Letters from the edge: State leaders warn of precipice ahead


Call them “Letters from the Edge,” a flurry of messages last week from state government agency heads and business leaders, summarizing the view from the precipice created by an anti-government, all-cuts response to a $5 billion revenue shortfall. The view is of a shabbier and less fair Minnesota, and also not good for business in the long run.

The letters were professional in tone and yet dire and almost frantic, detailing exactly what would have to happen to bus service, nursing homes, services for disabled Minnesotans, protection for abused and neglected children, and tax compliance.

The letter from Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner James Schowalter was typical, laying out the damage that would be done to our growing elderly population from more than a billion dollars in reduced funding for Human Services, including institutionalization of many who rely on less costly interventions than nursing homes. Bottom line in Human Services, as elsewhere, is that costs for both governments and ordinary citizens actually would increase long-term from some of the proposed cuts.  A similarly stark picture was painted by Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh in a letter that spelled out alternatives ranging from $7 bus fares to 40 percent cuts in transit route service.

The Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce sent a letter expressing alarm about the severity of the proposed cuts and advised that “business supports investments in transit because it’s good business.”  Business leaders in Greater Minnesota, particularly, have been highly critical of proposed cuts to or elimination of state aids to local government.

The Department of Natural Resources, suggesting mass closures of state parks, and the Revenue Department, predicting net revenue losses from cuts in compliance and enforcement, also have responded with messages that begin to paint a picture of a cuts-only Minnesota on the brink, and looking a lot more like Pottersville (from the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life) than the Bedford Falls we’ve enjoyed for decades.

We all know that the cuts-only budget bills are destined for veto by Gov. Mark Dayton and that the authors in the legislative majorities are not entirely serious about their proposals, some of which appear to be written to appeal to the conservative geo-political base.  And some key legislators were basically saying that the cuts are an opening round in negotiations with the governor, whose opening proposals for income tax increases are unlikely to gain final passage.

But the facts are that both Dayton’s proposal and the budget strategy outlined by Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner in last fall’s election are more humane and realistic from the get-go, calling for both painful cuts and reasonable revenue increases. Those two candidates got 56 percent of the vote and that’s a reflection of the Minnesota mainstream’s wisdom about the value of the public sector.

The final agreement, which might not come until we are on the brink of a total government shutdown, simply must be a lot closer to the Dayton-Horner formula than the all-cuts precipice.