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Minnesota 2020 Journal: It’s Time for Compromise

May 06, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Sunday, I opened my lowest dresser drawer, staring at my folded summer shirts. Outside, it was cold and raining. Normally, by early May, I’d swap winter sweaters for summer shirts, moving winter wear into the background. But, this isn’t a normal spring. It’s taking much longer than any of us would like for winter to yield, so I closed the drawer until next weekend or the weekend after that.

Now I know how Governor Dayton must feel as he works with the conservative controlled state legislature. Rather than bring a little sunshine into our lives, state legislative leaders are willing their conservative policy winter to last forever.

Given the legislature’s overwhelming, unrepentant conservative policy advocacy posture, I frequently wonder if conservative policymakers understand that they represent Minnesota legislative districts. Our state is divided on the day’s major policy challenges. There’s no more interest in permanently encoding conservative social doctrine in the state constitution that there is in revolutionary redistribution of wealth. Yet, conservative policymakers stubbornly pursue their extreme social agenda while ignoring the day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues challenging Minnesota. As a result, Minnesota’s highest income earners benefit while the rest of us suffer.

Minnesotans rely on public institutions, public amenities and public services. Not just a little bit but so completely that we don’t even pause in mid-antigovernment rant as we wave at the snowplow driver clearing our streets or give a friendly nod to the firefighters shopping at Cub Foods. When the library, struggling with a declining budget, trims hours for the nth time, we grumble but adjust our visit schedules accordingly because we depend on regular library access.

Higher education in Minnesota would look very different without public institutions and public investment. Just under 500,000 Minnesotans are enrolled in a college, university or post-high school educational institution. 60 percent attend a public school; 40 percent attend a private school. Private college students significantly depend on Minnesota state grants and other public educational financing programs. Eliminating public support for higher ed doesn’t create a clear path for private colleges to replace public schools. In fact, the opposite would be true as private school families withdraw enrollment reflecting the conservative created financial instability. Public and private higher education represents a continuum, not a divide.

Earlier this week, Governor Dayton, apparently fed up with conservative legislators’ unwillingness to address Minnesota’s crumbling road infrastructure, announced a $400 million road reconstruction plan. Calling it “Better Roads for a Better Minnesota,” Dayton will task the money from existing state and federal road funds to rebuild 700 state road miles. Minnesota presently registers 750 miles of state roads as “poor;” without pavement improvement, that number will grow to 1,900 by 2020.

The biggest policy disagreement between Governor Dayton and state legislators centers around Minnesota’s state budget. Facing a projected $5.2 billion budget deficit, Dayton proposes cutting programs and increasing revenues. Conservative policymakers refuse to raise taxes. But, in their determination to prove that Minnesota can balance its state budget through cuts alone, legislators have only proposed $4 billion in spending reductions, still leaving Minnesota $1.2 billion over budget. They have no answer to this discrepancy beyond routine insistence that taxes are bad and government is too big.

Given the opportunity, I’m confident that conservative policymakers would rather curse the darkness than light a single candle.

It’s time to stop messing around. The legislature’s mandatory close is hard upon us and the only legislative constant appears to be regular conservative social agenda public policy distractions. All the state constitutional amendment proposals in the world won’t resolve Minnesota’s budget deficit.

Minnesota needs a balanced approach, fixing the state budget through tough spending cuts and equally tough tax increases. Dayton’s proposed 4th income tier tax will affect only 4.4 percent of Minnesotans, the highest earners paying fewer taxes, proportionate to their income, than the other 95.6 percent of Minnesotans. If we focus on what really matters—jobs, school, healthcare, roads—Minnesota moves forward, past the $5.2 billion budget deficit and into renewed prosperity. Or, Minnesota could remain mired in a conservative policy past like a long, depressing winter that just won’t leave. It’s time for spring, sunshine, short-sleeves and compromise.

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