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Translating election choices into policy results

Tuesday, Minnesotans elected public leaders. Once again, voter turnout led the nation with 77.5 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. Clearly, Minnesotans are engaged, concerned with our state’s future.

As campaign rhetoric fades, a pressing reality emerges: turning people’s electoral decisions into responsible public policy.

In less than two months, the Minnesota Legislature convenes. State policymakers face a monumental challenge: creating public policy that addresses deferred transportation maintenance and investment, six years of underfunded public schools, an unwieldy healthcare system, and no coherent plan for economic growth.

The most pressing issue facing state policymakers is the looming budget deficit. Last May, the state general fund was projected to have a $2.1 billion dollar revenue shortfall for the FY 2010-11 biennium. With the current economic crisis embroiling Minnesota and the nation, the state’s financial outlook for FY 2010-11 will almost certainly get much worse.

What state leaders are saying

It’s fair to ask, what have state policy leaders recently said regarding the upcoming legislative session? Here’s what we know.

Based on a recent memo from the Minnesota Department of Finance, Gov. Pawlenty seems intent on resolving the state’s budget problems through a five percent reduction in state agency budgets. Meanwhile, Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Speaker of the Minnesota House, indicated in a recent Pioneer Press article that the Minnesota House and Senate would only increase taxes as a last resort and will instead emphasize greater efficiency in government programs. Kelliher said that while the Legislature might propose some tax changes, these would be “revenue neutral” (i.e., they would generate no new dollars to balance the state budget).

Several years ago, Gov. Arne Carlson’s former finance commissioner, John Gunyou, and Gov. Rudy Perpich’s former finance commissioner, Jay Kiedrowski wrote “During past recessions, governors of all parties raised taxes and reduced spending to weather those storms. This time, our governor instead chose to cut services and use accounting gimmicks to avoid raising state taxes.”

A balanced approach is critical to moving Minnesota forward, yet we’re not hearing anything close to this from policymakers. The stakes are enormous.

Last week, Minnesota 2020 noted, real per capita state general fund revenues and expenditures have each declined by over 7 percent since FY 2003.  State budget cuts have led to reduced funding for education and other public services; meanwhile, property taxes have shot up as local governments have gone to taxpayers to replace a portion of massive state aid cuts. Do we want these trends to continue?

Keep revenue enhancements on the table
State leaders are wise to seek greater efficiency in government expenditures. However, they would be foolish to dismiss out of hand the option of increasing state revenues to reverse the trend of perennial public disinvestment. Revenue enhancements must be on the table during budget negotiations; to do otherwise would condemn the state to even more cuts to education and other public services and continued pressure to increase regressive property taxes.

Progressives prevailed at the polls on Nov. 4. Now we need to remind the elected officials that we did not vote for them so that they could surrender control of the state budget to “no new tax” ideologues. Progressives must demand a balanced approach-one that includes both spending reductions and revenue increases-to address the state’s financial problems.

With four of every five eligible Minnesota voters casting a ballot, state policymakers will be well served to remember that lots of people expect policy progress. The principal policy thrust of the past six years – “do less with less” – must be discarded, replaced with smart, forwarding-thinking public policy that invests in Minnesota, grows the economy, and moves us forward.

Jeff Van Wychen is a fellow at Minnesota 2020, an economic think tank based in St. Paul. This article is reprinted from its website.


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