Mayor Carter: The grinch who stole Independence Day

This Independence Day in Saint Paul there was no “rocket’s red glare” or “bombs bursting in air” to give “proof through the night that our flag was still there”. The city’s mayor, Melvin Carter, cancelled its fireworks, for the first time in recent memory, according to the Star Tribune. Mayor Carter explained

“As I’ve considered the budgetary priorities we manage across our city in the first year of my administration, I’ve decided I can’t in good conscience support spending tax dollars on a fireworks display in St. Paul this year”

Bluntly, he said “The fact of the matter is that we just don’t have $100,000 to spend blowing up rockets over our city”

I confess, I had some sympathy with Mayor Carter’s argument at the time. Indeed, anyone who has slalomed their way between pot holes on South Robert Street recently might share that sympathy.

I also saw an opportunity here. When governments do a thing they generally do it less efficiently and less satisfactorily than when private enterprises do it. Because of this, the list of things that a government should do is very short indeed. It is certainly much shorter than the list of things that government currently does. Supporters of Big Government generally argue that if government didn’t do this or that nobody else would; who would build the roads?, they often ask. Again, a trundle along South Robert Street suggests that government can’t even be relied upon to do that very well.

Here, perhaps, was a chance for Saint Paul’s private sector to step in and assume the responsibility for the Independence Day fireworks from a city government which is struggling to make ends meet, despite, as Figure 1 shows, having more tax revenue to spend per capita than in any year before 2014.

Figure 1: City of Saint Paul per capita tax revenues, 2003-2017, 2017 dollars

Source: City of Saint Paul, Census Bureau 

To my dismay, Saint Paul’s private sector did not step up to the plate. Could it be that if government didn’t do the fireworks nobody else would?

Not so fast. Last week the Star Tribune reported that

Mayor Melvin Carter’s office declined multiple offers to help pull together a July 4 fireworks display in St. Paul after he announced in late June that the annual event would not happen.

The St. Paul Saints baseball team rounded up corporate sponsors for fireworks at CHS Field. Hiway Federal Credit Union offered to donate $50,000 that could be matched by other businesses. Council Member Jane Prince asked if she could solicit private donations.

The mayor and his staff considered these offers but ultimately decided against accepting them, according to e-mails and voice mails obtained by the Star Tribune through a public records request. “I’m moving on from this & not going to ask anybody for money for it,” Carter said in a June 28 e-mail to Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher, adding that they would soon be raising money for other city initiatives. “Let’s not make competing asks.”

There are two lessons to take from this, one narrow, one broad.

The narrow lesson is that Mayor Carter’s hand wringing about budget constraints was so much insincere cant, deployed solely to hide the fact that he didn’t want a celebration for this country’s birthday.

The broad lesson is that when the government steps back individuals step forward. Or they do, if the government lets them.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.