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Confusion, nastiness yield politics of frustration

One of the reasons that politics is frustrating is that it is so confusing.

Take all the wrangling over education funding this year. For the average person, the arguments were overheated and confusing, and the final results difficult to comprehend.

The overheated part is mainly Gov. Mark Dayton’s fault. For somebody who tries to define his political identity as the caring, grandfatherly type, he can be downright mean and prone to nasty hyperbole. And as much as he wraps himself in the warm feeling we have “for the children,” it was obvious to those of us following the issues that his energy was being used to pay off the teachers union, even at the expense of children in need.

First, the nasty hyperbole.

Dayton has always wrapped his transactional politics in the language of love. His political career has been fueled largely by vast amounts of money from labor unions, public employee unions and teachers unions. They have spent millions boosting his political profile and carrying him to victory, and he has returned the favor by carrying their water. He may care, but most of his care is for his political friends.

This year he crossed many rhetorical lines. He said of Republicans that they “hate” public schools, and when challenged he refused to back down.

The accusation wasn’t just hyperbole — it was incredibly nasty and totally false. And his evidence for this falsehood was Republicans’ opposition to universal pre-K education in public schools. An opposition they shared with many Democrats and a large swath of the liberal establishment who wanted to focus resources on kids who are at risk.

Republicans generally support a well-regarded scholarship program focused on intensive support for at-risk children and their families, not spreading resources thin by providing a universal system that duplicates what many middle- and upper-income parents already provide for their children.

That’s a position shared by the Star Tribune editorial board, early childhood advocates, and many DFL legislators. Do THEY hate public schools? Dayton didn’t accuse Republicans of hating public schools because he believed opposition to universal pre-K means you hate public schools; he said it to be nasty to his political opponents.

Dayton hasn’t slowed down with his nasty rhetoric, either. During the post-session negotiations over Dayton’s vetoed education bill, Dayton charged that Republicans care more about money than kids’ lives. “They view it as dollars, I view it as kids’ lives,” said Dayton. Nasty.

Dayton’s nastiness hides the fact that few people who follow the issue of early childhood education believe that universal pre-K is the best way to spend our money to help kids.

In fact, both the research and the policy proposals of people who follow the issue pretty clearly show that the best way to make a real difference is to focus our resources on high-quality programs geared to helping kids at risk.

The real issue, then, is whether we are going to expand teachers unions or fund kids who need help. Because the biggest beneficiary of universal pre-K is the teachers union — they would get more dues-paying members. Dayton, not his opponents, is making the money grab. His rhetoric merely distracts from the fact that he is carrying water for the people who paid for his political victory last year. Transactional politics.

Dayton’s nastiness isn’t the only problem with understanding what actually happened at the Capitol this year.

The arcane way that we calculate funding for programs unnecessarily confuses people about what actually is happening.

Even I get confused — and I have been following state government for nearly 20 years.

When the governor and Republicans announced that they had come to a compromise over education funding, the news reports threw out a big number, and then explained it as an increase in funding of 2 percent a year. A respectable number, but hardly anything to get excited about.

But then I read that overall education funding increased by 8 percent in the budget, which by my math is about double the 2 percent a year number. An 8 percent increase IS a big number — and it gets there by including everything, not just money dumped into a per-pupil formula that doesn’t represent what we actually spend on educating our kids.

How is the average person supposed to understand what is actually going on, when people who have been following the system hardly know?

Citizens are dissatisfied, and they should be. Politics will (and should) always be competitive, but it needn’t be so nasty. Government policies and spending will always be complicated, but it needn’t be so confusing and in many cases deceptive. Politicians will always be sensitive to their supporters, but policies needn’t be driven solely by payback.

But that’s where we are today, and to a great extent Mark Dayton is at fault. His ready resort to nasty rhetoric poisons the well, and drives many citizens to tune out the complexities of budgeting and policies. His rhetoric is often designed to distort what actually happened.

The press, too, could do a better job of filtering out the rhetoric and explaining those complexities in ways people can understand. Is spending going up 2 percent a year for 2 years, or by 8 percent in that time? Nobody knows what the education “formula” is, so focus on the big picture so that people “get” it.

Our political and media elites often lament the ignorance of citizens, but more often than not they are responsible for it. It’s hard not to be cynical — and increasingly, citizens are.

David Strom is principal at Think-Write-Do, a communications and public affairs consulting firm.

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