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Column: Good talking point, poor policy

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BY JOHN VAN HECKE, Minnesota 2020

ST. PAUL — Despite data affirming Governor Dayton’s public policy directional course change, conservative public policymakers remain utterly convinced that tax increases and government spending are bad. Their conviction flows from ideology, not facts, so their certainty is unimpeded by experience. That might be a good short-term communications strategy, but it’s poor public policy.

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Earlier this week, Minnesota’s Department of Revenue released projections predicting that Minnesota’s property tax burden is easing. Minnesota property owners are paying fewer regressive property taxes as the State of Minnesota’s increased revenue sharing policy lightens community service funding burdens. Counties and communities, experiencing increased state revenues, are expected to decrease local reliance on property taxes to fund community services.

Conservative policymakers diligently labor to convince us that the 99 percent’s economic interest is the same as the 1 percent’s interest. The data doesn’t support this. Minnesota’s median household income is $58,000 but that figure varies considerably across the state. Minnesota’s highest median household income by county is $79,000 in Washington County while Mahnomen County, ranked last, is $38,000 annually. Conservative fiscal policy asks us to functionally assume that we all live in Washington County, behaving as if our median household income is $79,000, even when almost every Minnesotan lives in one of the other 86 counties.

Consider income distribution. Median household income is determined by ranking every Minnesotan’s household income, highest to lowest, and then finding the midpoint. That’s the median. In other words, half of Minnesota’s households earn more than $58,000 annually and half earn less. The problem comes in determining that household income’s larger familial and community impact.

Forty-three percent of Minnesotans households earn less than $50,000 annually. That’s 900,000 households out of a state-wide total of 2.1 million. A little over four percent of Minnesota households—89,000—have an income surpassing $200,000. Stated differently, 96 percent of Minnesota households earn less than $200,000 annually. That’s 2 million out of 2.1 million households earning less than the top four percent of all income earners. Confronting this data, it’s hard to understand how conservative policy advocates have convinced any Minnesotans to align their policy interests with those of the top four percent. Yet, conservative policymakers continue insisting that doing more for very high income earners aids middle and low-income Minnesotans.

Responding to Governor Dayton’s declining property tax projections announcement, State Senator David Hann (R-Eden Prairie), insisted that increased state revenue sharing will only result in increased local government spending. Quoted in local media, Hann said, “Based on history, when you give local governments additional resources, they spend it.”

Hann and other conservative leaders could’ve said that they preferred a regressive, property tax-based public revenue system because it eases the overall tax burden on high income earners. They could’ve said that they liked creating additional barriers to overcoming poverty and wage stagnation’s deleterious consequences. They could’ve said that Pawlenty-era taxation structures should’ve been preserved because they effectively asked more of low and middle-income earners while delivering fewer public services.

Instead, Hann attacked the Revenue Department’s projections as more wasteful government. Hann and his colleagues did not offer data analysis supporting their contention. Therein lays the conservative strategy. Insisting that something is true does not make it true; repeating an assertion just makes it familiar, even if the familiar does more harm than good.

Until the mid-19th century, Americans, like Europeans, did not regularly bath. The practice changed as growing bodies of scientific research data, examining problematic public health concerns, began connecting unhygienic practices with disease. Washing reduced the likelihood of disease transmission. Convincing people to bath regularly, even daily, while also frequently washing hands would, researchers argued, dramatically increase good health.

On the surface, it seems simple enough except that people associated bathing with disease transmission, not prevention. Hippocratic medicine postulated that ill health flowed from unbalanced humors. Bathing increased risk of humor imbalance. Teaching people to understand modern disease pathology and to behave accordingly took generations.

Growing literacy rates accelerated public health practice changes. A new, instructive literature appeared, aimed at consumers. One example is an 1861 pamphlet, “Baths and How to Take Them.” The educational effort highlights the challenge of overcoming deeply-held hygienic practices. Despite an astounding body of research data, daily bathing wouldn’t be fully embraced in America for another hundred years.

When I hear conservative public policy leaders dismiss public tax revenue data out of hand, I appreciate the power of repeated, unchecked assertion. Conservative messaging continues with remarkably little resistance. It serves the needs of the wealthy few, over the needs of the many. But, increased state revenue sharing will allow local governments to decrease dependency on regressive property taxes. Fiscal data, like truth, win out.

John Van Hecke is executive director and fellow at Minnesota 2020.

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