Even though this is National Sunshine Week, these are dark days in Minnesota.
While Sunshine Week is designed to highlight the media’s efforts to shine light on government, Gov. Mark Dayton, in his plan to reform state taxes, has joined with the forces of darkness.
He decided that newspapers need to be taxed more. Thus, the Fourth Estate has been caught up in his web of business-to-business sales tax increases, tacking an extra 5.5 percent of taxes on printing, the second largest expense of most newspapers after payroll, 5.5 percent on advertising, the lifeblood of every newspaper paid or free, and on newspaper subscriptions.
The governor would even tax the distribution of preprinted inserts by newspapers. Since the biggest competitor to newspapers for this business is the U.S. Postal Service, which doesn’t pay taxes (and, at this point, couldn’t if it wanted to), it just emphasizes the overall unfairness of the governor’s plan.
When you tax something, you get less of it. That’s why the governor is also proposing increasing the tax on cigarettes by 94 cents a pack. Either he is hoping to raise a lot of revenue from the chemically addicted, which would be immoral, or he wants them to decide the unhealthy habit is no longer worth the cost, a nobler goal.
But back to newspapers, I asked the governor why he thought it would be a good idea to have less news. He said that he didn’t think it would be. However, his tax reform plan would inevitably have that effect.
It’s stunning to think a DFL governor would want to shackle the Fourth Estate. Back when I was just beginning my newspaper career, President Nixon had just resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which was uncovered by several enterprising, tenacious newspaper reporters.
At the same time, reform-minded Democrats were attempting to move their party out of the proverbial “smoke-filled back rooms,” and to create more openness and transparency in government. The prevailing thought was that will give the citizenry a chance to see what their government is up to — and by so doing, make government more responsive to the people.
It was in that era that the DFL-dominated Minnesota Legislature strengthened the state Open Meeting Law and passed the state Data Practices Act.
The former made it law that when your city council or school board holds a meeting to discuss the public’s business, with only a few specific exceptions, they can’t do it in secret. Even today, a number of elected officials around the state try to skirt the spirit of that law whenever possible, embarrassed that the public may learn what they are about.
The Data Practices Act is based on the presumption that all government documents, except for a few specified exceptions, are public, and any citizen may view them. Here again, the battle goes on, and some government workers still don’t understand that they work for the public, not just their boss, office or branch of government.
So it was that a year ago, without any explanation, the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District bought out Human Resource Director Tania Chance with $255,000 after she had been on the job only a few months.
Taxpayers seemed to be more upset about the secrecy than the amount of the payout. The Legislature attempted to shed some light on such buy-outs during the last session, but they continue to happen. As a result, Rep. Pam Myrha, R-Burnsville, now is working to tighten the legislation passed just last year, so that the public can find out enough to establish accountability for the waste of tax dollars.
Meanwhile, efforts are intensifying to allow local governments to place public notices on obscure government Web sites, that few people visit, instead of in newspapers. This is said to be a cost-saving measure, but what will the price be in terms of loss of accountability and the growth of corruption? Who will be able to prove that government workers complied with the law?
This state has about 330 newspapers, The fact is that they are the only organized watchdog of local government activities remaining (not TV, radio or Internet bloggers), but under Dayton’s plan, the likelihood will diminish that someone will still be able to cover the Clearbrook City Council, the Cass County Board or the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg Schools.
Dayton may say that he doesn’t want to contribute to the public’s ignorance about government, but that would be the inevitable result.
One would think the Republicans would be all over the issue of transparency in government, but Myrha seems to be more of the exception at this point. Republicans are still angry at the state and national drive-by media because President Obama was re-elected. They seem to forget that from Sean Hannity to Rachel Maddow, all of the arguments both for and against the president and challenger Mitt Romney were thrown on the table, and the voters made their choices.
If the GOP thinks it’s right, one would hope it would try to become the party that holds government accountable, working harder at getting the facts out, instead of shooting the messenger.
Minnesota has long been known for open, honest government relative to most other states. If Minnesotans want that to continue, however, they need to be aware that Gov. Dayton’s policies would pull down the dark shroud of secrecy, making it far more difficult for you to cast an educated vote.
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].