Many Minnesotans would look at you blankly if you mentioned “fourth-tier income tax brackets.’” Not those who showed up to the Twin Cities Daily Planet’s series of three community conversations on the state budget, though. They were highly informed on the state budget, knew what loopholes and shifts were and could even mention specific legislation in the pipelines.
Many were informed enough that they sought ways to influence politicians and the general public on raising revenue, rather than looking for further debate and deliberate.
“I hear the budget debate, and all I can think of is ‘government by tantrum.’ That is, whoever throws the biggest tantrum wins,” one participant said. “Now, I don’t think that’s a way to govern, and it certainly doesn’t leave a lot of room for my voice.”
That was a sentiment shared by many participants at our community conversations, where we asked people to tell us how Minnesota should balance the state budget. Using our framing article, Making Choices: Minnesota’s Budget, and the (recently updated) MinnPost budget calculator, we asked people how they would cut spending and raise revenue to close the $5 billion deficit.
The approximately thirty-five people who participated in the conversations turned out to be quite liberal on the whole. The result, unsurprisingly, was an overwhelming sense that cutting spending would ultimately hurt the state of Minnesota, and that instead we need to make long-term reforms to ensure progressive and fair taxation.
The face of budget cuts
If you had asked people who came to our meetings about proposed budget cuts, you’d have seen lots of them roll their eyes in tempered exasperation, if not practically blow steam out of their ears in anger.
The anger at the proposed cuts was most obvious when we asked participants to examine specific budget cuts proposed by the GOP and Governor Dayton. While many saw some opportunities for small cuts such as the JOBZ program, they squirmed at the idea of deep cuts to education, public infrastructure, and health and human services.
Joyce O’Meara didn’t think the Department of Health, where she works as an early childhood specialist, could handle any more cuts. She has already seen first-hand the effects of government belt tightening. O’Meara says she and her colleagues have experienced wage freezes for two years, and the austerity is beginning to take a toll on the morale and work at her office.
“My boss begins every meeting by saying, ‘It’s not a good time to be a public employee,’” O’Meara said.
She also says she is sick of the perception that government employees work too little and earn too much. She believes that the budget debate on government reform focuses too much on issues that shouldn’t be on the table, like cutting or freezing public employees’ salaries or cutting programs.
“I’m amazed that people talk about government employees instead of something like income inequality,” she said. “I work with a lot of people and they work really, really hard and they work long hours. Most people have no clue what public employees do.”
And while many of our participants have experienced or will experience the effects of budget cuts, another camp felt the cuts wouldn’t affect them or their immediate community personally. They still, however, worried about the greater implications of budget cuts.
Vici Oshire from Burnsville said that she doesn’t really think she’ll be much affected by budget cuts since she’s retired from a long-time job at the St. Paul Public Schools, has saved for retirement, and is on Medicare. She also says she isn’t even sure the cuts would affect Burnsville that much either.
“But we don’t live in a bubble. Many people in Burnsville work in the Cities, and we depend on the entire metro area to do well,” Oshire said. “LGA cuts to Minneapolis aren’t good for Burnsville either.”
Allison Killeen, a statewide organizer for the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, echoed that opinion in another of our conversations. “Budget cuts hack at the notion of the greater good. I’m concerned because the message “No new taxes” feels so good and is so easy to understand,” Killeen said.
“But I think it’s time to bring back the message that, “we all do better, when we all do better,” she said, referring to a phrase used by Paul Wellstone.
Many also took issue with the argument that reduced taxes will create a globally competitive business environment.
“What creates global competitiveness?” asked Noel Nix, a coordinator at the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers. “Not reduced taxes, but a productive workforce. And for that you need investment in early childhood, basic, and higher education.”
And just how should Minnesota raise revenue to do that? Most of our participants urged closing complicated tax loopholes and taxing the über and somewhat rich with a fourth-tier income tax bracket.
Oh, and one more thing. In general our participants wanted to see some long-term structural change to the budget—a simplifying and cleaning-up effort of sorts.
“My concern is that we’re really missing an opportunity for some long term reform,” said Brian Rusche, Executive Director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition. “I’m afraid that a hasty deal will result in more complicated rules to break later, and in more shifts.”
“Yeah, shifts.” said Alison Killeen, the organizer for JRLC who probably thinks about tax policy more than 99 percent of Minnesotans.
“Shifts, shifts and more shifts,” she repeated and then she sighed deeply.