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Minnesota needs you ... to help with the budget

Date Published: 11/16/2010

Author: Dane Smith, President

ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITIOL REPORT

‘Common Cents’ citizen meetings on budget will bring common sense to long-term solutions

The technology engineer at the table was well-informed, and opinionated, but also reasonable.

Although generally skeptical of government and taxes, he cheerfully gave ground to others when he clearly was off-base, such as his assertion that taxes had never gone down in his lifetime (state and national income tax rates were cut significantly a decade ago).

He held firm to his belief that governments were inefficient, but in a refreshing twist, he allowed that many businesses also waste a lot of money. “I’m coming from a place where I think everything can be delivered more efficiently,” he said.

Our tough-minded engineer was a good sport in dealing with others at the table who disagreed with him on whether and how Minnesota should raise revenue, or cut spending, or innovate to balance the budget.

And as his discussion group was forced to put poker chips on their top five budget-balancing priorities, he expressed surprise and satisfaction that so many ordinary Minnesotans would show up on a weekday evening to tackle budget issues, so soon after a long and nasty election battle over those issues.

So it went recently at the Hillcrest Recreation Center in St. Paul’s Highland Park, at one of 30 meetings that will be held across Minnesota in the next two months to gather citizen input on how to balance a projected $6 billion budget shortfall.

The highly regarded, nonpartisan Citizens League is coordinating these meetings of the “Common Cents” project, by virtue of a generous $131,000 grant from the Bush Foundation.

Groups on the steering committee for Common Cents range from TakeAction Minnesota, a progressive community organizing body, to the Center of the American Experiment, the state’s top conservative think tank.

Growth & Justice is on that team too, as well as the state’s leading business associations.

Our state needs broad-minded people of good faith to step forward and show our leaders how to work together, at a time when recount politics is inflaming the extreme partisan and ideological passions. Taking a couple of hours in the next few weeks to attend one of the “Common Cents” meetings will be good for you and good for your community.

And don’t worry if you feel a little intimidated by statistics and the complexities of taxes and budgets and economics.\

“Every Minnesotan has the expertise we’re looking for,” says Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League. “We’re asking about values and priorities, what’s important to Minnesotans. And everyone is an ‘expert’ in what’s important to them.”

Every Minnesotan obviously also has something at stake, and unless we’re able to talk about it and share perspectives with one another and try to find some common ground, it will be hypocritical for us to criticize public officials for gridlock and deadlock.

The findings from the community workshops and from the project, including specific suggestions for innovations and cost savings, will be presented to the new governor and new Legislature in January. Hopefully, this move will send an important early signal to the decision makers to seek common ground.

Plus, the process is downright fun.

Participants get a little clicker thing to vote on key questions about attitudes and preferences for policy direction, and the results are shown immediately on a screen.

The charts in the presentation lay out the facts about the state’s current trends on general-fund spending and long-term revenue shortages; the demographic realities of a more government-dependent and elderly population; needs for a more educated workforce; and a shrinking percentage of workers in their prime.

Among the pieces of helpful information are charts showing that state-local tax obligations as a percentage of income are lowest for the wealthiest, and that Minnesota’s government spending as a percentage of income is lower than the national average.

Several folks at the two meetings I’ve attended commented that wrestling with the facts and the overall scope of the problem had a therapeutic value - and that while the conversations started out with a cynical and despairing tone from some participants, they ended on more hopeful notes.

A community workshop likely has been scheduled at a location near you. Go to www.citizing.org/projects/commoncents, where you’ll find ample opportunities to weigh in with suggestions and information on how to balance our budgets in the near future and over the long haul.

I like the way Pam Wheelock, Bush Foundation vice president - and former state budget chief under Gov. Jesse Ventura-describes our difficulties and obligations as the bosses of our own democracies.

“Communities are facing tough challenges - economic and demographic realities that won’t get solved with business-as-usual approaches.

“We believe that in order for communities to thrive, they are going to have to come together, look at the data, talk about their priorities and plan for the future.”

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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Leagal Ledger Capitol Report on Monday, November 16, 2010.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.


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