My neighborhood is up in arms. It’s a well-mannered outrage but listening to folks steam, I can’t escape the conclusion that we’re mad at all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. Forty years of relentless conservative messaging can really mess with your head.
Some weeks ago, the City of Saint Paul’s Parks and Recreation Department removed aging, dilapidated metal playground equipment from the Monkey Island playground. The metal supports had finally grown too rusted and brittle for safe play. The city did the responsible thing and hauled it away.
These facts are not in dispute. Everyone understands that the playground equipment was old, living on borrowed time. Yet, people are hopping mad.
In moments of unexpected change and order upheaval, people want a bad guy. They want to blame someone, holding that person or persons accountable for perceived wrongs and injustices. The problem? In this situation, the bad guy is conservative state public policy.
Years ago, on a triangular split of land, the city established a small playground. Today, this type is called a tot lot. It’s a limited function outdoor recreational area, aimed at younger kids. Until recently, Monkey Island had a swing set, a slide, a jungle gym and a bench for weary parents. The play equipment was 1960s vintage.
If you were born before 1980, you’d recognize this stuff. It’s the play equipment of our youth, representing a time when nobody thought that a jungle gym’s perpendicular metal bars might pose a greater health risk than a benefit. Contemporary playground equipment is mostly made from recycled plastic. It’s durable, safer, more adaptable, weather resistant and easier to maintain but it lacks that baby boomer nostalgia kick.
Initially, and to a continuing degree, some folks focused on process, expressing frustration that the city didn’t follow its own community notification procedure. And, as the Parks & Rec Department immediately acknowledged, people were right; the department should’ve handled things differently. That doesn’t, however, change the fact that the swing set, monkey bars and slide were old and falling apart.
Now, we get to the real problem. Saint Paul can’t afford to replace the playground. It’s not just buying $50,000 worth of new swings and slides. No, the whole area needs an upgrade to current standards. That swing set replacement is suddenly a $150,000 project.
This begs a critical question: why doesn’t the city have the money? Two reasons. First, even though we’re nearly three years past the recession, the economic recovery is barely a crawl. Public tax revenue remains tight. Second, due to conservative state tax policy shifts, Minnesota unilaterally cut its highly efficient revenue sharing program, retaining a much, much greater share of tax revenue for itself than it had promised. Consequently, Saint Paul and every Minnesota community have slashed program budgets and raised property taxes. We’re paying more and getting less.
In my neighborhood, those chickens have come home to roost. We can’t afford to replace a tot lot.
Neighbors are launching a private, charitable fundraising effort but it highlights the problems inherent in conservative insistence that charitable works can replacement government. Raising $5,000 is possible. Raising $150,000 pits the tot lot against other established charitable organizational needs. Which, people reasonably ask, is more important? Contributing to Children’s Hospital or contributing to the children’s playground?
Philanthropy is important—critical, actually—but it cannot remotely replace the community’s service commitment, organized through government. This returns us to the central public policy question: why did the State of Minnesota slash revenue sharing? To preserve a conservative tax system that benefits Minnesota’s highest income earners at the expense of middle class and poor Minnesotans.
Minnesota’s legislative leaders could’ve voted to raise taxes, bringing tax rates for the wealthy into line with everyone else’s tax rates. They repeatedly refuse to do that, choosing to force communities to make the tough budget and property tax increase decisions.
And that’s why Monkey Island is no longer a playground.
Over the past forty years, conservatives have invested billions of dollars into conservative messaging, research and advocacy organizations. Lop-sided tax policy has resulted. Yet, here in the neighborhood, people are mad at local government. We’ve become advocates for the conservative frame that works against our needs and interests. We become our own worst enemy.
If, however, we focus on outcomes rather than rigid ideology, we can change the situation. When we prioritize schools, healthcare, infrastructure and jobs, Minnesota moves forward. When we choose lop-sided tax policy over playgrounds, we all fall behind.