Greetings Friends and Neighbors,
During the past several weeks, since the 2016 legislative session’s end, two topics have been centerpiece in our local and national news. Locally, the topic of Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) and its controversy in relationship to the end of the session and, nationally, the tragic loss of life resulting from the Orlando, Fla. mass shooting,
Too often, news coverage of subject issues and the narrative which surrounds the story projects points of view which lack objectivity in leading the recipient to arrive at reasonable conclusions without the benefit of statistical data which may or may not support the story’s hypothesis.
Unlike a few decades ago, the media market available today, in which consumers have a seemingly infinite limit of sources to obtain news and information, may actually contribute to what appears to be our growing cultural divisiveness. In contrast to a few decades ago, where we essentially had two statewide newspapers and four or five network-televised news channels, today we have social media, Twitter, Facebook, cable TV, subscription radio, news blogs, and information services and much more which most sources appear to compete for consumers in a market which is largely financed and driven by ratings, headlines and advertisements. In contrast, this evolution in media markets permits many more choices (arguably a good thing) to consumers today in obtaining the information they choose. On the other hand, it permits each of us to be our own editors and allows us the opportunity to refuse to listen or subscribe to news and information that we may not want to – or even refuse to – hear based upon each of our own biases, whether political or apolitical.
As your State Representative and policymaker at the State Legislature, I have unintentionally gained a reputation amongst colleagues as being kind of the “numbers guy.” In a world of news often enamored with emotion, I have always felt it incumbent to find the data that supports sound policy decisions when spending your tax dollars or making new law. So here go … some facts about SWLRT and gun control.
SWLRT and the 2015-2016 Legislative Sessions
The controversial SWLRT project is proposed to be one of many additional rail lines added to the existing three (3) operating lines currently in operation. The Metropolitan Council (METC) proposes several lines to be constructed with taxpayer dollars reaching out into the suburbs like spokes of a wheel from its hub, the urban core. METC also now erroneously claims authority over Housing Policy in our region by its own adoption of their THRIVE 2040 Policy Plan. In the plan, they propose to implement their vision of the regions housing by using light rail trains (LRT) and transit oriented development (TOD) as a means to implement its goal of requiring every suburb to accept “their fair share” of low-income/subsidized housing. Although METC denies claiming direct control over regional housing, they impose upon all of the communities under their jurisdiction a “tool” in their toolbox referred to as a “community score.”
In order for a community to qualify for federal dollars, local dollars or grants under METC control and distribution, communities must have an acceptable community score to be eligible. Having an acceptable community score requires a housing component(s) consistent with their THRIVE 2040 Policy Plan. This requirement is coercive at least to a “no play no pay” central planning scheme. Real estate and its development is locally driven and has traditionally followed a principle known as “highest and best use” which is market driven and aided by local zoning ordinances and orderly planned development.
Not all communities are equal in real estate assets as perceived by the market place. While some communities are rich in woods, water and rolling terrain which favors high values, others do not. Low-income housing projects cannot occur in high value neighborhoods and areas with high land values without public subsidies. Public housing subsidies require taxpayer dollars. These subsidies would be better spent developing the conditions in which low income individuals can rise out of poverty and gain skills necessary to provide themselves employment and income to earn ownership over below market rents.
Minnesota has traditionally been highest among the several states with approximately 66 percent of our population owning their home. Most of us did not start out as homeowners, but after time moved through the ladder of housing, from renter to starter home and beyond as our own priorities and personal finance permitted.
The collateral consequence of LRT expansion and TOD may well also change the demographics and political landscape of the apportioned districts in the suburbs. Expansion of proposed LRT lines and accompanying subsidized TOD could result in a larger and increasing percent of voters within a district dependent upon the largess of government which would not otherwise occur under normal market conditions.
SWLRT is now projected to cost or exceed $2 billion for its development. Extending this extraordinarily high cost to five more LRT lines envisioned by the METC would require a capital outlay of $12 billion. This amount is double the bi-partisan amount of $6 billion needed to invest in our roads and bridges statewide over the next 10 years. Roads and bridges serve more than 98 percent of Minnesotans while LRT serves less than 2 percent.
For example, the Northstar commuter line operating from Big Lake into the city operates at a net subsidy (loss) born by the taxpayer of $45 per round trip ride each! Extending that cost per rider at five days per week by four weeks per month equals a $900 taxpayer subsidy per rider, enough to finance the cost and purchase of a new Mercedes for each rider.
How many would support this type of wasteful spending if they clearly understand the high cost?
In addition, the three (3) operating lines in existence today, require about $55 million of general fund revenue annually to fund its losses. Extending this loss ratio to 6 additional proposed lines by METC could increase the state share of operating losses to $165 million annually or $1.65 billion over 10 years. In addition, the operating losses do not include debt service or amortization of the capital investment over the useful life of the line which will need to be replaced in the future. Adding it all up, $13.5 billion of investment in LRT expansion for a small constituency (2 percent) of users is not a responsible decision for a low-density metropolitan region such as ours spanning approximately 3600 square miles, in contrast to a city like San Francisco which is compressed into 50 square miles.
Lastly, this investment and the cumulative operating losses will only compete with general funding spending for other necessary budget items such as education, public safety, judiciary and more. It will inevitably lead to higher taxes and less money for every hard working family in Minnesota.
Make no mistake, the impasse over legislative priorities and how your money is spent last year and this year center on not just SWLRT but about the goal of an expansive LRT system to be three times larger than the present three operating lines and their corresponding losses. A proposed massive gasoline tax on the wholesale level last year would have cost each family hundreds of dollars annually in commuting costs. This year, the gas tax issue mostly behind us, was supplanted with a new revenue scheme of increasing the metro sales tax. Either tax is intended to build trains that lose lots of money. There is not a way to describe such a costly proposal other than boondoggle.
Our hearts and souls grieve for the loss of life in Orlando from an individual who recently carried out the mass shooting in that city. Last week, I met with a delegation of Florida legislators in Philadelphia and expressed our condolences for the tragedy.
Not surprising, this incident has evoked a renewed effort by many all around demanding yet more gun control measures. While we all seek to end violence such as this, whether by copy cat, acts of terrorism, or persons compromised with mental health issues, most of us cannot conceive that anyone who would assault or take the life of another – other than for self-defense – could be of sound mind or judgment.
The disparity between the facts about guns and the public perception of them is immense. It is not clear, but the media supported by anti-gun advocates or vice versa has not aided in the dissemination of facts.
Inventing new nomenclature to describe firearms, such as “assault weapon” or “weapons of war” only serve to move opinion and polarize the debate about them. Journalists and celebrities who have little knowledge or understanding about firearms and how they work too often never check data and foster a narrative that is often pervasive.
As the number of guns per person in America has risen from 0.94 to 1.45, the homicide rate committed by firearms has declined by 49 percent, from 7 to 3.6 per 100,000 people. The Pew Research Center, using our own federal government’s data also reported last year that non-fatal gun victimizations have fallen per 100,000 people during the period 1993-2014. The homicide rate in America peaked during the late 60s and early 70s and reached 9.4 deaths per 100,000 people in 1973. Since that time, we have steadily declined to less than half that rate at 4.6 persons per 100,000 people in 2014, a decline of more than 50 percent.
Another Pew Research Poll conducted in 2013 found that 56 percent of people believed that gun violence was on the rise, during the past 20 years, 26 percent thought that it had remained the same, and only 12 percent, who were correct, believed that it had fallen.
In last year’s “Uniform Crime Report,” the FBI divided firearms into handguns and rifles, with the rifle category including everything from the little .22 caliber rifles that kids shoot at summer camps to the dreaded AR-15. The FBI listed/confirmed rifle deaths as 367 in 2010; 332 in 2011; 298 in 2012; 285 in 2013; and 248 in 2014.
This decline in rifle deaths coincided with a massive increase in the number of “Assault Rifles” that Americans own. The Los Angeles Times reported that from 2010- 2014, sales of semi-automatic rifles rose 28 percent per year, including sales of the AR-15. So, while the number of rifles owned by Americans dramatically increased, the homicide rate from them has declined by about one third. During the same time, the number of homicides committed by handguns has declined by 9 percent.
The data produces an inescapable conclusion that while gun ownership has dramatically increased in our nation, the overall homicide rate by the use of them has declined.
The “sit-in” protest this week by members of Congress protesting guns and calling for a renewed ban upon rifles, such as the AR-15 would appear to be a protest founded in data that does not support the claim.
Further, the cosmetic design of a firearm does not change the resulting lethal misuse of it. Unfortunately, most uninformed people and non-gun owners do not understand that a semi-automatic function is common to many if not most shotguns used in upland game and waterfowl hunting and many rifles used in big-game hunting. Most handguns sold today also include the semi-automatic function.
Policy decisions should rely upon facts rather than hyperbole.
Rep. Jerry Hertaus