Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk was in mid-pitch for an increase in dedicated transportation funds at Thursday's Senate-plus-Dayton DFL press conference when, seemingly in passing, he made a noteworthy observation: Of today's 201 Minnesota legislators, only 39 were in office in 2002.
Why is that significant? Because 2002 was when the "good old days" in state government came to an abrupt end. From 1995 through 2001, Minnesota saw a steady stream of state budget surpluses. Legislators regularly voted for either temporary or permanent tax cuts. At the top of the "dot.com" bubble, in 1999-2000, Minnesota enacted state income tax cuts larger than any other in the country. Property tax cuts followed in 2001.
Only months later, the tide turned. Legislators in 2002 faced a deficit that swelled in 2003 and persisted in 2004 and 2005. It eased a bit in 2006-07, but came back bigger and meaner than ever between 2008 and 2012.
The 39 still-serving legislators who were in office in those years know firsthand how volatile the state's general fund can be. They're less likely to believe that the $1.9 billion surplus forecast for 2016-17 is "permanent" money. They're more likely to think about applying today's bonus dollars to long-term needs, like infrastructure and an educated workforce, rather than quick thrills like tax rebates.
They're likely to resist making future promises for, say, highway construction from the general fund. Bakk and seven other DFL senators said Thursday they will oppose an expected move by the GOP-controlled House in that direction. Probably not coincidentally, 29 of the 39 legislators who were serving in 2002 are DFLers.