Dysfunctional Government -- Unable to Pay Its Bills
by Senator John Marty
March 19, 2002

The state of Minnesota is unable to pay its bills. Mere mention of the word "taxes" scares many politicians silly. So they lack the will to fund even their top priorities.

An emergency radio system for law enforcement, a high priority for police and fire departments, apparently is too expensive for the state to afford. The inability to fund essential services is not due simply to the budget deficit. The need for this police radio system was known last year when the state had a surplus.

Despite public concern about safety after September 11th, the only proposal for funding public safety improvements is to add another surcharge on telephone bills! Some fire departments have to get their safety equipment with donations from bingo and pulltab operations.

Regressive fees and taxes hit hardest on moderate income people, yet these are typically the only revenue sources considered when the state seeks money. Politicians consider any increase in "general" taxes too politically risky, and therefore, "off the table."

Our courts are hurting too. Court budgets are tight and the system is overburdened, so even serious cases receive only a few minutes in the courtroom. Minnesotans deserve better than what one judge described as "McJustice," a fast-food version of the court system.

Ditto for schools. There is strong public support for education, and legislators almost universally tout it as a "top priority." Yet despite last year's large surplus, inadequate state funding caused the layoff of about 1500 teachers around the state. Teacher layoffs hurt students, but there is no political will to prevent them. The debate at the capitol is whether schools should be protected from further cuts, not about increasing funding.

We live in one of the most successful states, in the richest country in the world, yet politicians act as if we cannot afford to pay for basic services. Why is it so difficult to fund schools, the courts, and public safety? Or for that matter, healthcare, housing, the environment, and transportation infrastructure?

Government is a vital instrument by which people can build a better, more civilized society. To build a functional government, you need healthy public discourse. Unfortunately, our discourse has been replaced by sound bites and cheap attacks. Rational debate over taxes and budgets is gone.

Despite out-of-control campaign funding there is no way for a serious candidate to reach the broader electorate with detailed ideas to address the issues; only sound bites get through. Take education and public safety, two areas with strong public support. Why would any politician engage in responsible debate about paying for them when such discussion virtually guarantees attack ads during the next campaign?

Instead, candidates feel forced to make hollow statements of support for education and public safety, simply bemoaning the fact that there is not enough money or blaming others for wasting money.

As a result, government becomes increasingly dysfunctional. Nobody likes to pay taxes, and government needs to spend wisely. But wouldn't people be willing to pay a little more if the funding results in less crime and better schools?

We need a way to engage the public in more than superficial discussion. We all have a role: the public, the news media, public officials and candidates. If we do not improve the discourse, government will never face its responsibility, and we will fail to meet real needs. Minnesota can do better than this.

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