Comforting the Comfortable

Tim Pawlenty's false populism

Was it really only four months ago that Gov. Tim Pawlenty was lecturing legislators in his 2005 State of the State speech? "When it comes to spending the people's money, we shouldn't be afraid of the people," he declared on January 18. "Today, I'm proposing what I call, 'Turbocharged--Truth in Taxation.'"

A scheme to starve the beast of government, "Turbocharged" would include three postcards along with every Truth in Taxation Form that is currently mailed to Minnesotans as a means of explaining how much of their money goes to taxes. The postcards--"one each for the county, city or township, and school district," Pawlenty explained--would enable taxpayers to mail in a "no" vote if they think a levy increase goes beyond a reasonable level.

"If significant dissatisfaction is registered, a levy referendum on the amount of increase above a certain level will be triggered," Pawlenty continued. "We've got to trust the people. So once again I ask the Legislature to pass a carefully drawn and limited form of Initiative and Referendum. We need to allow the people the chance to directly speak on the major issues of the day."

By late April, of course, the major issue of the day was a proposal to increase the Hennepin County sales tax so that $353 million of the people's money could be spent on a new stadium for the Twins. But state law currently stipulates that such a move be put to a referendum--exactly the mechanism Pawlenty championed in January, and supposedly wants to expand, as a means of holding politicians accountable for their spending decisions. Ah, but this windfall of tax dollars would flow not to school district classrooms, or county hospitals, or city-or-township police forces--but to billionaire Carl Pohlad, the richest man in the state. And with surveys once again showing overwhelming public resentment of this unique form of corporate welfare, Tim Pawlenty suddenly didn't much care about "trusting the people" anymore. Sure, he'd prefer that the issue be put to the people, Pawlenty told reporters. But, he cavalierly added, the portion of the stadium proposal that expressly overturned the requirement for a referendum "is not a deal breaker."

Pawlenty's paper-thin populism was again on display last week, when he worked himself into a lather over the Senate DFL's proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans. Never mind that the governor's own bean counters in the revenue department have determined that the richest 5 percent of the state population will endure a much lower tax burden than the blue-collar folk that Pawlenty pretends he wants to protect, or that the added revenue would go primarily toward education and health care for the middle class and working poor. Pawlenty memorably labeled the proposal "profoundly stupid" and claimed it would be a "job killer" for the state.

Not surprisingly, the governor cited no economic data to support his "job killer" charge. In fact, numerous studies have indicated that, if anything, states with high tax rates also enjoy robust economies. Certainly that has been the case in Minnesota, which emerged as a regional economic powerhouse during the last half of the 20th century at precisely the same time it was garnering a reputation for high taxes and liberal spending on education.

Now that Pawlenty and his "no new taxes" crew have held sway for the past few years at the Capitol, the state's record of job creation is not so stellar. According to the latest figures on the website operated by Pawlenty's Department of Employment and Economic Development, the Minnesota Labor Market Index has grown by 2.8 percent over the past year. The U.S. Labor Market Index is up 3.1 percent over the same period.

Put simply, Governor Pawlenty is less adamant about providing a check-and-balance on tax dollars for Pohlad than he is on tax dollars for schools. And he isn't afraid to use hyperbolic and factually inaccurate language to oppose proposals to make Pohlad and peers bear the same tax burden as the rest of us. On the other hand--as recent polls have shown Pawlenty's approval rating holding at 56 percent while his no-new-taxes policy is unpopular with Minnesotans--he really is a nice guy, isn't he?

 
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