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Advocates for revenue are a sign of the times

Published 11:37am Friday, January 11, 2013

Every year, just about the time the Legislature holds its first session, groups with a cause make tours around the state to talk with newspaper editorial boards about what they hope lawmakers will do.

For the past several years, those visits have been dominated by groups that advocate for tax cuts or, on the flip side, are hoping to hold off cuts in the programs they favor. So it was a bit unusual when an organization called Growth and Justice asked for an appointment to talk about increasing government revenues and spending.

It’s a sign of the political times at the Capitol, where power shifted dramatically after November’s election and talk of spending increases is the norm.

For advocates of efficient government, the idea of spending more is hard to swallow. So it was a real surprise when I found myself agreeing with much of what Growth and Justice President Dan Smith had to say.

If taxpayer money must be spent, education is a good place to spend it. Within that broad category, early childhood education is particularly important — and often badly neglected. Because it is poorly understood and provides direct support to a group that can’t vote (and whose parents will have an interest in early childhood education for only a couple of years), adequate funding to educate pre-kindergarten children has always been hard to come by. But it’s the best investment that can be made, because the benefits of education are multiplied many times when they’re provided at a very young age.

Supporting K-12 education, another Growth and Justice theme, is nearly as important. It is essential Minnesota repay public schools the $1.1 billion they are owed from previous budget cycles, money which lawmakers (with support from both parties, it should be noted) have withheld in desperate attempts to balance the budget.

Growth and Justice also believes that transportation should be a spending priority. That makes sense, provided no more is pumped into building more freeway lanes in the metropolitan area. Twin Cities traffic has been a nightmare for decades, and despite a vast increase in freeway lanes doesn’t seem to be getting any better. It’s time for lawmakers to be clear to transportation planners that single-car auto commuting in the metro is a bad plan. It’s time to focus on mass transit and outstate roadways.

None of that, of course, is inexpensive – especially for a state that faces a multi-billion dollar budget deficit.

The reality of Minnesota’s budget situation is that some revenue increase (i.e. taxes) is going to be necessary. It may even be desirable, if managed carefully so that increases don’t disproportionately hurt the poor.

My own hope is that legislators, before tacking on new taxes or tax increases, will set a hard cap on what they can spend, and then organize the state’s spending from the bottom up with an emphasis on schools and other essentials. At some point, some of what government does will be in excess of the spending cap, and that’s where the cut-off line for spending (and tax revenue) should be.

Providing basic services such as education and transportation shouldn’t be a partisan issue, or a liberal vs. conservative issues. It’s just a basic feature of a well-run state. There is obviously plenty of common ground to develop a budget that accomplishes that goal. We should all hope we see that this winter from St. Paul.


Warmer weather enjoyable for humans and pests alike

This spell of February-type weather during mid-January may not be a symptom of climate change. But, then, it might be. And while we’re enjoying the mild weather it’s worth remembering that some creatures we might consider pests also enjoy it. Repeated warm winters make it easy for insects, in particular, to survive through the cold months and eventually extend their ranges to the north.


The book is better again

A quick movie review: Fans of the action/suspense novels that feature a main character called Jack Reacher will want to avoid the movie of the same name. Although the novels have enough quirky twists to disguise their basic plot lines, the movie captures none of the books’ charm. After a few interesting early scenes, it turns into just another car chase and shootout, as unoriginal as white bread.

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