Archived Story

Some ideas for the anti-revenue crowd

Published 11:01am Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Column: Notes from Home

When I penned this column Thursday, the shutdown of state government on July 1 in Minnesota seemed inevitable. As you read this piece on Tuesday, the shutdown may be continuing or some sort of compromise may finally have been reached.

The way I read the situation as it has built up to that midnight deadline on the last day of June, it seems as if compromise is something only the governor is supposed to do. After all, he already cut his surcharge idea, and then halved his proposed tax hike on the wealthy and added more cuts. Legislative leaders appear to believe that they can “win” by clinging to the principle of no new revenue, regardless of the depth of the hole we’re in or the breadth of the problems caused by balancing a budget on the backs of the poor and middle class.

There’s been a whole host of articles and features about that ugly situation, pointing fingers at one or the other or both sides. I’m not really interested in dwelling on it anymore. What’s missing are some new ideas about revenue and spending that can move us all out of the morass we’ve been in for the past few budget cycles.

Here’s one: Republicans (mainly ones coming from prosperous Twin Cities suburbs) want local government aid to go away. They want the quality of life in communities around the state to deteriorate so that everyone moves to Edina.

Oh wait, was that too harsh? OK. Maybe they don’t want the rest of Minnesota to revert to empty prairie, but they do want cities and counties throughout Minnesota to build their budgets solely on what they can collect in property taxes. The fact that property values are lower and less diverse outside those prosperous suburbs doesn’t seem to matter.

At any rate, LGA’s doom seems imminent. If Rep. Tom Emmer had been elected instead of former Sen. Mark Dayton, it probably would be on its way out this year instead of some unknown date in the future.

So what can we in Greater Minnesota (and in urban Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth) do about this? Well, how about getting the Republicans in the Legislature to turn over the collection of sales tax revenue to counties?

If they really want to shrink the role of state government and put the “beast” on a diet, sending sales taxes to county governments first seems like an excellent way to do it. It would help keep property taxes — which can be cruel for homeowners on fixed incomes — more reasonable. It might even bring property tax rates down in some places.

And if counties collected sales tax, county commissioners could decide how much money to send on to the state. Or whether to send any at all; maybe counties could decide to send only their surplus dollars to St. Paul. I realize that this could mean that only Bloomington (where the Mall of America is located) would have any surplus to pass on, but life’s unfair and filled with difficulties.

Ridiculous, you scoff. Letting counties keep sales taxes would never happen. Surely there must be serious downsides to this idea. Surely it wouldn’t work. What about those huge budget cuts that would follow a loss of revenue from consumers buying stuff? How would Minnesota survive? My answer: Republicans have shown such enthusiasm for cutting programs for poor Minnesotans, they should have no trouble coming up with more cuts. Right?

A more serious downside would be the increased level of competition around the state for retail businesses, for both the jobs and the additional sources of sales tax revenue. Communities, if they are able to keep sales taxes collected within their boundaries, could start to work against each other. Albert Lea versus Austin, Glenville and Alden, for example. Freeborn versus Mower and Faribault. Regional cooperation, so vital to real, permanent job creation, could become very complicated, if it didn’t disappear entirely.

But cutthroat competition and the survival of the fittest is the way things are supposed to be in our society, right? Compassion, compromise, cooperation — those are only expensive ways to help those who aren’t strong enough to survive on their own. Right? Or did I somehow misunderstand the message the Tea Partiers and their allies in the Republican Party are sending the people of Minnesota?

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.