For the first time since 1990, the DFL has control of both the legislative and executive branches of state government. But along with opportunity comes responsibility. Minnesotans, long frustrated by government’s inability to pass meaningful legislation and aghast at the siphoning of funds from education and health care, expect the DFL to deliver.
The first order of business is righting the state financially. The state has drifted from one fiscal crisis to the next as Republicans, objecting to any change in the tax code, have used a variety of short-term solutions and accounting gimmicks to balance the state’s budget. Minnesota has run out of Band-Aids and needs a long-term fix for its budget problems.
Tax reform should be part of that package. State Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans says the current system places an unfair burden on the middle class and small businesses, while the wealthy reap the benefits of a tax code tilted to their interests.
But creating a more equitable income tax and closing selective loopholes that benefit big corporations won’t close the budget gap entirely. The state is going to have to do more selective cutting, but should take pains to protect the most vulnerable citizens from further damage. Making government more efficient requires a scalpel not a chainsaw.
Restoring education funding is another top priority. Public education has been under assault in recent years as lawmakers kept increasing the amount of funding held back from schools to as much as 40 percent. At last count, the state owes about $2.4 billion to schools.
A word of advice to school districts: Don’t expect your check in the mail just yet. The state is facing a potential $2.1 billion deficit in the coming biennium and it’s doubtful the revenue forecast on Dec. 5 will erase it. The best schools can hope for, according to Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk , is the start of a repayment plan.
Indeed, it’s probably wise for all to temper their expectations. Programs ranging from Early Childhood education to care programs for the elderly have been starving for funds under divided state government. But the state isn’t suddenly flush with cash and some very good ideas for programs will undoubtedly have to wait.
Property tax relief has to be another priority for legislators. Over the past decade, property taxes have more than doubled from $4 billion statewide in 2002 to $8.5 billion in 2012. Steep cuts in Local Government Aid to cities and counties and the elimination of the homestead credit played a large part in that increase. So did the proliferation of excess operating levies by school districts, who sought to renew or increase levies as the state withheld funds and state aid failed to keep pace with inflation. Not only has that caused property taxes to skyrocket, but also it has widened the schism in public education between the haves and have nots. Wealthy suburbs with fat tax bases are able to generate more dollars with excess levies than their rural counterparts.
The DFL was able to connect the dots for voters between the Republicans’ disastrous policies and the impact on their lives in this election. But the hard part is just beginning. The DFL must be able to deliver an alternative agenda that will restore the state’s financial equilibrium, begin to repair the damage to our state’s infrastructure and valued institutions, and restore our state’s standing in education, health and economic development.
That’s a tall order and it will require patience, dedication and inventiveness. The governor and Legislature are finally playing for the same team and the ball is in their court. Minnesota is depending on them.