State government shutdown: A wake-up call to mend our civic culture

Now that our elected leaders have collided in a game of “chicken” and significant portions of state government are idled, a pall has been cast over Minnesota.

Although there was a shutdown in 2005, it was a “shutdown light”  and solved quickly. This one will likely go longer and is more serious: More services and functions are suspended, and the divisiveness and vitriol are deeper and louder.

The combination of the court order on “essential services” and temporary “stop gap” funding from counties and other sources allows Catho­lic Charities to avoid immediate disruptions in services to our clients. Other nonprofits are confronting more difficult challenges. A resolution is needed soon to avoid major consequences.

Protecting the poor

Catholic Charities has been one of the many voices that have advocated for a state budget that protects the poor and vulnerable by maintaining adequate funding for basic needs such as housing and health care, as well as continuing to fund items that are necessary to maintain jobs and self-sufficiency such as child care and transit.

With poverty and homelessness increasing as a result of the Great Recession, it is morally wrong, fiscally short-sighted and economically counterproductive to cut services that put the poor at greater risk and limit their opportunities for productive lives.

As the negative impact of the budget adopted by the Legislature became clear, Catholic Charities also advocated for more revenue as part of a final resolution that would also include reduced spending and long-term reforms.

Our advocacy on these matters will continue until there is a budget in place, and we ask for the continued support of the Catholic community.

Lessons from history

But there are larger issues at stake. Our civic culture and elected leaders are accepting the consequences  of a government shutdown — jobs lost, lives disrupted, resources wasted, and our state’s reputation tarnished — rather than adopting reasonable compromises.

History is replete with examples of decision-makers stubbornly sticking to positions in spite of evidence that doing so would be contrary to the interests they were trying to protect, and notwithstanding better alternatives that were widely discussed.

Barbara Tuchman, the renowned historian, chronicled several such incidents — allowing the Trojan Horse into Troy, the Protestant Reformation, the British Loss of North America, and America’s humiliation in Vietnam — in her 1984 book “March of Folly.” In these examples, stubbornness persisted and the predicted negative consequences were the result.

The consequences of the state shutdown do not, for now, rise to the level of those chronicled in “March of Folly.” But the common good will feel the impact, and the common good will be served if we learn from this history so as to not repeat it.

Seeing the bigger picture

A responsible resolution to the state budget will require the Legislature and the governor to adopt a broader and longer-term view of what they seek to accomplish.

Can the broader goals of fiscal responsibility and economic vitality be advanced with some new state taxes?

Are there ways to raise revenue, maintain needed services and enhance tax fairness without relying solely on income taxes on the wealthy?

And what about the rest of the citizens of this state? Are we willing to interpret the promises made in the heat of campaigns in the broader context of the responsibility of our leaders to govern and promote the general welfare?

I am confident this is possible, and I am certain it is necessary if the future of our state is to be as bright as its past.

Tim Marx is chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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