Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #080. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Mar. 24, 2014; in print Mar. 25

It’s more fun to talk about a $1.23 billion surplus in the state treasury than the multibillion-dollar deficits of recent years.

But one person’s fun is another’s irresponsibility, and there is no dearth of disagreement about what to do with the “extra” money. What I want to add to the conversation is a challenge to the very notion that it’s “extra.”

Much of the discussion has been about rebates to Minnesota taxpayers. The Times’ March 11 Our View indirectly, but unmistakably, deals harshly with legislators who favor returning the money: “Lawmakers shouldn’t see handling such a surplus as a re-election strategy.” And the Editorial Board reminds readers of the “Jesse Checks” sent to Minnesotans in Jesse Ventura’s administration (1999-2003).

The “lost decade” between the Ventura era and now hasn’t received nearly enough attention. The word “miracle” used to be attached to Minnesota. Now we’re a state where legislators assume all that people want is money back, even when bridges are unsafe, roads bottlenecked, school districts have to juggle budgets to cover unfunded mandates — and the list goes on.

No more checks

How did it happen that legislators, alert to the public mood, surmise we want more Jesse Checks?

It’s because Minnesota, like much of the country, has been taught that government is “they” and “they” are bad and out to do us in.

An insidious bug has infected our nation and state. The “no new taxes pledge” virus was concocted by Grover Norquist and his organization, Americans for Tax Reform. According to ATR, 219 representatives and 39 senators in Congress are signers.

But it’s not just national. From the early 1990s, ATR has promoted the pledge at the state level, requiring legislative and constitutional officer candidates to promise “to the people of this state, that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.” And: “There are no exceptions to the Pledge.”

In Minnesota, there are only eight of 67 senators and 20 of 134 representatives listed by ATR as signers.

But after Ventura came Tim Pawlenty, a pledge-signing governor and darling of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. Under his administration (2003-11), Minnesota’s tradition of farsighted investment was submerged — remember Norquist’s goal of reducing government to a size where he could “drown it in the bathtub.”

We went from miracle to muddle. It truly was a lost decade. A particularly unfortunate fallout from Pawlenty’s legacy is the very notion this surplus is “extra” money. It’s “extra” only in relation to the “new normal” established by the radically un-Minnesotan ideology to which Pawlenty adhered. The list of things left undone that ought to have been done those eight years is a scar on Minnesota’s image and a call to action.

The Times’ March 11 Our View makes a persuasive case for putting the bulk of the surplus into the state’s reserve fund.

$1 billion: Good start

Minnesota’s reserve is $661 million. As Sen. Richard Cohen, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, noted in a Star Tribune commentary, this meets the legal requirement of $653 million — but that was set by statute in 2001, and it has never been increased.

Cohen notes prudence says a reserve should be 5 percent of general fund revenues, which would put it at $1.9 billion. The entire surplus would get us there, but nobody is talking about using it all that way. Cohen has introduced legislation that would bring the reserve to $1 billion, a good start. I hope such a bill gets to the governor’s desk.

There are many candidates for the rest of the surplus, and there will be political horse-trading. I hope for covering the schools’ unfunded mandates that wreak havoc on districts’ budgets. And there are dilapidated bridges. And so on.

But don’t send us checks. The money’s not “extra.” And we the people of Minnesota are citizens before we’re taxpayers.