A day at the Minnesota Capitol can be illuminating, as the Adams Publishing - ECM Editorial Board learned after having in-person discussions April 25 with Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota legislative leaders of both political parties.
The most encouraging aspect that emerged was everyone we spoke with shared similar legislative priorities. However, we could also see distinct differences between the two political parties.
The overarching issue is adopting the state’s two-year budget, proposed by Gov. Walz in February, which called for spending increases of 9%. Two other budget outlines have emerged from the Walz-aligned DFL-controlled Minnesota House (increase of about 8%) and the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate (spending increase of 5%). The state has about $1 billion projected in budget reserves.
Of course, these numbers can be deceiving, and the details are complex. Finding common ground will not be easy to accomplish.
Within the overall budget approaches, many ideas on taxation have yet to be sorted out. Minnesota’s higher tax ranking is a concern to both citizens and policymakers. According to the Tax Foundation, Minnesota ranks sixth in the country for state income tax collected per capita, and in the top 10 in state and local sales tax rates. However, the same organization ranks Minnesota 28th in state gasoline tax rates.
Education, a state government responsibility mentioned in the state’s constitution, remains high on everyone’s agenda. Minnesota, with a population of over 5.6 million, has about 850,000 K-12 students attending 2,400 schools. The public school system is operated largely with state funding and overseen by 336 locally elected school boards and superintendents.
Health care has been a hot-button issue for Minnesotans and all Americans, as evidenced in the 2018 election. Lawmakers in Minnesota must find common agreement on a range of state issues that have varying financial implications on insurance and individual costs. Minnesota’s aging population is also a primary cost driver with anticipated increased demand for services.
Everyone the Editorial Board talked with agreed the condition of Minnesota’s roads and bridges needs urgent attention. Minnesota has more than 140,000 miles of public roads and nearly 300,000 “lane miles.”
Most of those roads are in rural Minnesota with fewer than 20% in urban areas. Our state and federal highways contain less than 9% of the state’s mileage but handle 58% of vehicle miles traveled. Minnesota also has 19,776 bridges. Local governments own 15,187 of them, the state the rest.
How to establish a long-range plan for upkeep, improvements and possible closures of both road and bridges — and pay for it with or without an increased tax on gasoline — is an important and complicated challenge.
Minnesota is the only state in the union with a political divide between its two legislative chambers. The leaders we met all said they believed we were still “Minnesota nice” and that ultimately things would work out.
While all would prefer it, it is not the end of the world if the governor and two legislative bodies do not find agreement by the mandatory May 20 legislative deadline. There are opportunities to find compromise in carefully structured special sessions, as has happened seven times in this decade.
We believe it is far more important that the right things happen as our leaders construct a $50 billion budget for the next two years. That budget needs to clearly identify the taxes that will pay for it, as well as allocate sufficient spending for essential education, health care and transportation needs.
An opinion of the Adams Publishing – ECM Editorial Board. The Forest Lake Times is an APG-ECM newspaper.