James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Monday, January 10, 2005

A state of disrepair

It’s time to turn a small spotlight on my home state of Minnesota.

Readers from elsewhere may want to skim this little essay as a possible check on what’s happening in their own states. Many of us are in states of disrepair.

In 2002, Minnesota, a traditionally liberal state, elected Republican Tim Pawlenty governor.

We’ve had many Republican governors before, and mostly they turned out to be reasonable men who truly cared about the welfare of the state and its residents.

This time it’s different. A tall, handsome fellow with an easy manner and warm smile, charming Timmy is a cuthroat conservative. Actually, not a conservative but a right wing nutter. He would fit perfectly into one of the square holes in the Bush administration and, in fact, people began talking about his likely future on the national political stage within months of his election.

His main support is in the lily-white third ring of Twin Cities suburbs, where most of the residents have (mostly foolish) hope of being rich one day, and where SUVs outnumber sedans in the double and triple garages. However, he also got a fair amount of support in rural areas – particularly from hardscrabble regions in the northern part of the state, where people don’t read newspapers and think attempts to limit ownership of machine guns is anti-American, and other places where the spreads are big and government subsidies provide serious wealth for anti-government farmers.

However, polls generally show that a majority of the public even in the cities still hasn’t caught on to the fact that while Tim is smiling benignly, he’s wielding knives with both hands, slashing at everything that made this state famous for livability and civility.

Of course, he couldn’t do it alone. Tim was blessed with a House of Representatives entirely controlled by right wing extremists. They came to power through adherence to the will of antiabortion and antigay groups and – like Tim – a pledge of allegiance to a group that calls itself the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, but which most informed citizens call the Tax Dodgers League. Democrats held, and still hold, a small majority in the Senate.

Tim and most of the House Republicans actually pledged to the Tax Dodgers – a very small group of very rich people – that they would not countenance any new taxes of any kind. They stood firm on their pledge.

The 2003 session of the State Legislature was a mess. The 2004 session was a disaster and is almost unanimously recognized as such by those people of Minnesota who know what happened. Only the Tax Dodgers would disagree with that assessment. A great many of Tim’s supporters probably have no idea what went on in the session.

What happened is: Nothing. The Legislature finally adjourned without passing any major legislation, including badly needed bonding bills. It was a total failure.

That happened because the Republicans in the House kept yelling for compromise, but their definition of compromise was complete capitulation to their desires on everything. They would give nothing.

Soooo....This past November, the Republicans lost 13 seats in the Minnesota House, bringing their edge over Democrats down to a very thin 68-66.

Given that reality, the 2005 session began a few days ago with Cute Tim and some of the Republican House members calling for reason and compromise. They weren’t in session two days before it became clear that what they mean by that is exactly what they meant a year ago: Our way or no way.

Whether a more moderate Republican here and there will vote to break the logjams remains to be seen. Mostly the more rational Republicans are in hiding. The Tax Dodgers, combined with the rabid antigay and antiabortion crowds scare the hell out of them.

It’s understandable, but a Minnesotan can’t help but wish a few of the Republicans would root around in their torsos and find guts.

Except for disgust at the performance, one has to ask whether all that animosity, anger and "my way or die" attitude actually means anything for the state. Americans have always had a tendency to think that a do-nothing legislature is the safest kind of legislature.

So let’s take a look at just a couple of things the Republic stubbornness as done:

Because of the refusal even to consider tax increases of any kind, let alone income tax increases, Minnesota now has been through several years of deficits, and another big'un is looming for 2005. The Pawlenty/Tax Dodgers League/House answer to that has been to cut. And cut. And cut.

While that handful of millionaires preen and stroke each other in their country clubs, and send their kids to very expensive private schools, public schools throughout the state have taken major damage, with worse to come. Teaching staffs have been slashed. Many buildings are falling or have fallen into serious, even dangerous, disrepair. Basic supplies are lacking, particularly in schools in the state’s larger cities (except for a couple of big suburbs, of course). All sorts of programs, including classes for "special needs" kids and for immigrant kids (almost all in the central cities, of course) are gone, or reduced to uselessness.

Social services throughout the state – mostly operated by counties, but funded to a large extent by the state – have been slashed, and are facing destruction. One of the less life-threatening but still interesting examples I ran across in the last day or two involves handling of drunk drivers.
A guy from a metropolitan county was arrested on a DWI charge in a rural county and found guilty. The judge in his case ordered an evaluation for alcoholism. The county where he was arrested won’t pay for the assessment, which costs about $150, because it says that’s the responsibility of the county where the guy lives. (Technically, that’s probably correct.)

Anyway, the counties wrestle over the lousy $150 and the guy doesn’t get his court-ordered assessment; and he probably won’t get the treatment that’s almost surely called for either. Eventually he’ll be back on the road, and drunk, again. Maybe he won’t kill or injure anybody.

Multiply that little scrap by hundreds – over all sorts of things – and you have just a glimpse of what’s not being done.

And speaking of health care: My state has something called Minnesota CARE, created to see that the poor and underinsured, or uninsured, can get necessary health care (no tummy tucks).

Tim & Co. have cut the living hell out of that program, and are looking to cut it more. One of the major Twin Cities television stations, WCCO Channel. 4, recently did a story about a woman who has breast cancer. She’s a widow who was a stay-at-home mother – a life choice that Tim’s crowd strongly advocates – and lost her health insurance when her husband died.
Because of the budget cuts, Minnesota CARE payments now are limited to $5,000 per patient per year. That covers just two months of care for that breast cancer patient. Come March 1, give or take a few days, treatment for her cancer will stop. She will die.

There are an estimated 6,000 other people in the state in similar situations. Please note that most of them are not in the mess they’re in because of improvidence. Some lost insured spouses, some lost the jobs through which they got insurance, and not through any fault of their own in most cases. There are dozens of ways a responsible adult can come to be without health insurance in this country, and at least as many ways a child can land in the same situation.

Here’s another little story, one that any good member of the Tax Dodgers League and probably most residents of those third-ring suburbs will find trivial. I think it speaks to how the Republicans are destroying the long-heralded Minnesota quality of life:

KBEM is a small radio station run by the Minneapolis school district. It is a (literally) unique and quite wonderful educational tool. It draws eager students of all races to the city’s North High School, in the heart of Minnesota’s largest black neighborhood. The station is run, with supervision, by high school students on weekdays throughout the school year.

The state’s only jazz station, KBEM has for 15 years provided the metropolitan area’s public with another service – one which for at least 10 of those years I have considered invaluable. It has had a contract with the state’s Department of Transportation to provide regular on-air traffic reports during prime morning and afternoon drive time and any other time there is a serious problem on the roads.

On normal days, the reports by transportation department employees, monitoring all of the area’s major roads via the departments television system, are on every 10 minutes or so during peak hours. If there is a serious crash, flooding or some other event that causes a tie-up, the reports sometimes are continuous for as much as an hour. Smart folks can and do change routes when already on the road if problems pop up where they intended to go.

However, that is about to end. The transportation department, like all state departments, is under budget pressure. It abruptly canceled its contract with KBEM, leaving the station about $150,000 short for the fiscal year, which closes at the end of June. The station now is begging for public help in making it through this school year. The future beyond that is very dim. It’s likely the station will shut down, or shrink drastically, putting an end to the educational program as well as those useful traffic broadcasts.

I’ve heard some speculation among other listeners about whether the plug would have been pulled if that station was in Eagan – Pawlenty’s suburb – rather than Minneapolis. But would I suggest such a thing?

Hell, yes.

Wouldn’t surprise me if a couple of years down the road some sort of a state-funded broadcast program shows up in Eagan or one of those other cookie-cutter burbs.

There are countless other examples of what catering to the smug millionaires is doing to Minnesota: cuts to important and even essential programs for the mentally ill, handicapped, chemically dependent, just plain physically ill and many, many others.

Welcome to New Minnesota. Bring lots of money.


You will find two new links to other Web sites in the list of links on the right side of this page.

One is Bumpasblog, run by Andy Driscoll a peace and justice activist who often provides his readers with information they won’t find elsewhere without hard searching.

The other is by Jim Klobuchar, who – as we say of the true masters of our business – writes like an angel as well as seeing the world clearly. For those who miss his often brilliant columns, now too long gone from the Star Tribune, the blog is the place to find him.