Massive layoffs. Families losing their health care, others losing their homes.
Parents wondering how to send their kids to college, and senior citizens putting off retirement. We can’t pick up the paper or turn on the TV these days without hearing another story about how bad the economy is.
The economic freefall has affected thousands of Minnesota families.
It’s affected our state budget, too. Minnesota’s economy is the worst it’s been since World War II, resulting in a budget deficit of nearly $5 billion that’s going to get even bigger by next month.
Balancing the state budget and jump-starting the economy will be the top priority of the legislature this year. To do it right, we need to understand how we got in this mess in the first place. Some people will tell you Minnesota has a “spending problem” or a “revenue problem.” But those arguments are too simple. What we really have is a “lack-of-jobs” problem.
For the first time in Minnesota’s history, more than 200,000 Minnesotans are out of work. In December 2008 alone, nearly 12,000 people lost their jobs. Worse, our state economist predicts unemployment will continue to rise this year. And when people aren’t working, the amount of money the state takes in goes down, because the revenues we depend on — like sales, income and corporate taxes — go down.
We also need to understand how decisions we make about how to fix things will affect people. The concept of a state budget is pretty abstract, and we don’t always think about what it means to us. But state government affects us all — it’s the schools we send our kids to, the health clinics so many depend on, the programs like Meals on Wheels that help our parents stay in their homes. State government helps send our kids to day care so we can go to work, and funds the police and fire departments we count on in an emergency.
The governor likes to compare balancing the state budget to a family sitting at the kitchen table figuring out their bills. But state government isn’t like a family, where Dad can get a second job, or we can move into a cheaper apartment or take out a loan. And let’s be honest — a lot of folks can’t even find a first job, or they’ve already lost their house because of a bad loan from a crooked lender. Some of us are sitting around the kitchen table trying to figure out how we can sell the dang thing, just to pay the grocery bill or the electric next month.
There are a lot of competing ideas about how best to move forward. One of the most talked about is budget cuts, and honestly, the budget is too big and the recession too deep to avoid some. The real challenge is to make sure that the people affected by the cuts aren’t the ones already suffering the most.
Relying solely on cuts alone would change the quality of life for thousands of Minnesotans, people who are already struggling hard enough. Minnesotans with disabilities and/or mental health issues and the elderly would lose vital services. Over 83,000 poor and low-income working adults will lose their subsidized health care. Police officers, state troopers, teachers, public health nurses — everyone with a job funded through the state government would be asked to sacrifice financial stability, and many more would lose their jobs.
Homeowners would see property taxes go up, and fewer students would have the opportunity to pursue their dream of a college degree because higher tuition will simply make it too expensive.
We’re going to hear a lot in the next few weeks and months about shared sacrifice, and surely we are all in this together. But as we’re making decisions about how Minnesotans will live and work for years to come, we need to make sure we don’t ask those who are struggling the hardest to sacrifice the most.
We’re also obliged by the oaths we’ve taken and our responsibility to leave Minnesota a better place. We must lay the groundwork for a stronger and more prosperous future by making the investments necessary to allow everyone to succeed and our state to compete in the 21st century economy.
Bobby Joe Champion is the State Representative for District 58B. He welcomes reader responses to 651-296-8659, rep.bob firstname.lastname@example.org, or 329 State Office Building, St. Paul, MN, 55155.