Irritating Partisans of All Persuasions
It is always a bit of a challenge for me to write for Center of the American Experiment, as my basic political positions are considerably to its left. However, if we are to solve Minnesota’s problems, we probably need ideas from all parts of the political spectrum.
Starting with the basic question of what I am personally willing to give up, the easiest answer is more money. My family is nowhere near the salary level proposed for higher taxes by Governor Dayton, but we would be quite willing to pay additional income taxes, following the philosophy of a temporary income-tax surcharge on everyone, as was done during Governor Quie’s administration.
In addition, I would like to offer a menu of helpful measures.
Government Efficiency. I have been working for years to reform the state management of information systems. The House has twice passed legislation that would set us down the path of reducing our current 36 separate data centers to an eventual one, with a gradual reduction in chief information officers throughout state government. By carefully negotiated wording, we have achieved the support of the major public employee union involved—Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE). There is no reason why this could not be done within the current level of state expenditure and the existing billing system. We are willing to consider possible upfront costs of $1 to 6 million for savings of greater than $55 million in future years.
Non-Productive Cost Reductions. Taking money from basic care for poor people (particularly children) can lead to care at the most expensive and least effective level—the emergency room. There are stories of a neglected tooth infection leading to hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical expenses and eventual death. Further, any discussion of the wasted expenses at the end of life of terminally ill patients should not be greeted by screams of “death panels.”
Non-Necessary Items and Bad Behaviors
- Institute a tax on sugared beverages, sodas, fruit drinks, flavored milk, and so on. A tax of one cent per ounce on sugared beverages would yield $231 million a year for Minnesota. In addition, if it alters behavior, as hoped, it will have positive effects on lessening childhood obesity. National statistics say that the average cost per year in health care for a normal weight child is $1,500 versus $4,500 for an obese child.
- Increase taxes on tobacco and alcohol products.
- Add a sales tax on services such as cosmetic surgery (an estimated $10 million a year). When I proposed this in the past, I did get one of my nastiest phone calls: “How can someone who so badly needs cosmetic surgery propose such a bill?”
- Tax all events and souvenir clothing. I have been told that out-of-town concert promoters try to turn over a check for the relevant amount of sales tax only to have it given back to them because we have no tax on clothing here.
Non-Cost-Effective Regulations. I’ve proposed allowing liquor stores to be open on Sunday. Evidence of the benefit are the business activity in Superior, Wisconsin, and the prevalence of Minnesota license plates in the parking lot of the liquor store in Hudson, Wisconsin on Sundays. All surrounding states (and provinces) do this. Estimates of tax revenues range from a half-million to ten million dollars.
I know gambling is controversial, and I have always voted against increases, considering it to be a regressive tax on stupidity. However, I have proposed adding lottery-based slot machines at the airport, accessible only with a boarding pass, which then would constitute a progressive tax on stupidity and would hit many out-of-staters. This would generate an estimated $10 million to the general fund and $16 million to the Environmental Trust Fund.
Dedicated fees. Many people pay dedicated fees like watercraft licenses and hunting and fishing licenses, which have not been increased in years and are willing to pay more.
Continuing Appropriations and Budgeting. In 2001, when a shutdown was averted at the last minute, the documented costs of this activity were $2.7 million. There is not a tally available for 2005, but because a shutdown actually occurred, the costs were probably higher. Since 2007, I have introduced bills to provide a continuing appropriation at the base fiscal level, assuming that new budget bills have not been passed. This year, my bill has not received support from either caucus or the administration; the prevalent belief is that a deadline is needed for serious bargaining. Nevertheless, I still support this approach to mitigate waste.
Finally, the exercise of insisting on a balanced budget four years out is a burden not required by the Constitution. It seems to be a prudent financial practice, but when we don’t even get the current and the next two years right, why bother to be wrong for an even longer time?
Final Hope. I’m sure I’ve managed to irritate readers of all political persuasions, at least in part, with this exercise. My hope is that I’ve also spurred some thoughts in new directions.
Phyllis Kahn, a DFLer, is the state representative from House District 59B in Minneapolis.