Lawmakers, commissioners debate ‘framework’ for negotiations

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Members of a legislative panel sought details from two of Gov. Mark Dayton’s key commissioners on the governor’s latest budget proposal, but were told instead that Dayton wants a deal on an overall budget number first.

In a meeting of the Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy, Minnesota Management & Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter said Dayton would not release any new details on his latest budget plan, which relies on $1.8 billion in new revenues and $1.8 billion in spending cuts. Schowalter said the governor wants agreement on a “framework” for total spending before digging into the details of specific budget areas.

“The question here is all around the framework, the notion here is that it is a starting place,” Schowalter said.

The meeting came as Dayton and legislative leaders continue to negotiate a deal to erase a projected $5 billion state budget deficit. Commission members expressed frustration at a perceived unwillingness for Dayton to spell out what areas of the budget he would increase and which areas he would cut.

“You still haven’t showed me, where does the governor want to cut?” asked Sen. Mike Parry (R-Waseca). “Are we supposed to read the governor’s mind?”

Legislators engaged the commissioners in a wide-ranging discussion on tax policy, arguing that the governor’s plan to raise income taxes on the state’s top income earners would backfire by sending wealthy residents fleeing across the borders. Sen. Geoff Michel (R-Edina) cited recent examples in Maryland and Oregon.

“In both cases, they tried to balance a budget that way, and they didn’t take in as much revenue as they planned for,” Michel said.

Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans said there is no conclusive data for anticipating the behavior of taxpayers in response to a tax increase, but he said Dayton’s tax plan would make the tax code fairer and more progressive.

“We’ve gone into this situation with a deficit problem because of a lack of revenue,” Frans said.

Rep. Keith Downey (R-Edina) and Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) grilled Frans and Schowalter on their refusal to appear before a previous commission hearing, and questioned whether the commissioners were acting out of partisanship.

“We are commissioners for Gov. Dayton. We are here to present his proposals,” Schowalter said in response to Downey. “We do try to provide information fairly and objectively, and we do have a track record of doing that.”

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch (R-Buffalo), who chairs the commission, said it would likely meet again Thursday, June 9.