Take a fresh look

Published 9:22 am Thursday, December 16, 2010

Daily Herald Editorial

In a cable network interview earlier this week, Gov.-elect Mark Dayton said he was willing to “turn all the revenue and expenditure cards face up on the table,” in the effort to resolve Minnesota’s looming budget crisis. Putting everything on the table sounds like a great idea and we hope Dayton and state lawmakers will do that beginning next month.

Minnesota has traditionally tinkered with its long-established budget when faced with spending problems, rather than stepping back for a fresh look. Given the $6.2 billion gulf that must be bridged in the next biennium, this might be a good year for a more searching look at the state’s entire spending plan. One proposal that makes sense is to rank all of the state’s spending programs from most important to least, along with the cost for each, then draw a line at the point where spending equals expected tax revenues. Any state budget item ranked “below the line,” must simply be allowed to expire. It might be that drawing that line would be so drastic that a plan to increase revenues (i.e. taxes) would then be necessary. But, if so, Minnesotans would have a very clear look at just what that tax increase was paying for.

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The system described in very simplified form above is idea if one wants to get a real handle on where state money is going, and it forces some tough conversations about what is important (such as K-12 education) and what is not. Like most highly transparent systems, however, this one increases accountability, and thus becomes very uncomfortable for those who are making the decisions about how to prioritize programs. On the other hand, that is what they have been elected to do.

Stepping back from Minnesota’s state spending and tax plans, and then taking a hard and logical look at what we can afford, would not be easy or amusing. But it might just be time to take that firm approach, rather than the kind of tinkering that is usually done.