Ever since I first came to the Senate, I've come home as often as I can to listen to Minnesotans. And ever since I started this job, one subject has come up time and time again: deficits.

Minnesotans know that a long-term budget deficit represents a serious threat to our nation's economic future. They tell me about how hard they work to balance their small businesses' budgets and their families' checkbooks. And they want Washington to get its act together and put the nation's fiscal future on sounder footing.

That said, Minnesotans understand that not every deficit reduction solution is created equal -- because the budget deficit isn't the only one we face.

There's an education deficit that has seen our country plummet from first in the world to 14th in percentage of adults with a postsecondary degree. There's an innovation deficit that has allowed countries like China, Brazil and India to get the jump on us when it comes to new technologies, especially clean-energy technologies. And there's an infrastructure deficit -- for example, right here in Minnesota, we have more than 1,100 bridges listed as structurally deficient.

Education, innovation and infrastructure have always been the foundation of our prosperity. And Minnesotans know that if we shortchange these investments, we will make it harder for our economy to grow -- and nearly impossible to close the deficit.

Then there are seniors who rely on Social Security to stay financially independent and Medicare to stay healthy; students who rely on Pell Grants to help pay for college, and struggling families who rely on things like Medicaid and unemployment benefits to stay afloat in tough times. These folks are still concerned about the nation's long-term budget deficit -- but they're also concerned about what would happen if they were forced to make big sacrifices to address it.

Some Minnesotans tell me we need to spend less. Some Minnesotans tell me we need to raise more revenue.

All of them are right. But it can't just be one or the other -- we can't simply cut our way, or tax our way, out of this. And, most important, if we don't grow our economy, there's just no way we can address our deficit.

That's why I support a balanced approach -- one that includes targeted cuts to government spending; asks the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to return to the slightly higher tax rates they paid under President Bill Clinton, and protects our investments in education, innovation and infrastructure.

Many Minnesotans I speak with also support that kind of approach. But they don't think some in Washington are listening -- even after an election that focused so heavily on the merits of both sides' deficit-reduction plans.

And that makes people nervous, especially because we're now operating with a deadline. Unless an agreement is reached by the end of 2012, $1.2 trillion in spending cuts affecting everything from education to the military will go into effect. And everywhere I go in Minnesota, I see families and businesses that would be affected.

The University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic would lose tens of millions of dollars in research funding. More than 1,000 Minnesota children would lose access to Head Start programs (which is just completely nuts given the proven return on investment of early childhood education) -- and thousands of students would lose their work study programs or other student aid that makes college (barely) possible. Our state would lose $1 million in funding for meal delivery for seniors.

At the same time, the income tax cuts originally passed under President George W. Bush (and extended under President Obama) are all scheduled to expire, along with the payroll tax cut workers have been receiving since President Obama signed it into law in 2010.

Unless we act, middle-class families could see their taxes go up by more than $2,000 next year. Minnesota families can't afford that kind of tax hike. And Minnesota small businesses, who tell me that lack of consumer demand is their biggest problem right now, can't afford that kind of hit to their customers' spending power.

Minnesotans respect leaders who stand on principle -- unless one of those principles is simply refusing to compromise. And, especially with this deadline looming, they want us come together around a balanced approach to solving our deficit problem.

That's the message voters sent in this election. It's the message Minnesotans give me when I'm home. And it's the message I'll be communicating to my colleagues in the U.S. Senate.

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Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.