Road to Ruin


Driving west, I have seen the conservative policy future of Minnesota. It’s not an encouraging sight.

Last week, we loaded the family truckster and headed to Denver. It’s every American’s dream to travel our nation with children. In Midwestern terms, that means the Rocky Mountains and points between, like the South Dakota tourist attractions Wall Drug and the Mitchell Corn Palace.

Opinion: Road to Ruin

I’m not going to beat up on South Dakota. With its low tax/low service culture, poor roads, mediocre schools and minimal economic development opportunities, South Dakota is simply too easy a target.

No, I’m going to beat up on Colorado.

Frankly, it’s hard, because I like Colorado. The Rockies are drop-dead amazing and the raw high plains, while an acquired taste, are beautiful, too. I grew up in southwestern Minnesota, so I prefer tall grass prairie to pine trees. I love the land’s stark roll and swell.

Except for the natural amenities, Colorado, from a policy perspective, isn’t much better than South Dakota. It’s a low-tax state. Some roads are good, some are poor. Even Intestate 76 was like turning off the blacktop onto gravel when crossing the Nebraska-Colorado line.

Colorado social services, like its schools, are a mixed bag as well. Some are good, some are poor. City zoning appears to be more of a suggestion than a practice.

Reading the local papers, I saw an Aspen vacation home listed for $7 million with an estimated $6,000 yearly property tax bill. In St. Paul, I think we’re going to be paying something around that figure and our house isn’t worth nearly a tenth of $7 million.

I understand that Aspen isn’t quite the real world. Service employees, the overwhelming majority of Aspen’s workforce, live 50 miles away in Glenwood Springs. They can’t afford Aspen rents or, for that matter, parking. Aspen had to organize a valley bus service to ensure sufficient staff.

Colorado’s economy is extractive. Originally built around mining, timber and ranching, still significant economic factors, the state now reaps $8.2 billion yearly from tourism, more than any other sector. But it’s also susceptible to economic downturns with no real-work fallback other than departing the state for better jobs.

Last winter, my sister-in-law reported a huge, pre-Christmas blizzard that immobilized Denver. Rather than plow residential streets, the city waited for a thaw while business ground to a halt for three days. It didn’t thaw and subsequent weekly blizzards made ice-rutted side streets almost impassable.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his conservative policy brethren aspire to this state of affairs. They’re pursuing a low tax/low service Minnesota, intently creating a new mediocrity.

It’s a culture of greed. Rather than invest, they hoard and retreat. Minnesota can do with less, they argue. They ignore the tough choices that spurred unprecedented growth of public infrastructure following World War II and made Minnesota the Upper Midwest’s economic development engine. In effect, they are suggesting that Minnesotans count on warm winter weather to clear our roads.

Pawlenty’s policy choices are astoundingly clear.

After years of publicly funded education, from the South St. Paul schools to the University of Minnesota to the U of M Law School, the governor wants to roll the bridge to the middle class up behind him. Where he can’t do that, he’s overburdening the bridge to point of collapse. Either way, he’s purposefully pursuing a very different Minnesota.

I think he’s wrong. Traveling in other states reinforces my faith in Minnesota values and the need to invest in our future. Smart education, transportation, health care and economic development public policy yield enormous benefits. The reverse is alarmingly evident.

I like Colorado, but I wouldn’t want to commute, get sick or educate my children there.