Raising taxes to solve the state’s looming $5 billion budget deficit has generally been a verboten subject. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, not surprisingly, has stuck to the no-new-taxes mantra that’s been the guiding philosophy of his two terms in office. His fellow Republicans at the Capitol have been equally adamant that the budget must be fixed without revenue increases.
Even Democrats have been reluctant to broach the topic of tax increases. Since Pawlenty unveiled his budget proposal last week, the party’s leadership has been notably vague in detailing what alternatives they might suggest for fixing the state’s fiscal crisis. Instead the Democrats have promised a two-week “listening tour” to hear how average Minnesotans suggest closing the deficit.
But there’s at least one legislator who’s not shy about suggesting that taxes need to be raised: Rep. Tom Rukavina. At the start of today’s meeting of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Finance and Policy Division, the Iron Range Democrat declared it “nuts” to believe the massive deficit can be fixed without additional revenues.
“The governor’s got to understand he helped create this mess and now he has to help solve it,” Rukavina said. “As much as he wants to starve the beast and cut government, I think this monster’s gotten out of control.”
Today’s hearing focused on proposed cuts to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Pawlenty has suggested chopping $146 million from MNSCU’s 2009-2010 budget, part of an overall 8.2 percent reduction in funding for higher education. A parade of students and faculty members testified that such reductions would be devastating for the 54-campus system and its students, causing tuition to skyrocket and programs to be eliminated.
Travis Johnson, a business administration major at Lake Superior College, told the 21-member committee that he currently works a full- and a part-time job to pay the bills while he and his wife attend college. Arron Johnson, a senior at Southwest Minnesota State University, stated that he’ll graduate with more than $30,000 in debt.
Jacob Littler, president of the Minnesota State College Student Association, argued that funding cuts will inflict long-term economic harm on the state. “These institutions are often the driving forces in local and regional economies,” he said. “Without a strong MNSCU system it will be impossible for the state to meet its future workforce needs.”
Cindy Phillips, a business professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead and president of that school’s faculty association, said the college’s $65 billion budget will have to be cut by 14 percent under Pawlenty’s proposal. She noted that the college has already implemented a hiring freeze and reduced maintenance personnel by 25 percent.
“The stories you’ve heard from the students today are not unusual,” she said. “You could go into any classroom on our campus and hear the same story again and again. It’s very difficult for me to watch this change in the availability of the transformative power of higher education.”
Rod Henry, a business administration professor at Bemidji State University and chief negotiator for the school’s faculty union, questioned Pawlenty’s plan to require MNSCU to teach 25 percent of its classes online. “I am not a Luddite or a stranger to distance education and using technology,” he said, noting that he’s taught roughly 50 classes online over the years. “Online is not for everybody.”
Near the end of the 90-minute hearing, Rukavina expressed sympathy for the students assembled. “I know what you’re going through as far as the debt,” he said. “I’m nervous for all of you.” But he didn’t bring up the prospect of raising taxes again.