Lileks: Here are a few easy ways to close the state's budget deficit

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • December 6, 2012 - 8:18 PM

According to a spokesman for the Department of Whoa, Didn't See That Coming, the state is $1.1 billion in the hole, and there's not enough gambling money to pay for the stadium. The problem, according to one of the state reps I heard on the news:

"The tax system is broken."

That's bad news. I guess. Perhaps he means "broken" in the "out of order" sense, where you put your money in the slot and get absolutely no state services in return, and then you get angry and find your state rep and jiggle him back and forth and maybe pound on his forehead to get the state services to fall down into the basket-- you can just see that highway construction project stuck there in the screw-thing that pushes it out! Someone else is going to come along and put in some taxes and get two freeway interchanges for the price of one.

If it's "broken" in the sense that it doesn't produce exactly enough to keep everything funded at 100 percent, we can quibble about that definition. But obviously we need more revenue, less spending, or an expertly blended combination of the two that makes everyone unhappy. Why not think differently?

• Internet taxes. A 5-cent tax on Facebook posts. You say, "That will lead to fewer people posting drunken duck-face photos of themselves in Cancun," and that's true, but there has to be a downside as well.

• A permanent tax on all temporary taxes. This way, if a tax should expire, it will remain in force. If the rate is set at 100 percent, no revenue will be lost. While this certainly violates the spirit of the "temporary tax" idea, HAHAHAHAH, suckers. Sorry; that just slipped out. I meant "it will force legislators to consider avoiding the uncertainly that temporary taxes create among the businesses and citizens and other suck... er, stakeholders."

• Encourage more gambling. People aren't spending enough on gambling, for some odd reason. It's almost as if the novelty of electronic pulltabs wore off, and the people who said "Touching an iPad screen at a dollar a pop for the chance at recouping 37 percent of my expenditures over seven years? I can see myself doing that forever" might have exaggerated their interest.

• Raise sin taxes. The 2010 budget notes that only 1.2 percent of the state's revenues came from "Cigarette & Tobacco Products Tax" -- maybe if they taxed cigarettes, they'd make more. No one buys cigarettes anymore. If they raised the tax to $5 per pack, they could hire, oh, a proofreader.

• Or just pass an old budget. Projected receipts are $34.944 billion, more or less. The 2008-2009 budget was $33.891 billion. There. Solved! Right?

No. There's the buyback of the allotment which has to be carried forward, and other terms scientifically tested to ensure that people stop listening entirely, because we're in magic la-la Accountancy Land, where a bunch of guys shift around numbers and somehow at the end of the year you're hit with a "user fee" for sidewalks, including a 10-year graduated "Mother's Spinal Health Surcharge" that assumes you step on a crack once every day, and are liable for a 0.04 cent additional charge.

No, it's not that simple. But what if it could be? Revenue usually comes in around the low-to-middle $30 billion mark. Draw up a budget for $32 bil, $33 bil, and so on. That way, if someone bursts into the governor's office and says, "Hey, basing revenue assumptions on winning the Powerball didn't work out, and we're $432 million short!" the governor can say, "Well, good thing we have a plan right here that funds the quality of life Minnesotans have come to expect. Here, pass this one."

"What if the old budget didn't fully fund lung-health in cows?" you ask. Good point. While reading the budgets for the last few years -- which are about as interesting as listening to a 7-year-old describe the plot of three "Transformers" movies -- I found half a million dollars for an increase in bovine tuberculosis prevention.

Yes, it's always easy to pick out expenditures that look excessive. I'm not saying I want herds of cows wandering around the state with a hacking cough. But the function of the state used to be schools, roads, the poor, courts, cops. Now it's "please gamble more so the cows don't get sick."

Odd how that turned out. • 612-673-7858

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