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A postcard from small-government Florida

Date Published: 09/20/2012

Author: Bruce Benidt, Policy Adviser

ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT

A few weeks ago I stood before the New Port Richey (Florida) City Council and asked the members not to further cut a library budget that had already been eviscerated.

I held up an ancient book — “The Library Book” — which I wrote in 1984 to mark the centennial of the Minneapolis Public Library. In my research, I told the council members, I’d learned that a library is an economic engine for the community. That’s why wealthy people like T.B. Walker and James J. Hill, in the Twin Cities, and Andrew Carnegie, nationally, funded libraries. It’s enlightened self-interest: Libraries and public education help individuals grow and develop knowledge and skills, which in turn helps a community and its businesses grow.

We’ve lived two years now in Florida, a state with a historic aversion to taxes, and one of the few states without any income tax. In the time we’ve been here we’ve seen education cut, local bus service cut, libraries cut, almost all government services cut. All severely.

A state that has always been run by the rich and powerful for the rich and powerful is, every day, even more so. The Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s advanced further here than most places. Federal income taxes have been cut, lowering federal funding to states. State taxes have been cut, lowering state funding to local governments. And local governments with shrinking budgets have to cut services or raise property taxes.

When we left Minnesota, friends asked how we could go to a regressive, low-tax, low-service state. I said, sadly, that weather was a huge factor for us, but Minnesota was fast becoming a regressive anti-tax state like Florida anyway. But it is even worse here, and getting still worse.

My wife, Lisa, volunteers at the New Port Richey library. We live in Port Richey, just across the Pithlachascotee River, and New Port Richey’s library is the closest to us. With budget cuts all across Pasco County, the New Port Richey library is now the only one in the county open on Mondays. It’s packed. With all government services and staffing having been cut, many employees at city and county offices who can no longer serve their constituents tell them to go to the library for help. A library where the staff and hours have already been cut. Catch-22.

I told the council members that my wife sees, every day, people in the library going online to search for jobs. She sees, every day, people using the library to get access to better education. She sees, every day, people using library resources for essentials like filing insurance claims to repair houses damaged by recent floods. If you don’t know where you can turn when your home is damaged, you can’t keep your house up, which erodes the tax base. Maybe you lose your home, which erodes your ability to hold a job and raise your kids, which makes you less able to pay taxes and more likely to need services. It’s in the community’s interest, of course, that people have access to the information and services that can better their lives.

You think everyone has a computer and internet access these days? Come to Pasco County, where unemployment is above 12 percent and 15 percent of the people live in poverty. The library’s computers are precious to people trying to hold on and to people reaching for something better.

Libraries have always been portals to citizenship and participation in the economy. Businesses and careers are started in libraries. Responsible public servants and informed voters get their starts in libraries. As journalist Harrison Salisbury said of the Sumner branch of the Minneapolis Public Library in the neighborhood where he grew up among new immigrants in the early 20th century, “It was their university.”

That university for the disadvantaged here is shrinking, closed on Mondays now, sorry. Shorter hours, less staff, sorry. A portal that’s closing. So sorry.

When the flagging Confederacy lowered its draft age to sweep teenagers into its shrinking armies, Robert E. Lee said, “We are eating the seed corn of our nation.” We’re eating that now. We’re wounding our present and killing our future. Libraries, schools, transportation, public safety, all are endangered by lack of funding. And we’re not even talking about things like ensuring the safety of food or workers or protecting the environment or stopping rapacious speculators from ruining the economy again. The Reagan revolutionaries think that stuff should be left up to local decisions too. Imagine the New Port Richey City Council taking on water and air quality protection or trying to keep mortgage lenders from bilking their citizens when council members can’t even patch the city’s roads or pay the cops.

My plea not to cut the library further was listened to politely by the council. But they face Sophie’s choice. The housing bubble crashed as hard here as anywhere in the country — one out of five houses in New Port Richey is vacant. The tax base is shattered, and middle- and low-income folks can’t afford an increase in the regressive property tax. And so there’s nowhere else to turn.
One brave resident stood up in the council chamber and said he’d be happy to pay higher taxes to keep his community healthy. That was one voice, here at the ragged cutting edge of the Reagan Revolution, speaking truth to sagging power. But the majority, whipped up by short-sighted, self-serving politicians, apparently believes you can get something for nothing. That’s the scam in Florida, that’s the scam increasingly in Minnesota, that’s the scam in November’s election.

And if you still believe that scam — as we’ve said in Florida for a hundred years — I’ve got some swampland to sell you.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, September 20, 2012.

Bruce Benidt is a public relations consultant, former newspaper reporter for the Star Tribune, and a policy adviser for Growth & Justice. He is writing this week in place of regular Capitol Report columnist Dane Smith, president of Growth & Justice, who is on vacation.


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