Minnesota budget surplus grows to $1.23 billion

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2014 - 9:38 PM

The money gained in a strengthening economy is already igniting a legislative fight over what to do with the windfall.

A new economic forecast shows Minnesota’s budget surplus hitting $1.23 billion, a dramatic jump from just a few months ago, thanks to increasing strength in nearly every aspect of the state economy.

The projected surplus is the freshest sign that the state’s economic recovery is robust. The extra money is also intensifying the budget fight as state legislators face the possibilities that come with an even larger windfall heading into an election year.

“This is the best set of numbers we have seen in a while,” said Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter. “It is like having shock absorbers in the car again. When you do hit a bump, you don’t feel it as badly.”

Gov. Mark Dayton said the good economic news means legislators can be more aggressive with tax relief this year. He called a House proposal for more than $500 million in tax breaks the new “floor” for the legislative session.

“We have thus proven that there is a positive role for government to play in our state’s economic progress,” Dayton said during a conference call with reporters. “Now we have the responsibility and the opportunity to extend our contribution to our state’s continuing improvement.”

The new forecast is an improvement by $408 million since the most recent one in November. That assessment already figured in anticipated revenue from earlier tax hikes, making the larger surplus almost entirely the result of economic growth.

State budget officials now expect sustainable growth in nearly every sector, except manufacturing and the number of federal workers here. Economists say they are even beginning to see improvement in manufacturing.

Job creation up

At 4.6 percent, Minnesota has one of the lowest jobless rates in the country. Nearly 46,000 jobs have been created in the last year, one of the fastest growth rates in the country. First-time jobless benefit claims have fallen to their lowest level in more than a decade. Other key indicators, such as temporary employment, average hours worked and job vacancies remain strong.

Schowalter said the state’s economy is benefiting from the new, two-year federal budget deal, which has given consumers and business owners a jolt of confidence. Recent years of back-to-back budget standoffs in Washington created instability and a lasting drag on the economy.

“Federal policymakers appear to have lost their appetite for economically destabilizing, budget showdowns,” budget analysts noted in their report.

Minnesota’s economy continues to outpace the nation, Schowalter said, and “there doesn’t seem to be any signs of that slowing down.”

The state’s economic consultant, IHS Global Insight Inc., also confirmed what many have suspected: Minnesota is in the midst of a long-awaited housing recovery, with low housing inventories that analysts said “are fueling more competition among buyers and pushing up home prices.”

Budget officials also say consumers have made considerable gains in rebuilding wealth in the wake of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Consumers are taking on more debt for cars and other big-ticket items while at the same time they have dramatically beat down credit card debt.

Minnesota State Economist Laura Kalambokidis said state officials have seen a smattering of upbeat news on several fronts, but lagging consumer confidence has been the missing ingredient to bind it all together. Budget officials now believe consumer confidence will break free and roar back to levels not seen since the Great Recession.

“We have been waiting for this lift,” Kalambokidis said.

Global Insight analysts say business owners appear cautiously optimistic, noting that factory orders for capital goods have increased.

So confident are Minnesota budget officials that they are estimating a $2.59 billion surplus in the 2016-17 budget cycle.

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  • “This is the best set of numbers we have seen in a while,” said Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter of the new forecast.

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