Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #012. First published in the St. Cloud Times July 22, 2008

in Minnesota three years when Howard Mohr's book, "How to Speak Minnesotan," was published in 1987.

I had mastered the basics — "You bet," "That's different" and "Whatever" — but Mohr alerted me to the finer points, such as "It could be worse" and "Heckuva deal" (George W. Bush was mangling Minnesotan when he paid his notorious "compliment" to Brownie in New Orleans).

When you're called upon to speak your mind and "that's different" is too equivocal, "yeahbut" constitutes a strong stand.

I recently picked up the book again to see whether something you hear a lot these days is authentic Minnesota speech. My suspicion was warranted. "No new taxes" is nowhere to be found in Mohr's book. The phrase is a foreign intrusion into our vocabulary. I feel about it the way the French feel about English words that have insinuated themselves into their language, like "le weekend."

How it started

The "no new taxes" pledge began its rise to the status of dogma ("candidates and incumbents solemnly bind themselves" is what Americans for Tax Reform says on its Web site) when it was endorsed by Ronald Reagan in 1986. It started leaching into our local dialect a decade after Mohr published his book, with the founding of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota in 1997. In the 11 years since, the League's endlessly repeated mantra has hypnotized us, and we have been sleepwalking into mediocrity. Once upon a time, and for a long time, Minnesota was a standard-bearer for the nation. In most of the ways that counted we were like all the children of Lake Wobegon — "above average."

Our roads, our schools, our environment, our quality of life were a source of justified pride, and our average income was way above the national norm.

As former Gov. Elmer Andersen, a Republican, noted, "when everything (e.g., education, highways, parks, public health) was prudently and carefully taken care of, then the proper tax bill was entered into and adopted."

A time of relatively high taxation was a time of notable business success. From 1980-2000, Minnesota's state and local taxes ranking as a percentage of income hovered between 8th and 5th in the nation. In 2006, it was 19th, and in that same year we ranked 34th in state and local total education spending and 19th in state and local highway spending. Our economy is under-performing the nation's.

As Dane Smith, president of Growth & Justice, has said, "These numbers tell us what anti-tax types don't want you to know: Minnesota has become an average-tax state and is not making the valuable public investments in education and infrastructure that helped produce its great quality of life."

Not only has our tax ranking declined, but our taxes have also become less fair. Because of the 1997-2001 income tax cuts, the wealthiest 1 percent of Minnesotans — those making more than $350,000 per year — who have almost 16 percent of all income in the state, pay less than 13 percent of total taxes, and regressive property taxes have become too big a part of that total. The wrong people are paying the wrong taxes.

A bit of advice

Howard Mohr analyzes the way we Minnesotans give advice gently, especially when it hasn't been requested. "A lotta guys wouldn't use a welder so close to a gas tank like that."

Such a phrase is also useful for accurate reporting. A poll last year showed a lotta Minnesotans know "no new taxes" is alien speech, especially when spoken in a context of glaring tax unfairness. Seventy percent of likely voters said they favored raising taxes on the wealthiest to pay for education and property tax relief.

When you hear the "no new taxes" creed, as you will loud and often this campaign season, be heretical (which is actually traditional). Say "Yeahbut: I'm a citizen first, and only then a taxpayer." The Taxpayers League has mesmerized us, and it's time to come to our senses. Say to all the candidates of whatever party: "Invest in Minnesota, invest in the common good — heckuva deal." That's the authentic way to speak Minnesotan. You bet.