Though we called him right, Rep. Downey got us wrong


Although we didn’t call out Rep. Keith Downey by name when we praised his Minnesota Sunset Commission proposal last week, he was one of the bill’s sponsors.

In addition to supporting the Republican bill, Dane Smith wrote in “Idea of ‘sunset commission’ deserves a look“:

Lots of great ideas are proliferating as our elected officials and conscientious citizens grapple with our decade-long budget crisis. Revenues need to be raised and perhaps restored to the levels that worked well for us when our economy was doing much better. But creative new initiatives like the bi-partisan Minnesota House Redesign Caucus can only be a good thing.   

We know it’s a busy time for the legislature, so we don’t expect Rep. Downey to read everything we have to say about government reform, even when it’s supporting something he wants to do.

But it would be nice if he’d at least read carefully the commentary we wrote about taxes and the budget, before dismissing it in a letter to the editor in Wednesday’s Star Tribune. He’s simply incorrect in stating that we think:

government deserves a certain percentage of our statewide personal income, regardless of whether it could do the job for less. And worse, that we shouldn’t try to improve!

Read our commentary for yourself. Here’s one excerpt:

Here’s a wiser, sustainable course toward restoring the economy and closing a three-year projected shortfall of about $5 billion: Cut more judiciously, vigorously pursue government redesign to improve efficiency and raise taxes by as much as $1 billion a year.

Reform, measurement and accountability that deliver more value for tax dollars has always been part of the Growth & Justice agenda. We also said: 

Minnesotans are right to want the right price for government and the best quality possible. We need to set goals and improve government performance. Initiatives by foundations and civic groups are underway to redesign our most costly governmental systems so that we get better results for the dollars we spend. And we must insist that our new governor bring energy to restoring Minnesota’s tradition of good-government innovation.   


Worse than misrepresenting our position, he misstates a key fact that a state legislator should have down pat.

The per-capita cost of government is the proper measure to track how we’re doing. And, in that measure, we’re eighth most expensive in the nation, according to the Minnesota Taxpayers Association.

You can read what the valuable Minnesota Taxpayers Association report actually says here [How Minnesota Compares 08 PDF]. Or you can trust us that Rep. Downey confuses individual income tax collections with per-capita cost of government.

As of 2007, Minnesota ranks 8th when only income tax is counted, but we rank 13th per capita in total state and local tax collections. Further more, when all sources of revenues are counted and compared, Minnesota ranks 17th per capita. Here’s what the Minnesota Taxpayers Association (MTA) says:

Taxes are only one source of state and local revenues.  The other two major sources of revenues are non-tax revenues (user charges, licenses, et cetera) and payments from the federal government.  Minnesota is relatively less reliant on these types of revenues than other states.  When looking at both tax and non-tax revenues (known as “all state and local own-source revenues”), Minnesota ranks 11th per capita and 24th per $1,000 of income.  When looking at all general revenues (both own-source and federal revenues), Minnesota ranks 17th per capita and 33rd per $1,000 of income. 

Also, Rep. Downey is at odds with the Minnesota Revenue Department itself in his insistence that Minnesota is a high-tax state. A Revenue Department analysis has concluded that Minnesota is “just about average” in taxes and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development asserts that Minnesota business taxes are competitive with other states.   

Finally, look at those rankings for spending in the MTA report. We’re 14th per capita for direct general expenditures, 18th in K-12 (state and local) and 28th for higher ed. Again, those are FY 2007 comparisons. Our state’s trend has been downward since then.

We can disagree on how to approach the budget gap, but let’s start by having our facts straight. And then look for places where we actually agree.