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Why Oklahoma is not OK, as a model for Minnesota

Date Published: 06/25/2009

Author: Dane Smith, President

ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT

Slashing ‘gummint’ by one-fifth puts us down by Oklahoma on investment for common good

Right after high school I lived for about six months in low-tax Oklahoma, where the waving wheat can sure smell sweet, and the wind actually does come sweeping down the plain.

I have memories of warm and friendly people, deep red dirt, and a fiercely proud country-and-western culture.

But now (as then)—and it’s hard to find a kind way to say this—Oklahoma’s not exactly a modern model of a successful society or economy. In fact, the Sooner State is just plain backward in many respects.

A deep antipathy toward taxes and government, sometimes pronounced “gummint,” goes hand-in-hand with Oklahoma’s minimal effort to equalize opportunities, or to invest enough in helping people or in building public infrastructure.

The state long has been saddled with economic inequalities, low test scores and educational attainment, anti-labor attitudes and low wages, state policies dominated by oil companies and agribusiness interests, and a religious and political fundamentalism that most Minnesotans would find stifling.

All this matters because one of the extreme options for balancing our state budget crisis during the next two years is a slash-and-burn, cuts-only approach: If we take this route, we’d have to reduce investments in our valuable public stuff by roughly $6 billion out of $30 billion-plus—or by as much as 15 percent to 20 percent.

And a governmentectomy of that scale would put us smack dab in Sooner territory, fiscally.

The handy “How Does Minnesota Compare” charts published every year by the venerable Minnesota Taxpayers Association, and drawn directly from U.S. Census Bureau governmental statistics, helps tell the story.

If Minnesota’s per capita state-local government expenditures were 20 percent lower in the latest national 50-state comparisons, our ranking among the states would plummet from about average to well-below average—from 14th to 42nd, or just ahead of 43rd-ranked Oklahoma—in the amount we put to common use. In raw dollars, a 20 percent cut would have dropped us from about $7,800 a year per capita in state-local expenditures to about $6,200.

On an even more meaningful measure—total government expenditure as a percentage of income—a reduction of this magnitude would send us to the very bottom, or 49th (ahead only of New Hampshire) in such expenditures as a percentage of income. And our state-local spending would plummet from about 20 percent of income to about 16 percent.

Even Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the most effective small-government advocate in Minnesota’s modern history, has said repeatedly over the years that while he wanted Minnesota to be more like other states on taxes, he did not want to drive us down to the level of Mississippi or Alabama. Oklahoma is very much in that Confederate State league, according to Lane Kenworthy, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of Arizona. In a recent online lecture about economic inequality as a “social cancer,” Kenworthy lists Oklahoma among 11 states, most of them in the South, with the highest inequality.

Lucky for me, just four years after living in Oklahoma, I ended up in Minnesota, to stay. And I remember almost immediately getting the impression that the average person here seemed to be much better off here than the average person in the other states where I’d lived (Alaska, Texas, Maine and Virginia).

Not just better paid (and often unionized), but better informed, more educated and literate, less provincial, more optimistic, and more respectful and aware of other cultures and the rest of the world.

The physical infrastructure of the community here was better too, with finer public buildings and public works, much nicer schools, high-quality but low-tuition public colleges, more plentiful parks and recreation centers, much cleaner and well appointed rest stops on the highways, and more arts and culture everywhere—and all, of course, at public expense.

In August of 1973, the month I moved here for good, it was Minnesota, not Oklahoma, that was celebrated on the cover of Time magazine as a state “that works,” where progressive people had built a life that was both prosperous and fair, with higher tax rates than average but outcomes on almost every measure of economic and social well-being that were superior to other states.

A case could be made, and has been repeatedly, that Minnesota’s taxes on this or that were too high, and in general the state throttled back on government growth beginning in the 1980s. Under the last two governors, state income taxes have been significantly slashed and a “no new (state) taxes” mantra for state government has resulted in a significantly lower price of government as a percentage of our total income, as compared with the 1990s.

And in the latest Taxpayers Association charts, total state-local expenditures as a percentage of income have actually dipped slightly lower than the national average, according to the recent Census Bureau statistics.

We must cut government spending in response to yet another shortfall. Efforts by legislators and other leaders these days to conduct a thorough review and “redesign” of how Minnesota provides public services make all the sense in the world. And it’s a good thing that all the major-party candidates for governor are sounding similar themes on the need for redesign.


But we must dispel this notion that we can easily whack another 20 percent out of the already-depleted budgets for our schools, public hospitals, nursing homes, environmental and natural resource protection, police and fire departments, parks, sewer and water systems, highways and streets and transit—or all the other essentially valuable things we need our governments to do.

As we move forward to balance budgets and weigh how to get prosperity expanding again in Minnesota, we need to stop looking south and west, and start looking toward restoring the integrity of our own successful brand.

The low-tax, low-service, laissez-faire model might be OK for Oklahoma, but it’s not OK for Minnesota.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Leger Capitol Report In Thursday, June 24.


Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a writer for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where he delved into state, local and federal governments and politics.


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