Friday, May 14, 2010

Enter Sandman, Exit Tax Dollars

It all seemed so innocent on November 4, 2008. Seventy-nine cute and fuzzy little words on a page, asking for our help:

Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate funding to protect our drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage; to support our parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater by increasing the sales and use tax rate beginning July 1, 2009, by three-eighths of one percent on taxable sales until the year 2034?

And 1.64 million Minnesotans dutifully responded: "Sounds good to me!"

For 10 months now, relentless waves of new money have been rolling in to fund the provisions listed in this Constitutional amendment. Well played Minnesota, I know my drinking water has never tasted more protected than it does today.

However, it turns out there was something else there on the page no one noticed. Something hiding in between the wetlands, prairies, forests, parks, trails, lakes, rivers, and streams. Something burrowed so deeply into our arts and cultural heritage that people didn't even know it was there.

Behold Minnesotans, when you voted for clean drinking water, you were really voting for this:

Last week Politics in Minnesota revealed that $45,000 in state tax dollars was spent to pay graphic novelist and fantasy author Neil Gaiman to speak for an hour or two in Stillwater. The money, for this noted author of "Sandman" and other essential macabre classics I've never heard of, came from the so-called Minnesota Legacy Amendment. The complete text, which is all voters were given on the ballot to consider this multi-billion dollar tax increase, is listed above.

That's politics in America for you. You vote for cleaning up the water in Minnesota and you end up with a British comic book author cleaning you out! (The preceding based on a joke about waiting in line at a government store for rutabagas, by Yakov Smirnov circa 1984).

I dare say, if the ballot language would have included even a hint of the millions of tax dollars to be spent by the government on this kind of activity, it would not have passed. Seeing in practice what they had in mind for the money, compared to the emotionally larded language they used to persuade voters, is appalling.

Neil Gaiman, when asked to comment about the disparity between the ballot language and how the money is actually being used, had this to say:

"There are only two worlds -- your world, which is the real world, and other worlds, the fantasy. Worlds like this are worlds of the human imagination: their reality, or lack of reality, is not important. What is important is that they are there. These worlds provide an alternative. Provide an escape. Provide a threat. Provide a dream, and power; provide refuge, and pain. They give your world meaning. They do not exist; and thus they are all that matters. Do you understand?"
Actually, that's an excerpt from the Neil Gaiman's essential comic book classic, Sandman: The Book of Magic.

But it serves equally as well to describe this amendment. There are two worlds. The real world, where middle class tax payers are forced to pay 40 grand so a millionaire author like Neil Gaiman can give a speech promoting his books. And there's the fantasy world, where well paid government bureaucrats think 40 grand is an entirely reasonable price to pay for an author's speech, even while the state budget is running a $3 billion budget deficit. After all, it's not their money, right?

Neil Gaiman actually has commented on this controversy on his personal blog:

I was asked if I'd come and talk at Stillwater, and be paid $40,000. I said, "That's an awful lot of money for a little library."

"It's not from the library. It's from the Legacy Fund, a Minnesota tax allocation that allows the library to pay market rates to bring authors to suburban libraries who otherwise wouldn't be able to bring them in. They have to use the money now as it won't roll over to next year and expires next month."


Well, that seemed fairly simple. They'd already booked a number of other authors. They had the money sitting there and were happy to pay me my rack rate. Either they gave the money to me or it went away -- it couldn't be used for anything else.

He shows a touching concern for our government's fiscal irresponsibility. But, upon assurances that this "awful lot of money" has to be spent on someone, he concludes that it might as well be him. Ah. The first and last refuge of all illegitimate recipients of tax dollars.

I have doubts that the story he was told is completely accurate. The sales tax revenue has already been collected. The government has the money. If they don't spend it on Neil Gaiman, it is unlikely that they must then create a bonfire with it on the Capitol mall. So what would happen to it instead? Beats me. That detail wasn't in the ballot provision I was asked to vote on. But here are a couple of ideas. Maybe they could spend it to help relieve the $3 billion the state government is spending in excess of its revenues. Or maybe they could spend it on protecting drinking water, wetlands, prairies, forests, parks, trails, lakes, rivers, and streams. Just a crazy thought.

Another crazy thought. Now that the public has a more accurate understanding of what they got themselves into back in 2008, how 'bout the politicians give us another shot at approving the Minnesota Legacy Amendment? Over the past year, I've asked just about every GOP state legislator we've had on the radio show about repealing or amending it. To a man (and woman), they've demurred on even the possibility of it. Although they didn't like it, the people have spoken, too difficult with a DFL majority, the arts lobby is too powerful, there are bigger battles to fight, blah blah blah.

To quote George Constanza misquoting George Bernard Shaw: I see things as they are and I say, 'no!' Uh, wait, you see things as they are not and you say… Wait, uh, you see things, do you see things as they are? What do you say when you see things? If I see things as they are, I would ask 'why' or 'why not?'

In other words, Republicans, find a way to do it. This is irresponsible spending and it will be unpopular with the public when it is accurately explained to them. If this amendment could be added to the state Constitution via public referendum, than it can be eliminated that way. Or, if you must keep your precious "clean water" funding, revise it to strip out the "arts and cultural heritage" provisions.

If I read the tea bags correctly, voters in the next election will be looking for a change toward fiscal responsibility. No better way for a candidate to demonstrate that than to pledge his support to getting a cost cutting change or repeal of the amendment back on the ballot at the earliest possible opportunity. And hurry, before Neil Gaiman is compelled to take $40,000 to speak about his comic books again.