Balanced budget, better education funding warrant modest bow.
No trumpets blared or crowds cheered Monday night as the 2013 Legislature’s regular session drew to a close. Weary legislators are expected to troop home today to confront mixed responses to the year’s labors.
We share that ambivalence, and concede that it may spring from expectations that were too high. This year’s return to all-DFL control at the Capitol after 22 years of divided government looked like an opportunity for major policy breakthroughs akin to those produced 40 years ago when DFLers took charge for the first time in state history.
History did not repeat itself. The Legislature raised taxes rather than fundamentally reforming them. It failed to make the transportation investments that future prosperity requires. It could not muster enough bipartisan support to upgrade inadequate higher-ed facilities and infrastructure. It did nothing to control gun violence or crack down on school bullying.
But as this edition went to press, the basics were nearly done and given how often that could not have been said in the past decade, the Class of 2013 can take a modest bow. The new budget is forecast to stay in balance through mid-2016 without the deficit-perpetuating fiscal trickery often seen before.
Sufficient cash was found for the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line to keep it in a federal funding queue. A skinny bonding bill was hastily approved Monday night to keep a State Capitol renovation project on schedule. Those are minimal measures, but without them the session’s inaction on bonding and transportation would be not just disappointing, but also irresponsible.
Public employees and underpaid nursing home workers finally got a raise, as did top administrators in the executive branch but not legislators. Instead, they sent the 2016 voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would take salary-setting responsibility away from legislators and give it to an appointed commission.
The Legislature wrote itself into the history books by embracing legal marriage for same-sex couples. That decision made us proud but dismayed many Minnesotans. Both the legislators who voted yes and the advocates who reassured them by chanting “We’ve got your back” have work to do to ease lingering discomfort over the issue.
History is also likely to smile on the Legislature’s support for Mayo Clinic’s Destination Medical Center project and its continuing commitment to a new Vikings stadium, now the linchpin of the redevelopment of downtown Minneapolis’ east end.
But what matters most for the state’s future is this year’s increase and redirection of education funding. Scholarships for high-quality preschool will reach many more families, thanks to a $40 million funding boost. All-day kindergarten, now available to only about half of the state’s 58,000 kindergartners and then often at a cost of several thousand dollars, will be offered to all comers without charge.
That investment in early learning is forecast to pay a student achievement and quality workforce dividend for years to come. We wish the same could be said for the Legislature’s decision to allow state-funded child-care providers to join a union. That move looks to be about gains for unions, not children.
K-12 formulas were altered to help districts that have not been able to convince voters to approve higher school property taxes, and to give property tax relief to the rest. Higher education had its best year in more than a decade, with new funding sufficient to prevent tuition increases in the next two years in both public collegiate systems. With tuition well above national averages for both two-year and four-year Minnesota public colleges, more state aid is overdue.
Those education gains are the DFL’s best answer to the GOP argument that taxes did not need to go up this year. A tax increase was also needed to end a dozen-year cycle of deficits and property tax hikes. More aid and a sales tax break for local governments and larger credits for low-income payers should spare most Minnesotans from higher property taxes for several years.
But DFLers were obliged to raise taxes in a way that did minimal damage to the state’s economic competitiveness. At that, they fell short. A tax bill that awaits final action at this writing will give Minnesota the nation’s fifth-highest top-tier state/local income tax rate, 9.85 percent. Two better alternatives higher alcohol taxes and a sales tax on clothing were rejected.
The bill socks the warehouse industry with a sales tax that could prove highly disruptive, especially for providers near the state’s borders. The warehouse tax does not go into effect until April 1, 2014. That leaves time (see adjacent box) for the 2014 Legislature to revisit this decision and make a better choice.
This year’s windup has us mindful of a Capitol press corps adage: “They represent their districts.” To the extent legislators stayed in their comfort zones, pandered to interest groups and failed to forge bipartisan alliances, they reflected a Minnesota electorate that’s more divided than it was a generation ago. The work of producing better legislative results in 2014 begins today, at home.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.