The value of the GOP’s preferred spending ceiling is hard to measure.
Pop quiz: How big is the state’s biennial budget?
I bet your answer was “I don’t know.”
Don’t count yourself ill-informed. I’ll venture that most attentive citizens aren’t such devoted students of the state’s fiscal condition that they can summon such statistics to mind without the aid of a search engine.
Yet by the way House Republicans reportedly are insisting in budget-setting talks this week that the 2016-17 state budget ought not exceed $40 billion, one might think they believe that every Minnesota voter can recite such numbers by heart.
If those reports are true, I expect to see “$40 billion and no more” buttons popping up on GOP lapels — just as four years ago, pennies appeared on lapels to signify “not a penny more” than $34 billion for 2012-13.
That year’s budget wound up at $35.5 billion, and took a government shutdown to achieve. This year, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a budget for the 2016-17 biennium of $42.8 billion. Republicans say that’s too much growth.
But to hold their proposed spending below $40 billion, Republicans have employed a variety of convoluted moves, including shifting some spending out of the general fund, rescheduling some spending to occur before the new biennium begins, and assuming gains from proposed spending cuts far in excess of what nonpartisan fiscal analysts say can be attained. Those maneuvers are hard to convince DFL budget negotiators to accept.
I’m left puzzling over the $40 billion ceiling’s political value. It’s a sum that’s difficult for voters to evaluate. One might recall that state spending was artificially suppressed during the Great Recession by issuing IOUs to school districts that at one point reached $2.7 billion. During the same period spending on human services, higher education, the courts and more was squeezed to a point of discomfort for many Minnesotans. And some customary state responsibilities were temporarily covered by non-recurring federal stimulus dollars.
Dayton’s budget is predicated on his assessment that Minnesotans don’t want to live with recession-era constraints forever. The GOP’s $40 billion ceiling would continue some of the squeeze Dayton and Senate DFLers want to ease.