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Citizen meetings on Minnesota's budget will bring common sense to long-term solutions

The technology engineer at the table was well-informed, and opinionated, but also reasonable.

Although generally skeptical of government and taxes, he cheerfully gave ground to others when he clearly was off-base, such as his assertion that taxes had never gone down in his lifetime (state and national income tax rates were cut significantly a decade ago).

He held firm to his belief that governments were inefficient, but in a refreshing twist, he allowed that many businesses also waste a lot of money. "I'm coming from a place where I think everything can be delivered more efficiently," he said.

Our tough-minded engineer was a good sport in dealing with others at the table who disagreed with him on whether and how Minnesota should raise revenue, or cut spending, or innovate to balance the budget.

And as his discussion group was forced to put poker chips on their top five budget-balancing priorities, he expressed surprise and satisfaction that so many ordinary Minnesotans would show up on a weekday evening to tackle budget issues, so soon after a long and nasty election battle over those issues.


One of 30 meetings across Minnesota
So it went recently at the Hillcrest Recreation Center in St. Paul's Highland Park, at one of 30 meetings that will be held across Minnesota in the next several weeks to gather citizen input on how to balance a projected $6 billion budget shortfall.

The highly regarded, nonpartisan Citizens League is coordinating these meetings of the "Common Cents" project, by virtue of a generous $131,000 grant from the Bush Foundation.

Dane Smith
Dane Smith

Groups on the steering committee for Common Cents range from TakeAction Minnesota, a progressive community organizing body, to the Center of the American Experiment, the state's top conservative think tank.

Growth & Justice is on that team, too, as well as the state's leading business associations.

Our state needs broad-minded people of good faith to step forward and show our leaders how to work together, at a time when recount politics is inflaming the extreme partisan and ideological passions. Taking a couple of hours in the next few weeks to attend one of the "Common Cents" meetings will be good for you and good for your community.

And don't worry if you feel a little intimidated by statistics and the complexities of taxes and budgets and economics.

'We're asking about values and priorities'
"Every Minnesotan has the expertise we're looking for," says Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League. "We're asking about values and priorities, what's important to Minnesotans. And everyone is an 'expert' in what's important to them."

Every Minnesotan obviously also has something at stake, and unless we're able to talk about it and share perspectives with one another and try to find some common ground, it will be hypocritical for us to criticize public officials for gridlock and deadlock.

The findings from the community workshops and from the project, including specific suggestions for innovations and cost savings, will be presented to the new governor and new Legislature in January. We hope this move will send an important early signal to the decision makers to seek common ground.

Plus, the process is downright fun.

Voting with a clicker
Participants get a little clicker thing to vote on key questions about attitudes and preferences for policy direction, and the results are shown immediately on a screen.

The charts in the presentation lay out the facts about the state's current trends on general-fund spending and long-term revenue shortages; the demographic realities of a more government-dependent and elderly population; needs for a more educated workforce; and a shrinking percentage of workers in their prime.

Among the pieces of helpful information are charts showing that state-local tax obligations as a percentage of income are lowest for the wealthiest, and that Minnesota's government spending as a percentage of income is lower than the national average.

Several folks at the two meetings I've attended commented that wrestling with the facts and the overall scope of the problem had a therapeutic value — and that while the conversations started out with a cynical and despairing tone from some participants, they ended on more hopeful notes.

Likely a location near you
A community workshop likely has been scheduled at a location near you. Go here, where you'll find ample opportunities to weigh in with suggestions and information on how to balance our budgets in the near future and over the long haul.

I like the way Pam Wheelock, Bush Foundation vice president — and former state budget chief under Gov. Jesse Ventura — describes our difficulties and obligations as the bosses of our own democracies.

"Communities are facing tough challenges — economic and demographic realities that won't get solved with business-as-usual approaches.

"We believe that in order for communities to thrive, they are going to have to come together, look at the data, talk about their priorities and plan for the future."

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure. A version of this article appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report.

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Comments (5)

This gives me hope that reasonable approaches to our state's budget problems can, indeed, be arrived at.

But I also fear that those now in power in the legislature do not have the courage to stand up to their wealthy benefactors nor to violate their "no (new) taxes" pledges in order to enact such a balanced, reasonable approach.

Indeed some members of our legislature seem so locked into their irrational "faith" that spending cuts and even more tax cuts will bring us to Nirvana that presenting them with solutions devised by a broad range of citizens of the state will only seem like offering them temptations to violate that faith.

Plus the big money wing of their party will threaten to wipe them out if they take a more reasonable approach (as was the case with EVERY Republican who voted for the increase in gasoline taxes a few years ago).

Again this is a worthy effort, but I fear the ideological blinders worn by our newly-elected legislature will make it impossible for them to even see, let alone enact, the moderate, reasonable solutions this effort will produce.

Perhaps such an effort will serve a useful purpose even if it comes to naught in that it will make it clear that our current legislature does not dare to serve the interests of the general population of the state but only serves a very small number of very wealthy "masters," regardless of the effects of that service on the vast majority of us.

If that's the case, and the public can be made aware of that reality, perhaps we voters will make better choices in coming years.

What must be called out in this, is the valuable service Growth & Justice provides in informing our citizens about critical issues. In that regard it is unique, respected, and valuable.

Health care is such a big driver of the long-term deficit problem that it is fair to say that with health care fixed, the rest is easy, and without health care fixed, the problem is impossible.

I am a big fan of block grants to the states for both Medicare and Medicaid, with substantial liberty to allow states to reign in costs (or raise taxes) as they choose. I'm not convinced that there is a readily adoptable model out there suitable for Americans, and the 50 states have always been laboratories for the best of our social programs.

"And everyone is an 'expert' in what's important to them."

I couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, more and more of gov't activity is committees of experts deciding and mandating and enforcing what they decide is important for each of us. From decisions about our health care to decisions about how we educate our children to decisions influencing where we live and how we travel, to decisions on whom charity is to be bestowed, individuals are simply the means to some greater collective end.

If we really believe that "everyone is an expert in what is important to them," then let's start backing gov't out of way and get it back to focusing on its constitutional obligations.

I'm all for tax reform, eliminating deductions (health care and mortgages are the big targets, and both should go), and taxing consumption, but everyone, especially the Republicans, should remain focused on the voter anger at the rich elite. Inequality in the US is at gilded age levels (1880s-1890s), and the 90% who are seeing their standard of living stagnate are increasingly angry at the 1% who are making out like bandits. If the underlying global economics that are driving this inequality are hard to combat (and they are), there is a political need at this point in history to soak the rich. Some form of new wealth tax or rich-persons income tax is necessary to assuage the anger of the populace or we'll see growing calls for socialism and wealth confiscation, which would hurt everyone. Tax reform must include a strong dose of wealth taxes to be in any way palatable.

Now it's been said that the GOP's new found control in both houses (which btw originates new spending) also comes with greater accountability. Still, no matter how serious Minnesota's long-term fiscal picture, any solution will require serious compromise and sacrifice by both parties.