Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer has taken to referring to state government's projected $5.8 billion 2012-13 deficit as "what government wants to spend." It's a line he used repeatedly in Wednesday night's BringMeTheNews debate. He's conjuring the image of self-serving bureaucrats dreaming up numbers to reflect gluttonous appetites for taxpayer dollars. He then adds that the projected deficit does not reflect the will of the people.
On the contrary: those numbers spring directly from the will of the people, as expressed the way it always is in a representative democracy -- through the decisions of duly elected representatives.
The spending forecasts made by officials at Minnesota Management and Budget are grounded in decisions made by the Legislature through the past half-century. Those decisions illustrate lawmakers' wise preference for distributing government services equitably around the state -- rather than, say, on the basis of who voted for whom in the last election. Thus, school funding is based on the number of students a district serves. Health care for the poor flows to those below a certain income threshhold, and with certain independently assessed medical needs, regardless of who or where they are. Aid to cities and counties is similarly formula-driven.
The deficit projection flows directly from those formulas. For example, school spending is forecast to increase nearly $1 billion from 2010-11 to 2012-13 because K-12 enrollment is expected to grow by more than 10,000 students.
When Emmer talks about spending less on those sorts of programs, he is evidently calling for changes in those formulas -- though he has yet to own up to what those changes might be. That's a crucial piece of information for voters as they assess Emmer's proposal for a "no new taxes" solution to the state's budget problem. He's not just proposing to disappoint a few greedy bureaucrats. He's talking about spending reductions that will affect nearly every Minnesotan.