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COL Paying costs of gridlock

By Jack Uldrich

It has now been three months since the Legislature adjourned without passing a bonding bill, and no end appears in sight to the political gridlock.

Predictably, Gov. Pawlenty and the Republicans blame the DFL and, in turn, the DFL points an accusatory finger at Pawlenty and the Republicans. All the while, the citizens of Minnesota continue to lose by being forced to pay what I call a "gridlock tax."

In its simplest form, a gridlock tax is the price taxpayers pay in lost time, lost opportunities and higher-than-necessary government costs.

The most obvious gridlock tax is the cost commuters pay as they sit stuck in traffic. For these frustrated commuters, "time is money." According to Pawlenty's own figures, residents in the northern suburbs will spend an additional 890,000 hours in traffic this year due to the failure to fund a new commuter rail to Big Lake. This is 890,000 hours that parents can't spend with their children, volunteering in their communities or simply enjoying time at home.

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Worse yet, the Legislature's (primarily the Republican caucus') refusal to fund Northstar means we are only short-changing ourselves. For example, for the cost Pawlenty is now willing to pay for the line to Big Lake, had he -- as majority leader -- acted four years ago, we could have funded the line all the way to St. Cloud. In short, we are paying more and getting less. That's an expensive tax.

A "lost opportunity" gridlock tax can be found in the failure to fund the University of Minnesota-Mayo Clinic Biotechnology Research Facility. Minnesota is in a highly competitive race with other regions to maintain our status as a world leader in the fields of biotechnology and medical genomics. As Frank Cerra, senior vice president for health sciences at the University of Minnesota recently said, "This is a race. Minnesota is positioned very well to benefit from the race."

He is right, but by not passing a bonding bill we are stumbling when we need to be sprinting. Every year of delay adds $1 million in costs to the project and puts Minnesota further behind places such as Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Austin, Texas. It also makes it that much more likely that new businesses -- and the high-paying jobs they create -- will go elsewhere.

Everywhere you look in the bonding bill are more examples of the gridlock tax. Because Minnesota now cannot commit $20 million to Conservation Reserve Program, the state risks losing $180 million in federal government matching funds. Moreover, we forego a wonderful opportunity to protect farmland, enhance wetlands, restore wildlife habitat for ducks and other game and keep our environment clean. If ever there was a lose-lose situation, this is it.

All across the state, citizens are paying a "gridlock tax." In northwestern Minnesota, grants to mitigate flooding have been shelved. Should the Red River flood again, there will be higher than necessary costs to cleaning up the flooding. In St. Cloud and Duluth, businesses will suffer because students weren't able to train in state-of-the-art facilities at St. Cloud Technical College and the University of Minnesota-Duluth life sciences building.

These examples of gridlock taxes, while costly, pale in comparison to the costs that might be borne by residents who fall prey to crimes. Sadly, criminals may be released early due to the Legislature's inability to fund 700 new prison spaces. In addition, 150 sexual offenders are not being rehabilitated because the facility in St. Peter was deprived its funding. The cost to potential victims -- their families -- of these crimes is incalculable.

The list could go on and on. Minnesota's political gridlock, however, has gotten so bad that the financial agencies in New York who determine our state bond rating have downgraded it from triple "A" to double "A." The higher interest rates (which, ironically, amount to a gridlock tax on our gridlock) will result in millions of dollars of additional costs on future construction projects.

Because of its close ties to the Republican Party, it is unlikely the Minnesota Taxpayer League will come out against this insidious "gridlock tax." That is why it is incumbent upon average citizens to demand the governor and the Legislature end their stalemate and pass a bonding bill. In a very real sense, we are all paying for their inaction.

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Jack Uldrich is an author, consultant and vice chair of the Independence Party. This column originally appeared in the Star Tribune newspaper.

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