Minnesotans are nearly as divided as lawmakers are on what to do with the state’s projected $1.9 billion budget surplus. A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll shows that 38 percent want most of the money returned to taxpayers, as Republicans have proposed, while 30 percent prefer to sock the surplus away as savings.

Fewer than 20 percent would spend the bulk on expanding services, as proposed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Another 12 percent think it should be a combination.

Hennepin and Ramsey counties are evenly divided on what to do. About 26 percent of those counties’ residents favor refunds, while 27 percent would pour the money into services and 28 percent favor savings. Senate DFLers have proposed saving at least part of the surplus.

Support for taxpayer refunds is strongest in the remaining metro suburbs, where nearly half favor refunds.

“The reason the state has a surplus is because they overtaxed,” said Gordon Redington, 78, a Republican-leaning retired engineer from Maplewood who believes any refund should be proportional to those who paid the taxes. “If they distribute it equally, all they’re doing is going into a more nanny-state direction.”

The poll of 625 Minnesotans was conducted March 16-18 and has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

K-12 schools a priority

When it comes to spending, a third of Minnesotans say K-12 schools should be the top priority.

Another 28 percent prefer roads. Health care was a distant third, with less than 20 percent supporting additional spending in that area. Support for spending the surplus on higher education and social services was in the single digits.

“I’m in my 30th year of teaching, and every year, as long as I can remember, schools are always scrounging for more money,” said Cindi Thompson, 52, a public school teacher from St. Louis Park. “People are always laid off, class sizes are so big, and there are a lot of services cut over time that could be improved.” A Democrat, Thompson said that returning the money to individual taxpayers does little in the long term. “The one year [Gov. Jesse] Ventura returned all the money to us, woo-hoo, it was great for a moment,” she said. “And then we got into a deficit situation.”

Pat Hudak, a public school coach from Farmington who is retired from the airline industry, said half the surplus should be saved, while the other half should be invested in roads.

“The roads are terrible; they spend so much money on buses and trains, and to me they’ve blown a lot of money on something the suburbs get no use from,” said Hudak, 60, an independent who leans Republican.

He said the same applies to metro vs. rural schools. “They pump money into the city and it gets subsidized by the state. They need to take care of the smaller towns a little.”

Dayton recently proposed spending most of the projected surplus — $1.5 billion — on education.

That would include funding to make free pre-kindergarten available statewide, boosting per-school state aid levels, and freezing tuition at state colleges and universities for two more years.

He said the poll results reflect what he wants.

“I have the same priorities: tax cuts for Minnesota families, education and transportation,” Dayton said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Republicans on Tuesday released a budget proposal that would return $2 billion to Minnesotans as tax relief, which exceeds the actual projected surplus.

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he’s not surprised that most Minnesotans want a refund.

“I think folks understand that when there’s a surplus in our state budget it means the state government collected too much money,” he said. “While we want to make sure we’re providing the services Minnesotans want and expect from state government, we shouldn’t take more money out of Minnesota’s economy and pockets if we don’t need to.”

Nearly half of Republicans polled want to spend the surplus on K-12 education, compared with 35 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of independents. Middle-aged adults (ages 50-64) showed the most support for spending for K-12 education, compared with 28 percent of ages 35-49.

Proportional refund

If the surplus is returned, 57 percent say it should be distributed proportional to income tax paid.

More than 25 percent say it should be distributed equally and just 9 percent say it should be targeted to help certain groups.

Three-quarters of Republicans want a proportional refund, while none of them wanted the money to go to certain groups of people.

Spending more on social services was one of the least favorite ways to disperse the surplus.

Across all demographic groups, support for that option ranged in single digits.

More money for health care was favored by just 18 percent of Minnesotans. A quarter of young people ages 18-34 supported investing in health care, compared with 18 percent statewide.

Tonya Clinton, 48, a school employee from Burnsville, said she backs a refund proportionate to the amount of taxes paid, but said that if it must be invested, she thinks it should go toward improving roads, bridges and infrastructure.

Her gut wants the money to go toward health care, but she fears it could be wasted.

“Believe me, health care is the most important thing to me, but that doesn’t mean you just throw money at something until you know what you are doing,” she said.