The Reality People Just Don’t Get

The news is starting to have more and more stories along this same line: the past several years of budget moves by governments (ranging from the federal down through the state, local, and even school district-level) has finally caught up with us–to the point where we can no longer kick the can down the road and hope that the financial state of the state gets better.

In Minnesota, eight years of Tim Pawlenty has left us with years during which the Democrats tried but failed to increase taxes while increasing spending, and the Republicans, led by Pawlenty, tried but failed to decrease taxes and spending. In the end, spending on some things went up, spending on others went down, but overall spending went up at a slower rate than it had in the past, but taxes were never increased to make up for the increased spending.

Pawlenty employed various budget tricks to balance the budget in this state, borrowing from one fund to pay for another until the latter fund could refund that “loan” back to the former. All of this so that he could exit his eight years of service to the state saying that he held the line of spending and taxes. All of which plays well to the moderate and conservative base that he’s trying to appeal to.

However, the end result is that after eight years, the state has racked up an anticipated $6 billion deficit, and unlike the federal government, the state lacks the ability to deficit spend, so we’ll need to close that gap over the next two year budget cycle somehow. The Republicans today produced their proposed cuts, cutting aid to local governments, and some other minor cuts which only add up to about $1 billion. Governor Dayton has yet to offer up his plan, but his campaign promised increased taxes for the wealthy in addition to targeted cuts.

But you’ve got to assume that somewhere in the middle, the taxes and budget cuts have to meet, at roughly $3 billion each for the next two years, or $1.5 billion each for each year. Wow…Using my public school math skills, that means about $300 more in taxes and $300 less in services from the state for each person in the state each year for the next two years (based on the 2010 Census count of about 5.3 million people in the state). For my family alone, that figures out to $1500 each way. Now, I said that you’ve got to assume that the cuts and taxes have to meet in the middle, though each political viewpoint wants to stick to just one side of the street: could any of us really afford $600 more in state taxes per person in their house, or even $600 less in state government services? And keep in mind state government services in Minnesota helps pay for, among other things, local police, fire, public schools, highways, and public transit.

I was struck by the tone of angry suburban parents (the prototypical conservative or moderate crowd) at one local school district for proposing cuts to some athletic programs (some very competitively successful athletic programs) at one of the district’s two high schools in order to help balance their budget. These parents were vocal in their disapproval, insisting that the school could find other places to cut the budget. But the truth was this: with a roughly $15 million deficit coming, the district’s proposed cuts to the athletic department amounted to less than one-half of one percent of what they needed to cut. And this had people up in arms? What happens when class sizes balloon to twice their current size?

For too long, both ends of the political spectrum have stopped hearing reason. Two, four, and six years ago, the leaders of this state had the chance to fix the budget problem right then and there by responding rationally to the problems and implementing a two-part fix combining taxes and budget cuts. But neither side wanted the other to “win,” so the budget was patched on a stop-gap basis, and the bill was passed on to the next term.

Well, time’s up for the state. We’ve run out of time. And some of those parents complaining about the cuts to their prized athletics program are to blame because they, along with nearly all of the politicians in this state and the country, have lost sight of what’s important: successful governance, not political promises. You can’t have everything you want from your government without paying for it. And if you want to pay less in taxes, you have to expect less in return. That’s the reality. And the angry and disappointed parents at the school board meeting tonight obviously missed that point. And how do we know this? Because a three-part levy question on last fall’s ballot would have gone a long way toward fixing the problem, but two of the three parts was turned down, meaning that the then $21 million could not be raised by increased taxes…Instead, just one quarter of what was needed was raised through the decision of the voters.

Direct causality: no taxes, no athletic funding. Do you get it now, folks?

Politicians yell and scream about the “good old days,” when government programs were fully funded and the country ran well. But taxes were also much higher than they are now, and yet people could still afford housing, employment was fairly high, and the American educational system was widely regarded as one of the best on earth. Yeah…The politicians don’t get it either: they yell and scream about how great it’s been that they’ve lowered our taxes since those “good old days.”

Just think about it, everybody.

See you tomorrow.