By What Compass is Jesse Guided?

Date: 20 Apr 1999 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

By What Compass is Jesse Guided?

by David Morris
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

April 20, 1999 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

Two weeks ago, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura exercised his first veto. He rejected legislation that would have required sprinkler companies to install a $35 device that senses soil moisture and turns off the sprinkler when the ground is already saturated. The bill was overwhelmingly approved by both the Democratic Senate and the Republican House.

“This bill is a perfect example of unnecessary government intervention,” Jesse insisted. “It tries to solve a problem that should be left up to individuals.”

A few days later, Jesse addressed a conference sponsored by the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank. He declared that government has a responsibility to intervene to alleviate traffic congestion. And he reiterated his support for a $2.5 billion public investment in light rail.

A question for the governor: Why are wasteful driving habits a government responsibility but not wasteful water consumption habits? What is the political philosophy that links and justifies both positions?

“Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Ralph Waldo Emerson opined. Maybe so, but now that Minnesota is run by three different political parties, we should insist that Republicans, Democrats and Reformers alike offer us a compelling, coherent and intelligible framework that enables us to anticipate and understand their actions.

It would be immensely helpful to me in understanding Ventura’s politics to know how he stands on three recent or pending state policies:

Energy efficiency. In 1991 the Legislature directed Minnesota agencies to make the state building code the nation’s most energy-efficient. Why? Because a small initial investment in energy-saving devices and designs repays itself many times over and constitutes the most cost-effective way to reduce pollution that affects the entire community. Why is legislation necessary? Efficiency investments modestly raise the initial cost of a building, discouraging builders from maximizing energy-saving features.

The Legislature is about to overturn the energy-saving law. What is the governor’s position? Does he consider that law to be like the “rain check” bill, which also requires a small investment that repays itself many times over and reduces pollution, but which the governor believes is not affected by the public interest?

Or does he view it like transportation policy, where he believes the public interest demands government involvement in reducing pollution and using resources more efficiently?

Wind power. A few weeks ago I argued on these pages that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission should define the legislative phrase “in the public interest” to mean that NSP must double its commitment to wind-generated electricity. A few days after that column appeared the PUC gratifyingly did so. Does the governor approve? The state is forcing Minnesotans to pay a tiny bit more for electricity in return for reducing pollution, building an in-state wind industry and adding income to rural communities.

Does the governor think that creating a homegrown, pollution-free renewable-energy industry is a collective responsibility or an individual choice?

Nuclear waste. In the past, Minnesota has taken the lead in demanding that the nation’s taxpayers pick up the tab for storing the radioactive wastes generated by this state’s four nuclear reactors. Almost all Minnesota policymakers currently support dumping all our nuclear wastes in Nevada — ironically, a state that has no nuclear reactors of its own.

Where does the governor stand on this issue? He often speaks of the need for individuals to take responsibility for personal behavior and life choices. Does that mean we should be responsible for our own wastes too?

In last year’s State of the Union Address, to thunderous applause on both sides of the aisle, President Clinton declared, “The era of big government is over.” Now the question is: “What does the era of small government look like?”

With a three-party system, Minnesota is the perfect place to engage this question. What better way to do this than to ask our politicians to stand up and tell us not only where they stand on specific issues, but how their many stands are informed by a broad, coherent governing philosophy?

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.