Gov. Pawlenty is not at the same kitchen table

Published 9:16 am Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Over the past year, Tim Pawlenty has frequently referred to kitchen tables and the families sitting around them. For him, the image conveys the message that the state needs to do the same thing as those families.

As a writer, I have to admit it’s a great image: Minnesota families sitting around tables, eating bologna sandwiches and drinking milk, talking to each other. Only I’m not sure how many families actually sit at tables together, all of the members at the same time. We manage it at our table two or three times a week, counting both breakfast and supper. Other families never sit at the table together, stopping at fast food restaurants instead or eating on their own whenever they’re hungry … but I digress.

The image of that kitchen table, the analogy it offers, has power because, over the past couple of years, lots of them have become settings for discussions about unemployment, job searches and paying for health care, mortgages and school lunches. Our kitchen table was the setting last year as we talked about how to cut spending after I got laid off from my teaching position. We talked about finances again when I got sick and had to go to Mayo for treatment and my wife’s employer reluctantly had to freeze her salary for 2010.

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The analogy, however, is incomplete, and what’s missing leads me to believe that Pawlenty hasn’t been sitting at real kitchen tables. Along with talk at our table about cutting spending, we also talked about finding a new job. Or let me put it a different way: Finding another source of revenue. Maybe I should repeat that, only louder: FINDING ANOTHER SOURCE OF REVENUE.

In fact, I don’t think anyone in any family has ever said, “Oh yeah, and we can’t talk about finding more money. We can only talk about cutting spending.”

To sit at a real kitchen table and only talk about cutting doesn’t really solve the problem. Families get to the point when they reach the things that can’t be cut without truly unpleasant consequences; they have to find some more money.

I think we’re really close to reaching that point in the state of Minnesota. Politicians talk about finding the “fat” and cutting it out, but then take money away from schools, from medical care for the poor and training funds for rural firefighters. How is that cutting the “fat” in our state spending?

If we had a statewide kitchen table, with all of us sitting at it, discussing finances and budgets for the whole state, I would point how out my wife and I are in the highest tax bracket in this state, even after living through unemployment and a salary freeze. People sitting at that statewide table whose incomes are at levels my wife and I will never see — unless we both leave our current professions — actually pay a smaller percentage of their income to the state. That doesn’t seem fair to me.

It also doesn’t seem fair that the money that comes from the tax on medical care providers has been diverted from paying for health care for the working poor and other low income residents to paying for other things. That seems like a misuse of those funds, if you ask me.

From his spot at that statewide kitchen table, Pawlenty seems to be telling us that we have to protect wealthy wage-earners, because they might leave the kitchen if we asked them to contribute a couple percentage points more of their income to the family budget. Whatever the consequences might be, however bad things might get for highways, hospitals, nursing homes, libraries and schools, we absolutely can’t talk about that option.

So we can limit how much sales-tax revenue the state shares with cities and counties, closing our libraries, cutting back on street repairs and snow removal, shutting down municipal recreation programs. We could deny the working poor medical benefits. We could do a whole lot of things that would be harsh and harmful. We could pretend balancing the budget wasn’t dependent on federal dollars or diversions or delayed payments.

Or we could allow discussions about revenue back on this collective kitchen table, possibly making it a table worth sitting and talking around.

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.