James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, February 06, 2004

We're not in Minnesota any more

The Minnesota Legislature opened its 2004 session this week, an event fraught with peril for the average citizen, especially since the extreme right wing of the Republican party took control of the House of Representatives some years ago. The “oh-oh” factor rose last year with the installation of a new governor, one Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty is the most dangerous sort of politician. He is handsome, has a good haircut, wears clothes very well, goes to church regularly and professes a deep Christian faith, speaks well in a nicely modulated voice. Just what you’d want in a head of corporate public relations.

However, he is an ideologue, not a thinker, and his deepest fealty is to the interests of the very wealthy. He has found a home in the pocket of something called the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, which is a front for the chief executives of the state’s largest corporations. (No attempt is made to hide that fact; they know most people aren’t paying attention anyway.)

Pawlenty has a winning smile, and gives an impression of great affability. He makes little secret of his ambition to play at the national level, and he probably will make it. His ability to win and manipulate middle class suburbanites and rural believers in guns, snowmobiles and military action is phenomenal.

The gov also can spot the Bush crowd three points and still win a five-point game of Distraction and Disinformation. No kidding. He’s that good. He came pretty much out of nowhere – he was a not-widely-known speaker of the House from a suburb with a recent history of electing right wing extremists to office.

But he came fully prepared to rise quickly to the top, and he has no scruples about grinding the poor into the dirt or cutting the financial legs out from under middle class suburbanites even as he pats them on the head and plays to their prejudices.

Fortunately, 2004 is not a major budgeting year in Minnesota, which tackles the big financial questions every two years, so that the evils likely to come from this session are of another sort. It will be particularly ugly, but most residents won’t be immediately affected.

What Pawlenty and his allies in the House are aiming for this year is big-time playing to the nastiest elements of our society, the sometimes hidden hatreds and prejudices, the fears, founded and unfounded, the distaste for everybody who is “different.” Major distraction and disinformation, in other words, with truly horrifying results for some and smug satisfaction for the ignorant.

It’s likely that most Minnesotans will get screwed one way or another, but lots of them won’t know they’ve been had, or won’t know who did the damage. The press and Minnesota television stations won’t tell them.

Here are just a few of the problems facing the state – many or most created by the Legislature with the help of our smiling ideologue governor:

* Continuing very large budget deficits, which to a substantial extent can be attributed to the House and the governor’s unwavering commitment to the Taxpayers League insistence on no tax increases and no new taxes, regardless of need or damage to state services or infrastructure. Of course Pawlenty and Co. ignore the fact that their stance has forced local governments into substantial increases in regressive property taxes. The citizens who don't understand local government commitments lay all the blame on those governments "that can't learn to live within their means."

* Rising costs of college education, which are pricing many citizens, even middle class citizens, out of the market. Tuition at the University of Minnesota has risen far beyond the rate of inflation, and an exodus of top faculty members has begun. State universities also are hurting and even community college students are being squeezed out.

* Public schools face a genuine crisis because of last year’s horrendous budget cuts. We’re seeing rising class sizes, lack of books and supplies, curtailment of or closing down of many “nonacademic” classes such as music and art (not sports, of course), ridiculous new standards for schools – standards that emphasize the rightist point of view of history and social studies, among other things. There is a large and growing gap in achievement between whites and people of color – one of the worst in the country – that can be at least partially attributed to differences in levels of support and facilities. And much more.

* The Republicans are forcing more people onto welfare (yep, that’s right) by drastic budget cuts for child care supplements so that people who were working must quit to care for their kids.

* Greatly reduced health care programs for the poor drive many more people into costly emergency rooms for basic health care. Of course, much routine care simply doesn't happen, so that health problems show up only when they've become severe, and costly to treat.

* There is greatly reduced support for the arts, although it is well established that the arts community has been a major factor in drawing top-drawer companies and people to the state.

* Early childhood education problems have been gutted, guaranteeing greater problems in schools, with the law, with health care and the general community welfare in the future.

The list could go on to three, four or maybe five times its present length.....

Now here is a list of topics the rightists in the Legislature, encouraged by their governor, have indicated they will concentrate on during the 2004 session:

* Spending huge sums of public money to build stadia for the professional football and baseball clubs and maybe for the University of Minnesota football team.

* Requiring the Pledge of the Allegiance in public schools.

* Gay marriage -- probably an amendment to the state constitution to prevent it.

* Abortion -- as always.

* Mandatory lifelong incarceration for sex offenders, or something close to it.

* Establishing the death penalty in Minnesota, which hasn’t had one for almost 100 years, when the public was sickened by a screwed up hanging. This one is courtesy of the governor, who pulled it out of the air, though there was no public demand for it all until he raised the issue.

* Ending the Native American monopoly on casino gambling in the state – something that has rankled right wingers ever since the Indians showed that casinos could make money here. There are deals with the tribes – akin to 19th century treaties in fact if not form – but like their 19th century counterparts, legislators have seen the color of the gold, and like his 19th century counterparts, Pawlenty has decided that deals cut 15 years ago “don't fit current circumstances.”

We have a U.S. Senator, Norm Coleman, who was chosen by the Bush crowd for the job, and who slavishly follows their orders. He is known to many as “the third senator from Texas.” Now we have a governor, as well as House or Representatives, who play to the worst in people, and push all the hot buttons while quietly doing dirt to the majority of citizens.

Perhaps we should change the signs at our borders to read: Welcome to North Texas.