Will the real Elmer please stand up?

Thursday evening I participated in a candidate forum at Carleton College, organized by David Holman of the Wellstone House of Organization and Activism.

The many attendees were witness to a good discussion from city, county, and school board candidates, and the House 25B candidates, Rep. Ray Cox and myself. Roy Grow was the moderator and was very fair and even-handed in the way he conducted the forum. He remarked at the end about our good behavior, and I wonder if he had been expecting something different.

Ray made the clearest statement I have yet to hear him make, where he both acknowledged and defended his Republican voting record. He stated his belief was that the ‘sky was not falling,’ that the budget cuts that were made were good cuts, and the budget was balanced in a fair way.

Ray Cox again defended his co-authoring of the Mesaba 2,000 megawatt power plant saying that the coal gasification process was sound because it would prevent mercury pollution. The science is still out on such a huge project, it has only been used in 200-300MW sizes, and it is not known how well the process will do in protecting the environment from dangerous pollutants such as mercury because the mercury removal technology is still at an experimental stage. I’ve also learned that the consultant that testified at the capitol about mercury emissions of the plant, ICF, was the same one that the Dept. of Commerce demonstrated had underestimated mercury emissions by 65% in a transmission line proceeding before the Environmental Quality Board. Ray did not address the problems posed by the legislature’s exemption of the plant and its transmission from Certificate of Need review, giving a private interest eminent domain, mandating a power purchase agreement because there is no market for the electricity, and the giving away of $10 million from the renewable energy fund which is now in dispute at the Public Utilities Commission. The bottom line of this project is that according to industry projections this is energy we don’t need, it uses public moneys in a time of extreme scarcity to help a private company to produce a massive amount of energy that can only be delivered to market over massive power lines through bulk power transfer that will put the environment and our power grid at risk, and although it’s an independent power producer, they’ll try to bill the rate payers for the transmission line upgrades. This commitment to over one billion dollars in infrastructure is putting private interest ahead of the public good, and once it’s spent, we can’t get our money back.

Ray went on to argue that the budget cuts that were made got rid of waste ultimately that will result in making the state more efficient. I would like to know specifics, such as what cuts he’s referring to when he speaks of waste, what programs were inefficient, because the programs that I know of that were cut are crucial programs that we are dependent on. What local government funding was extravagant or unnecessary?

Answering the same question I indicated I thought the budget passed by the legislature and the Governor was ‘horrible, horrible’ because it did not deal with the realities we face, it was not balanced, and it puts our state budget into deficits for perhaps the next seven years. Nineteen million dollars was cut from child care support, 38,000 lost their health care through Minnesota Care, local governments lost funding and had to raise taxes, schools have had to cut programs and lay off teachers. State aid to college students was reduced and college tuition went up, which is now being felt at MnSCU, which had its first decrease in enrollment this quarter and students are saying they are having a difficult time paying the double digit tuition hikes. Some of these cuts cannot be restored, the tobacco endowment was used to balance the budget, unfairly regressive fees and surcharges were put in place, and cost shifts put an increased financial burden on residential, middle and lower class and future taxpayers. An attempt on the part of DFLers that would have equalized the now lopsided tax code was turned away.

Perhaps the sky is not falling, but the ’03 budget has hurt us as a state like the Chinese torture called ‘death by a thousand cuts’ and there is more to come. I do not see any basis for Rep. Cox’s talk that things are just fine and that we will be better when our earning power and state services sink to a level equal with our neighboring states. Rep. Cox has publicly said at two or more forums that we must not equalize the tax rate paid by the rich, which I promote, because he claims, we risk forcing the richest Minnesotans to leave the state if we ask them to pay their fair share. But he is not apparently worried about nursing home residents, or schools, or local governments, people who drive on roads, or minimum wage earners, and apparently does not understand that the very rich became rich and have been living in Minnesota and the U.S. under far higher tax rates, they prospered through that, gained from the services and infrastructure provided by taxes and prospered. Isn’t that prosperity what we’re after here? Wouldn’t that mean that we were doing something right?

Ray writes in a recent letter to the editor, that he just wants to return to the legislature to finish work improving schools and so on. Considering what’s been done I’m not sure we can afford to send him back. Ray also makes the claim he is a moderate much like Elmer Anderson, a former Republican Governor of the state.

In his book I Trust to be Believed former Governor Elmer Anderson writes,

People need quality services from government, and the way to provide them is through industrial development. Industrial development is built around education and investment in people, not tax cuts. Anyone who knows business knows that taxes are really not the issue that decides where firms locate. The crucial issue, after consideration of market, is the adequacy of the available workforce. An industry surrounding new development goes where people are trained and skilled in that development. The firms that choose low tax states are those that can tolerate poor education because they rely on low-wage, unskilled labor. Desirable industries, those that pay high wages and seek to maximize the per capita production of each employee, need the things that a high-tax state provides. They need a fine workforce of well-educated, healthy people who are attracted to a place because of its culture and amenities, not its cheapness.

Minnesota has enjoyed great success with a high-services strategy. When I ran for governor in 1960, personal income was below the national average, and population was declining. Not long afterward, the state’s average income began to climb, until it reached fourth-highest in the nation in 2000. It’s so sad that some people in my own Republican Party seem not to have learned the lesson that taxes do not harm the economy. They help it, by creating a better workforce and place to do business . . .

Paying taxes is like going to a store. You don’t go to a store with the purpose of spending money. You go to obtain something you need or want. Taxes aren’t a loss of money; they are the price of essential services. It’s been an easy political game to promise tax cuts, and to make people feel sorry for themselves, when as matter of fact the taxes people pay are probably the best investment they make. They can be proud to pay the price, if it lifts the standard of social life in their community and state. People need to be educated about government budgets, so they understand that tax money goes to services they want, and that if they don’t pay the price they suffer.

A visit to Rep. Cox’s web log will confirm he is no Elmer Anderson.

Ray is proud of keeping taxes and wages low. He votes against an increase in the minimum wage, saying many small businesses can’t afford it, not noting the tiered rate for small business. He ‘supports’ JOBZ (but does not vote for it), which promises tax cuts and exemptions and does not build the local tax base. I wish the “supporters” of JOBZ would pay attention to Elmer Anderson when he says, “Industrial development is built around education and investment in people, not tax cuts. Anyone who knows business knows that taxes are really not the issue that decides where firms locate.” This also comes into play in the shifting imbalance between the residential and commercial/industrial tax base. Schools are dependent on the residential tax base, local governments on a percentage of the entire tax base, of which commercial/industrial has been a declining share. History tells us what works and what doesn’t.

I believe we face challenging times, but we are up to the challenge. I am reminded of a D-Day story I heard not too long ago, a lieutenant faced the men on his landing craft as it neared the shoreline and announced, “There are two kinds of men on this boat: dead men, and the men who will keeping moving forward.” We can’t put our head in the sand and say everything is fine. We have to face up to the fact that our economy is not serving everyone, that by intent some are gaining and more are losing, and we are in danger of losing what we value. We are being squeezed on many sides, but if we work together to solve these problems and learn from our errors, we can improve our lot in life and maintain the abundant life we have become accustomed to in Minnesota

So who’s a moderate? Later I noticed this wonderful piece, a self-diagnostic high-stakes test, by John Gunyou in the Minneapolis Startrib
Who is a moderate? It’s as easy as (a), (b), (c)
John Gunyou

With the election just around the corner, I thought it might be useful for moderates to have a voter’s guide.

There are plenty of tests for right- and left-wing philosophical purity, but not one for those of us smack dab in the middle of the Minnesota road. So when that candidate sticks his or her foot in the door or stuffs your mailbox with campaign literature, here are a dozen questions whose telltale answers will separate the moderate wheat from the pretender chaff:

1. The most important issue is: (a) a constitutional amendment regulating marriage, designer shoes and flannel shirts, (b) the Minnesota we’re leaving for our children, or (c) renaming the Floyd B. Olson Memorial Highway.

2. The greatest threat to our state is: (a) the League of Women Voters, (b) the Taxpayers League, or (c) bald-headed people smelling of rosewater out to terrorize election judges.

3. The ballooning $7 trillion federal debt can be slowed by: (a) pretending the cost of the War on [fill in the blank] doesn’t count in the budget, (b) not spending more than we take in, or (c) cutting taxes and then borrowing one out of every three dollars we spend.

4. The public investment with the highest rate of return is: (a) a chopsticks factory in Frostbite Falls, (b) Head Start, or (c) the Sid Hartman Memorial Sports Arena.

5. A true fiscal conservative would pledge: (a) never to raise taxes in any form, regardless of the need, (b) honestly to balance the budget and invest in our future, or (c) to floss after every fundraiser.

6. The most trustworthy source of real news is: (a) any group with “Truth” in its title, (b) truly independent media, or (c) cable news channels obsessed with ear-splitting, around-the-clock coverage of the celebrity crisis du jour.

7. Balancing the state budget without raising taxes: (a) was actually achieved last year, (b) really involves balancing ongoing revenue with ongoing spending, or (c) is not something we want to talk about, because it involves real leadership and tough choices.

8. We should fund our schools by: (a) sponsoring corporate fundraisers, (b) rejecting the no-tax pledge and honestly paying for student growth and inflation, or (c) putting slot machines in every bar in the state.

9. Taxes are: (a) out of control, (b) simply the price of public services like police and fire protection, schools and colleges, roads and parks, or (c) an evil plot of the Trilateral Commission.

10. We can control runaway human services costs by: (a) cutting off welfare moms and deporting immigrants, (b) reforming the real cost-drivers, like long-term care, or (c) forming yet another gubernatorial task force.

11. Our transportation backbone should be funded by: (a) letting private contractors build toll roads, (b) raising a gas tax that hasn’t been increased for 16 years, or (c) selling 20-year bonds to fund one year of needs, and paying for that long-term debt by cutting maintenance on our already deteriorating roads.

12. You love your country if you: (a) have lots of flags on your lapel, car and porch, (b) care more about the long-term public good than you do about your own immediate interests, or (c) blindly forward inflammatory e-mails purportedly written by the concerned friend of a friend.

The correct answers? They’re all (b), naturally. That’s the middle answer.

1. It’s about the economy. It always is. Moderates care about a whole host of social issues too. We just don’t think constitutional changes should be prompted by Fox News Arbitron ratings. The debate should focus on issues that truly make a difference in our children’s future.

2. I realize the speaker of the House believes the long-respected League of Women Voters is a cabal of liberal subversives, and our secretary of state stays up nights worrying about terrorist attacks at the polls. But moderates tend to be more concerned about radical groups that are out to dismantle the quality public services that made Minnesota great.

3. Moderates care about fair-minded tax relief, but not if we have to mortgage our children’s future. It makes us uncomfortable that every man, woman and child in the country is already burdened with a $25,000 debt. Extending the Bush tax cuts means that it will now take a 50 percent cut in Social Security or Medicare benefits, or a 70 percent reduction in defense spending, just to balance the 2014 budget.

4. Moderates faithfully read Sid’s sports column, but we don’t rely on him for financial advice. The chief economist at the Federal Reserve Bank — hardly a bastion of screaming Socialists — has documented that every dollar invested in early childhood readiness generates a double-digit return that business executives would envy.

5. Mindless and inflexible no-tax pledges are political theater. Fiscally conservative moderates are responsible leaders, not pandering sycophants. If the Taxpayers League is going to run our state, we should cut out the middlemen.

6. Moderates can tell the difference between news and entertainment, between facts and political spin. Unfortunately, genuinely independent news sources are a vanishing breed as corporate consolidation and advertising revenue blur the lines.

7. Minnesota is still spending at least $1 million a day more than it’s taking in. Moderates make fair and balanced choices among competing interests; they don’t hide behind gimmicks such as pretending that inflation doesn’t exist to claim things are better than they really are.

8. Sure, we play Powerball, but moderates don’t look to Nevada as a model of family values. That no-tax pledge means school funding is being cut three years in a row. How much more will our leaders carve out of our kids before they finally admit we need more tax revenue?

9. The truth is, the state’s official Price of Government has declined over the past decade. That means government is taking a smaller share of money out of our pockets. We can afford to pay for essential public services if we simply freeze the price at its current level instead of driving it lower.

10. Welfare is not the problem; cash assistance for poor people accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s budget. Our governor, Task Force Tim, needs to provide some real leadership on the real problem — the burgeoning cost of long-term care for the elderly and disabled is only going to get worse as we boomers age.

11. Moderates understand there’s no such thing as a free lunch; you can’t get something for nothing. It’s no cheaper for private contractors to build and maintain highways than it is for the public. One-third of our state roads are already classified as “too far gone.” It’s time to wake up and smell the asphalt.

12. Moderates are patriotic; we just don’t think what we wear on our sleeves is the measure of a true patriot. Nor do we trivialize our love of country with simplistic slogans at the expense of other Americans. True patriots care about the future we’re leaving for our children.

Scoring: Give the candidate one point for every correct (b) answer and subtract 1,000 points for every other response. If they total one point or more, you’ve found yourself a moderate.

John Gunyou is Minnetonka’s city manager and previously served as Minnesota’s finance commissioner in the Carlson administration.
© Copyright 2004 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

Maybe I’m getting my “Elmer’s” confused . . . especially if it’s “siwwy season . . .”

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