Have We Really Cut to the Bone?

Written by Jeff Johnson on November 17, 2010. Posted in General

Yesterday’s StarTribune carried a commentary I wrote about the county board’s spending priorities.  Bottom Line:  Until we stop spending on things like library art and garbage burner beautification, don’t let anyone tell you that government is broke and needs more of your money.

Cut to the bone? We haven’t even cut library art.

Recently, I offered a resolution to place a moratorium on the requirement that Hennepin County automatically spend 1 percent of every large library building project on public art. We are scheduled to spend almost $1 million in our capital budget over the next four years on library art.

My resolution failed on a 2-5 vote.

My rationale was simple: At a time when we are making actual budget cuts almost across the board in the county, it makes absolutely no sense to be automatically dedicating hundreds of thousands of dollars to every library building project for art. Most of my colleagues, however, disagreed.

There has been considerable coverage and interest in this story and some have asked why I’m making such a big deal out of something that represents a minuscule portion of Hennepin County’s $1.6 billion annual budget.

I have actually made no bigger deal out of this spending issue than I have numerous others over the past couple years; this one just caught people’s attention — as evidenced by numerous media stories, letters to the editor and e-mails to my inbox (the most recent with the salutation: “Hey, Pukebreath”).

Art in libraries is simply the freshest example of a much bigger problem in government: Our inability or unwillingness to set spending priorities.

Despite what one might frequently hear, most of us who consider ourselves fiscal conservatives don’t have an interest in dismantling government. Hennepin County, for example, does many important and necessary things — and does them well.

But it frustrates me to no end to have a combination of high taxes (which we have) and numerous spending programs that are questionable, silly or — in some cases — insane (which we have), and then hear elected officials cry poverty when it comes to basic functions of government.

Let me give you an example from just this week:

We heard a compelling argument on the county board that funding for certain health services for the mentally ill has been cut too deeply this year. And, of course, some opined that it is indicative of a county government that has cut “to the bone” and largely the fault of conservatives who are not even willing to fund the basics.

That’s frustrating to hear when we in Hennepin County refuse to place a moratorium on library art spending or when we provide free, non-emergency health care to illegal immigrants or spend millions each year on “transit-oriented development” or add $14 million to the cost of a bridge to make it look more artistic or allocate $700,000 for landscaping at the county garbage burner. And on and on… .

These aren’t all bad things; in fact, some of them are really nice amenities to provide to people. But if we really are not able to fund government basics (like public safety, transportation and a safety net for the most vulnerable), we should stop funding the nonbasics until we are adequately providing fundamental services.

My gripe is not really about library art; it’s about our unwillingness to set priorities and fund what’s important first. And until we stop spending on things like library art and garbage burner beautification, don’t let anyone tell you that government is broke and needs more of your money.

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