Who do policymakers think you are?

Early in my career, I served six years in the Minnesota House of Representatives. One of the many things that struck me during my service was how fellow legislators referred to the people they served and the people who had interests in front of the legislature.

Depending on the context, legislators would talk about constituents, taxpayers, ratepayers, stakeholders, workers, Labor, entrepreneurs, voters, parents, educators, students, young people, hard-working Minnesotans, regular Minnesotans, new Americans, and more.

As I think about the climate challenges in front of us – and whether our democracies are prepared to handle it – I’ve been thinking about how policymakers think of the people they serve may shape policy. Even more, I wonder how the ways our political leaders talk about the people they serve shape how each of us are able to act capably in our democracy to deal with the climate crisis.

Serving many interests and purposes

The terms my fellow legislators used to refer to the people they served depended on context. The most widely used descriptor was “constituent,” a term used to refer to the people living in one’s district.

“Constituent” as a descriptor didn’t register in any particular way with me. I saw the use of the term as a window into how a legislator viewed the people in their district and the world. “Constituent” could be molded and shaped to fit many purposes. 

I the term “Minnesotan” in a similar way. Legislators used it to lump people together in a description or argument to fit varied purposes.

Beyond these general descriptions, legislators used various terms to describe people in different policy discussions and contexts.

When discussing tax policy, the terms “taxpayer” or “property taxpayer” framed the discussion. In the energy committee, we discussed “ratepayers” as the people who paid utility bills. I served a term on the Game, Fish, and Forestry Committee, and there we talked not only about “hunters” and “fishers,” but also people who used public land to go berry-picking or birdwatching.

Each of us is more than a taxpayer

The use of these different descriptors was convenient shorthand in policy discussions, but I also wondered how their narrow framing affected policy decisions and outcomes.

During tax bill debates, I sometimes wanted to shout – these “taxpayers” we are so concerned about protecting are also parents with kids in schools paid for with taxes. They are workers going to jobs on roads and transit systems paid for with taxes. Some of them are patients in hospitals paid for, in part, with tax money.

As a taxpayer myself, I enjoy paying taxes (except for the complicated paperwork). I see taxes as an essential part of creating the community I want to be a part of. They are a bargain, quite frankly, for being part of a safe and vibrant neighborhood, city, and state.

Who beyond “ratepayers” matters in energy policy during the climate crisis?

Turning back to how our democracy navigates a path through the climate crisis, I wonder how the terms policymakers use to describe the people they serve affect the policies considered and passed?

Let’s take the idea of “ratepayers” as an example. Big chunks of the energy policy apparatus focus on the issue of rates – and by extension ratepayers. Legislative debates revolve around discussions of ratepayers. There are rate cases in front of the Public Utilities Commission for the various regulated utilities. And it’s easy to find media coverage about electricity rates.

These rates, or per-unit prices, of energy are an essential part of energy policy discussion.

But I wonder whether a strong focus on rates obscures other important values in deciding energy policy during the climate crisis.

Sure, energy rates matter, especially for under-resourced households that struggle with energy bills and for certain kinds of businesses. But other things also matter, maybe even more than rates.

As both a climate-concerned citizen and energy bill-payer, I’d love my state’s policymakers to put consideration of climate impacts and total energy bills at the center of energy policymaking. If ratepayers, the state, and utilities made more investment in energy conservation, total bills could go down even as per-unit rates go up. And since less energy would be used overall, the result would be less negative climate impact.

I also don’t see the cost of climate change well-reflected in my energy rates. For example, Mankato (a city in southern Minnesota) has a drinking water well currently under threat because of climate change. River erosion, made worse by the kinds of flooding expected in a changing climate, has moved the riverbank approximately 58 feet closer to a city drinking water well over the course of ten years. The river is now about 15 feet from the well, placing a critical drinking water source under threat.

One has to wonder, will water ratepayers in the City of Mankato be paying more, or will Minnesota taxpayers as a whole pay for this climate cost through a capital investment bill?

Either way, this cost of climate change isn’t included in electricity or natural gas rates. And I wonder, again, if energy policy conversations so focused on rates and people as one-dimensional “ratepayers” make it harder to deal with climate change.

My view as I chaired a meeting of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board focused on youth leadership and engagement on environmental issues.

How do policymakers see you?

So far, I’ve focused on how policymakers describe the people they serve and how that may affect the decisions they make. On the flip side, I wonder how it affects the ways people interact with their government.

In other words, how do the ways policymakers describe the people they serve shape the ability of these people to engage with government to create a better future? I think it matters quite a bit.

Policymakers who describe the people they serve as citizens, or people who are capable of engaging with government and shaping policy, may be more likely to create spaces in which people are able to do so effectively. Policymakers can also make it more difficult for people to get information, to engage in public conversation, and to shape which policies are adopted and how they play out.

In other words, policymakers can shape the conditions for political engagement and, therefore, how these policymakers understand the people they serve matters.

In terms of the climate crisis, I see this idea playing out in many ways.

The impact of youth climate strikers depends, in part, on whether policymakers take their demands seriously and are willing to genuinely engage with young people in the policy process.

NPR has documented that the distribution of public resources for disaster recovery favors the already-wealthy, and these disasters will increase through the climate crisis. There are complex reasons behind this problem, but I can’t help but wonder whether one of them is because policymakers don’t work harder to make sure under-resourced families and communities are better-engaged in decision-making processes.

Wrapping up

As the climate crisis continues to unfold, it’s worth stopping to ask questions about who and what frames the public conversations and policy decisions we have in our democracy.

The labels elected and officials use to describe the people they serve is one of these frames, but it’s not one we often think about.

So, as you engage in climate work, how do you want your public officials to see you? Are you a ratepayer, taxpayer, young person, advocate, parent, student, or someone else? 

Of course, each of us is a mixture of these identities. And policymakers recognizing and engaging with the complexities of people will help us all navigate the climate crisis better.

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