, the director of intergovernmental relations for the League of Minnesota Cities, and an expert on LGA.
According to Mr Carlson, for better or worse, ever since LGA funding of some sort began back in the 1970s, there have never been any specific restrictions on the use of the money that filters back to cities from the state. There’s no rule requiring that LGA go to police or fire or “core services,” which can differ from city to city.
So, conceivably LGA funds could be used for sidewalk poems, but they’re not.
Which led me to Rep. Emmer’s campaign. They were a bit cranky. Turned out that while I was inspecting sidewalks for scandal and silly poems, Minnesota Public Radio’s crack investigative truth squad Poligragh was also tackling this earthshaking controversy. (But then you’d expect MPR to be worried about poetry, wouldn’t you?)
Whacked by a swirling iambic pentameter kerfuffle, Emmer’s press secretary, Chris Van Guilder, asserted that the city has a page on its website devoted to the sidewalk project.
The website makes it “quite clear about this being a city project … Money is fungible. If the city didn’t spend money managing this, it could be doing other things. The department of public works is clearly expending resources on this project and is the public’s point of contact. It is disingenuous for the city to claim they have nothing to do with the project when they brag about running it.”
But why wouldn’t you brag about a project that costs taxpayers virtually nothing? Such a deal should be poetry to Rep. Emmer’s ears.