Minnesotans Ready for Progress, Waiting on Pawlenty
By Christopher Truscott
After quoting the biblical prophet Isaiah toward the end of his first State of the State address, Gov. Tim Pawlenty closed his speech with a call to action.
“In that spirit and hope, and in the great heritage of service and sacrifice that is Minnesota, let us walk together,” he said. “Then let us run. And one day soon, even soar.”
Four years later many Minnesotans are ready to answer the governor’s challenge. They’re ready for our state to once again take flight. All they’re waiting for is the governor himself to come aboard.
Pawlenty’s first term was marked by massive property tax hikes, soaring college tuition, devastating cuts to school districts statewide and reckless neglect of basic services and infrastructure. The “great heritage of service and sacrifice” that the governor talked up after taking office was sacrificed itself on the altar of his “no new taxes” pledge.
The Minnesota the rest of the country looked to as a model for innovation and leadership is quickly becoming a thing of the past. After decades of leading the nation, the governor’s policies are pushing us closer and closer to the ranks of the average and mediocre states.
Pawlenty will tell you his leadership has kept Minnesota strong, but under his watch we’ve actually grown weaker.
Our state domestic product growth rate of 1.9 percent between 2004 and 2005, the last year for which statistics are available, lags well below the national average of 3.6 percent. Rather than competing with the fastest-growing economies, we’re lagging near the bottom of the pack, alongside states like West Virginia, New Jersey, Arkansas and Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Mississippi. That’s hardly what the Republican and DFL architects of the Minnesota Miracle envisioned for us.
The governor is first to admit that our remote location and long winters put us at a competitive disadvantage with the booming economies of the Sun Belt. But we could once compete on the basis of a quality of life that was second to none. Today, however, we’re losing that advantage, too.
Last November Minnesota voters said enough is enough. They turned out many of the governor’s allies and handed firm control of both houses of the Legislature to the DFL, which has put together budget packages in the House and Senate that can help undo some of the damage caused during the first term of this governor’s so-called administration.
Is the DFL plan perfect? Probably not. Does it fix everything? Absolutely not. Is it a good starting-off point? Certainly.
A small tax hike on Minnesota families making more than $400,000 a year and individuals taking in more than $220,000 would generate $433 million over two years that would help provide health insurance for 70,000 uninsured children and get state K-12 education spending slightly above inflationary levels.
Before anyone buys into the inevitable “they’re raising your taxes” argument, consider that only about 28,000 people out of 5.1 million Minnesota residents would be affected by this measure. The median household income in Minnesota is $50,750. Whereas Pawlenty balanced budgets on the backs of the middle class and working poor, the DFL is merely asking the wealthiest Minnesotans to carry a little more of the burden.
If the governor can quote Isaiah, certainly he can understand the value of an axiom handed down in the book of Luke: “Unto whom much is given, of him shall much be required.”
The first gas tax adjustment since “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” topped the Nielsen ratings would generate much-needed revenue to begin a long-awaited modernization of our transportation system. With U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar chairing the House Transportation Committee, Minnesota is in line to receive some federal assistance, but if we can’t come up with the requisite matching funds Oberstar might as well be from Idaho.
With new revenue streams for education and transportation, the state’s $1 billion budget surplus can be used for property tax relief and buying back some of the school tax levies passed in recent years to help offset sub-inflationary state investment in K-12 education.
The governor has derided the proposals put forward by a coalition of conservative, moderate and liberal DFLers as “Taxapalooza.” His wisecracks mask the fact that he doesn’t have a plan. He doesn’t know how we’ll get back to where we were, let alone how we’ll get where we need to go. After mortgaging our future for his “no new taxes” plan during his first term, he’s blocking progress today to solidify his credentials with national Republican leaders in advance of a possible vice presidential candidacy next year.
The simple fact is it will take new investment to help rebuild Minnesota. When the governor and his allies say tax increases will kill the economy ask them to identify the benefits of their “no new taxes” policies. Ask them to point to the great new jobs they created. Ask them if low taxes equal growth, why isn’t Tennessee an economic juggernaut?
That Pawlenty and his allies don’t have all the answers is OK, nobody does. We didn’t get into this mess over the course of one year and unfortunately we’re not going to get out of it that quickly, either.
But the fact that the governor and his supporters aren’t putting out thoughtful proposals is simply inexcusable. It’s time for serious leadership and they have again decided to punt.
Don’t we deserve better than that?
Isn’t it time Pawlenty answered the call to “citizenship and service” he issued four years ago?
Christopher Truscott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He thinks Pawlenty should try pulling the goalie.