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Minnesota 2020 Journal: The Kansas Budget Alternative

January 25, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Governor Dayton presented his state government budget to Minnesotans this week, sharing his plan for moving Minnesota forward. Only the details were a surprise. The broad outline—a modest tax increase paired with modest community investments, including modest property tax relief—is exactly what Dayton advocated in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign and reaffirmed for the 2012 legislative elections.

Conservative policymakers promptly attacked Dayton’s proposal. Life as we know it, they seemed to be saying, will cease to exist if legislators adopt the Dayton budget. Their oppositional strategy is called death-by-a-thousand-cuts. Conservatives attack particular line items in order to discredit the Governor’s entire approach.

This is not a new tactic. In fact, it’s a standard, by-the-book operational maneuver, right up there with the pincer movement and the defiant press conference. But, as we sift through Dayton’s budget, digesting the particulars, keep the alternatives in mind. Minnesota legislators could do nothing or they could further implement the conservative policies championed and implemented by former Governor Tim Pawlenty.

Doing nothing gains Minnesota nothing. Continuing the present policy direction narrows Minnesota’s path to prosperity. Without progressive tax revisions increasing state revenue, Minnesota will be forced to further cut budgets even as need grows. Doing more with less will become doing less with less. Staying the present course slowly and painfully dissembles communities through budget reductions and service elimination as remaining fixed costs mount and revenue stagnates.

There is another path, one that warms the conservative policy advocate’s heart. Cut budgets, cut taxes, cut services and just cut, cut, cut. I like to think of this approach as doubling down on failure. While Governor Dayton proposes a common sense budget, governors and legislatures in states like Kansas are aggressively pursuing an extreme conservative policy approach. The Petri dish of democracy’s experiment just became more interesting and, from a Kansan’s perspective, much riskier.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback recently rolled out a bold implementation of conservative government philosophy. Under the Brownback plan, Kansas will eliminate state income tax while also cutting state budgets and aggressively restructuring state pension plan obligations by slashing benefits and reducing state contributions. It is the logical extension of conservative “no new taxes/government is bad” ideology.

If you live in Kansas and earn more than $250,000 per year, the Brownback plan is a sweet deal. You can expect a $5,200 drop in your tax burden. But, if you’re among the 500,000 Kansans earning less than $25,000 per year, your taxes will increase by $156.

Kansas conservatives hold the Governor’s office and both state legislative chambers. A majority of those are right wingers, convinced that any measure reducing government’s scope and reach must be a good measure. Now, they’re about to put their plan into action. That plan excuses the affluent’s obligation to fairly share the cost of community services, shifting those costs to Kansas’ lowest income earners. Quite simply, it’s stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

Even conservative Kansas is squirming over this one. Its one thing to rail against government but it’s quite another to nakedly reward the state’s wealthiest earners while raising costs on Kansas’ most vulnerable citizens.

If you think I’m exaggerating to score a rhetorical point, think again. Kansas handed Medicaid to private insurers. Brownback dramatically reduced the state’s welfare rolls and slashed the state work force. He’s pushing to spend less on schools through funding formula shifts and wants to change judicial appointments so that more conservative judges end up on state benches where they would, presumably, allow the Kansas conservative policy experiment to continue ravishing the state.

Under this system, rich Kansans are rewarded while poor Kansans suffer. The long-term consequences of this public policy approach should give every Kansan pause, even the most reactionary conservatives. Service reductions raise costs as poverty’s desperation reorders Kansas society. With school defunding, workforce quality wanes until Kansas becomes an uncompetitive business place. Companies seeking a flexible, high quality, well-educated pool of workers will look elsewhere. All the conservative ideology in the world won’t stop financial capital from passing on Kansas’ self-inflicted risk. At that point, Governor Brownback’s conservative dream of no state income taxes becomes a pyrrhic victory.

Brownback’s budget and tax policy proposal stands in stark contrast with Minnesota Governor Dayton’s budget plan. Its Brownback’s extreme ideology pitched against Dayton’s common sense. Common sense never looked so good.

The Dayton budget isn’t perfect but it’s a direction that Minnesotans need. More importantly, Minnesotans chose moderation last November because Minnesotans understand that when policymakers focus on what really matters—jobs, schools, and healthcare—Minnesota moves forward. Unlike Kansas, Minnesota is on the right track.


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