Minnesota is still reeling from a contentious legislative session and a state government shutdown. Now some policymakers are advocating for a constitutional amendment that would permanently undermine our ability to arrive at common-sense solutions to balancing the state’s budget. The amendment would guarantee gridlock by creating extra hurdles for passing a responsible budget, leading to more budget gimmicks as policymakers seek to fund critical state services.
Last Thursday, a group of Republican state representatives held a news conference to announce their 2012 legislative agenda. A major element is likely to be a constitutional amendment that would require a supermajority vote in both houses of the Legislature to raise taxes. With such a supermajority requirement in place, just a minority of legislators could block critical legislation, even if the legislation had broad public support.
Supporters of the amendment claim that raising the bar for increasing taxes will lead to better budget outcomes. But we already know that isn’t true. Minnesota has essentially been living with this restriction for years: we haven’t passed a statewide tax increase since Governor Pawlenty agreed to raise the tobacco tax in 2005. So we have seen first-hand what happens when policymakers are prevented from using all their budget-balancing tools. Fewer budgeting options leads to legislative gridlock, and ultimately pushes policymakers to agree to compromises that rely heavily on short-term budget gimmicks.
Advocates of the constitutional amendment want to force policymakers to concentrate on spending cuts to balance the state budget. Policymakers did agree to deep spending cuts in the 2011 Special Session. Over the next two years, the state will invest fewer general fund dollars in higher education, public safety, transportation, the environment, agriculture, and jobs and economic development than we did in the last two years.
However, many policymakers also understand that balancing the budget through cuts alone would eliminate vital investments that Minnesotans value. Cuts that deep would devastate families, erode our public infrastructure, and ultimately undermine the state’s long-term economic growth.
Just as water forges a new path when it encounters an obstacle, so policymakers find ways to meet the needs of their constituents. But the danger is that if state tax increases are essentially off the table, policymakers turn to less transparent funding methods to avoid spending cuts that would fundamentally damage Minnesota’s economy. Just this last session – after plenty of gridlock – lawmakers finally agreed to use $2.8 billion in timing shifts and borrowing from the future to balance the budget. They failed to find a permanent solution to the state’s ongoing needs, so the state will be back facing deficits in another two years, if not sooner.
Minnesotans are tired of the gimmicks and want policymakers to arrive at a permanent solution using a balanced approach, according to recent public opinion polls. For example, a recent survey commissioned by the Bush Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of Minnesotans felt that borrowing funds and delaying payments shouldn’t be used to pay for current budget deficits. And 57 percent agreed that policymakers should use both spending cuts and revenue increases to address any future deficits.
The state doesn’t need a constitutional amendment that limits the ability of policymakers to pass a responsible budget. And we know that the public doesn’t support the gridlock and gimmicks that flow from these kinds of restrictions. We do need to try something new to get our budget on the right track. That new idea is a balanced approach that relies on spending cuts and revenue increases to sustainably fund the state’s priorities.