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 #117. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Apr. 1, 2017; in print Apr. 2

Recent Times front page headlines have been like fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

“SCSU faces another budget shortfall: Interim leader warns program cuts are coming, staff reductions possible.”

“Minn. GOP seeks early education program cuts.”

“Senate GOP proposes large cuts to social services.”

And the backdrop? A $1.65 billion state surplus.

It takes a lot to make me “sick and tired,” but I am sick and tired of the common complaint in a March 26 letter to the Times: “The state has no money. It is the taxpayer’s money that the state is holding and using.”

We have too easily forgotten that the Constitutions of both our nation and our state begin “We the people.” The government is “us,” not “them.” The money we pay in taxes isn’t lost, it’s not “taken.” It’s an investment that we, as citizens, make through our elected representatives for the common good.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said it best: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” The previous sentence of Holmes’s opinion is equally instructive. He acknowledges that taxes are “a discouragement to the extent of the payment required,” but the discouragement becomes “an encouragement when seen in its organic connection with the whole.”

In other words, you don’t like paying taxes but they’re a bargain because they’re part of a bigger story — the story of civilization itself.

St. Cloud State University’s interim President Ashish Vaidya is faced with a budget shortfall of $7 million. To build reserves to a prudent level, he is looking for ways to cut nearly $12 million, or 7.5 percent, from the general fund.

I know perfectly well that university budgeting is subject to all sorts of constraints. It might be said of it, as was said recently about health care, “Nobody knew it could be so complicated.” I also know higher education institutions are contentious places. A president once said to me, “Patrick, I always look forward to Red Cross blood day, because giving blood is the one thing a college president can do that no one can find fault with.”

I know further that St. Cloud State faces declining enrollment, and you could say the budget gap is a simple matter of reduced supply for reduced demand. But employing at universities is not like seasonal hiring in retail. It takes years to establish effective programs, and restoring one that is eliminated is almost starting from scratch.

Even though Minnesota has a huge surplus, we’re demanding that institutions of higher education scrape by. When the workforce requires people with an ever-wider range of competencies, programs are cut and faculty are let go. Colleges and universities are civilization’s research and development department. If you’re looking to the future, you don’t decimate R & D.

At the other end of the education spectrum — early childhood — stinginess is even more outrageous. Brain science and economic science are clear: Early childhood programs of high quality and accessibility are the best investment we as a society can make for the sake of the future.

The Times report about early education begins: “Minnesota House Republicans took a defiant stance against Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton Thursday with a proposal to eliminate his flagship early childhood education program.”

The governor proposes spending $175 million — just a little over 10 percent of the surplus — for a social capital return on investment that’s the equivalent of getting in on the ground floor at Microsoft or Google.

Early education programming and finance, like that of higher education, is “so complicated.” The governor’s plan, which would support school districts seeking to establish preschool in places where other options are in short supply, is necessary but not sufficient. Scholarships, and the Child Care Assistance Program, should be part of the mix.

However, to start negotiations with blanket rejection of the governor’s plan — especially when the state has a huge surplus — is the reflex action of a party of no.

You can figure out my opinion of the third headline — “Senate GOP proposes large cuts to social services” — without my having to say it.

Nine years ago, a few months after I started as a Times columnist, I sounded the same note of dismay at a speech by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty: “Rhetoric like this in Pawlenty's speech — ‘government’s never-ending claims on (Minnesotans’) pocketbooks,’ ‘stop government from digging into your wallets’ — paints government itself, ‘We the people,’ as part of an axis of evil.”

Pawlenty’s disinvestments, particularly in education, lowered the bar for what we think of as “normal.” In subsequent years, Republicans have claimed they are being “generous” to education, from early childhood through college. No. Minnesota is still way behind where we were in the years when “Minnesota” and “miracle” went together.

“We the people” are the government, folks. Let’s start acting like we mean it.