Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Bonding Bill: From the taxpayer's side of the looking glass

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:27 AM |  

How doth the loyal St. Paul rep
Improve her bonding tale,
And pour on language full of pep
To try to make the sale!
How righteously she speaks her piece,
How neatly spreads her view
That general welfare will increase
With taxes paid by you.

— With apologies to the Rev. Charles Dodgson.

Better known as "Lewis Carroll," Charles Dodgson penned, "How Doth the Little Crocodile" as a parody of Isaac Watts' poem "Against Idleness and Mischief." Watts uses the busy little bee to personify the virtues of diligence and hard work. In Dodgson's parody, the "virtues" of the predatory crocodile are deception and guile — it lies in wait "with a cheerful grin" and "welcomes little fishes in."

St. Paul DFLer Rep. Alice Hausman and the Capitol hive have been busy as little bees pollinating key districts with construction projects that will bloom come November. But beware the "Jabber-talk," my son; there is much predatory guile and deception in Alice's wonderland.

In her rebuttal ("What's Essential," April 6)to my criticism of her bonding bill, Hausman pours nuance upon nuance on the word "essential" to improve her bonding tale and sell $925 million ($717 million after the governor's line-item veto Monday) worth of state spending. Hausman uses "essential" to mean whatever she needs it to mean.

Hausman believes "job creation is essential." The bonding bill, she says, is expected to create 10,000 good-paying jobs. In the bonding process, the Legislature gave preference to projects ready to go so that jobs would be created as soon as the bonds were issued.

In other words, it's not the projects themselves that Hausman regards as necessarily "essential;" that the projects are ready to go makes them "essential." Putting people to work is "essential," not necessarily the work they will do. That has a nice progressive ring to it, but as economic principle it is a clanging symbol.

When government builds projects that people would not willingly pay for themselves, the nonessential jobs it "creates" are at the expense of productive jobs lost elsewhere in the economy. In simple terms: A state-paid carpenter building a new house for a gorilla in St. Paul (vetoed by the governor) gets his job at the expense of a privately paid carpenter not building a new home for a family in Roseville.

As if it suddenly just happened, Hausman sees an infrastructure in decay — bridges are falling down, there is a backlog of basic maintenance of university buildings, and sewer and water systems are in need of repair. Spending to fix that is "essential." Tough to argue with that, but that is where deception, guile and predatory taxing comes into play. We find our infrastructure in such a state because legislators elect to spend available tax dollars on other non-essentials that litter current and past budgets and bonding bills.

For example, the state's complex highway funding formula, based on politics, not priorities (which legislators are too timid to tackle), virtually ensures that highway maintenance is deferred in favor of new but not necessarily "essential" road construction. In large measure the $6.6 billion transportation tax increase was "essential" because in this wonderland bonding for absolutely necessary state roads and bridges would suck too much money away from local legislative pet projects masquerading as "essential" state investments.

Hausman gives "essential" a nuanced local meaning. While I find the Rochester National Volley Ball Center a non-essential project for state funding (which the governor vetoed), Hausman says it is "essential" for Rochester; ergo it should be funded by state money collected in part from Duluth. But not to worry, Duluth, you'll get state money for a hockey arena (which the governor, inconsistently, did not veto) funded in part by Rochester. Of course, taxpayers in Rochester and Duluth and across the state, not the legislators bribing each other with ribbon-cutting opportunities, are actually picking up the tab.

But in Alice's wonderland, trading in "pork" futures, so to speak, "for better or worse," is "essential to getting the (bonding) bill passed" — even if it means sleeping with the enemy and trading local road funding for an override vote. Heaven forbid a legislative leader should actually show a little leadership and try to reform a bad system.

"Right now," writes Hausman, "DFLers think putting people back to work and protecting investment ... in our infrastructure are essential." Tomorrow they might think that a state-run health care system is "essential." Next, we'll need another "essential" light-rail line.

Essential ought not be simply a word reflecting Hausman's preferences. On the taxpayers' side of the looking glass, essential has an objective meaning. It is essential that Hausman and the DFL come to understand that.

Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the Pioneer Press Opinion page and a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute ( His e-mail address is

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Wednesday April9, 2008