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Talking Points: Minnesotans know how to balance the state's budget

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Morris, 56267
Morris Minnesota 607 Pacific Avenue 56267

The people of Minnesota have spoken -- at least 600 or so -- and they've decided state lawmakers should take a balanced approach to solving the state's budget deficit crisis.

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In fact, 600 or so Minnesotans did more than just demand that the Legislature and governor use a combination of tax increases and spending cuts to resolve a deficit estimated at $5.8 million. These folks showed lawmakers how it could be done.

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities set up an online budget simulator, MyMNBudget.com, about a month ago. The simulator gave the public the chance to not only express an opinion about the budget but how it could be penciled out. Or spreadsheeted out, to be thoroughly modern.

"We are thrilled that everyday Minnesotans are so deeply engaged in the state budget decision," said Hibbing Mayor Rick Wolf, president of the CGMC.

More than 3,600 people have visited the site, and balanced budget submissions are still coming in, he said.

The CGMC's experiment, which it acknowledged is not scientific, showed that the desire for a blend of tax hikes and spending reductions cuts across party lines, although Republicans were much more restrained in the amount they want raised through new revenues.

About 71 percent of the budget proposals submitted by Republicans included new tax revenue with 29 percent solved the crisis by cuts alone. The average total revenue increase was $2.7 billion.

Sixty percent of Democrats wanted a mix of taxes and cuts, while 35 percent planned to plug the budget hole entirely with revenue increases. Democrats' average revenue increases were $4.8 billion.

Almost 80 percent of Independents want a mix but want $3.7 billion in revenue increases.

The most common sources of new revenues suggested were income taxes, "sin taxes" on booze and cigarettes, and an expansion of sales taxes. The programs or offices which most often came under the budget-cutting knife were the Legislature, the governor's office and campaign financing.

The CGMC's budget experiment uncovered some ambivalence toward K-12 education. On one hand, 14 percent increased K-12 funding, making it the program most likely to get more funding. On the other hand, K-12 and medical assistance experienced the largest cuts in total dollars, which isn't too surprising since they are two of the state's larger budget items.

In all, the average budget submitted increased revenues $3.9 billion, cut spending by $2.1 billion, and came in with a $304 million surplus.

Through it all, however, you have to resist the urge to yell at lawmakers, "If we can do it sitting at the laptop, why can't you?"

The CGMC's simulator results, reviewed by a senior policy analyst, rejected from the averages any budgets that increased taxes, cuts or both over the current deficit by more than $2.1 billion. Those plans were not deemed politically viable. And that's the rub. Unlike lawmakers, the public doesn't have constituents to please or special interests knocking on the door to give a piece of their minds and request a larger piece of the pie. It's really an easy problem to solve in black and white.

Nonetheless, 65 percent of the simulator users include both taxes and cuts in their effort to solve the budget deficit. Only 23 percent want to balance the budget through revenue increases and a mere 12 percent believe spending reductions alone will do the job.

In that sense, the CGMC budget simulator provides a fairly clear peak into the intentions of the public when the loudest voices on the extremes die down.

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