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Balancing the Minnesota budget: Where’s the leadership?

To address the state budget deficit, Minnesota legislators are putting together a budget containing harmful cuts that even some of the legislative authors consider unwise.

To address the state budget deficit, Minnesota legislators are putting together a budget containing harmful cuts that even some of the legislative authors consider unwise. They are accepting the budget targets that have been given them without considering alternatives.

Both the governor and Legislature are approaching the state budget as if it were merely about numbers, statistics and rates of growth. We need to have the vision to see how the state budget affects families and communities — real people. We need to recognize what our values are, and provide leadership so our budget reflects them.

Cuts in health-care programs will hurt. Just when many Minnesotans are losing their jobs and health care, Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed cutting thousands of additional people from coverage.

Gov. Pawlenty acts as if people will simply stop getting sick when he takes away their health care. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. When you don’t treat a medical problem, it often gets worse — people get sicker and turn to costly hospitalization and emergency rooms — and taxpayers foot the bill.

Wrong direction on schools
Cuts for schools are also destructive. Districts across the state have to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs even before they face additional cuts or budget shifts from the state. With more challenging student needs every year, the state is going the wrong direction.

The same situation affects the courts. Chief Justice Eric Magnuson spoke out against proposed cuts saying that courts may be forced to stop processing nonviolent misdemeanors, and there won’t be the resources to handle minor juvenile offenses like truancy, “even though we know these are often warnings of more serious problems and precursors to more serious criminal behavior.”

These cuts are not a partisan issue. Magnuson, a former law partner and good friend of the governor’s, had the courage to tell the Legislature and the governor who appointed him that the cuts will actually increase costs to state and local government: “We cannot cut our way out of the problem.”

Some worthy targets
Certainly there are both programs to cut and items that we simply shouldn’t fund. A current example is a proposed $150 million subsidy for insurance-company investments, ostensibly for the purpose of creating jobs. An economic-development official in Colorado described a similar program there, saying he “would be hard-pressed to design a program that cost the taxpayers more and delivered less.” Yet because this subsidy won’t cost the state anything for four years, it doesn’t show up on the current budget, so the Senate chose to adopt it.

Here is where the lack of leadership shows. Many of the damaging budget cuts already passed by the House or Senate are not acceptable even to some of those who voted for them, yet DFL legislators say, with a tone of desperation in their voices, that they expect even more harmful cuts to emerge before the end of the session.

Why? Because they believe they cannot pass a budget with tax increases unless it’s “revenue enhancements” — such as property tax increases or “fees” — that the governor supports.

The only way around a veto would be to get at least three Republicans to join in overriding it. Because all Republican House members have promised not to override, it’s clear that Gov. Pawlenty holds all the cards. At the Capitol, this is accepted as fact. “We should face reality and let the governor dictate what the budget will be.”

Leadership requires something different
This is accepting defeat before we even start negotiations. Leadership for the public good requires that we approach the situation from a different perspective:

Gov. Pawlenty will try to pass his budget, which takes out a massive loan to pay current bills. That’s been described as taking out a second mortgage to buy groceries. However, to do so, the governor needs the votes of every Republican legislator plus the votes of a third of all DFL legislators, none of whom are likely to participate in such irresponsible budgeting.

This is key. The governor cannot pick up the votes of a third of all DFL legislators, so it’s clear that DFL legislators hold all of the cards.

Obviously, both sides cannot “hold all of the cards.” The reality is somewhere in between. DFL legislators cannot pass a budget without the governor’s consent, and the governor cannot without the consent of the Legislature. Both sides need to work together to find a solution.

Minnesota’s future will be profoundly affected by the decisions made this year. Cuts that lead to higher crime rates, reduce the quality of education for students, or leave sick people without healthcare, will hurt Minnesota’s future.

Gov. Pawlenty put the state into this bind, but the Legislature does not have to go along. The Legislature could demonstrate leadership, stand up to him, and reject shortsighted decisions. We have reached a point where the Chief Justice says, “Further budget cuts will jeopardize the justice system as we have known it. … Nothing less than the rule of law is at stake.” Now is the time we need to stand up for Minnesota’s future.

State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, first published this article in his newsletter, “To the Point!”