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State spending on ‘auto pilot’

D22 Senator says Minnesota can’t sustain current growth in spending if it wants to fix huge budget deficit

December 18, 2010
By Per Peterson

The state's current budget problem, referred to at Friday's legislative preview as "the monster in the room," is larger than the deficit state lawmakers faced in 2003 and must be attacked from a different angle in 2011 than it has been in the past and not be pushed into the next biennium, District 22 Republican Sen. Doug Magnus said.

The $6.2 billion budget deficit wasn't the only issue talked about at the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, but it continues to dwarf other issues as the hottest topic of debate two-plus weeks before the 2011 Legislature convenes.

"When I first came in in '03 we had a budget problem, too - 4.2 billion dollars - and I can tell my colleagues what's gonna happen: Everyone's gonna come in the door and say two things - 'don't cut us, cut those guys,'" Magnus said. "Or they're gonna say, 'If you could just raise this tax. If we would've raised taxes 4 billion dollars in 2003, we'd be looking at a $10 million shortfall today. That's what happened last year - we just piled onto the debt more.

"We went beyond our ability to sustain growth in spending in our country, in our state, many years ago," Magnus added. "In the state Legislature our spending has been on auto pilot. We can't do that. We've grown government to where the point where we're Minnesota's largest employer."

"You cannot tax yourself into prosperity," said District 21 Republican Sen.-elect Gary Dahms. "We're plain outspending and that's not conducive to balancing a budget."

"We have to live in a world with finite resources," said Republican House 20A Rep.-elect Chris Swedzinski. "The government needs to keep that mindset. Ultimately, the states are going to be responsible for getting this country back on track."

Regulatory changes, Magnus said, are needed to start a much-needed climate of change at the Capitol that will spur business growth and boost jobs in the region. He said regulatory reform could well end up being among the top 10 bills addressed in 2011.

"We've gotta put a sign up that says 'Minnesota is open for business,'" Magnus said. "I've talked to so many businesses and people who say they're not going to go through another regulatory process."

"Before you can turn the bus around, you've got to slow it down," said Swedzinski. "The writing's on the wall for southwest Minnesota. I was talking to a businessman last week who said he's gotten three very, very sweet offers from South Dakota. We have to look at how we compete in this climate.

"You pour water down the hill, where's it gonna run, to South Dakota? We've got the Buffalo Ridge in southwest Minnesota, do we want it to run to the Buffalo Ridge or away from it?"

Asked about a plan to reduce the size of government and in nterms of number of employees and agencies, Dahms said legislators must determine what the object of the government is. He said the state has gotten away from its primary role of providing essential services and needs to make sure agencies like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are staying true to their mission statements.

"They've expanded way beyond their boundaries," Dahms said. "The government's turned out to be an agency that creates jobs to create jobs. We need to get away from that mentality. We need to get back to providing essential services. What has happened in the past is when we have cuts in the government, it doesn't happen at the top level or the middle, it's the case workers that are getting cut. Those folks have been cut a lot.

"We have to take a look at mandates, and rules and regulations. The cuts in the future are gonna have to come form the upper-level areas."

The trio also addressed the gap in K-12 spending in the state and how the disparity in spending between the Metro area and rural Minnesota has continued to hurt smaller schools.

"I think we really need to look at getting control back to the local level," said Dahms. "I think the local school boards and local administrations know how to best spend their dollars. We've got to look at some mandates that give the schools more control."

"There's going to have to be some reform in our education system,"?said Magnus. "Will that reform take place now? I?doubt it. But someday, somehow, it's going to need to be reformed. One of the things we'll need to talk about in the rural caucus in the disparity in funding between rural and Metro. It's been many years now that we've gotten nothing more than table scraps. "

Magnus, who will lead the Agriculture and Rural Economy Committee in the upcoming year, said the new structure in the House will be rural-heavy and is near a majority in the Senate as well.

"The majority of the House members are now rural members," Magnus said, "and it's pretty well split in the Senate. That gives us the opportunity to sit down and put together a rural caucus and look at the issues that affect us and put the word out that these issues are important to us, these are the reasons why - just basically say, 'We are going to be respected in rural areas.'

As a rural caucus, Magnus said one key issue the committee will be focused on in 2011 is redistricting, which will take place in two years.



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