As the 2014 legislative session kicks off, we Minnesotans have reason to be optimistic about our future. After a decade of economic turmoil, we are finally headed in the right direction.
Just look at the progress we've made in the last year alone.
Heading into the 2013 legislative session, our budget deficit stood at $625 million, with an additional $800 million in unpaid IOUs to our schools. We could have followed the course of previous Legislatures and made further cuts to Minnesotans seeking economic security while protecting wealthy special interests. We chose a different course — one focused on securing and growing the middle class.
We did raise taxes — the majority on the very wealthiest and large corporations — and we solved our budget problem. Today, our schools are fully paid back, and for the first time in a decade, our budget is balanced — not just today, but into the foreseeable future. On top of that, we made new and meaningful investments in broadening opportunity — all-day kindergarten, early childhood education, a college tuition freeze, job creation and direct property tax relief.
And despite warnings from Republicans that tax increases on the wealthiest Minnesotans would cause economic disaster, our economy is growing. Unemployment is down and job creation is up. Minnesota businesses created more than 50,000 jobs in 2013. Publications from Forbes to the Wall Street Journal now consistently rank Minnesota among the top states in the nation for the strength of our economy and our outlook for the future. And our world-class education system — a key to our strong economy — continues to improve. For the first time, national tests show that Minnesota is making significant gains in narrowing the achievement gap between white students and students of color.
Minnesota has momentum, and we should be optimistic about that. But we have more to do. That's what the 2014 session is about.
Because while things are looking up, not everyone is sharing in the gains we are making. Too many Minnesotans are working hard every day, but are still squeezed due to stagnant wages, long-term unemployment or underemployment.
It is for these reasons that strengthening and expanding Minnesota's middle class — by building on the progress we made last year — is our top priority in the coming session.
Here are some of our ideas:
• Provide middle-class tax relief: Because we made tough choices to stabilize the budget last year, we can provide middle-class tax relief this session. After all, it has been middle-class Minnesotans who have borne the brunt of previous budget deficits. This year we want to make our state tax code simpler and get rid of things like the so-called "marriage penalty." We are holding hearings the first week of the session to discuss middle-class tax-relief proposals, as well as proposals to repeal several "business-to-business" taxes that are no longer needed, thanks to our growing economy.
• Raise the minimum wage: With our state having one of the lowest minimum wages in the nation, it's time to make work pay again. An increase in the minimum wage will put more money in the pockets of working Minnesotans across the state, and the evidence shows that they are likely to spend those dollars in their communities, further boosting our statewide economy. The House supported an increase to $9.50 an hour last session, and we hope to pass a minimum wage bill early this year.
• Focus on women's economic security: When you dig underneath the first layer of economic challenges facing Minnesotans, we find that women disproportionately face barriers to economic security. For example, women in Minnesota on average earn only 80 cents for every dollar a man makes and make up two-thirds of those in the state earning at or below the minimum wage. We have proposed the Women's Economic Security Act to break down the barriers to economic progress facing women — policies that will benefit all Minnesotans in these times of economic change and insecurity. In addition to closing the gender pay gap, we propose expanding paid sick leave, increasing access to high-quality and affordable child care, and supporting women-owned small businesses.
• Build a greater Minnesota: Even with our recent economic growth, unique challenges remain for those in Greater Minnesota. Property-tax relief and job-creation initiatives we passed last session helped make progress, but we need to do more. We will work to pass a strategic, statewide bonding bill; invest in rural infrastructure including broadband, and provide tax relief for our family farmers.
This is an exciting and hopeful time for Minnesota's future. The era of crisis government in Minnesota is past us, meaning we finally have a stable foundation on which to build a better tomorrow. We made great progress last year by investing in Minnesota's strengths — namely hardworking middle-class families and our world-class education system.
Now is not the time to turn back to failed policies of the past. Let's make 2014 about continuing to move our state forward.
Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, is speaker of the Minnesota House.