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Commentary: If you can balance the budget, shouldn't governor candidates be able to do it?

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By Steve Peterson

Five-billion eight-hundred-million. That is the projected size of Minnesota's two-year budget deficit that the next governor will have to solve. That's enough money to build 10 Target Fields and still have $360 million in change. It's equal to 1.1 percent of the state's total two-year economy of $524 billion.

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No matter how you look at it, the deficit poses a serious economic problem for the state, but for the gubernatorial candidates, it also poses a big political problem, too.

To balance the state's budget, there are, for all practical purposes, only two options: spend less or tax more. Since this is an election year, we will hear lots of ways to balance the budget that do not include those two phrases--spend less or tax more--such as reform, downsize, efficiencies, revenue enhancements and growth. But in the end, to balance its budget in a meaningful way, the state will have to spend less, tax more or pursue a combination of both. A meaningful solution assumes an end to accounting gimmicks that simply push spending cuts or tax increases down the road.

So far, none of the major party candidates for governor have created a comprehensive detailed balanced budget. Some, (Dayton and Horner) however, are closer than others. I understand why: it's a complicated process and opens the door to attacks from political rivals. Furthermore, voters will have a better opportunity to scrutinize a candidate's plan and assess how the consequences will affect them personally. During an election season, sometimes it's easier to leave voters in the dark.

A $5.8 billion budget deficit is equal to 15 percent of the state's General Fund spending. If the state halted all general fund dollars going to public safety, state government, environment, energy, natural resources, economic development, agriculture, veterans, and transportation, Minnesota would still have a $2.3 billion budget deficit.

The $5.8 billion deficit is double what the state General Fund spends on higher education and nearly six times what it spends on local government aid. If K-12 education is held harmless as many lawmakers believe it should be, the deficit balloons to 25 percent of the remaining budget. Due to the sheer size of the problem, reducing the deficit through spending cuts alone will have profound and visible impacts that voters need to be aware of. And as we all know, the other route--to significantly raise taxes--carries serious implications for families, businesses and homeowners.

Now is the time for voters to get answers from the candidates for governor: how will they specifically solve the budget deficit and how will their priorities impact voters. Because the decisions are difficult and the impact on Minnesotans will be great, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities has created MyMNBudget.com, an online tool where everyday Minnesotans, policymakers and the candidates themselves can create a plan to balance the budget.

At MyMNBudget.com, visitors will learn about the programs that receive state funding, how much they cost and what they do. With a high degree of detail, the site allows users to reduce program funding and increase taxes in order to erase the state's budget deficit.

CGMC has also sent a letter to the candidates asking them to give a dollar-for-dollar budget solution. We will display the three major party candidates' budget solutions on MyMNBudget.com so that visitors can compare the candidates' budget solutions to each other's and to their own. We expect candidates to respond so that Minnesotans will know the answers to key budget questions: What dollar amount will the candidates allocate to each program? Will their proposals to cut spending feasibly close the budget gap? How will their tax plans impact homeowners, consumers and businesses?

The candidates have had plenty of time to travel the state and listen to voters. Now is the time for them to respond to what they heard on the trail by providing specific solutions to the state's budget woes. If candidates for governor do not have a specific plan or are unwilling to disclose it to the public--regardless of party or ideology--they do not deserve support from voters. With the budget tool available at MyMNBudget.com, candidates have no excuses for their reluctance to inform voters of their specific budget plans. If everyday Minnesotans can go to MyMNBudget.com and create a balanced budget, the candidates for governor should be able to create one and submit it for public discussion as well.

Steve Peterson is Senior Policy Analyst for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. CGMC is a non-partisan organization that represents 75 outstate cities.

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