Lies, damn lies and statistics

The “Minnesota Miracle” is out of date. Or, at a minimum it is not in line with State Auditor Patricia Awada’s current vision. In a week marked by the announcement that Minnesota’s local tax burden dropped from fifth in the nation to eighth, the auditor ferociously attacked Minnesota egalitarianism in a report couched in seemingly innocuous language. Awada proposes to cut local government aid in proportion to the amount of money cities spend on “nonessential” services such as hospitals, libraries, parks and homeless shelters. Although the report attempted to remove itself from the realm of subjectivity and ideology by creating a dispassionate formula to calculate local government aid, the report represents a snide attempt to block the state’s historical and just mixture of need, policy, empathy and funding. As such, the state auditor’s report should be summarily dismissed, its suggestions ignored and its proponent taken to task.

Purporting to be nothing more than an unbiased overview of the current system, the report has extreme political biases embedded within it. The proper role of government is the heart of the separation between political parties. By dividing the functions of local governments into “essential” – defined as paying for roads, providing emergency assistance and paying for the local officials, bureaucrats and judiciary – and “nonessential” – everything else – the auditor is making an extreme libertarian judgment. The proud tradition of Minnesota civicism, however, is based on the fair and prudent provision of “nonessential” services. And if her proposal is implemented, many civic goods in localities across Minnesota – such as public literacy and providing for the basic needs of the less fortunate – will be endangered.

Awada’s hidden bias is apparent in other portions of the report as well. The report notes that the cities receiving the highest levels of aid per capita also spend the most. It assumes that the only reason spending is high is because cities freely spend money that is not theirs. By using this assumption, Awada flouts one of the basic tenets of any good social science: Correlation does not equal causation. Her report ignores other possible explanations for the aid-spending correlation that need drives aid, that in some areas these services are provided by other levels of government, or that differing accounting practices might drive differing results. The report also insinuates that some municipalities are avoiding carrying their own burden at the expense of the state. It reports that cities receiving high amounts of local government aid per capita pay 28 percent less per capita in local taxes. However, as the League of Minnesota Cities reported, those same cities have a median income 41 percent lower than the state’s overall median income. It is not that these cities are shirking their responsibilities; rather, they are simply unable to meet them relying only on their population base.

It is in times of difficulty when true character is revealed. With a looming $4.2 billion state budget deficit, Minnesotans will be forced to pick and choose among the values they hold most dear. Before Minnesota undoes decades of commitment to adequate government for all, however, the full ramifications and motivations of those actions should be known to all. It should deal with policy questions in a public forum and not mask it in the worst of three untruths, “lies, damn lies, and statistics.”