“Easy peasy,” was MinnPost reader David Greene’s take on closing the state’s $6.2 billion budget gap by working through our “fix the Minnesota deficit” exercise.
Many of those who commented, tweeted, blogged and emailed about the exercise seemed to agree with Greene’s conclusion: “This is really, really, really not hard from a numbers standpoint. It is really, really, really hard from a dealing with people with fingers stuck in ears standpoint.”
There were detractors, though. @JaredKaltwasser tweeted, “The MN budget deficit calculator by @MinnPost is really cool. Turns out it’s really hard to close a $6B deficit.”
I am not going to calculate the responses into percentages of readers favoring Option X versus Option Y. That would suggest this was a scientific survey. It was not. The point of this exercise was to give people a chance to weigh the range of real budget-balancing options that have been offered so far.
And the real treat you get from comments to MinnPost articles is not in the numbers of comments but rather the informed thinking that goes into the readers’ arguments and responses.
So I’ll summarize some of the points and respond to a few questions. (If you haven’t tried the exercise yet, you can run through it here before you read on.)
Right thinking v. political expediency
Many readers expressed in one way or another the view Lynn VanDervort summed this way:
“What I find most fascinating about this entire thread is: How many of our elected officials will have the courage to ‘do what is right’ as opposed to ‘do what is politically expected or expedient’. Doing the right thing will mean getting beyond the politics — and DOING the fiscally responsible move. The idea that the answer lies in either extreme is ridiculous.”
The trouble is we can’t agree on what is right.
One reader says, “STOP SPENDING MONEY WE DO NOT HAVE.”
Another says, “It is cutting education, medical services and basic support for our citizens in need that will bring down this state.”
If there is a flaw in the exercise it is that it invites individuals to make choices on their own rather than in messy and sometimes raucous political arenas.
“The decisions are easy when it is just one person with their own values and no one else’s feelings and thoughts need to be taken into account,” commented John Armstrong. “The best compromises are when everyone ends up equally miserable.”
Freeze at current levels?
Ron Gotzman wondered, “Is it true that if we would just freeze spending at current levels we would have a surplus?”
By the bottom-line numbers, that appears to be true. The state’s estimated revenues for the upcoming two years are $32 billion compared with $30.3 billion in spending slated for this current biennium.
But that approach wouldn’t spare the state from a myriad of tough decisions. For example, the state delayed $1.3 billion in payments to K-12 schools in order to balance the budget last time around. Those payments are overdue, and now legislators must decide whether to delay them again.
Same goes for cuts in spending for higher education, aid to counties and cities, etc. The law says they were supposed to be one-time reductions. So legislators have to decide whether to make them permanent, extend them another two years or end them.
Further, life goes on, and things happen. What do we do with people who murder and rob while spending is frozen? Do we say the prison budget leaves no room for locking them up? The prison budget may need to be cut or frozen, but we still have to sort through the strategies for making that work without letting dangerous people run loose.
Jesse Gaibor set off a debate in commenting, “$150k for a couple is NOT rich!”
This was in response to a choice on the exercise reflecting Gov. Mark Dayton’s campaign proposal to create a new 10.95 percent bracket for taxable income above $150,000 a year for married couples.
That sent several readers searching for hard data. One went to this page from the Census Bureau’s recently released American Community Survey. He found that a household making $150,000 or higher a year earns more than 92 percent of all Minnesota households.
That’s rich, said several other readers.
Big deals, small cuts
Andrew Bornhoft summarized one point made by many readers: “Cutting small programs is at the top of so many debates.”
What’s interesting, he noted, is that some of those flash-point cuts make barely a dent in the big budget gap. In other words, we fuss a lot over some points that may not be all that germane to the problem at hand. Of course, there can be subtle, political reasons to do that.
For example, the proposal to freeze state employees’ pay would save some $64 million. That sum may look huge to state workers, but it’s a baby step toward closing the gap.
Some readers were disappointed that the exercise didn’t include more options for cutting spending. One sent an email asking why we didn’t include creative ideas such as converting state employees to 401(k) retirement plans rather than fixed-benefit pensions.
A few other readers wanted to see more revenue options — some serious, some not. This came from @jeepsterdave: “Couldn’t find ‘Steal Iowa’s $’ option.”
Seriously, we at MinnPost decided in advance to limit our choices to real proposals that have been offered in the form of bills before the Legislature, researched campaign positions or researched reports put out by civic groups.
I knew as I put this project together that a lot of great ideas are brewing out there. When they emerge as specific proposals, I hope to incorporate them in the exercise. So you may want to come back and give this puzzle another try.
Meanwhile, thanks for your interest.