It's hard to remember what the Legislature did before the top item on its yearly agenda was "close the budget gap" or "recover from the last deficit." Those have been must-do items in all but one of the last 12 years. This year's Legislature was obliged to close a $627 million gap in 2014-15.
The budget enacted by the 2013 Legislature will change that -- or so said Senate DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk in a session post-mortem meeting with reporters Tuesday.
"We're leaving to the next Legislature, after the 2014 election, no crisis to manage. There's a balanced budget for the next biennium," Bakk said. "It's very very difficult to make good decisions about the future, and the kind of investments that are going to move our state forward, if the first thing you have to do is get your arms around the deficit and another crisis."
Republican legislators aren't ready to credit the DFLers for a budget that stays balanced through 2016, as Bakk boasts. They argue that the tax increases that DFLers say set the budget finally to rights will damage the economy enough to keep the state's red ink coming.
But if Bakk's analysis proves correct, Minnesota is in for a span of lawmaking years that a majority of today's legislators have never experienced. Few of today's legislators were serving during the late 1990s, when the big debate each session was whether to spend more on education and infrastructure or "give it all back," as Gov. Jesse Ventura had promised in his 1998 campaign.
The choices made in those years don't look good in hindsight. Taxes were cut too deeply in 1999-2001, and spending was increased in a way that demanded more in future years. Those decisions contributed considerably to the deficits that followed.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe told me recently that he wishes he would have pushed harder then to use surpluses for one-time spending, say on transit or infrastructure improvements, or for endowments to serve good public purposes, say preschool scholarships or medical education and research. Moe was at the Capitol frequently this session. If Bakk's fiscal forecast is borne out in 2015, I hope Moe is on hand then too.