Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Recession: Rochester Town Hall Meeting

On Thursday, February 19th, I attended a town-meeting of legislators and citizens to address Minnesota’s current budget crisis.

The meeting was packed. I had expected maybe 100 to 150 people. The total crowd size was more like 275 to 375. Olmsted County citizens overflowed the seats and stood in the wings and along the back row.

Bill Marx, Chief Fiscal Analyst for the Minnesota House, kicked off the meeting by presenting an overview of how the current budget crises occurred and ran through details of Governor Tim Pawlenty’s drastic budget cuts.

Then, as State Legislators (including the Speaker of the Minnesota House, Rochester Representatives Kim Norton and Tina Liebling, and State Senators Ann Lynch and Dave Senjem) listened, people from Rochester came to the Microphone to offer testimony about how the budget cuts would effect them.

A group of Attorneys who worked as public defenders complained that the judicial system was going to be cut. Aid workers to the disabled and parents of the disabled complained that their sources of support would be cut. Teachers complained that their colleagues were losing their jobs and that class sizes were grown as budgets were cut. Doctors complained that heath care was being cut. A college president complained that his budget was being cut. A small business owner complained that he has had to cut employees and might have to cut more if his taxes were increased to prevent more cuts.

In one of the bigger crowd pleasers, two bright, well dressed young members of a high school speech team complained that the budget for their TEAM was in danger of being cut…(“won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children”)

As I listened to this litany of complaints and cuts, my heart began to harden. “Don’t these people realize”, I muttered to myself, “that we are OUT OF FREAKIN’ MONEY?”

Of course I, as a citizen (not to mention as a Democrat, born and bred) don’t want to cut teachers, hurt small businesses, cut aid to the disabled or deprive some kids of their treasured speech class field trips…

One of the common problems with most of this “testimony”, in my opinion was a lack of ability on the part of the speakers to explain in cold heart numbers (and not just warm, humanistic fuzzy sentiment) how their work SAVED this Government of the People, by the People and for the People MONEY.

I felt a deep lack of understanding on the part of those testifying of the fact that Life Cannot Continue as Before. Changes will be made. They are not pleasant. That is the fact- there is, alas, no way around it.

Next to me stood a man I judged to be in his late sixties. Based soley on his dress and demeanor, I made a snap judgement that he was probably the type of Republican with whom I felt I had nothing in common.

He turned to me and said, “It all sounds like a lot of begging to me”.

I was somewhat dismayed to find that I agreed with him. Was I, the staunch Democrat, turning Republican?

But I realized, in the end, that no. I was just being realistic. As Democrats, we are now going to have to engage in some deep slicing- it will hurt, and it will run contrary to what we, in our hearts want for our fellow citizens and ourselves.

But, we must realize that the welfare of the nation as a whole is, at this time, of even greater importance than any one singe interest group, no matter how worthy.

Yes, as Democrats, we will, in all likelihood, have to begin doing things we would rather not do. No one, even those who are now suffering, will be spared additional suffering until we reach the other side of this crisis.

However, as one speaker pointed out, our job (especially as Democrats) is to ensure that “these cuts [shouldn’t and don’t] fall disproportionately on the backs of the poor.” Again, however, the key word is “disproportionately”- there will, I’m afraid, have to be cuts for all if we are to survive.

The rain, as the gospel of Matthew reminds us, falls upon the just and the unjust. And there will be pain in the future for all of us…the faster we suck up and deal with this fact, the sooner we will dig our way out, and once again have the resources to renew our mission to raise the standard of living and offer hope to all.

There is one other thing worth noting. In all of the testimony that I heard, only one speaker mentioned the importance of Volunteering. If we cannot, as a government, afford to provide professional caregivers to the disabled, can we not Give of our Time to help them ourselves? Can we not collect some change to help the speech class? Can some who are currently out of work not give of their time to function as teacher aides in oversized classrooms?

As a society, we are dealing with the pain of loss right now. However, we can not afford the luxury of denial, we must move forward if we are to heal.

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