Last week Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced his proposed spending reductions via the unallotment process of $2.7 billion to help balance Minnesota’s 2010-2011 state budget. The governor made his intentions clear in May that if the Legislature failed to balance the budget without tax increases, he would use his line-item veto and unallotment authority to resolve the state’s budget problem unilaterally.
As soon as the governor finished his press conference, the official whining started. First out of the gate was potential gubernatorial candidate Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. He is the same guy who supported millions to put a sod roof on the Target Center arena and $10 million to move a dilapidated theater building three blocks, complaining about a 3.3 percent reduction in Local Government Aid (LGA) payments, at the same time his bankrupt city pension plans receive tens of millions each year in state bailout dollars.
‘Not a czar, not an emperor’
Next up was the chief whiner for the Senate DFL Majority Caucus, Senator Tarryl Clark, who said, referring to the governor: “He’s not a czar, he’s not an emperor, he’s not a grand pooh-bah.” This after the Legislature spent five months in St. Paul and couldn’t produce a balanced budget without a tax increase.
But not to be outdone, the House had its own attack dog; Iron Ranger Representative Tom Rukavina from Virginia accused Pawlenty of “lying through his teeth about the effects of his budget reductions.”
So what is all the whining really about?
1. The $1.77 billion K-12 education shift: This accounting gimmick has been around since the state ran into budget problems in the early 1980s. Instead of making payments to school districts in June, payments are delayed until August. The payment delay has been used several times in the past and was even included in the DFL’s legislation passed this session. Let’s stop whining about this! It’s become an accepted practice in the halls of the Capitol.
2. The $300 million reduction in Local Government Aid (LGA): This issue is like the boy who cried wolf: Local mayors threaten cuts to police and fire units while many of them sit on large budget reserves. Statements like those came from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who said, “It’s an erosion of things our community has come to depend on,” like libraries, recreation centers and tennis courts. The debate regarding the fairness and equity of the LGA program is nothing new. The facts are quite simple: Some cities receive more in aid than they levy and half of the state’s population lives in a community that receives no aid payments. This question should be asked: Why should the state increase taxes so some cities won’t have to consider increasing their local property taxes?
3. $236 million in cuts from the $9 billion health and human services budget: Small reductions in some provider payments, reduced service hours in a program that the legislative auditor said was in desperate need of reform and oversight, and delaying scheduled increases for other programs can hardly be considered draconian. Even with these reductions Minnesota still has one of the most generous benefit sets in the country. With our broad program eligibility Minnesota continues to have one of the lowest rates of uninsured. If Minnesota wants to become more competitive, reining in our spiraling health and human services costs has to be part of the mix. The solution to this challenge cannot always be, “Let’s increase taxes.”
4. $100 million in higher-education cuts: University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks announced a plan just two weeks ago to reduce tuition based on receiving new monies included in the federal stimulus package. Perhaps he was premature with that announcement and the University of Minnesota needs to keep tuition costs at their current levels. Or better yet, perhaps the University of Minnesota could keep its proposed tuition reduction and reduce some of its costs. Maybe professors could spend more time in the classroom and less time writing academic papers.
5. $33 million from state agencies: It seems only reasonable to call for additional cuts in the state’s bureaucracy at a time when the private sector is shedding jobs in the tens of thousands. The state should not be immune to providing services more efficiently. The State of Minnesota has never had a problem with increasing the number of individuals working directly for the state during good economic times, so shouldn’t a small reduction in the state’s workforce during tough economic times be considered fair? Of course the union representatives for these state employees, who derive their salaries from membership dues, are whining. But shouldn’t they too be part of the state’s belt tightening?
Stop the whining. After five months of the Legislature’s failure to balance the budget without a tax increase, the governor signed the budget bills that had been passed by the DFL-controlled Legislature and stepped up to the plate saying he would take care of the remaining budget shortfall. Legislators will be back in St. Paul again in February and they will certainly have another chance to see if they can do it any better. My guess is that they will continue their whining rather than working toward spending reform.
Phil Krinkie is a former Republican state representative from Lino Lakes and the president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.The eight-term lawmaker chaired the House Tax Committee and two other House panels. This article originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report.