Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Government, Stay in Your Lane- A warning about Plan Bay Area from Minnesota

Minnesotan's enjoy the freedom of the great outdoors, yet planners want shuffle them into high density housing in cities.

 Government, Stay in Your Lane

Back in 1967, the Metropolitan Council was created to solve a problem: The growing population of the Twin Cities region had a sewage problem spawned by a patchwork of sewer and septic systems, and letting the problem fester would be a significant problem for public health.

The Metropolitan Council wasn’t supposed to replace local governments, but coordinate their efforts to increase health, safety and efficiency.

Coordinated planning of water and sewer systems made sense. And it worked pretty well, as such things go. Some things do work better at scale.

Legislators liked what they saw, so they added new functions to the Met Council over time. The most obvious and most frequently contentious is public transit, but other duties were added over time: regional planning, urban planning for municipalities, forecasting population growth, ensuring adequate affordable housing, and maintaining a regional park and trails system. It even has authority over aviation matters.

Aficionados of making government “efficient” and empowering “experts” see this increase in the Metropolitan Council as a great thing. It turns the Twin Cities metropolitan region — which is a sprawling mish-mash of overlapping governments, populations, taxing districts, and authorities — into one thing to be managed. And managed by a council that is entirely unelected and mostly unaccountable.

Needless to say, I am not one of those aficionados. In fact, I tend to think that more than a little diversity and chaos, as well as some healthy rivalry, is a good thing in governing people. Centralization is the enemy.

The current priorities of the Metropolitan Council demonstrate my point perfectly. Susan Haigh, as nice a person as one could meet, has set out her priorities for the Council to tackle in coming years.

The target of her concern? She has challenged the Council and its “partners” (government should not have partners, but constituents) to “address the significant disparities in school achievement, employment and poverty between the region’s people of color and its white population.”
No kidding. The agency founded to ensure that septic tanks didn’t poison our water is now at the forefront of the fight for racial equality.

I am all for fighting racial inequality. I live in a majority-minority area and tend to think that the elitists in Minneapolis City Hall care more for the quality of life of the wealthy in the liberal lakes area than the working-class milieu in the near north, but I want my water, sewer, and transit bureaucracy to focus on providing water, sewer and safe, effective and affordable transit.

Instead, they are focusing on racial inequality. Ensuring quality education. Empowering the powerless. Things that we already pay the Human Rights Commissioner and the Education Commissioner to do for the state’s seven most populous counties as well as the other 80.

The Metropolitan Council’s governing structure exists as it does because it was supposed to focus on managing the interaction of bureaucracies providing basic functions of government, as efficiently as possible. But the mission creep we have witnessed over the past 40 or so years has made it the playground of unaccountable social engineers who are playing SimCity with our lives, our homes and our region.

Such mission creep is hardly unique to the Metropolitan Council. A quick perusal of the new plans from the Department of Transportation show the same sort of overweening social engineering impulses.

Naïvely perhaps, Minnesotans believe that MnDOT exists to ensure that we can move people, goods, and services — provide mobility, in other words — as efficiently as possible using as few resources as necessary.

MnDOT, rather, lists ensuring the “health” of Minnesotans as one of its key goals in its new plans, so they include massive sums of money in their plans for bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Bikes and walking are great, but they won’t get the food to market or the manufactured goods to the airport, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t think MnDOT should be worried about my BMI. And the Commissioner of Human Rights finds so little to do, apparently, that he’s decided to take on DEED’s job in fighting unemployment. The Commissioner of Education has moved on from K-12 and Early Education and has expanded her mandate to include the “cradle.”

We depend upon government doing its job well. Government officials, on the other hand, revel in the opportunity to tell us how to live well.

It’s a terrible combination, and it makes it hard to hold an institution or agency accountable when they can simply change their job description to whatever it is that they want to do, not what they are mandated to do and not what our tax money has been appropriated for them to do.

David Strom is Principal of Think Write Do, a public affairs consulting firm. He is also a Senior Policy Fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. This article originally appeared in Politics in Minnesota

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