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By Jenifer Loon
The 2009 legislative session is finished. Going into the year, it was apparent that balancing the State’s budget and wrangling with a deficit of historic proportions would be our most pressing and important task. Minnesota, like the rest of the country, was, and is, in the midst of a serious recession. The choices would be difficult, and spending reductions would be inevitable.
We adjourned the session at midnight on Monday, May 18th, as prescribed by Minnesota’s constitution. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the end result. On the upside, Minnesota’s taxes, already among the highest in the country, will not be increasing due to the legislature’s actions. I voted against tax increases because I believe that individuals, families and small businesses who are already struggling through the recession should not have even more of their hard-earned dollars going to government. Higher taxes would further dampen job creation and investment at a time when our economy desperately needs both of those things. Surveys I conducted of the Eden Prairie community overwhelmingly supported government spending reductions over tax increases by a 72 percent to 28 percent margin.
Another positive was the fact that the legislature did not go into “overtime”. A special session would have added thousands of dollars a day to the taxpayers’ burden. In addition, the end of session stalemate could have extended to July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year, and beyond, triggering a painful government shutdown. No special session is good news for all citizens and taxpayers.
Rather than seeking to raise taxes to close the budget gap, I believe the Legislature should have followed through on its promise to fundamentally reform how the state government uses its resources. In January, when a huge budget deficit had already been forecast, the Speaker stated that tools such as “zero based budgeting” would be utilized to scour programs for outdated and inefficient operations. Many innovative ideas were presented. Bipartisan proposals to consolidate county and school district administrative functions were introduced. Numerous hearings on the budget-busting “maintenance of effort” spending requirements imposed on county government functions were held, with pleas by county officials for reform. Schools districts, acknowledging that new or additional revenues in this economy and budget environment would be unlikely, asked for mandate relief. They simply wanted locally elected school boards to make the best possible decisions for their communities’ schools with the money with would receive. Several promising health care reform measures were introduced, only to be mothballed in Committee. Five months later, not one significant reform was enacted to modernize programs and reduce government spending.
The hard truth is that growth in government spending has been outpacing our revenue streams. General fund spending in Minnesota has grown $8 billion or 29 percent since 2004. Health and human services spending, which comprises 35 percent of general fund spending, was on a trajectory to increase by over 20 percent in the next two years. Attempts to hold that increase to 9 percent, as proposed in the Governor’s budget, were criticized by some as deep cuts to health and human services spending. In reality, it was simply not as high an increase as some would have preferred.
I believe there should be a safety net to assist those less fortunate, particularly the elderly and disabled. However, these rates of increase are unsustainable, even in a growing economy. Uncontrolled growth in this, or any one area of the budget, jeopardizes our ability to meet other important priorities, such as educating our kids and providing for our critical transportation and infrastructure needs. We can keep the safety net, but reform is essential.
I am disappointed that the legislature was not able to craft a balanced budget. The Governor stepped into the void and took control of the situation. He will balance the budget, as the Constitution allows, by reducing the spending bills through line-item vetoes and unallotment. By pushing for tax increases that were repeatedly opposed by members of both parties and, with no alternative plan to this long-expected outcome, legislative leaders completely failed to fulfill their roles.
As a newly elected member of the House of Representatives, I would have much preferred for the legislature to make the difficult decisions the voters of Minnesota expect, rather than pushing that responsibility off to the Governor. Now all the legislature can do is offer advice to the Governor as he makes unallotment decisions. The time to send him reform packages which spend smarter has run out.
In the end, Minnesota’s state budget will be balanced. There will be no special session. Taxes will not be increased. I am hopeful that more a more sensible, reform-minded process will be embraced when the legislature reconvenes next February to truly put Minnesota on the path to long-term economic security.
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