Crisis mustn’t reinforce poor policy choices

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If crisis offers opportunity, Minnesota should bet on itself. It shouldn’t double down on failed public policy. Given state policymakers’ ominous hints regarding slashing or eliminating Local Government Aid payments, that’s clearly what’s at risk.

Today, Minnesota is staring down a projected $5.5 billion deficit, fully factoring inflation. The real kicker though is the $426 current biennial budget shortfall. That’s the cash required to meet current budget obligations. But, it gets worse.

On Wednesday, State Economist Tom Stinson informed the State Senate Tax Committee that earlier estimates hadn’t fully factored in our present economic drubbing. State policymakers should expect the $426 million figure to grow by another $30-70 million.

Minnesota’s short-term budget shortfall will be a half-billion dollars. It’s a big number but not an incomprehensible one to Minnesotans coping with the deepest recession since WWII, tightening family budgets and mortgage payments beyond their means.

Conservative public policy advocates frequently frame government activities as something akin to the family budget. Not only are they wrong, they’re purposefully interjecting a misleading fallacy. Government is not a family but collective community action generated by shared values.

If you’ve been following conservative public policy positions, it’s clear that conservatives not only hate government but they’re determined to undermine public confidence in it. They understand the budget and economic crisis’ opportunity. And, through Minnesota’s chief public policymaker, Governor Tim Pawlenty, they’re acting on their priorities.

Given the state’s short-term budget shortfall, exacerbating the problem doesn’t require much heavy lifting.

Apparently, the easiest cash solution is to not pay or only partially pay the state’s December 15 $270 million LGA obligation. On paper, that seems fairly straight-forward. On the streets of Hutchinson, that’s presents some very, very, very difficult choices.

I reference Hutchinson because the Hutchinson Leader is reporting that the city is withdrawing from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. Is this prompted by Hutch’s objection to CGMC’s priorities or a disagreement over organizational direction? Nope. Hutchinson’s elected leaders feel that they can’t afford membership.

“It is going to be difficult to afford the Coalition membership,” Council Member Jim Haugen said, as reported in the Hutchinson Leader. “We just froze (employee) salaries. I think we need to look at everything. In light of the economy, I make the motion that we don’t renew (the membership).”

It passed 3-2 with the mayor and a councilmember objecting, arguing that Hutchinson needs a voice in St. Paul more than ever.

Every government service cost forced on cities, counties and school districts translates into property tax increases. Local government units rely on property taxes to fund local services such as police and fire departments, street maintenance, water treatment, and parks and libraries. Absent state revenue-sharing payments, cities like Hutchinson face grim alternatives.

Now, this process is stifling the opportunity to even object.

Conservative public policy is predicated on the idea that government is bad. Any solution, any need, any objective involving a government role becomes, by fiat, a condemnable action.

We shouldn’t be surprised that conservative public policy has created the budget deficit crisis. More importantly, we shouldn’t be surprised that conservative solutions only seek to amplify the crisis, deepening economic divides and undermine government’s mission. Stated differently, putting the fox in charge of the hen house only results in a single, predictable outcome.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to craft public policy. State policymakers seem determined to embrace the wrong and reject the right. Instead, public policy should advance what’s best in Minnesota, putting us on track for a bright, growing, sustainable future. Now, more than ever, public policy must focus on what really matters.