My Minnesota: what’s really behind the Pawlenty ‘No Tax’ pledge?

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On the surface, Governor Pawlenty’s pledge to not add or raise taxes looks quite simple: protect citizens from onerous taxation, and run government with minimal resources. Indeed, that has been the claim of all those before him, who made a similar pledge. But sometimes, appearances are not what they seem to be. Underlying this pledge is a far more sinister agenda – the slow but relentless erosion of government itself; and a visceral dislike of virtually any government services. If that seems outlandish, let me present some facts.

This dislike, and suspicion, of government goes back a long ways. In part, for some legitimate reasons; but many fallacious. So, playing on this theme is not very difficult. It even appears in the “Hager the Horrible” cartoon on frequent occasions, with the dreaded tax collector, wearing a black hood, and a fearsome weapon regularly knocking on Hager’s door. But leaping ahead several centuries, I really think it resurfaced with Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration speech, in which he proclaimed: “government is not the solution to our problem(s)…it is the problem”. And ever since then, Reagan has become the poster person for conservatives everywhere. In fact, in current presidential debates, his name is invoked constantly (57 times in one debate), as if he were a deity.

Opinion: My Minnesota: what’s really behind the Pawlenty ‘No Tax’ pledge?

On the Minnesota scene, this effort to disassemble government can be seen in several venues. Take the highly visible lobbying organization, the Taxpayers League. On September 14, League President, Phil Krinkie proclaimed the following at a Schools for Equity Education in St. Paul:

“High school class sizes of 200, or more would provide an acceptable level of education.”

He also stated that “public school parents don’t pay for education….private school parents who shell out top tuition dollars have more right to make demands on their children’s school”. Clearly, he is vigorously advocating the Taxpayers League’s consistent goal to weaken public education in favor of private schools. Well, actually public school parents are paying for schools through their property taxes; but the Taxpayer’s League would rather let public schools disintegrate in favor of privatization of education. The voucher system they propose is certainly part of this plan.

Then there is the locally based Center for the American Experiment. Shortly after the I-35 bridge collapse, there was a huge debate about proper funding for roads and bridges. Here’s what Mitch Pearlstein, the Center’s President and Founder suggested as a solution:

“Robert Poole of the California-based Reason Foundation has written about how Texas, Virginia and other ‘fast-growing states’ have demonstrated the efficacy of private companies competing for long-term contracts to design, finance, build, operate, and maintain major highways and bridges. In return, they recoup their investments by charging tolls. I’m convinced that if done properly, such public-private partnerships would work terrifically.”

Really? Yeah, that’s just what I want to do…ride down the highways with a bag of coins on my lap; or more likely with “private” roads, a wad of bills. Again there is the theme of eliminating government service…and privatize. As an aside, for a considerable period, our governor was proudly featured on the masthead of that organization’s website.

I also wrote a piece that was published right after the collapse, and I barely mentioned we should revisit the gas tax (now one of the lowest in the nation). I received a blizzard of mail and phone calls from these “no tax” folks; almost all claiming there was plenty of money already collected to fix our roads and bridges, if only it was “re-appropriated”. I seriously doubt that – the disintegrating façade of the MnDOT building itself is a delicious metaphor for the decline of government services under the “no tax” crowd. Even Pawlenty, stunned by the collapse, quickly offered to reconsider the gas tax – until he learned that there was not much public support for it. So much for leadership.

On the national level, the Federal government has little excess money to “re-appropriate”; our nation is swimming in war debt, with trillions (with a“T”) owed to foreign countries. Also on the national scene, to further support the claim that there are forces eager to disassemble government, Bush’s veto of the SCHIP program was less about money, than his reluctance to have any expanded government program, regardless of its value. And, just the other day, Nancy Nord, head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (who has a deep history of friendship with those she is supposed to regulate) incredulously refused additional funding, Congress wished to give her, to beef up a seriously understaffed agency. Regarding debt, officials like Pawlenty who have taken this “no tax” pledge, have generally fudged in a variety of ways. By laying off taxes to other (local) authorities, applying “user” fees, or by advocating additional debt financing. Such techniques only mask taxation and/or pass off the obligations to future generations…with substantial interest added. Others, such as George H. W. (“read my lips”) Bush, have come to regret the pledge altogether, by having to raise taxes to meet critical national needs. The lesson here: beware of those who make this pledge!

The bottom line on all this is that we can debate government’s role in some areas; and agree that government should stay out of others. But the reality is, we need and depend on government in many legitimate ways. Public safety, education, roads, bridges and infrastructure, courts, licensing, environmental protection, and many others all make our society safer, better and more civilized. And frankly, they also help assist our most needy citizens. Obviously, no one “likes” taxes; and no one supports waste and fraud (there is plenty of that in the private sector as well). But the fact is, taxes – when fairly assessed and progressive in nature — are the “dues” we pay to have effective government services, and live in an educated, clean, safe, civilized environment. And as concerned citizens, we cannot allow the Taxpayer’s League, The Center for American Enterprise, and the Pawlentys of the world to quietly decimate the effectiveness of government, then make the claim that government does not work. It is a subtle and insidious plan.

As for me, I would rather have a program of fair share taxation to properly fund needed government services, and live in a progressive, enlightened state, where (to quote Garrison Keillor): “all the women are strong; all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

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