My Point of View: Find balance in people’s ability to pay and use

Published 7:02 pm Monday, April 8, 2019

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson


I would gladly pay two extra dimes per gallon of gasoline to upgrade roads and bridges rather than have those budget needs cut into funding for education, health care and other services. Education and health care are not only essential spending, they are the largest job sectors in rural Minnesota (about 25% of jobs combined).

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Roads and bridges are our circulatory system, and Minnesota has the fifth highest number of roadway miles in the U.S. Last year our roads got a D+ rating from Minnesota’s branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers. According to one engineer speaking at the Capitol, the state has a shortfall of $885 million per year in funding for roads.

That estimate may be arguable, but we have evidence all around us of a significant shortfall. We feel the impacts of it, whether caught in creeping traffic during rush hour in larger cities or repairing vehicle damage from driving on worn-out, weather-beaten roads.

For continued economic growth, we need to invest in this infrastructure. Former Gov. Arne Carlson said in an interview last fall, “The reason Minnesota thrives today is we’re living off the fat of yesterday, and it’s a very dangerous place to be.” Gov. Walz seeks to renew Minnesota’s commitment to our future prosperity, and this gas tax is one mechanism for funding a part of it.

Rep. Bennett, in speaking against it, said, “We can do this without putting more burden onto the backs of people who can’t afford it…”

That sounds good, but is Rep. Bennett really opposing it out of concern for those who can least afford to pay? It’s true that sales taxes are a regressive tax. Families in the bottom 20% of income pay about 6.5% of their income in sales and excise taxes, while families in the top 5% spend only 1.5% or less of their income on it. (This reflects the fact that low-income families are much more likely to have to spend all of their income.)

But here’s the reality — somebody has to pay for it, and Bennett consistently seeks to protect the incomes and accumulated riches of wealthy people from additional taxation. Furthermore, many more of these fortunate people live in urban areas, not rural ones.

According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in 2018, people in the top 5% of income in Minnesota paid 10% of their incomes in state and local taxes, which is about the same as people in middle income categories pay. At first glance this may seem fair and equal, but what it really means is that wealthy families have a higher percentage of discretionary spending money left over after paying for necessary living expenses. It’s not really fair or equal at all.

And here’s the biggest kicker — Rep. Bennett wants to eliminate the estate tax. Of anybody, I would hazard a guess that dead rich people can most afford the burden of taxes. The estate tax (a fraction of what it used to be) brought in $180 million in state revenue in 2016. Only the very wealthiest families pay it. Cuts already made to the estate tax further exacerbate wealth inequality and represent a loss of funds for reinvesting in Minnesota.

(I’m still waiting for Rep. Bennett to name one family that lost their farm to the estate tax. These mythical salt-of-the-earth families sure are a convenient smokescreen for billionaires like the Macmillans.)

We should be able to find balance here in considering both people’s ability to pay and their amount of road usage. I always lean toward ability to pay, but I think usage is important as well. For example, keeping gas prices lower at the same time as we build bigger and better roads would make longer commutes feasible. That “fuels” urban sprawl, which eats up productive farmland.

Finally, a note on President Trump’s outrageous claim that wind turbines cause cancer and drop property values by 75%. I was glad to see that Iowa’s Sen. Grassley called the remarks “idiotic,” and I would like our congressman Jim Hagedorn to address Trump’s claims as well. I have called his office about it. Wind energy is an abundant and valuable renewable resource across Hagedorn’s district, and he should stand up for it.

It is essential that we plan for a livable future, and that we invest in those plans in an equitable way that produces benefits for all.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.