Less government? We tried that. It didn't work

The Star Tribune's front-page story today finds that "less government'' is the overwhelming consensus "vision'' for Repubican gubernatorial candidates. Peggy Lee and most Minnesotans want to know: Is that all there is?    

Leaving aside that this mantra sounds more like hard-right, activist-energizing  radio talk than inclusive vision casting --  and has to be extremely disappointing to hundreds of thousands of moderate and progressive Republican voters -- we need some context here.  

  The Price of Government, an official state Minnesota Management and Budget measure, shows that we DO have less government over the last decade, and ever since the no-new-taxes religion, like some southern invasive species, got a hold on the North Star State.  (See page 13 of the PowerPoint presented at the capitol last week by State Economist Tom Stinson and State Demographer Tom Gillaspy).    

The bar graphs clearly show that our governments are using about two percentage points less (15.5 percent in 2008 compared to about 17.5 percent through the 1990s) of our personal income share than those governments were spending when the economy was actually doing better.    Huge income tax cuts in 1999 and 2000 left us with chronic  budget crises, and the promised payoff in sustained, tide-rising economic growth didn't materialize either.   Wealth concentration at the top got worse, bridge and road conditions deteriorated, public school course offerings were cut, and thousands of working low-income folks lost their health care.   And our economy is slumping and beginning to underperform the national average on some key inicators.   We surely could use some more judicious restructuring and redesign of how we do our government work.   But the basic things it provides are essential for our shared prosperity and quality-of-life.  

NOTE:  The Price of Goverment measure is one of the most comprehensive of all the measures we have to describe the size and role of government.   It counts state and local government revenues as a percentage of total income and therefore accounts for inflation, population growth and economic growth. It was instituted at the behest and with the approval of business groups in the late 1980s.

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Dane Smith's picture
Dane Smith

Dane Smith heads Growth and Justice, a St. Paul-based think tank.