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Philip Araoz — Pork projects don’t stimulate the economy

I just got a mailer from Congressman Tim Walz. In big letters it spelled out "Tim Walz’s Tax Savings Tips."

In tiny print it said, "prepared, published, and mailed at taxypayers’ expense." Seems if Walz were really that concerned about my taxes he could have just skipped the mailer and sent me the money. Of course, if we divide the cost of that mailer by all the U.S. taxpayers who paid for it, then we’d each get a fraction of a cent, so why bother with that?

The Post-Bulletin editors asked a similar question in a March 11 editorial, where they argued that Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed one-eighth of 1 percent cut in the sales tax was a "paltry amount of money" that for any specific individual "simply won’t be felt." Ah, but when all of us cough up these paltry amounts, it adds up to millions that politicians can do with as they please.

And therein lies the answer as to why our government is beholden to special interests. In our day-to-day lives, most of us don’t pay much attention to how government spends our money. But politicians and interests groups dependent on our money notice a lot.

They’re the ones who are at the capitol every day, fighting for access to the public trough. Whether it’s subsidies for businesses, free mailers for incumbents, or anything else, the main way they keep using our common money for their narrow good is by taking a small amount from any individual and hoping we won’t notice.

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The other way is by occasionally throwing money our way and telling us what a great deal we got. Never has that been more evident than in our current state legislative session. In editorials and e-mails our state representatives have bragged how many non-essential projects they are sending us, like $3.5 million for the Mayo Civic Center or $4 million for the Rochester National Volleyball Center.

These projects do not benefit the whole state. Funding them is not the state’s job. But if you really do feel good that other people are paying for our volleyball center, then understand the real cost — that to get our pork our legislators had to agree to everyone else’s pork as well.

So, you and I are paying $82 million for hockey rinks in Bemidji, St. Cloud, Crookston and Duluth, $40 million for the Duluth entertainment center, and $22 million for the Bemidji regional events center (to name a few). Does $3.5 million for the Mayo Civic Center sound like a good deal now?

Limiting taxes and capping spending — that’s the way to make sure that only necessary projects make it through. That is why the recent debate about transportation funding was so duplicitous.

Roads and bridges are 100 percent necessary, and in the common good. I, for one, would be happy to pay higher taxes for better roads. But the tax hike wasn’t for roads. Not really. No, the tax increase was passed to take roads out of competition with pork in the bonding bill.

But don’t all those construction projects create jobs? Yes, they do. And so would digging holes and filling them up again. Government projects don’t lead to new investment and don’t produce jobs like money in the private sector.

So when our legislators feed the government with more taxes, that’s an untold number of new products that weren’t created, businesses that didn’t expand, and consumer demand that was unmet.

But it’s hard for politicians take to credit for what we create in the private sector. They get more bang for their buck with pork projects and free campaign mailings.

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Since I opened with Tim Walz it’s only fair to point out that almost all incumbents, both Republican and Democrat, live off of pork and use their privilege to send "informational" mailers to their constituents. Though for someone who campaigned as a reformer it hasn’t taken Tim Walz long to turn into a regular politician.

Also, Tim Walz has made some symbolic efforts to appear fiscally responsible, like returning 7 percent of his last-year’s unused office expenses. While the symbolism is nice, the substance has been a disaster.

Since in office, Tim Walz and his Democratic caucus have reneged on their pledge to "pay as you go" and end deficit spending. They have reneged on their pledge to end pork-barrel earmarks. They have just proposed a budget with $683 billion in tax increases and have proposed spending increases from here to eternity.

Politicians and interests groups will always feed themselves by bleeding the private sector and telling us it’s no big deal. The only way to stop it is to hold politicians accountable.

Araoz is a Rochester physician. His column appears monthly.

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