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Note to Pawlenty: Let the willing wealthy make their contribution

Date Published: 06/27/2006

Author: Laura Billings

ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS

Last week, 203 high-earning Minnesotans took out a full-page ad in the Minneapolis newspaper announcing their willingness to pay an extra two cents on every dollar they earn to help the state invest more in such things as education, health care and transportation.

While this plan attracted another 100 signatures from supporters who heard about it that day, it also earned the expected ridicule from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who offered to have his picture taken with any signer who simply wanted to send a check to the state directly.

Some critics have already dismissed this gesture from the Growth & Justice think tank as a mere relic of Minnesota's progressive political past. But it may also be worth noting that these few hundred folks are not the only successful Midwesterners who have become increasingly embarrassed by their embarrassment of riches.

As one wealthy Nebraskan noted about tax policies that have made him even wealthier, "If class warfare is being waged in America, my class is clearly winning."

This quote comes from one of the annual letters delivered to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders by Warren Buffett, the so-called "Oracle of Omaha," whose dry-eyed view of the economy has paid off so handsomely that a charity auction to join him for lunch was going for $460,300 last time I checked on eBay.

Yesterday, the world's second-richest man announced his plans to donate most of his fortune to his sometime bridge partner Bill Gates, the world's first richest man. The estimated $37 billion gift will nearly double the annual funding available to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is already the largest charity in the U.S.

A gift this size is noteworthy for many reasons among them how few demands Buffett has placed on his recipients, expecting only that the estimated $1.5 billion he allots every year will be spent the year it is donated, and that one of the Gateses is actively involved in the group's administration. There's not a thing in there about naming rights or ribbon cutting. Compare this to, say, United HealthGroup CEO William McGuire, who, for about $10 million a pop, got his name on a proscenium stage at the new Guthrie, and a theater at Walker Art Center, and a research facility at the U, not to mention a new butterfly center in Florida.

(Note to Bill and Melinda: I know Buffett's not into buildings, but what about a nice park bench with a brass nameplate for Christmas this year?)

Buffett's gift could also double the grant money given out by the Gates Foundation, which targets under-funded public health and poverty issues in developing countries. For instance, the Gates Foundation now funds more than a third of the world's malaria research, a cash infusion that led to the discovery of a synthetic malaria medicine that could soon reduce the cost of life-saving treatment from $2.40 to 25 cents. Malaria kills 2,000 African children every day.

Here at home, the Gateses have turned their attention to our schools, concerned that an industrial-age curriculum hasn't engaged kids who are growing up in a digital economy. It's the same issue that Gov. Pawlenty has recently highlighted as his own, calling our receding high school graduation rates a "silent crisis" that should be met with more rigorous math and science requirements, and a rethinking of the way high schools are run. The Gates Foundation came to the same conclusion some months before in a report titled "The Silent Epidemic."

While the Gateses and the governor might be on the same page when it comes to education, it's a good guess that the Gateses would be just the kind of folks to sign on to the kind of education investment favored by the Growth & Justice people. Rather than ridiculing these taxpayers as out of touch, our governor might be wiser to engage them about what they find missing in Minnesota's economic policy.

It could be they have nothing better to do with their money. Or it could be they share the same mission statement guiding Gates and his benefactor Warren Buffett to give it away: "To whom much is given, much is expected."

Laura Billings can be reached at lbillings@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5584.


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