Column #163. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Feb. 5, 2021; in print Feb. 7
“What goes around comes around.” – Justin Timberlake (and many before him)
“There is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." – George Santayana
Write columns for a long time and you’ll see plenty of evidence for these maxims.
In July 2008, at the end of my first year in the Times Writers Group, my column was headlined “’No new taxes’ is not Minnesotan.” Howard Mohr's "How to Speak Minnesotan "had taught this mid-1980s transplant from Pennsylvania the basics – “You bet,” “That's different” and “Whatever” – and even finer points such as “It could be worse” and “Heckuva deal.”
Nowhere in Mohr’s book did I find “No new taxes.” “The phrase is a foreign intrusion into our vocabulary,” I wrote. “I feel about it the way the French feel about English words that have insinuated themselves into their language, like ‘le weekend.’”
Almost 13 years later Gov. Walz makes his budget proposal and, as Polonius says in another context, “it must follow, as the night the day” that the Republican majority in the Minnesota Senate repeats the alien mantra, as if on cue: “No new taxes.”
Ronald Reagan set the stage glibly and treacherously: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help.’” Believe this, and you will of course resist raising taxes – or paying any taxes at all.
“No new taxes” escalated to dogma when Americans for Tax Reform, endorsed by Reagan in 1986, developed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Even today, the pledge commits a state legislator who signs it: “I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
Six Minnesota state senators are identified at the Americans for Tax Reform website as currently bound to the pledge: Roger Chamberlain, Paul Gazelka, Mary Kiffmeyer, Warren Limmer, Dave Osmek, Charles Wiger. Kiffmeyer’s district – which includes Sherburne and Wright counties – is our neighborhood, and Gazelka is in a very powerful position as Senate majority leader. They have sworn, over their signatures, to “vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
Let me say that again: “any and all.” In other words, there is absolutely no argument, no cause, of any sort that could ever persuade them to vote for even one more penny in taxes.
So what are the results of these inflexible pledges that put partisanship over people – that straitjacket a legislator’s oath to “support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Minnesota” by another oath, to Americans for Tax Reform?
Minnesota hasn’t yet recovered from the lost decade (2002-10) that Gov. Tim Pawlenty foisted on us with the refusal to invest – about which Gazelka in 2019 boasted, “We’ve not voted for a tax increase since 2005. We did agree to a few fees now and then. But that has always been something very very important to us, that we are fiscally responsible.”
The Minnesota Budget Project demonstrated that under Pawlenty these measures of well-being declined relative to other states: per capita personal income, median household income, and rate of employment, as well as funding for schools (including higher education), bridges and roads.
Walz’s plan does raise income taxes – on 0.7% of households, with 99.3% seeing no increase. Those who, in the Republican view, will be unfairly burdened are those making $1 million (married, filing jointly), $750,000 (head of household) or $500,000 (single), with an average increase of $8,072. These people will not suffer. They have already benefited more than the rest of us from Trump’s federal tax cuts.
Walz’s budget takes seriously the devastating effects on all of us of the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor realizes that the common good in these times requires us to do things that can’t be done without additional resources. Money the government spends is not buried in a hole in the ground. It is invested in people, in infrastructure, in institutions.
And here is an argument for the budget proposal that Republicans should applaud. They are always recommending business as the model for government, and if there’s anything business people love, it’s Return on Investment (ROI). The Walz budget’s ROI in so many areas is immense, especially when the support goes to the care of children, both in infancy and through their schooling.
I want to be treated as a citizen first, taxpayer second. I do not appreciate the Republicans in the Minnesota Senate holding the government hostage.
There’s another maxim, different from those cited at the beginning of this column. It’s a line from a poem of the late Seamus Heaney, one that’s a favorite of President Biden: a time when “hope and history rhyme.” When you put “no new taxes” between hope and history, the dissonance is deafening. It’s time to rhyme.
This is the opinion of Patrick Henry, retired executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research and author of “Flashes of Grace: 33 Encounters with God.” His column is published the first Sunday of the month.