Surplus shouldn’t bring tax rebates

Thanks to everyone who recently sent in questions to Miss Anthrope. However, I have a few things to get off my chest, so Miss Anthrope’s smart-aleck advice will have to wait.
First of all, let me remind everyone that the Minneapolis City Council is scheduled to vote tomorrow on whether to allow Ryan Companies to tear down some charming, historic buildings on Nicollet Mall in order to erect an office tower and Target store.
If the plan is approved, and that appears all too likely, the city will use its power of eminent domain to kick out the current businesses to allow the new construction project. Citizens concerned about preserving the remaining character of the mall can call the city council at 673-2200 to voice their opinions.
Now, on to today’s subject — the state’s budget surplus.
My blood pressure goes up every time I think about this topic. The state is $2.3 billion in the black, and the governor and legislators want to use a big chunk of it for tax rebates. What are they thinking?
We should start talking rebates only after we can say everyone in our state has a place to sleep, can read and write and has the basic skills needed to get a job.
Look at it this way: say you’re a senior at the University; you play the lottery and against all odds win a $1,000 jackpot. Your first impulse would probably be to do something like take all your friends out to see the new Howard Stern movie, followed by several rounds of beers.
But then you realize you’ll be graduating soon and that means several expenses — you need proper clothes to wear at interviews, you need to print up several dozen resumes, and there’s a computer class you should really take in order to make yourself more attractive to potential employers.
Now, even though many of us might opt for the cheap thrills, our elected officials should be more prudent and spend the money wisely. There are hundreds of ways to put the surplus to good use.
For one thing, there’s a little item called “welfare reform” sweeping the nation right now, and that means a whole lot of Minnesotans are about to lose their checks and wind up in the street unless they can find jobs. Homeless shelters across the state are already at capacity.
I’d like to see Arne Carlson and legislators look into the eyes of a homeless person and tell him: “Sorry, I know you don’t have a place to sleep tonight, but it’s more important that we pander to our constituents than it is to help you get back on your feet.”
Nearly everyone agrees that children should be a high on the list of funding priorities. But think of Desi Irving, the 3-year-old girl who died on Feb. 7 after, police say, her mother beat her to death.
The girl and her three sisters were no strangers to child-protection workers; they were placed in foster care more than two years ago, but their mother regained custody after she went through drug treatment. When medical examiners performed Desi’s autopsy, they found signs of regular abuse in the form of more than 100 scars on her body.
Why not take some of the state surplus and help counties boost their child protection efforts? We’re always hearing that the workers are overloaded with cases — here’s a chance to remedy that. Regardless of how you feel about government programs, the fact is that if we’d been paying more attention to this kid she might be alive today.
Another option for the money is increasing job training for unemployed or underemployed people. I’m all for getting people off welfare, but how are they supposed to find work if they can barely read, don’t know how to fill out a simple application or how to act in a job interview? How are they supposed to look presentable if all they have is the clothes on their backs and nowhere to take a shower? By spending some money on helping these people now, we’ll save in the long run when they get jobs and start paying taxes.
Along those lines, Gov. Carlson recently proposed spending an additional $29 million on sliding-fee child care for low-income families — a welfare-to-work type initiative. While that is expected to provide child care for the more than 5,000 families on the waiting list, it doesn’t address the needs of the people who are about to lose their AFDC checks and who will soon need child care. What are people supposed to do with their kids while they’re working minimum-wage jobs?
Another worthwhile place for the state to make an investment is the environment.
A good place to start is the University’s steam plant. Administrators and regents have decided their coal-burning plant right on the river is the best way to go. Environmental groups, many legislators and now even the governor want the University to move this pollution-spewing apparatus away from land that could be put to recreational use. The official word from the University is that it would cost at least $41 million to move it.
Fine. Give them the money and make them do it. (Incidentally, it seems a little weird that while the University has this big funding request in front of the Legislature; it would still thumb its nose at lawmakers’ requests.)
Personally, I’m broke and a little extra cash would be nice. I can’t remember how much I paid in state taxes overall this year, but I do know I had to cut a check to the Minnesota Department of Revenue for $4.67 when I sent in my tax forms. According to reports I’ve read, this tax rebate would mean I’d get at least 50 bucks back.
But in my mind, the money’s gone. I’ve made it this far without it, and I’d much rather see the cash go to a good cause (i.e., not a new Twins stadium, but don’t even get me started on that) than back into my bank account.
Our legislators and governor should have the guts to admit that the surplus does not indicate a problem-free state. Of course, not all interests — education, fighting crime, etc. — can be funded with the surplus. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see we’ll get a lot farther without these short-sighted tax rebates. The $2.3 billion can’t and shouldn’t solve every problem, but it’s a nice start.
Kris Henry’s tax-subsidized column appears in the Daily every Thursday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]
Letters to the editor can be sent to [email protected]