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 #070. First published in the St. Cloud Times May 28, 2013

Wednesday’s Times spread a smorgasbord for a columnist whose theme is the renewal of human community.

From the local news section headline, “Capitol action 2013: Ratifying rules, $38.3B,” with its subhead, “Republicans chide tax changes in St. Cloud stop,” to the “Our View: DFLers did what they promised,” the stuff of public discussion was laid out.

The 2013 legislative session has etched in clear lines some fundamental disagreements about what kind of human community Minnesota should be. I see two big questions that got fresh answers: How are priorities determined? What is the baseline for “normal”?

Lawmakers' priorities

The Times Editorial Board says “allowing same-sex marriage is easily the biggest overreach of the session.” They are quick to note they support the move; it’s just that the DFL said they weren’t going to make that move this year (though not all DFL legislators said it, and when they did, it didn’t necessarily rise to the level of “promise”), so when they brought same-sex marriage forward, they “overreached.”

“Overreach” has become a fixture of political jousting, but it means different things. When some say the Legislature “overreached” on gay marriage, they mean not a “breach of promise” but a thwarting of nature and nature’s God. Others are saying the Legislature “overreached” beyond what they consider “reasonable” at the time.

The coincidence of this action by the Legislature and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is instructive.

In one of the greatest texts of the 20th century, King challenges those who say, “Wait for a ‘more convenient season,’ ” to recognize that time itself accomplishes nothing; rather, “We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

In earlier columns I have said why I believe the extension of the right of marriage to gay people is a matter of liberty and justice and — as several churches officially declare — of Christian morality. Many disagree, of course. But I contend that what the Legislature did was not overreach in any sense. It was a creative use of time (not waiting for a “more convenient season”), and it was an expression of government’s responsibility to extend freedom.

So: The 2013 session got priorities right.

Restoring 'normal'

When Senate Minority Leader David Hann, at St. Cloud Regional Airport the day after the session’s end, said, concerning an increased tobacco tax and taxes on a few business-to-business transactions, “Things that people buy in stores are going to be more costly because of these taxes,” his complaint presupposed the status quo as the baseline.

But what we have come to treat as “normal” is the result of a decade of cutting. It started with Gov. Jesse Ventura’s shift of a billion dollars of education funding to the state without any provision for covering it. The trend continued with eight years of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s slashing and accounting gimmicks — and his dogged insistence that never, ever, should more revenue be raised.

Those moves seriously diminished our state’s quality of life. If it’s true that we get what we pay for, it is also true that we don’t get what we don’t pay for.

The Editorial Board got this one right. “To his credit, it appears Dayton did create the first state budget in almost a decade that does not kick state debts to the next biennium.”

The tax increase on the wealthiest pays for increased education spending (shortchanged for years, and still way behind what it should be), a tuition freeze at state colleges, and property tax relief. The board recognizes the correspondence of the income tax increase with what the governor has consistently said he would do, and they do not lapse into the discredited but endlessly repeated grumble that the increase is a job-killer and an incentive for businesses and individuals to abandon Minnesota for no- or low-tax states.

So: The 2013 session made a bold step toward restoring a “normal” that had become dangerously imbalanced.

Of course it is too soon for a complete assessment, but on priorities and rebalancing, Minnesota’s 88th Legislature and 40th governor are already in the history books.