Tightening our (gun) belts

 Man standing with gun and ammunition belt

On 15 April I joined the nationwide Tax Day Tea Party movement to protest high taxes, higher federal spending, and general disrespect for the Constitution of the United States of America.  It felt good.

I also know that along with rights come responsibilities.  Times are tough all over and it is difficult to see services we use being cut.  Government provides many essential services, and many things that just make our communities nicer places to live.

I doubt many people consider the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) an “essential service”.  According to their website:

The Minnesota Historical Society is chief caretaker of Minnesota’s story—and the History Center is home to the Society’s vast collections. Within its archives reside artifacts ranging from American Indian moccasins and artwork to furniture and photographs, Civil War-era flags and a wealth of geneaological information. All of it is accessible today and for future generations.

I love history and I love the Historical Society, and I am a paid member.  However, they really are the last part of “public health, safety and welfare”;  not surprisingly among the first to be cut.  MHS announced today a planned 16% cut to their budget for next fiscal year, starting 1 July 09.

Minnesota Historical Society Announces Plans for a Potential 16-Percent Budget Reduction

All programs and facilities will remain in full operation until a final plan is adopted

The Minnesota Historical Society announced plans today for a potential 16-percent overall budget reduction, beginning July 1, 2009, which would result in layoffs and reduced services to the people of Minnesota. The plan is based on expected cuts in the Society’s funding from the state of Minnesota, as well as the effects of the current economic downturn. The reduction was developed in anticipation of serious budget shortfalls during the Society’s next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

A final decision on the Society’s state funding levels is expected in late May when Governor Pawlenty and the Minnesota Legislature announce an overall state budget for the upcoming biennium, which also begins July 1. In January, the Governor’s budget plan contained a 15-percent reduction to the Society’s operating budget. The Minnesota House recommended a reduction of nearly 10 percent earlier this month, and the Minnesota Senate recommended a seven-percent reduction this week.  

In addition, the Society is projecting a 20-percent shortfall in its non-state revenues over the next two years, due to declines in admissions, sales, charitable gifts and investments.

“We know that Minnesotans value the work of the Historical Society,” says Nina Archabal, director. “Our main objective in meeting the challenges of today’s economic downturn is to continue to preserve the state’s history and educate the state’s schoolchildren and adults.”

Since October, 2008, the Society has been engaged in a comprehensive strategic planning process. This process provided guidance in developing the proposed budget reductions.

The planned budget reductions would result in less public access to the Society’s services, programs and facilities.  It also would affect the Society’s work to preserve the state’s history.

Layoffs would occur for 94 full- and part-time employees, and an additional 223 employees would have their hours reduced.  In total, 317 individuals would be affected, or 46 percent of the Society’s staff, including individuals that work directly with the public, as well as people that support public programs and preservation statewide.

Some of my favorite MHS sites are on the chopping block.  Three sites will be mothballed 1 July 09:

More sites would see access and hours cut back, including Jeffers Petroglyphs near Comfrey, MN, which I recently wrote about on JohnScout blog.

These are great places.  I visited Historic Forestville last summer.  It’s a ghost town down in the Drifless Hills of Southeast Minnesota, south of Rochester.  Living history players act out original characters, literally bringing history to life.  I would love to participate on a regular basis if I lived closer…and dropped seven or eight other hobbies to make time.  One of those hobbies I’ve picked up of late is participating in Mountain Man Rendezvous, with their black powder rifles and tomahawk throws and leather britches over cast iron.  The Fur Post at Pine City recreates the world of 1804 and the European, American and Ojibwe fur trade.  Picture me lost and dreaming in buckskins.

I am a bit concerned about this bit at the end of the press release:

Also pending is a decision on how proceeds from the Legacy Amendment will support history education and programming. The constitutional amendment, which was passed by voters in November 2008, calls for funds to preserve Minnesota’s history as a way to supplement, rather than substitute for, current funding and programs. The Minnesota History Coalition, representing historical organizations statewide, including the Society, has recommended that 50 percent of the funding for the Arts and Cultural Heritage portion of the amendment be dedicated to statewide history education and preservation.

I could be cyncial and say it’s all posturing to get dedicated funding.  I won’t.

I could fuss and fume, and put on a big pout.  I’ve driven by the Lindbergh property several trips, each time telling myself “I’ll stop next time.”  Now there won’t be a “next time.”  These places are important to me and a big benefit to living in the state of Minnesota. 

I could get angry, pull out the big guns, and demand my rights.  But I won’t. 

When times are tough we all have to tighten our belts and do our share.  What I’m going to do is clear my calendar for the 2nd half of June after I get home from Scout camp.  I’m going to plan a drive to Pine City before the Northwest Company Fur Post closes.  Maybe I’ll go through Little Falls, or at least make a stop at Jeffers Petroglyphs on my way.  I’m going to look for a book from the MHS bookstore to buy and read after the first of July.  I’m going to save so I can renew my membership.  I’m going to put my money where my mouth is….

Right after I write a letter to my Representative, my Senator, the Governor about cutting (my) taxes and (somebody else’s) spending.

(Cross-posted at JCShepard.com).

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Market Value of Ag Production

SW MN Market Value of Production Per Farm 2007

Agriculture is naturally a risky business.  Americans have chosen to hedge some of that risk through federal farm programs to ensure a reliable supply of food and ag products.  If you can’t eat, the rest doesn’t much matter.

The President’s first budget released last week has received a bit of press for changes to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs previously agreed to as part of last year’s farm bill.  Specifically, BHO proposed to cut off direct payments to commodity growers with sales over $500,000, as well as other reductions in subsidies and promotions.  This could affect over 6,400 farms in Minnesota alone.

Now, I’m generally all in favor of cutting federal spending.  In this case, I’m not sure the proposal is any better than the system in place.

You might think, “Well, anybody pulling in half-a-million a year doesn’t need a handout” and I would be inclined to agree.  However, this is bad math.  That $500k is a gross figure, as I understand it.  Looking at the US Census of Agriculture for 2007, an average farm in Southwest Minnesota would have realized about $282,000 for the market value of the production of crops and livestock, and about $211,000 in production expenses.  That leaves about $70,000 net to support a family, plus typically cash income for off-farm work in many families if only for health insurance.  Not bad in a rural community if I’m doing my math right, and (with economies of scale) double that figure shouldn’t have any need for subsidies.

Unfortunately, life is more complicated than that.  Many farm operations are partnerships supporting multiple generations.  Many farms have hired help—young guys and gals in school or just starting out, or immigrants working the fields and herds.  So start divying that number into smaller and smaller chunks and see how far that goes?  Even so, that number is also a calculated average (that given my grades in statistics class I hesitate to even publish).  This sort of muddled mandate seems likely to push family operations apart to meet some bureaucrat’s unilateral limit rather than create the type of partnerships to be most competitive in a changing economy.

Lincoln County, Minnesota, is a small county by population and acreage, with more what and less higher-margin corn.  In 2007, the 784 farms in Lincoln County calculated out with the lowest margin between sales and market value of production, below a state-wide average ~$35,000.  Yet there were still 77 operations with over $500,000 in sales in the County that year.

Like much of life, some enterprises do well and others not so well.  Agricultural assistance is intended to insulate the profession of farming on the “not so well” years so we have food at the grocery.  Is the system perfect?  Oh heck, no.  Nickel-and-dime hacks won’t necessarily make it any better and the law of unintended consequenses virtually assures ill-thought changes will make things worse.

School Sports are a Luxury

They’re called “Extra-Curricular” sports for a reason. The bankrupt Minneapolis Star-Tribune stirs up trouble with an article in Sunday’s paper:

School sports now a Minnesota luxury?

“Cut from the team” means something different in these economic times. Extracurricular activities are hurting.

The economic crunch is coming to high school sports.

Faced with budget problems, some schools are raising fees while cutting back on equipment, transportation and other expenses. Others are voluntarily cutting back on the number of games their teams play.

In early February, the Minnesota State High School League could decide to make reduced schedules mandatory starting in the 2009-10 school year as a way to save money.

Administrators use words like “bleak” and “troubling” to describe the outlook for high school activities….

My wife disagrees with me vehemently on the role of sports in school. She is quiet persuasive. For kids that are not on the Honor Role, eligibility for sports can be an incentive to sit through the drudgery of a public school education.

And truth be told, yes, I do agree that rising activity fees means it can be very difficult for middle class kids to participate throughout the year. My wife’s kids play softball, baseball, basketball, and football; they participate in cheer leading and choir. On top of their hefty activity fees, parents are expected to pay to get into games and concerts (yes, they charge for high school and junior high choir concerts, too).

I also agree: a well-rounded education requires a broad exposure to the arts and sciences in addition to core academics.

I am a long-time participant and advocate of Scouting for youth. It is a game with a purpose. However, it would never occur to me to ask the taxpayers of Minnesota to help pay for our Scouting adventure.

Scouting isn’t cheap, but there is value in Scouting and a Scout is Thrifty. We try to work with families to give our young men the opportunity to earn their way. We sell popcorn and wreaths. We work during the County Fair. Our parents dig deep to send their own sons to summer camp each year and the community supports our Council programs with Friends of Scouting.

In difficult times, we may have to say No. Sorry, not this year. I would love to send our Scout to the centennial National Jamboree next year. That’s not likely to happen no matter how much popcorn he sells. In times like these, we need to work harder, plan better, save more. Get back to basics. Do your best.

(Cross-posted from JohnScout)