Minnesotans on budget: We understand short-term pain, but we need long-term reform

It turns out that when you ask Minnesotans to come out on a cold night, sit down at a table with people they don’t agree with and come to consensus about the state’s enormous budget problems, some of them actually do.

And here’s what they say: Cut spending to some degree, raise taxes to some degree, but really put your chips on long-term reform that saves money, delivers service and treats people fairly, particularly in the areas of K-12 and higher education and long-term health care for the poor and elderly. And make the tax system fairer.

Short-term pain we get, they seem to be saying. But long-term reform we expect.

That’s the early reading from the Citizens League after it held several dozen sessions around the state in the past couple months in libraries, community centers and city halls. For more on how those evenings were structured, read this earlier Ground Level post.

The Citizens League is planning several more meetings and will add input from TakeAction Minnesota, enlisted to expand the diversity of the people involved in the conversation. But several themes are shaking out, apparent as Citizens League staffers kicked things around Tuesday afternoon.

–The 500 or so people who participated so far coalesced around the notion that Minnesota is a high-quality, well-educated state that should generally be willing to continue to spend money to maintain that reputation but that needs reform in some areas and a more competent and innovative government.

–Some people like flat taxes or other specific approaches but there was general agreement that the tax structure should be more fair and more transparent. By that they meant everybody should pay roughly the same share of their income in taxes overall. (Among the data the league provided people was a chart showing the top 10 percent of earners pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes.)

–Most people were willing to make across-the-board spending cuts but saw that as a temporary measure, not a long-term strategy. The favorite target for spending cuts was state help on property taxes, even though there was an understanding that property taxes could rise.

–They made clear their desire to be involved, often expressing the sentiment that the evening exercise was actually fun.

That last point may actually be a key to whether this all was worth the effort. Sean Kershaw, Citizens League executive director, thinks what was special about all the conversations and the findings wasn’t so much learning what people think about taxes or spending. Instead, he said Tuesday, it was seeing people who came to the meetings with quite different views having a conversation and finding places they could agree.

“That’s where we did something different,” Kershaw said. “People can get it. It’s not impossible to have the conversation.”

The participants represented a cross section of gender and of people calling themselves liberal, conservative or moderate. A fifth of the people who showed up answered a question about their financial situation by saying they had a hard time making ends meet.

Kershaw and Stacy Becker, who headed the effort for the league, said they didn’t hear a lot of blame being placed on government. But they did hear an expectation and hope that officials stop with short-term budget gimmicks, involve residents in new ways and focus on the long term.

As one participant said, “Why do we frame reform in terms of political possibility instead of what we want?”

When I attended one of the sessions in St. Paul last month, I came away thinking, not about the specific answers people came up with, but that not a few lawmakers and other state officials could benefit by seeing that conversation.

Perhaps it would give them cover to try something less antagonistic than the usual process.

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