Tom West: Keeping perspective: Minnesota doing many things right

With the Legislature now in a special session, the demagoguery is at fever pitch. Still, into the midst of it all last week was thrown a little booklet that helped me regain some perspective about how Minnesota is doing as a state.

With the Legislature now in a special session, the demagoguery is at fever pitch. Still, into the midst of it all last week was thrown a little booklet that helped me regain some perspective about how Minnesota is doing as a state.

The booklet was put out by the Taxpayers' Network of Cedarburg, Wis. In spite of the organization's name, which suggests that it is a conservative watchdog, the booklet simply reproduces 66 different tables comparing the 50 states against one another. When we hear taxpayer groups pleading for lawmakers to hold the line on taxes, and then hear welfare advocacy groups calling for increased spending, looking at how Minnesota compares to the other 50 states throws a cold water glass of perspective on the latest wrangling at the capitol.

For example, one table shows that in Minnesota the median family income is $61,417, the sixth highest in the nation.

However, another tables says we pay more for our housing than most. The U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2003 the median value of a Minnesota house was $169,778, 16th highest in the nation. For the privilege of owning their own home, Minnesotans pay a median of $1,212 on upkeep of their homes, 18th highest, while renters pay median rent of $657 per month, 21st highest in the nation.

I think that says Minnesotans are still ahead of most Americans once housing costs are subtracted from income.


The Census Bureau found that in 2003 only 7.8 percent of Minnesotans lived below the poverty level. Only New Hampshire did better -- by one tenth of one percent.

Taxwise, Minnesotans rank fourth highest in corporate income tax at 9.8 percent. The Democrats wanted to increase that tax this session to 11.0 percent, which would have moved Minnesota up to second highest -- behind only Iowa.

Minnesotans pay the 15th highest property taxes, an average of $1,060.

Minnesota's gas tax of 20 cents per gallon is 26th highest. If Gov. Tim Pawlenty had not vetoed the dime hike this year, the 30 cents per gallon tax would have been third highest in the nation.

At 48 cents per pack, Minnesota's smokers are getting a break. That's the 38th highest in the nation. If Pawlenty's proposal to add 75 cents per pack becomes law, Minnesota will move up to the 11th highest. Kentucky is the lowest at 3 cents per pack, while Rhode Island is tops at $2.46.

For some reason, Minnesotans prefer beer and wine over booze. Maybe it's the taxes. Our tax on booze is sixth highest, but our tax on wine is only 38th highest and on beer only 34th.

Minnesotans spend $76 per capita annually on the state lottery, 34th highest in the nation. Meanwhile Minnesota's lottery administration expenses rank fifth highest at 14.3 percent, more than double the U.S. average.

The total state and local tax burden for Minnesotans is 10.5 percent of income, 11th highest in the nation.


Meanwhile, we employ in state and local government 457 people for every 10,000 citizens, 37th highest in the nation. We pay them relatively well. The average state or local government employee makes $45,636, 13th highest in the nation.

Our state debt per capita is $1,275, which ranks us 41st highest, another sign of fiscal health.

We don't get much help from the federal government. It spends $5,390 per capita here. Only Nevada gets less.

Minnesotans received 3,262 patents in 2003, 10th highest in the nation. By comparison, California led with 22,079, which was more than three times what No. 2 New York had.

We pay the 17th highest auto insurance premiums and the 29th highest homeowner's insurance premiums. Our residential natural gas rates are 38th highest and our electricity rates are 33rd.

In 2004, the National Education Association (NEA) says we spent $8,821 per pupil on public education, 18th highest in the nation. We had the 38th lowest student-teacher ratio at 16.2 and we had the fifth highest graduation rate at 78.9 percent.

The NEA says our teachers make an average of $45,375, 20th highest in the nation. Our investment resulted in having the ninth highest ACT scores in the country, with an overall average score of 22.2. Our eighth-graders rank first in standardized math testing and seventh in reading.

Our residential fishing license fee ranks 23rd highest, while the hunting license for residents is 18th highest. Minnesota ranks 10th highest on the per capita amount spent on natural resources, parks and recreation.


The state spends $389.24 per capita on roads, the 28th highest amount. The crisis over our roads isn't because of the potholes. The U.S. Department of Transportation rates Minnesota's roads the 12th smoothest ride, at least on the freeways and arterials. Nor is the crisis related to safety. Our fatality rate per billion miles driven is 41st highest. The problem is that Minnesota's urban interstate traffic lanes are carrying 17,095 vehicles per day in each lane, the fourth highest in the nation.

Minnesotans spend $204 per capita on state and local police and fire protection, the 22nd highest in the nation. Our violent crime rate is 41st highest while our property crime rate is 34th highest. We don't spend much on corrections. Per capita, we spend only $83.04, 46th highest. Our incarceration rate is lowest except for Maine's.

The Census Bureau said our spending on welfare was fifth highest in 2002, at $1,342 per capita. The percentage of Minnesotans on welfare as of March 2004 was 1.75 percent, 20th highest in the nation. That doesn't qualify Minnesota as a "welfare magnet," as some allege.

At 8.3 percent, fewer Minnesotans are without health insurance than any state in the nation. Our infant mortality rate is lower than any other state except Maine. In 2003, 27.7 percent of the births in Minnesota were to unwed mothers, the fifth lowest rate in the nation. Our expenditures on long-term care are fourth highest in the nation. Overall, the United Health Foundation found that Minnesotans are healthier than the residents of any other state.

Read through all those tables and the dire crises being predicted in St. Paul don't sound so ominous. As category after category shows, Minnesota has been doing a lot of things right.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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