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Minnesota 2020 Journal: One Plan Short of a Plan

February 18, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Shortly after Governor Dayton’s proposed state budget presentation on Tuesday morning, conservative leaders wasted little time rejecting it. Listening to their objections, I kept waiting for their alternative policy vision. It never came. That’s when I realized that they don’t actually have a plan.

Dayton’s 2012-2013 biennial budget—his first—delivered anticipated actions. It raises revenue, almost entirely through increasing taxes on Minnesota’s highest income earners, and cuts state spending. It is the balanced approach that Minnesota needs. But, if you’ve consumed news accounts, you know this already.

Rather than dig deeper into Dayton’s detail, I’m curious about the conservative response that, in theory, communicates conservative policy priorities. It’s fair to say that conservative state policymakers would like nothing better than a complete rejection of Dayton’s budget. What they don’t say is how they’ll solve Minnesota’s $6 billion budget deficit in an honest, responsible way and how their policy vision will moves Minnesota forward.

Right out of the gate, House Speaker Kurt Zellers (R-Maples Grove ) rejected any pretense of polite engagement. He repeatedly described the Dayton budget proposal approach as “feeble and pathetic.”  Those are strong words, particularly for Zellers' initial post-Dayton presentation utterance. It’s hard to come back from “feeble and pathetic.” Feeble means lacking in strength or vigor. The term was once used as a capacity range mark for developmentally disabled persons. I’m willing to assume that Speaker Zellers wasn’t using feeble in that context; rather he meant that the Dayton budget lacked vigor.

Pathetic can mean marked by sorrow or melancholy but is most commonly used to mean inferior, absurd or laughable. In any case, it’s an aggressive word choice. Pathetic communicates derisive judgment. Taken together, feeble and pathetic suggest that Speaker Zellers doesn’t simply disagree with Dayton’s budget, he wants to communicate his utter contempt without quite descending into the English language’s graphically descriptive profanities.

That was Tuesday. By Wednesday, with the GOP House and Senate leadership messaging fly-around, Speaker Zellers had reined in his word choice. The sentiment remained—Dayton’s budget was unacceptable to conservative policymakers—but he’d replaced “feeble and pathetic” with “This budget is detached from the reality every other state has recognized.” It’s a kinder, gentler derision so I’m willing to declare progress.

Closer analysis, however, continues to underscore a single, glaring omission: conservative policymakers don’t have a plan. They have rhetoric. They’ve demonstrated considerable oppositional fortitude, meaning that they’re quite comfortable with a public shouting match. But, they don’t have policy plans beyond refusing change.

This is a good moment to remind everyone that Minnesota’s $6.2 billion projected budget deficit is a product of eight years of conservative “no new taxes” policy. As Minnesota’s economy slowed due to the national recession, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, state policymakers could’ve taken responsible prudent steps to cut spending and raise state revenues. Instead, at then-Governor Tim Pawlenty’s direction, it cut spending, obstinately refused to consider tax increases, and make unilateral cuts to its community revenue-sharing arrangement. This non-negotiated funding cut forced cities, counties and school boards to do what Minnesota refused to do: cut spending and raise taxes.

Despite conservative insistence that Minnesota’s taxes didn’t increase, Minnesota experienced, on the average, dramatic property tax increases. As Minnesota 2020’s Property Tax Report found, “real per capita statewide property taxes increased by 26 percent from 2002 to 2010.” During that period, state revenue sharing disbursement—better known as Local Government Aid—dropped by $2.6 billion and local property taxes increased by $1.7 billion.

So, yes; property taxes went up. In return for the conservative “no new taxes” policy shielding Minnesota’s highest income earners from paying the same percentage of income that the overwhelming majority of Minnesotans pay, Minnesota communities paid more and received less for the shift from progressive state funding to regressive property taxes.

State Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch (R-Buffalo), joining Speaker Zellers, declared the Dayton plan “a 20th Century budget for a 21st Century economy.” I disagree but I recognize her analytical framework and, more importantly, the analogy she suggests. What worked in the past, she’s saying, won’t work now. Except, she further criticizes the Dayton budget by saying, “It's mostly business as usual.”

“Business as usual” has been the conservative “no new taxes” policy for the past eight years. And, look where that’s gotten us. When I wonder out loud, what’s the conservative plan that creates jobs, grows Minnesota’s economy, educates more rather than fewer Minnesotans and strengthens communities? That’s what I mean when I observe that conservative policymakers don’t appear to have a plan.

Governor Dayton’s proposed budget returns Minnesota to a more responsible budget framework. It balances cuts with revenue increases, creating a path forward. Strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust transportation infrastructure and job-creating economic development will sustain us and yield prosperity. That’s what I call a plan.
 

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2 Comments:

  • Dominick Bouza says:

    February 18, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    John,

      You clearly covered the begining battle between the legislature and governor’s office well.  However, the Republicans have set forth spending cuts that were reflective of the current right wing influence to the freshman legislature.  A 0 base structure was offered on all social service programs, with recommendations against funding many of these programs.  It seems the climate from this new group of legislators is inexperience, no sense that cutting the programs for the state’s poorest residents will actually increase state costs for helping them and other senseless ideas, such as: Eliminating a waiting period for a handgun purchase or not allowing social service agencies to vouch for residents w/o ID’s (as set forth by the Minnesota Majority).  I agree, they nay say but have no idea on how to proceed.

  • Everett Flynn says:

    February 28, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    They probably won’t have to come up with a plan.  Voters, media, and Democrats seem to conspire to find a way to let the zealots off the hook.  Rhetoric is all Republicans have needed for the longest time.  Pawlenty governed for eight years on little else.  He got re-elected and he positioned himself for national office.

    Unless the media, and Democrats, find a way to call out the zealots for the idiocy and ineffectiveness of their ideas (such as they have been presented through conservative rhetoric), that’s all we’re likely to get.

    Somehow, we have to REQUIRE the zealots to produce the goods—a plan that balances the State’s budget (all $6.2 billion of deficit) through cuts and cuts alone.  We must REQUIRE them to put their money where their rhetoric is so that all the citizens of Minnesota can see the spectacularly ugly truth of what that ridiculous policy proposal would look like.