Editorial: Let me entertain you
Health and human services, K-12 education and public safety are generally agreed to as being priority expenditures within our state budget. Throughout my years in the Legislature my colleagues on the other side of the political aisle would often quote a famous statement by the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey when debating what was the appropriate amount to spend on Health and Human Services; "the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped." While no dollar amounts are specified, state spending on K-12 education is identified in the state constitution as a key expenditure for state government. Since the founding of our country, there has been little disagreement that government has a role in the protection of its citizens.
What you will not find in the state constitution is the mention of public entertainment. Since when did paying for the entertainment of our citizens become a priority of state government? The role of government is shaping up to be a key issue for the 2012 federal elections, but a discussion is certainly needed at the state level regarding how much in taxpayer's dollars should be spent in subsidizing items which are generally considered to be "nice" but not necessities and how is the spending prioritized to ensure basic needs are funded.
This year was the grand example, of course, with the authorization to build "the people's stadium," a new $1 billion stadium for the Vikings." The new stadium is to be paid for out of tax revenues generated from what is hoped to be increased demand for the untested electronic pull-tabs. What happens if (and more likely when) the new revenues fall short of the dollars needed? Well, most likely more subsidizing of entertainment through a supplemental revenue source; taxing something else, or cutting other government services to spend more on entertainment.
We have become addicted to having someone else (the taxpayers) pay for our entertainment, rather than having the users of the entertainment bear the cost. The Viking stadium is merely the most recent and well publicized example. Just think of all the public expenditures we have made to subsidize our entertainment, some of which are non-profit organizations while others are privately owned for profit businesses. When you combine the tax dollars used to pay the bonds on the Metrodome, Target Center, Xcel Energy Center, TCF Bank Stadium and Target Field; Minnesota taxpayers funded $785.5 million for these stadiums and that does not include the operational costs. Now add to the list the St. Paul Saints want tax dollars for their new digs. And we can't forget all the municipal golf courses, let alone softball fields and basketball courts.
But in Minnesota, it's not just sports that get public dollars; we subsidize cultural institutions for entertainment purposes as well. According to an article published in the New York Times on May 1; Minnesota spends more tax dollars per capita on the arts than New York State or the federal government. Some of the taxpayer subsidized entertainment venues include: The Guthrie Theater, Ordway Center, Orchestra Hall and, of course, multiple museums and zoos. Just this last session state legislators allocated $4 million to the Minnesota Zoo with the understanding that the money would be used to repair the dolphin tank only to find out the zoo has decided to close the dolphin exhibit all together. Will the $4 million be returned to the taxpayers? No. Will Minnesotans have the opportunity to vote on keeping the dolphin tank? No.
Of course these activities are fun and enjoyed by many Minnesota residents. But are they the responsibilities of state government to fund? What are the activities we want government to support? Are we subsidizing one form of entertainment at the expense of their competitors? Would society be better off if we just gave people an entertainment voucher and said here; go spend the money on what you enjoy. A basic rule of economics, you get more of what you subsidize and get less of what you tax. As long as professional sports are subsidized by the taxpayers, salaries of professional athletes will continue to escalate.
Next year the state is likely to face yet another $1 billion shortfall. Ask legislative candidates this summer if they will fund only the basic needs of state government rather than the extras and allow individuals to make their own entertainment preferences known by where they spend their own money. If they do this, we might be able to avoid one more deficit.