By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
— It’s time for Minnesota’s leaders to set aside the temporary patches, forgo the accounting gimmicks, abstain from shifting the burden to property taxes and create a balanced budget that will stay balanced, Clark Johnson says.
“I’m fed up with the budget,” said Johnson, the DFL nominee in the Tuesday special election to fill the vacant state District 19A seat in the state House of Representatives. “We’ve been playing with deficits for a decade. And without a stable budget, the state can’t move forward.”
A North Mankato Democrat and Minnesota State University professor, Johnson wants to succeed Terry Morrow, a St. Peter Democrat and Gustavus Adolphus College professor who resigned his seat last month to take a job in Chicago.
Fixing the structural imbalance in the state budget, which has created recurring shortfalls in the past 10 years, is what motivated Johnson to run. But he lists other priorities as well, including improvements to Highway 14 and unsafe facilities at the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center, a fairer state tax system, a commitment to education, a desire to help young entrepreneurs. ...
Fix it for real
There’s a reason Minnesota’s state budget has leaked red ink repeatedly in recent years, Johnson said. The problem has been short-term thinking that results in temporary fixes in each two-year budget, such as delayed school payments and attempts to shift costs to local governments — which drives up property taxes.
“We’ve got to set that straight,” he said. “And that’s really why I’m running.”
Democrats are running state government for at least the next two years with Mark Dayton in the governor’s office and voters on Nov. 6 giving the DFL solid majorities in the House and Senate. The projected shortfall is $1.1 billion, smaller than some years but still substantial.
“I think it’s an opportunity and a responsibility at the same time,” Johnson said.
The opportunity relates to tax increases — something that was off the table under the no-new-taxes philosophy of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who served for eight years starting in 2003, and of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate in 2011 and 2012.
Johnson, like Dayton and most Democratic lawmakers, said tax increases have to be part of the budget package that will bring a lasting end to the budget shortfalls. But those tax increases have to make the tax system fairer, too, and they have to be tied to spending levels that produce a budget that is projected to stay balanced beyond the upcoming two years, Johnson said.
“Stabile, built on fair taxes, future-oriented,” Johnson said. “... If I’m in that (House DFL) caucus, they’re going to hear the words stability, fairness and future-oriented until they’re sick of it.”
Johnson said any tax increases must make progress in addressing a basic unfairness that’s persisted and grown in Minnesota’s tax system in recent decades. When it comes to state and local taxes, the wealthiest 10 percent of Minnesotans pay an effective tax rate of 10.3 percent of income while most of the state’s residents pay roughly 12 percent, according to the most recent tax incidence study by the Minnesota Department of Revenue.
“As the tax package evolves, how does it address that? That’s a question I’ll continuously ask.”
The growing reliance on property taxes has played a role in that regressivity, Johnson said.
“We’ve overburdened the property tax,” he said, indicating he would support a higher income tax rate on top earners with revenue used in part to provide property tax relief. “Obviously, the income tax on upper incomes is a way to make the system more progressive.”
The state’s constitution requires lawmakers to enact a budget that’s balanced for two years. Johnson said the Legislature and governor need to start looking at the projected impact beyond the required two years of balance — which would make it harder to settle for short-term fixes.
State leaders, rather than being stuck in crisis mode year after year because of recurring deficits, could actually focus on needed reforms in state government if the budget is stabilized in a lasting way, he said.
“Minnesota can start thinking, ‘Where do we invest for a better future?’ I really think that’s the issue of this session.”
Beyond budget balancing, Johnson said there are some projects District 19A desperately needs. Expanding Highway 14 to four lanes all the way from Rochester to New Ulm is a top priority with a special focus on the stretch of two-lane between North Mankato and New Ulm that has been the site of numerous fatal accidents.
“We as a community collectively suffer those tragedies,” he said. “Enough of that.”
The importance of the corridor for the local economy is also a compelling reason for the upgrade, Johnson said.
He’s similarly adamant about quick construction and remodeling at the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center to eliminate blind spots and other poor design that leaves staff vulnerable when dealing with the mentally ill and dangerous population housed there.
“We ask our neighbors to work there. We put patients in there ... They’re dangerous people, there for a reason. ... And we don’t make it safe.”
Johnson said he would also be supportive of state bonding for Mankato proposals, such as the civic center expansion.
He said he would be a strong advocate for education, from early childhood programs on up, because education is what allows Minnesotans to improve their lot in life. And he would support economic development aimed at young entrepreneurs, particularly joint public-private financing to provide capital for expansion.
When it comes to rural parts of the district, Johnson is at a disadvantage. Both his opponents live on farms and are either active or retired farmers.
But Johnson said he would follow the lead of Morrow — a New York City native who didn’t have a strong farm background when first elected in 2006 but worked hard to educate himself on agricultural issues.
“What he did was he went out there and learned,” Johnson said. “And I’m a learner.”
Saturday's Free Press will include a profile of Republican candidate Allen Quist. A profile of Independence Party candidate Tim Gieseke was published Thursday and is also on this website.