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What's up with fierce state budget language?

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opinion Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Rather than regrets and compassion, we're hearing a lot of fierce and warlike rhetoric to support the latest gubernatorial veto of General Assistance Medical Care, which provides the basic health care needs of our worst-off fellow Minnesotans.

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But Gov. Tim Pawlenty actually declared this war seven years ago, when the brand-new governor announced that he would be leading Minnesota on a swashbuckling, new, tax-free, fiscal adventure.

He compared himself in early 2003 to a bold explorer who was leading Minnesota into uncharted territory, toward a leaner government, and, theoretically, a more productive economy. Ever the clever phrase-maker, he actually said at one point that he was leading Minnesota to a "distant shore" and that we would be "burning the boats."

The boats in his analogy, of course, were taxes. There would be no going back to that boring, old-fashioned Minnesota tradition of actually raising state revenues, as at least part of the answer to a severe state revenue shortage.

The word-picture Pawlenty painted had a kind of bellicose and barbaric feel to it, and that can be intoxicating. I've noticed that this kind of language seems to be particularly favored by younger, conservative, white male politicians who have never served in the military.

As a U.S. Navy veteran and a student of history, I also remember thinking that we really ought not be sinking our ships, and how our original colonists who landed on the distant shores of Plymouth and Jamestown took very good care of their boats. They knew they would have to go back for more supplies, more help, more money and reinforcements, as they slowly built communities through common wealth as well as individual effort.

Seven years later, we're lost in the wilderness of that distant shore.

The net job growth and prosperity that was promised has not materialized; in fact, we are worse off economically now than we were a decade ago. And now we are being asked to believe that we should disinvest further in our schools, in our safety net for those who inevitably fall, and in much of the human capital and physical infrastructure that sustains our business growth and is provided by our governments.

The ferocity of the language is as fierce as ever. And it harmonizes with the choleric rage fomented at Tea Party rallies, in which our own governments are transformed into our enemies, and our taxes, already among the lowest of any wealthy democratic nation, are evil incarnate.

As Pawlenty explores further a run for the presidency, it's interesting to note how close his words track with themes promulgated by national conservative kingmakers.

"Leave us alone!" and "Get out of our way!" Pawlenty declared in his recent State of the State speech, presuming to speak for business leaders in the state, making the case that only the private sector and captains of commerce and industry could be the "true source" of our economic salvation.

Interestingly, "Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government's Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives" is the actual title of uber-conservative Grover Norquist's latest book, published in late 2008.

Norquist, a Massachusetts ideologue who arrived on the scene in the Reagan era, leads a group called the "Leave Us Alone Coalition." And Norquist is one of unquestioned father of the No New Taxes pledge that was sold to many conservative candidates across the nation, including Pawlenty himself in his 2002 battle for governor with an even more conservative opponent for party endorsement.

As an important player in -- or founder of -- some of the nation's most absolutist conservative organizations, Norquist is credited widely for the success of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in securing his party's nomination for president.

Norquist, of course, is most famous for describing our democratic and mostly effective federal, state and local governments as "beasts," and he has said that our governments need to be starved until they are small enough to be "drowned in a bathtub."

Norquist also has actually said that governments need to be cut in half, and cut in half again -- a truly preposterous notion.

It's impossible to imagine a federal-state-local public sector that's 75 percent smaller that could remain a world power, sustain the Middle East wars, pay for Social Security and Medicare, or maintain our nation's transportation system.

As legislators in both parties grapple with the most troubling economic situation and the prospect of real damage to the people who rely on our governments -- and that's all of us -- I can't help but think of the contrast in language employed by another tall and lanky Midwestern Republican, Abraham Lincoln.

A brilliant PBS documentary last week reminded us of a time when the fierce conservative philosophy of the Confederacy had rendered the nation asunder and secessionists were demanding to be left alone.

Lincoln ended up fighting hard and just as fiercely, presiding over the bloodiest war in our history, to protect the idea of "union" and to impose a measure of human equality and justice that had never existed before.

And when the war was over, he sought to "bind up wounds" and to exhibit "malice toward none" and "charity toward all." Central to Lincoln's idea of governments and union is that we're all in the same boat.

So maybe we shouldn't be burning them.

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a writer for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he delved into state, local and federal governments and politics.

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