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Partisan math clouds budget debate - Post Bulletin

June 02, 2011

Editorial, Post Bulletin, May 31, 2011

Sen. Carla Nelson, a Republican from Rochester, handed out an interesting and enlightening document during Thursday's Eggs and Issues event sponsored by the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce.

Under the headline "Here are the actual budget numbers for your consideration," she provided the following figures:

• $30.2 billion — current budget for this biennium (fiscal year 2010-11)
• $34.5 billion spent — includes onetime federal stimulus money and shifts (fiscal year 2010-11)
• $34 billion of revenue projected for next biennium (fiscal year 2012-13)
• $34 billion — Legislature's budget sent to Gov. Dayton for the next biennium
• $37 billion —  Dayton's budget for next biennnium.
• $39 billion in projected spending for next biennium.

Let's, as the saying goes, "unpack" some of those numbers.

Start with the last figure. That $39 billion is a pipe dream, the "government-growth-on-autopilot" budget that everyone knows won't happen. Minnesota needs to become more efficient, and spending can't expand at this rate when the economy is struggling.

Working our way down, consider the $37 billion Dayton budget. That figure was accurate for much of the session, but during the last week the governor adjusted his proposal. It now stands at about $35.8 billion in spending over the next two-year cycle.

Keep that in mind as we jump to the top two figures on Nelson's list. Minnesota used $30.2 billion of its own money in the current two-year cycle, but we actually spent $34.5 billion. To make the books balance, we didn't pay schools $1.9 billion that they're owed, and we used $2.3 billion in federal stimulus funds.

As far as we know, Minnesota didn't spend those federal dollars on a statewide pizza party. We spent them on education, transportation and health care, and without that money, we would have been in a world of hurt.

Yet, when some Republicans talk about the size of Dayton's proposed budget increase, they use $30.2 billion as the baseline of "current state spending," and compare it to Dayton's outdated $37 billion proposal.

By doing so, the GOP can claim that Dayton seeks a 22 percent spending increase. That's the figure that was cited by Rep. Mike Benson during Thursday's Eggs and Issues meeting. Nelson reported the same figure on her handout.

But if we compare what Minnesota actually spent in the past two years to the latest offer that Dayton has put on the table, spending would increase by 3.7 percent. Or, put another way, the annual increase would be less than 2 percent

If we can’t agree on how to do the math, we’re going to have a hard time reaching a deal.

So here's a hard fact: Dayton's proposal would exceed projected revenues by $1.8 billion. The GOP plan, on the other hand, has a certain cleanness and simplicity, in that it bases the budget on projected revenue and not a penny more.

"Need-based budgeting" that the DFL supports is much more complicated and messy, but simplicity isn't always a virtue. After hearing endless comparisons to households and businesses that "tighten their belts" and "learn to live within their means," we'd hasten to point out that when times get tough, businesses and households don't merely cut costs. They also look for ways to increase their income.

We believe Minnesota should do the same.

Should this new revenue be entirely through a new tax on our wealthiest citizens? Probably not. All avenues need to be explored.

Ideas include an expansion of gambling, a sales tax on clothing, new fees on tobacco and alcohol and increases in the price of hunting licenses, fishing licenses, boat registrations and state park permits. Other fees might also need to increase.

We need this revenue because Minnesota's population is growing — nearly 8 percent over the past decade. We have more kids to educate, and as baby boomers retire, we'll have more seniors who need long-term care. By 2030, one-fourth of our population will be 65 or older, twice the current figure.

We have more disabled and low-income people who require medical assistance, and inflation is affecting the cost of almost everything, including gasoline, food, medicine and skilled professional services.

Could those needs be met with the GOP's budget, which would spend $500 million less in the next two years than we spent in the previous two? On paper, it's almost certainly possible — almost anything is when you're just crunching numbers, trying to hit a certain figure.

But we're deeply afraid that when such a "solution" trickles down to our classrooms, our grandparents, our college students and our unemployed or disabled neighbor, Minnesota will cease to be recognizable as the state which once was known for innovation, education and compassion.


Invest in Minnesota Coalition