Friday, April 04, 2008

Bonding Bill: "Essential" or not, period

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:33 PM |  

Back in the days when grammar, not global warming, was taught in public schools, we learned that some adjectives can't be modified. "Unique," for example. Either something's unique — that is, one of a kind — or it isn't.

"Essential" is another. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, the chief House sponsor of the bonding bill, must have missed class the day they taught grammar; she most certainly missed the day they taught economics. Everything you need to know about bad bonding policy, you can learn from Alice Hausman.

On Wednesday the Minnesota House and Senate passed a capital investment "bonding" bill that authorizes the state to borrow $925 million to finance public works projects. Gov. Tim Pawlenty threatens a veto, saying $925 million is too much; it surpasses the state guideline for debt service of 3 percent of state revenue.

But, Hausman told the Star Tribune, the bill spreads out the bond sales without violating the 3 percent guideline. Thus, lawmakers can throw more money down the rabbit hole leading to Alice's wonderland of grammatical and economic nonsense. Let's start with the grammar.

In Alice's wonderland, words mean whatever legislators need them to mean. Hausman defends the size of the bonding bill, saying legislative negotiators pared nearly $4 billion in requests to less than $1 billion in "most essential" projects. Not to pick nits here, but dictionaries define "essential" as "absolutely necessary; vitally necessary; indispensible."

If a project request is "essential" to the state, then there are dire consequences to the state if it's not funded; if it's not essential, state government shouldn't be funding it. "Most essential" is as nonsensical a concept as ever uttered by a mad hatter.

Consider the "most essential," $3 million expansion of the National Volleyball Center in Rochester: absolutely necessary, vitally necessary, indispensible or no? Dire consequences for Minnesotans? Or no?

Responsible legislators might say "no," but in Alice's wonderland when some dodo makes a suggestion, everyone races around in a circle and everybody wins — and Alice doles out the comfits.

In Alice's wonderland, everyone eats from the side of the mushroom that makes spending grow. Grinning like Cheshire cats, they ponder "how much the state CAN spend" rather than "how much the state SHOULD spend."

Back in March, before the House and Senate agreed on $925 million as the "right" number for the bonding bill, Hausman hesitated to call a conference committee, which would determine the projects and funding that would make it into the final bill. Her rationale was: "Without agreement on the size of the bill, it is hard to write the first line." Nonsense.

Hausman is absolutely wrong; the first line of the bonding bill is easy to write. It is an appropriation for an "essential" capital expenditure, which means the capital investment relates to a constitutional responsibility of state government that should not be delayed for another year. The second line meets the same criteria. So does the third. The last item in the bonding bill is the line above the first constitutionally legitimate expenditure that isn't absolutely necessary.

If the bonding bill at that point is a mere $600 million, then that's the appropriate and legitimate level of state bonding. If indeed everything on the list is both a constitutional responsibility of the state and essential to the state and the total is $1.25 billion, well, then legislators do have to look for other sources of revenue - first eliminating non-essential expenditures elsewhere in the budget.

In fairness, we should note that Hausman's approach to bonding is not unique. Although the governor says at $925 million the bonding bill is "too much," he is still on the same side of the looking glass as Hausman. He, too, starts with a bonding bill cap instead defining which projects are essential and which are not. Nibbling on the other side of the mushroom to shrink the bonding bill to a mere $825 million is less damaging to taxpayers, but no less a mocking of fiscal responsibility.

In Alice's wonderland, the bonding bill is a croquet game without rules where taxpayers take the roles of flamingoes (mallets) and hedgehogs (balls) and get knocked around and rolled through hoops at the whim of legislators. Sadly for taxpayers, the bonding bill is not a fantastical dream; it's simply fantastical. How the state can refuse to bond for essential roads and bridges while at the same time eagerly passing on to our children the debt on local hockey arenas and polar bear exhibits is beyond my per diem level.

Go ask Alice, when she's 10 feet tall.

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press Friday, April 4, 2008.