Column #007. First published in the St. Cloud Times Feb. 26, 2008
On Feb. 13, Gov. Tim Pawlenty delivered his State of the State address in St. Cloud. Headlines the next day in the Times ("'OUR STATE IS STRONG'") and Star Tribune ("Pawlenty: State of veto pen is ready") convey different impressions of the same event.
The governor might say the Times headline is right because the Star Tribune headline is right; Minnesota is strong because he has held, and will hold, the line against any new revenues.
Pawlenty brandished a red pen, "an important tool to restrain taxes and spending. I call it the taxpayer protection pen, otherwise known as the veto pen," he boasted Feb. 13. Only nine days later, on Friday, he made good on that threat by vetoing the transportation bill.
We have become so accustomed to the governor's 11th commandment — thou shalt have no new taxes — that we think it must go back to Moses. But it's actually quite recent. Pawlenty's brand of Republicanism asks first "How much do we have?" and then "How can we parcel it out?"
Not long ago a Republican voice proclaimed a very different commandment.
Former Gov. Elmer Andersen, speaking in May 2004, told of a time when the order of questions was the reverse.
"The tax bill was always the last thing considered at the Legislature. First was considered what was necessary in the way of education, highways, parks, public health and defense, and when everything was prudently and carefully taken care of, then the proper tax bill was entered into and adopted. It was interesting that Minnesota's income per capita passed the national average for the first time in many years, and out-migration changed to in-migration, and the total population grew instead of declined. That was in a period of high taxation."
Pawlenty rightly praises Minnesota's accomplishments as we celebrate our 150th anniversary. ("It's because of the hard work, dedication and character of our people, that Minnesota is at or near the top in most quality of life measures.")
But he doesn't acknowledge that Minnesota has achieved its high rank not because of his veto pen, but because of the generations of fair and rational investment of the sort Andersen championed.
And Pawlenty doesn't acknowledge that while St. Cloud does well, we could do a lot better had there not been drastic reductions in Local Government Aid.
Pawlenty's starve-government, veto-pen approach simply has not worked.
While we count inflation on the income side of the state budget, we refuse to use the same inflation standard for budgeting adjustments to state spending.
Instead of indexing the gas tax for inflation like our neighbor, Wisconsin, we have a 1988 gas tax of 20 cents that's now worth about 12 cents. No wonder our roads and bridges and schools are eroding, our job growth is down and our rank in personal income has declined. No wonder we have high property taxes and excess levy referendums for school costs that can't keep up with inflation. No wonder our quality of life in Minnesota is waning.
Republicans like Andersen, who was a business leader as head of H.B. Fuller Co., understand that while public investment is not the only answer to our state's well-being, it is a big part of the answer.
Rhetoric like this in Pawlenty's speech — "government's never-ending claims on (Minnesotans') pocketbooks," "stop government from digging into your wallets" — paints government itself, "We the people," as part of an axis of evil.
Pawlenty also said that "Minnesotans are smart. Minnesotans are creative. Minnesotans are strong." Yes, we are, and we're smart enough, creative enough and strong enough to understand that there are things our elected officials must prudently and carefully take care of first, and then determine what it will cost.
When Andersen died in November 2004, Pawlenty said he "epitomized the Minnesota spirit." I wish our current Republican governor were wielding, as his Republican predecessor did, the "common good protection pen."
Andersen knew that the common good pen, not the veto pen, is the real, long-term "taxpayer protection pen."