OPINION | The Big Rock Candy Mountain crumbles

Print

The times of plenty have passed. Two weeks on, my kids’ Halloween candy bags are near empty. No more M&Ms, mini-Snickers, six-to-a-box Dots or cellophane packets of candy corn. What survives to this point is whatever is least desired. The easy choices were made a long time ago.

Like most parents, I face the Halloween candy collection with mixed feelings. It’s a great tradition. I loved trick or treating. I’m overjoyed that my children love trick or treating. I’m pleased that they’re creating an important inter-generation link in our neighborhood. However, they both came home with a lot of candy.

My dilemma regards permitted consumption; it’s careful rationing versus short-term gluttony. I’ve always landed on the first option but I understand the latter’s attractiveness. Thoughtful, deliberate candy eating reinforces pretty much all of my life’s priorities while gorging represents a near-complete foreign perspective. Consequently, we’ve made it two weeks with the possibility of achieving three but only because less desirable candy remains.

With Wednesday’s release of the Pew Center on the States’ research report, “Beyond California: States in Fiscal Peril,” it’s become distressingly obvious that my kids aren’t the only people with nearly empty candy bags.

California is the worst state, meaning its revenues and budgets are out of whack. California is spending more money than its bringing in. Wisconsin and Illinois are included in the report’s top ten states at greatest financial risk. Minnesota received a fifteen score, placing us in the “sort of ok/not as bad as California but not exactly good either” category.

First, I don’t want to oversimplify the Pew Center’s findings. They’re important but also complex, factoring structural elements into a state’s grade, like whether a legislative supermajority is required to pass tax increases.

Second, don’t be misled by my analogy. My kids’ Halloween candy shortage isn’t remotely the same thing as school, health care, highway or pension funding. This is important because conservatives are always invoking the family kitchen table budget analogy.

Minnesota, conservative public policy leaders like to say, is just like a family struggling to balance its household budget while still achieving family and household stability. Well, no, it’s not. Minnesota is many wonderful things but we’re a community rather than a family. Communities behave differently than families.

Ascribing a family’s budgeting and decision making process to a state’s diminishes the former and misleads the latter’s. While my parental and community duties may significantly and necessarily overlap, my duty to my children is profoundly different than my duty to my state. When conservatives trot out the kitchen table analogy, they really have an agenda that’s at odds with what they’re saying.

“We all have to tighten our belts,” means “we’re going to preserve Minnesota’s tax structure that taxes Minnesota’s wealthiest citizens at a lower rate than what most people pay.” When you hear, “sometimes, mom or dad has to get a second job and bring more money in to pay the bills,” what they really mean is “we’re going to preserve Minnesota’s tax structure that taxes Minnesota’s wealthiest citizens at a lower rate than what most people pay.” When they say, “families make hard choices every day,” what they really mean is “we’re going to preserve Minnesota’s tax structure that taxes Minnesota’s wealthiest citizens at a lower rate than what most people pay.”

The Pew Center’s report makes me glad that I live in Minnesota and not in California, Michigan or Illinois. Still, on top of this relatively good news, a second news report, released yesterday, gives me pause. Minnesota may have to borrow money to meet its short-term cash flow needs.

That finding, issued by Minnesota’s Commissioner of Revenue, suggests we might be closer to California’s problems than the Pew Center’s data finds. Minnesota 2020 tax policy fellow Jeff Van Wychen is calculating a six billion dollar state budget deficit for Minnesota’s next biennium. With the economy lagging, we’re creating less revenue than we projected.

Our fiscal challenges are real and deep, requiring stronger leadership and harder choices than what we’ve experienced to date.

If conservatives trot out the family kitchen table budget analogy again, know that they’re grasping at rhetorical straws. My kids don’t see a bag of Halloween candy as anything other than a bag of Halloween candy. I trust Minnesotans don’t either.