The results are in from a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, and Minnesotans are apparently evenly divided over what to do with the state budget surplus — 30 percent support refunding it, 31 percent support spending it and 30 percent support saving it (“State split over $1.2B surplus,” Jan. 26).

But these poll results are meaningless due to a fundamental flaw in the poll. When the pollster asked registered voters what to do with the surplus, they were given the three choices just listed. The problem: One of the three choices — to “refund” most of the surplus — is not an option being seriously considered by legislators.

“Refunding” the surplus calls to mind the “Jesse checks” Minnesota taxpayers received during the Jesse Ventura administration’s surplus years. And that’s exactly the approach the Star Tribune highlighted in its article on the poll.

But no legislators are seriously considering Jesse checks.

It’s true that the Minnesota Republican Party started a “Give it Back” campaign early last year. But as news of that campaign broke, the Star Tribune reported that Rep. Jim Knoblach, the House budget lead, said, “I don’t think anybody’s talking about giving it back in the sense of giving people checks.”

And sure enough, there was no serious proposal from Republicans or DFLers in the Legislature in 2015 to write people checks.

There was a proposal to provide households with temporary, two-year income-tax relief, but this was less than 25 percent of the total tax-cut package offered. The rest was permanent tax relief.

Importantly, no one is talking about this idea today.

Instead of Jesse checks, Republicans in the House last session primarily offered an assortment of tax cuts that would have permanently reduced taxes in the future. And these kinds of tax cuts are all that is being discussed today.

This is far different from a Jesse check and far more responsible. A Jesse check is yet another one-time budget gimmick that eliminates any opportunity to pass meaningful tax reform that can provide ongoing tax relief from Minnesota’s very high tax burden.

To the extent that people understand the difference between a Jesse check and ongoing tax relief, the poll results could change dramatically.

How dramatically?

In a poll that my organization, the Center of the American Experiment, administered last April, we asked the following of registered voters in Minnesota: What “should be the Legislature’s top priority for allocating the excess funding?” Basically, it was the same question as the Star Tribune poll, but we offered the following three choices:

• Save it for a rainy day

• Use it to cut future taxes

• Spend it on new and expanded government programs

When given the choice to cut future taxes (as opposed to a one-time refund), our poll found 38 percent support tax cuts, 39 percent support saving surplus dollars for a rainy day and only 13 percent support spending it on new and expanded programs.

The three choices remain a fair description of the available choices being discussed today. No doubt someone will quibble over how we presented the choices in our poll, but there is no question that those are the basic alternatives being considered by legislators and the governor.

The question over what to do with the surplus largely defines the 2016 session, and so it is exceedingly important for a news organization to define these positions fairly and accurately, especially in a poll.

The Star Tribune poll fails on this basic task and creates an impression of stronger support for more state spending than actually exists. A convenient mistake for anyone who supports a boost in state spending.

 

Peter J. Nelson is director of public policy at the Center of the American Experiment.