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Our elected officials aren’t miracle workers

Elected officials at all levels of government are in a tough spot these days. They’ve been spending most of their time trying to figure out ways to balance their budgets, with the public making the following demands of them:

• Don’t raise our taxes.

• Don’t cut any programs that affect me.

• Continue all government services at the same or better levels.

• Cast aside political partisanship.

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In other words, they’re being asked by the people who elected them to perform at least four miracles within the course of a few months.

But after visiting with a lot of lobbyists, elected officials, business people and just plain folks during the last few months I’m convinced that if we’re going to get out of the economic downturn, or crisis, or recession, or depression or whatever it is we’re in, we’re all going to have to stop playing so much defense and start generating some offense.

Let’s take a look at each of these demands we’ve placed on our elected officials:

1. Don’t raise taxes or fees.

I’m with the governor and everyone else who wants to hold the line on taxes. Those of us who still have jobs pay a lot in taxes. And, especially in Rochester, we don’t always get as much of a return on our tax investment as we deserve when compared to the rest of the state.

But we can’t bolt the doors and grab a shotgun every time someone whispers about a fee or tax increase and still expect progress on things like improving the Rochester Civic Center, expanding the University of Minnesota’s four-year college here, establishing a high-speed rail line for passengers traveling between here and Chicago, improving student achievement or paying for new band or basketball uniforms if we’re not willing to fork over some extra cash for them.

2. Don’t cut programs that affect me.

Any nonprofit agency or other special interest group that doesn’t lobby elected officials to at least maintain current levels of funding is asking for trouble.

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But few of these groups come to the Legislature, county commissioners, city councils and school boards with alternatives to cuts.

Just once I’d like to hear something like this when it comes to a please-don’t-cut-us presentation: "We know you’re in a difficult position, with so many agencies and groups coming to you with requests not to reduce their funding. So, here’s our plan for sharing the burden. Here’s what we’re going to do to make our operation more efficient, or to generate more revenue, or to reinvent ourselves so we can get by on what we’re getting now, or maybe even a little bit less."

3. Maintain services at current or even better levels.

Yes, we need to keep drug dealers and armed robbers off the streets. We need to repair car-eating potholes, fix bridges before they crumble to pieces, make sure school bathrooms are sanitary and provide for those — especially children — who cannot, through no fault of their own, provide for themselves.

But can we get by with less from the government, at least until the economy turns around? Absolutely. Instead of demanding more and better services at a time when government is doing whatever it can to be austere here’s a novel idea. Why not ask what we as citizens can do to help ease the burden.

4. Be less partisan.

This is the one "miracle" I think we as citizens have every right to expect will come true. I believe in democracy and the multiparty system. Autocracies don’t have a very good track record when it comes to keeping the masses happy.

But if ever there was a time for political parties to set aside their ideological differences and work together to get us through the mess we’re in, it is now.

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You can argue all you want about whose fault it is that we’re in the worst economic downturn in 80 years — the last president, the last Congress, greedy Wall Street investors, Big Oil, Big Business, reality TV.

It doesn’t matter whose fault it is that we’ve slipped into this deep, dark hole. What matters is that we work together to climb our way out.

Greg Sellnow’s columns appear Tuesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at 285-7703 or by e-mail at sellnow@postbulletin.com.

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