Tax-Base Taking, Minnesota-Style

by Stanley Kurtz

The first glimmer of a response from the activists criticized in my book, Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities, has emerged at the liberal Minnesota news site, MinnPost. At least this tops the initial reaction to the book: an apparent effort to scrub a picture of President Obama meeting with his community organizing mentor, Mike Kruglik, from the web.

In a news article that reads more like an opinion piece, Marlys Harris defends Obama from my charge that the president seeks to undercut America’s suburbs. In the process, Harris elicits some statements from Myron Orfield, an intellectual leader of the regional equity movement, an advisor to the Obama White House, and a figure treated at length in my book. Orfield is the most prominent national advocate of “regional tax-base sharing,” a practice I argue President Obama would like to see exported well beyond Minnesota, the only place it now exists.

Harris seems torn between her urge to defend Orfield’s redistributive policies and the apparently more pressing need to protect Obama by pretending the president’s anti-suburban initiatives are nothing of consequence.

Policies designed to discourage driving and press would-be suburbanites into tightly-packed cities, are “mostly” local, says Harris. My point, however, is that Obama has established programs designed to give those local efforts a major federal boost, especially in a second presidential term. Harris nowhere disputes, or even describes, my argument on this score.

On the Obama administration’s plans to press low-income housing on suburbs across the nation, Harris downplays the Westchester County precedent, failing to lay out the federal role in that case, and fudging the Obama administration’s promise to impose Westchester-like settlements across the country in a second term. At least Westchester’s leaders know the score, calling the Obama administration’s moves “unprecedented bureaucratic overreaching” and an “unwarranted trampling of local zoning rights.”

When she finally gets around to Minnesota and the regional tax-base “sharing” issue (tax-base “taking” would be more accurate), Harris can’t rebut my claim that the Obama administration is helping Orfield organize a coalition of urban and relatively-less-well-off “inner-ring” suburban politicians to force tax-base redistribution on suburbs across the country. So instead, she claims that the original Minnesota tax-base sharing legislation of 1971 was not in fact supported by such a coalition.

That contradicts her favorite source, Myron Orfield, who wrote in his book Metropolitics that the original “fiscal disparities” law was “supported by a coalition of ‘central-city,’ ‘poor,’-suburban, and outstate legislators….” Also, Orfield and his fellow leftists have been making hay for years out of the fact that an original sponsor of that Minnesota bill was a Republican (from the poorest county in the region). Yet Orfield’s own description in Metropolitics of that early legislative battle, not to mention the many subsequent battles over tax-base “sharing” that he personally led, bears little resemblance to the story he and Harris tell today.

In his book, Orfield highlights the intensely divisive and blatantly redistributive nature of so-called tax-base “sharing.” Readers of Metropolitics will see Republicans largely painted as villains, along with reminders of undying opposition from suburbanites forced to fork over their tax-money in perpetuity to other municipalities. The artificially sweetened story Harris and Orfield are telling today is surely designed to protect Obama from my revelation that regional tax-base “sharing” is being pushed by the White House right now.

Harris and Orfield also downplay the obvious urban bias of regional tax-base “sharing” by noting that in 2011, Minneapolis put in more taxes than it took from the regional pot. What they don’t want to talk about is St. Paul’s consistent status as a net tax beneficiary, with Minneapolis generally in tow.

Of course it’s Orfield, not some obscure Republican state legislator from the 1970s, who is working with the Obama White House today to spread regional tax-base “sharing” to the country at large. As he himself details in his writings, Orfield has worked for years to supercharge the original “fiscal disparities” law, trying to make it vastly more redistributive than it was originally designed to be. Orfield’s no Republican businessman, however much he might run for cover behind a few misguided supporters of the original law (the favorite tactic of Orfield and his allies for decades). Orfield is a flat-out redistributionist, with a powerful yearning to undo the political and economic independence of America’s suburbs. It’s no accident that Myron Orfield has been quietly helping to shape Obama administration policy for years, and no accident either that the liberal MinnPost is covering for Orfield and Obama today.

Bottom line: America’s middle class had better get wise to what Obama has in store for them in his second term. Otherwise they’ll soon be turned into perpetually grumpy targets of Minnesota-style tax-base-taking schemes.

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