The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 28, 2013

State budget deficit shrinks by 40 percent

Associated Press

ST. PAUL — Minnesota finance officials said Thursday that the state’s projected budget deficit has shrunk by more than 40 percent, leaving legislators with a more manageable, but still large, $627 million hole to fill over the next couple of months.

The updated economic forecast released by the Department of Minnesota Management and Budget sets the tone for a legislative debate over a two-year budget that starts July 1 and runs through June 2015.

The last forecast, released in December, showed a $1.1 billion deficit, and that’s what Gov. Mark Dayton relied upon to build his budget. He will release a supplemental budget in March to account for the changed projection.

The better news could prompt Dayton to scale back his proposed tax increases.

Legislators have held off plunging too deeply into the budget process until the release of the new economic report.

“Well this is a relief,” said Rep. Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul. He said the revised numbers would let lawmakers consider jettisoning some of Dayton’s less popular tax proposals, though he said spending the additional money should also be part of the discussion.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned so far this session, it’s that there’s so much need out there,” said Lillie, an assistant House majority leader.

A new projection for the budget year that closes in June shows a surplus of $295 million. Almost all of it is required to be used to pay IOUs to Minnesota schools, reducing a backlog in deferred payments to $801 million.

Minnesota has lurched from deficit to deficit for most of the past decade, and lawmakers have resorted to temporary fixes to get by. They have delayed school aid payments, borrowed against a tobacco lawsuit settlement and plugged in one-time federal stimulus dollars for programs that require ongoing spending.

Dayton tried a new tack this year with a proposal to raise billions of dollars in new taxes that he argues would add stability to the budget. But it has stirred fierce opposition from conservatives and business leaders, who say it would make the state less competitive. A stream of backers and opponents to the Dayton plan paraded before the House Tax Committee on Wednesday night to weigh in on the debate.

The proposal would impose a new income tax rate for couples on taxable income above $250,000, hike taxes on cigarettes and rental cars, charge higher taxes to Minnesota corporations with overseas earnings and demand tax payments from “snowbirds” who spend most of their year living in another state. But the most controversial aspect is his bid to broaden the state sales tax to services such as haircuts and legal bills, and to clothing purchases that exceed $100.

Dayton has also suggested lowering the sales tax rate from 6.875 percent to 5.5 percent, cutting the basic corporate tax rate, freezing business property taxes, cutting unemployment taxes paid by companies and giving all homeowners a $500 property tax rebate.

The net effect would add more than $2 billion in new revenue to the state coffers — half of which would go toward erasing the deficit and the rest toward new spending on education, economic development programs and other priorities.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said the state’s improving budget situation vindicates the Republicans’ insistence on not raising state taxes when his party led the Legislature in 2011-2012.

“It would be terribly unfortunate if this governor were to follow through on these draconian tax increases on every Minnesotan and send us back into a downward spiral,” Thompson said.

Earlier this month, the governor invited lawmakers to tinker with his plan.

“As I see it, we have three basic budget options. Plan A is the one I have proposed, or something close to it. Plan B is to stick with our current tax structure, or something close to it. Plan C is something better,” Dayton told a joint session of the Legislature. “No one would be happier than me to see a good Plan C. I’m still looking and I’m sure listening.”

Whatever the moniker, work on the alternative plan begins in earnest with the budget forecast.