OPINION | You get what you pay for


Tomorrow is the deadline for Americans to file their taxes. We’ll likely see Tea Partiers pop up around Minnesota, espousing the utopia we might all enjoy if only the government would do away with those pesky taxes.  As they gather in Aitkin or at the State Capitol, they’ll conveniently overlook using Highway 169 or I-35 to reach their protest. They’ll ignore the public safety and infrastructure investments that facilitate their right to freely assemble. In fact, given the public, community space necessary to protest taxes, it’s not clear Tea Partiers actually want to live in a “no tax” world. 

At a recent transportation policy conference in Minnesota, Secretary Ray LaHood asked attendees for their opinions on how to improve transit in Minnesota and the U.S. His visit coincided with a pledge to give federal money to the Central Corridor project.  Some wanted to ensure Minnesota’s minorities would not lose out; others that bicycle commuters be considered. However, one guest used the opportunity to illustrate the current state of the anti-tax movement.

Standing, the man identified himself as a Tea Party supporter and said he was in favor of better transit options in the Twin Cities. He thought expanding the light rail would be a boon to the residents of the Twin Cities, but there was a catch. He didn’t see why Minnesotans should have to pay for it and vehemently disagreed with the notion that funding should in any way come from citizens of the state.

Conservative anti-tax zealots like to equate taxation to robbery. They portray the government as a black hole, sucking money out of working Minnesotans’ pockets never to be seen again. And then, like our Tea Party friend, the services they use are expected to be funded as if by magic. Any service they do not use directly is a symbol of government waste, and those they do use are not their responsibility.

Let’s present a more accurate view of how taxation works. Look toward your local YMCA. All members of the club must pay a fee, which goes toward maintaining and expanding the facilities. Members have access to a variety of equipment that they would not be able to afford on their own. Swimmers might only use the pool, but they’re not about to dig a pool in their backyards, and most weightlifters don’t have extra room in the budget to buy complete sets of dumbbells, exercise benches, and weight machines. Now it doesn’t matter if the lap swimmers never touch the weight machines or elliptical trainers, their membership dues are still paying for it. Yet the pool that they enjoy daily is paid for by members who never so much as dip in a toe. Collectively, the YMCA is able to provide high quality facilities because all members pay for the upkeep of the whole club, and the Y is better for it.

Any conservative can tell you this arrangement is socialism and wholly un-American. If you want to build fabulous pecs, you need to buy your own damn Bowflex (and bench press and free weights). While they espouse this party line ad nauseum, many of their actions reveal that, actually, they might also enjoy the services they denounce.

Glenn Beck recently demonstrated this point. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, the king of conservative infotainment and propagandist extraordinaire made an ignorant and unintentionally candid admission. As he railed against the inherent evil of progressiveness and taxation, he claimed to have acquired all this knowledge at the library because “it’s free.”

Is it lost on Mr. Beck that the library is a collective project funded by the tax system he equates to totalitarianism? And if this became clear, would that persuade him to invest in his own collection of books?

Even factoring in that many of the more fantastic anti-tax statements are the cynical rants of savvy entertainers, the more sincere proponents of anti-tax policy display an appalling lack of awareness of the services and benefits tax dollars provide to the community. They hold Tea Party marches in public parks, anti-tax rallies in front of the Capitol building in St Paul, drive on publicly-funded roads to get to these rallies, or like Mr. Beck, educate themselves on the tyranny of taxation with books from the public library.

And closer to home, we see the effects of this vehement anti-tax mentality. Governor Pawlenty has spent the past eight years pushing his “No New Taxes” policy, and it has not led to the prosperity many conservatives promised. In fact, from the deterioration of roads to under-funded schools to shrinking health care options, Minnesotans have witnessed quite the opposite. A lack of funding has resulted in fewer programs for working families at a time when those resources are needed more than ever. And still, as every quality of life indicator slips, the anti-tax crowd assures us that depriving the state of revenue is the key to Minnesota’s growth. But, as MN2020 reported earlier this year, once a national leader in areas such as education and employment, Minnesota is now lagging.

Since 2002, Minnesota’s state and local government revenues and expenditures have declined significantly in comparison to other states. The corresponding decline in public investment has coincided with a decline in Minnesota’s economic performance and quality of life. And if Minnesota continues to slide in key areas that once made our state an attractive place to live, to work and to raise a family, there will be economic implications for the state. No matter what the conservatives may claim, their tax breaks are harder on our wallets.