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Kurt Strazdins, MCT

Why so down about a budget surplus?

  • Article by: KEITH DOWNEY
  • October 7, 2012 - 6:54 PM

Counterpoint

Contrary to Lori Sturdevant's assertion ("About that state surplus: It's really a mirage," Sept. 30), the state budget surplus is real and in the bank -- at the state and in our schools. In fact, state reserves are now $900 million greater than planned, and schools received over $200 million in shift payback as a result of that surplus.

Sturdevant's article did prove one thing, though: that an editorial writer's greatest secret weapon is titled "How to Make Your Political Point by Selectively Quoting Others."

I had been invited to an interview under the premise that the Star Tribune Editorial Board might actually consider endorsing my candidacy for state senate.

Of course, the fact that Gov. Mark Dayton's claim that our state budget would collapse without tax increases was proven wrong does not sit well with some Star Tribune writers. In the interview, my message to voters -- "Minnesota Budget Turnaround. Last year: $5.1 billion deficit. This year: $1.2 billion surplus." -- was immediately challenged by Sturdevant.

No offense taken. I appreciate the challenge of trying to remain relevant as a liberal editorial writer against the evidence that democracies cannot afford democratic socialism. Many Democrats are also trying to construct fiscal narratives and new talking points to reinterpret the fiscal realities.

She pressed, "You know that there's a school shift built into the 2011 number but omitted from the 2012 side, right? Isn't that misleading?"

As is my habit, I wanted to verify the facts, and subsequently returned her follow-up call, wherein I thought we had a nice discussion.

I confirmed that the forecasted deficit for 2012-13 presumed a full payback of the school shift. And those following closely know that our 2012 surplus came in a year where there is a school shift. No argument there.

But to exclude the school shift from the forecasted deficit number so as to understate the deficit we faced, and then include the shift in the 2012 actual results to negate that year's surplus, is double-counting in the other direction. Helpful to buttress an attack against Republican fiscal results, yes; accurate, no.

The shift was just one of many moving parts in the budget deal. I suggested she consider netting out in her calculations the $687 million increase in school funding that never would have been done without shifting the payments.

And I am pretty sure I reminded her that the Legislature passed an additional $400 million payback of the school shift from the surplus that was vetoed by Dayton.

Of course, my overall statement did not matter. There was an angle she wanted to play that would undermine Republicans, and a selective excerpt would do quite nicely.

To be clear, I never said that the state's published budget numbers were misleading. And I was very straightforward with her that no one is pretending there isn't a $2 billion school shift payback obligation at the state.

We in the Legislature have no choice but to use the official state budget numbers from Minnesota Management and Budget. Editorialists can construct alternate fiscal combinations to fit their argument. If they don't like current law, they can argue their point under something other than current law. State legislators do not have that liberty.

So Star Tribune editorialists can claim, with almost straight faces, that we don't really have a surplus, and that good budget news is somehow actually bad news. And some articles, like Sturdevant's, will maneuver others' comments to make their point.

The plain fact is, the state has a $1.2 billion surplus. And, yes, we have a $2 billion future obligation to the schools. And yes, going from a huge deficit to a surplus is a "Minnesota Budget Turnaround." Not a boast by Republicans, as Sturdevant claims, but a starting point on the path to the fiscal stability that can only come when state spending grows no faster than the growth rate of our private economy.

Sturdevant is right that state government's fiscal crisis is not over. We have a lot of hard work to do. And a $1.2 billion surplus doesn't hurt.

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Keith Downey, R-Edina, is a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. He is running for a seat in the state Senate.

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