Raise my taxes!

One small lawn sign, one small step

I started seeing the orange lawn signs a few weeks ago: first one in St. Louis Park, then a handful in Linden Hills, Kingfield and Lyndale. And then, holy cow, suddenly two popped up in nearby Edina.

"Happy to Pay for a Better Minnesota," the signs read, in various shades of orange and white. At the bottom is a Web address: www.betterminnesota.org.

In the last six weeks, at least 900 of these signs have gone up in various yards in Minneapolis and points as far-flung as Willmar and Duluth. They have been erected by citizens who believe that neither taxes nor government are dirty words — that you get what you pay for, and it’s time to change the terms of the state budget debate.

Call it a different kind of taxpayer revolt. This one isn’t funded by conservative multi-millionaires who can buy huge billboards decrying "Social Engineering," along with TV and radio ads, think tanks, media consultants and platoons of politicians.

Instead, "Happy to Pay for A Better Minnesota" is funded by Alexandra Ellison and Chuck Tomlinson, a Minneapolis couple who put $5,000 on their credit card — no small chunk of change for this family — to launch a lawn-sign campaign and a Web site. They took a leap of faith that they’d eventually break even through donations. Six weeks later, they say, they’ve come close.

On the surface, they look like a lot of young families in this part of town. Ellison, a Washburn grad who grew up in Lynnhurst, runs a small business and cares full-time for 14-month-old toddler Ella. Tomlinson helps run chemistry labs at the University of Minnesota.

"For us, this whole thing started back in February when Gov. Pawlenty released his budget and it was so appalling," recalled Ellison who vowed to become more politically involved after Paul Wellstone died.

After Pawlenty released his budget, she and Tomlinson logged onto Web sites, read a lot and attended "town meetings" with DFL legislators in Minneapolis. They also went to a New Hope meeting with a Republican legislator (where — as the only people under 50 and carrying a toddler — the moderator stopped the discussion so they could introduce themselves). Ellison even drove to the capitol in St. Paul to "just try to get some facts about the tax process."

She had never visited legislative offices before. She didn’t know where to park. But she eventually found a meter, plugged in three hours worth of quarters and, carrying Ella, wandered to legislative offices, asking how the budget worked. Of course, no one wanted to even try it.

But Ellison and Tomlinson persisted in their relentlessly polite, cheerful way. They kept making phone calls. They kept showing up. And over several weeks, they met with a host of legislators, analysts and activists. By mid-March, they decided to launch their campaign.

"Because we think we have to reframe the tone and context in which we talk about taxes and the state budget," Ellison says. "If pollsters just ask people if they want to pay more taxes, of course people say no. But if you ask people if they’re willing to pay more taxes to fund Meals on Wheels and childhood immunizations, well, then you start hearing very different answers."

Lawn signs are like the poor man’s billboards, but they have morphed from an election-season tool to a year-round phenomenon, a kind of individual act of resistance, especially for progressives who feel silenced by talk radio, Fox News and the current conservative juggernaut.

Ellison’s and Tomlinson’s own lawn sign launch was a disaster. Outside their local coffee shop, they only gave away a few in four hours. They were crushed, but came back the next day and gave away a few more. One was to a woman whose neighborhood group was protesting the budget at the Capitol the next day. Would Ellison want to come and bring some signs?

Ellison came, and so did KARE-11 and the Star Tribune. The couple’s Web site was mentioned in the paper, and within days, Ellison and Tomlinson were getting hundreds of e-mails and sign requests.

"It’s not much. We just made a lawn sign. But it was a step, an attempt to broaden the conversation," Ellison said. "But then we really need to do something. We all have that power. All it takes is a step."

She laughed. "And in our case, a credit card too."

For more information on the campaign, see www.betterminnesota.org.

Note: This is my last "Life of the City" column. After three years, I figure it’s time for me to get off this particular soapbox and let someone else climb on. I love this town. It’s been a special privilege to write for my fellow residents in southwest Minneapolis. So, much thanks to the Journal for the opportunity — and many thanks to readers for all their insight and comments over the years. You taught me a lot. See you around the lakes!

Lynnell Mickelsen is a Linden Hills writer. You can send her good-byes at [email protected]