Jesse Ventura's tenure as governor of Minnesota will be punctuated with more dark spots than highlights. But the state's outgoing chief executive does get high marks for the team of commissioners that he assembled.
And new Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was sworn in today, is picking up right where Ventura left off with the individuals he has named thus far to his Cabinet. Two of them are especially noteworthy. Dan McElroy, former House Tax Committee chairman, is the Department of Finance commissioner. Dan Salmone, executive director of the respected Minnesota Taxpayers Association, will lead the Department of Revenue. These two will be among the brain trust that will tackle the state's looming budget deficit.
They share Pawlenty's belief that overspending, and not reduced income, is at the core of the state's budget problems. The facts support their premise.
Taxes flowing into the state's general fund for the 2004-05 are expected to increase a respectable 6.6 percent over the current biennium, or an additional $1.7 billion. That would be good news for most people's personal budgets.
At the same time, however, general fund spending is expected to increase by 14.3 percent, or almost $3.9 billion, over the current biennium. To keep the accounting honest, it's necessary to point out that the increase includes about $1.4 billion due to property tax reform changes. Even discounting that, however, spending is projected to increase 9.2 percent.
Health care leads the categories that are driving the costs; it's estimated to increase 23.3 percent. Other major expenses are intergovernmental aids, up 12 percent; health and human services, 12 percent; and higher education, 3.7 percent.
K-12 education funding is anticipated to increase nearly 20 percent during the next biennium. Once again, subtract the portion of the increase which is due to the change in property taxes, and the state still is expected to increase K-12 money by 6.3 percent.
Pawlenty and his team face a tremendous challenge to try to balance a $4.5 billion shortfall without raising taxes. And realistically, Minnesotans' pocketbooks will be tapped for higher fees and taxes. The changing circumstances since Pawlenty took his pledge
a deficit that nearly doubled in expected size
are justification to give some consideration to a tax increase.
But Pawlenty and his Cabinet are right to come to the table with the mind-set that government looks first to cutting costs with any tax increases being a last resort. Much of that can be accomplished by examining what should be the role of government, and then ensuring there is not duplicity of services. Both McElroy and Salmone have distinguished themselves by holding government accountable for delivering results.
Most important in the budget debate is that everyone talks the same language, and that is in reference to the administration's initiatives. Pawlenty's proposals, and the counterproposals offered by legislators, indeed should generate vigorous debate. But let's be clear that Pawlenty proposes to "slow the growth" in state spending and not cut spending
as his opponents frequently charge. The two approaches are not synonymous.