Wednesday, June 21, 2006

COLUMN -- Pothole politics

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:01 AM |  

Monday, 19 June, 2006

John Gunyou, Minnetonka's city manager and Minnesota’s finance commissioner in the Carlson administration, opts for cute over content in a the June 15th Star Tribune opinion piece. He starts out with a little quiz --

Here's a civics question to start the day. Who provides your public services like police and fire protection, education, parks and roads? Is it: (a) cities, counties and schools, (b) Uncle Sam & Cousin Tim, or (c) the Minnesota Taxpayers League?

Listening to the Taxpayers League and their political sycophants crow about our state's drop in tax rankings is a little hard to take for those of us actually responsible for delivering the services those taxes pay for. It's a whole lot easier to pontificate about downsizing government when you don't have to figure out how to stretch shrinking resources to patch crumbling streets.

Gunyou’s question and his assumptions about we tax-reducing sycophants that are wildly off the mark.

First, make a simple change in his question that starts the debate at the beginning, not in the middle. Change the word “provides” to the simple phrase “pays for” -- Who pays for your public services like fire protection, education, parks and roads?” The answer to that one is the people for whom the Taxpayer’s League is a surrogate. The purpose of taxes is not to make Gunyou’s job easier; the purpose of taxes is to provide those services necessary to the community.

His second assumption is that those concerned about high taxes only want to “downsize” government. That may be the result of a “no new taxes” philosophy, but it is not the objective. The objective is limiting government, keeping it out of areas where it doesn’t belong, and focusing it on providing only services necessary to the community.

Gunyou dismisses the idea that “it is possible to cut funding and improve services at the same time” with the Swiftian modest proposal of ignoring street repair as a means of controlling speeders, thus reducing both maintenance and law enforcement costs. He suggests eliminating teachers and replacing them with “rolling interns -- seniors would teach the juniors . . . juniors would teach the sophomores, and so on. . . . and never have to support another school referendum!”

Allowing that Gunyou is being facetious, his examples open the door to some points about how government prioritizes its activities.

Gunyou’s use of the pot hole example is a good one because potholes are something that annoys just about every one that drives in Minnesota. But have you ever seen a political brochure that reads “I filled the potholes”? No, what you do often see are brochures with a smirking politician standing in front of a vibrant, mixed-use development, funded with tax increment financing that keeps the property off the tax rolls for a decade or more.

The issue is not fixing or not fixing potholes. The issue is priorities: What is the role of city government and what ought to be left to the private sector? Taxpayers don’t mind paying to fill potholes or stopping speeders; they do mind subsidizing someone else’s preferred style of living.

Gunyou’s education example has, in fact, been implemented in many public schools under the guise of progressive education. Mixed age group classrooms operate on the theory that older kids and younger kids in the same classroom creates a better learning environment. In fact, opponents of parental school choice use the argument that only the best students would take advantage of school choice to leave the public system, and that would hurt those students left behind. Thus, referendums take precedent over real reform.

Gunyou facetiously remarks -- “With a little creative thought and courageous political leadership, it really is possible to get something for nothing.”

The issue is not “something for nothing”; it’s getting what you pay for. Taxes are intended to pay for “something,” not everything. People are willing to pay more for a better Minnesota (or a better Minnetonka), but they aren’t sure that’s what they’re getting for their tax dollars.

“No new taxes” is a blunt instrument to be sure, but without it, there is no incentive for governments to set priorities and do only what is NECESSARY for them to do, not what would be NICE to do. In that regard, I agree with Mr. Gunyou -- “The Taxpayers League was right all along.”