The people beg to differ

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 23, 2011 - 9:33 PM
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Minnesota Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Nick Thompson removes a "This Building is Closed" sign from one of the State Capitol's main entrances Tuesday, July 19, 2011.

Photo: Tom Olmscheid, Associated Press

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Judging from what I heard at a forum in Bloomington a few hours after the new budget became law, I'd advise Republican legislators and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to keep a low profile this weekend.

The budget deal they enacted early Wednesday wasn't exactly getting rave reviews.

The occasion was the second in a series of three "Citizen Solutions" assemblies last week, in which several dozen people pretend they could have taken over for state lawmakers in the last few months to set a new state budget. The series was sponsored by the Bush Foundation and InCommons, a network that aims to empower citizens to collaborate on public work.

Admittedly, the 55 attendees were not a representative sample of Minnesota voters. They were a gender, age, race and occupational mix of people willing to spend three hours on a summer evening talking with strangers about the state budget. (In other words, my kind of folks.)

Still, it might give state pols pause to know that of the 55 people, 37 said that if they were in charge, the amount of one-time money used to balance the 2012-13 budget would have been $0. Most of the 18 who said they'd tolerate such maneuvers had less than $700 million in mind.

That's compared with the $1.4 billion in borrowing and shifts that hours before had been cooked into the 2012-13 books. To which one can add the unpaid $1.4 billion school IOU from the previous biennium.

That means that one-time, credit-wrecking ploys comprise more than half of the newly enacted solution to the $5 billion deficit that was forecasted in February. (More than $2 billion in spending cuts account for the rest.)

Also notable: When asked what mix of measures they would choose to balance the budget, only one person in the Normandale Community College assembly room, Michael Toman of St. Paul, opted for "no new taxes."

Toman, a self-employed mechanical contractor from St. Paul, explained that "I consider taxes almost theft" and that "progressive taxes are a plank of the Communist Manifesto."

Everyone else opted for a blend of spending cuts and tax increases -- either permanent, temporary or both. They also thought reforming the way government works in the hope of saving money is worth trying.

Surprisingly common were calls for permanent tax increases large enough to make Dayton look like a piker with his initial $2.4 billion bid last February.

Income taxes on the wealthy? Of course, they said -- but don't stop there. Put the sales tax on clothing and services. Tax Internet sales -- that helps keep retail workers employed, noted Rick Mons of Shoreview.

Don't forget raising the tax on cigarettes and alcohol -- though not so much that people drive to Wisconsin to buy their bottles. Can we put a luxury tax on cars that cost more than $100,000? Absolutely, one table concluded. Cap the deduction for supersized mortgages, too.

"We think the solution to the deficit should have been 60 to 80 percent new revenue," reported Mons for his table, with a defensive sidelong glance at a few in the room who tittered. "This is well-thought-out, not liberal!" he said.

Sorry, Rick. That's liberal. But it may not be as far from Minnesota's middle of the road as one of the state's major political parties would care to acknowledge.

Pollsters have been reporting for years that a majority of Minnesotans want their state budget balanced with balance -- that is, with a mix of tax increases and spending cuts. In aggregate, voters have been saying the same thing by electing both DFLers and Republicans to control the levers of power in St. Paul, every year since 1990.

My guess is that a new poll would find one other thing: Fiscal prudence is in vogue. Minnesotans don't like their state borrowing against future revenues any more than they approve of taking out a mortgage to buy groceries.

"My wife and I pay our bills every month and put money away for the future," said Jay Kuvaas of Minneapolis. "If our government is responsible, it should be able to do both, too."

The Bloomington meetingfolk were especially cool to state government treating schools as its private bank, and in turn forcing schools to borrow.

"I won't take any more from K-12," Connie Rutledge of Roseville said to explain her unwillingness to delay school payments in her 2012-13 budget plan. "They've carried enough of this burden already."

As I said: The politicians who chose the J. Wellington Wimpy way of balancing the budget may want to lay low for a bit. And change the subject when they reemerge.

Already last week, Republicans didn't seem to want to say much about how the budget was balanced. They wanted to talk about reform. That's a worthy topic. There's work to do be done on that front, and unless Dayton picks up that theme quickly, the GOP can position itself as the reform-friendly part in 2012.

By comparison, Dayton seemed eager last week to recount how the Republican refusal to consider higher taxes led to his acceptance of a flawed budget. He sounded like a battlefield general who had determined that a strategic retreat would help him eventually win the war.

He's not through talking about higher taxes. Judging from what was said in Bloomington, neither are Minnesotans.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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