Minnesotans “solve” budget problem: Reform, don’t just cut spending; tax but only if it’s fair.

Faced with a need to make important government budget decisions, Minnesotans say they would rather reform the way education, health care and social programs work than simply reduce spending on them.

They see spending cuts as only a short-term solution to the state’s problems and they want the state’s tax system overhauled to be fairer and more transparent.

Those are some of the findings of a unique series of three dozen meetings around Minnesota over the past several months. More 600 state residents attended the gatherings, put on by the Citizens League and TakeAction Minnesota and sponsored by the Bush Foundation.

The sessions were open to anyone and were an effort to get people thinking about budget choices the state is facing. After hearing basic information about the state’s financial situation, the residents broke into small groups and tried to come to consensus about how to approach the problems. The groups were instructed to address the dilemma with any combination of spending cuts, tax increases and government reforms they felt appropriate.

I attended a session in Highland Park in November and came away impressed with the seriousness people in the St. Paul neighborhood brought to the task.

Here’s the summary of the gatherings, which Bush and the Citizens League put out late Friday.

People hardly agreed on everything, which was understandable, given the cross-section of political views and economic situations participants divulged. But there was strong criticism of short-term decision-making.

On the subject of raising taxes, a sizable minority expressed the desire to hold the line, but a larger group indicated they could support tax increases if they thought the tax system could be made fairer, by which they meant more transparent and less regressive. Of all the small groups that put their heads together at these sessions, three-quarters “solved” the budget problem partly with higher taxes. Almost as many would cut spending as well.

Almost half of those groups included higher taxes, spending cuts and government reforms as pieces of the solution.

“Cut, reform, raise taxes,” was how a Grand Rapids participant put it.

One of the toughest jobs for participants was to find consensus on where to make spending cuts. Property tax aid from the state to local governments was a frequent target, and residents seemed to have a rationale: In the interests of tranparency, put the tax burden where the service is delivered.

“Keep taxes and services local,” said a Maple Plain resident. The counter to that argument historically has been that sharing resources across the state guarantees a higher level of basic local services.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson to take away from the whole effort was that people of differing world views and economic situations could sit down and discuss calmly some pretty serious problems and make a good-faith effort at a solution.

  • Janne Flisrand

    As someone who attended one of these sessions, I found the experience disappointing. There was minimal effort at generating consensus within groups, in particular. Second, it’s easy to easy “reform,” but there was no real discussion of what savings could be generated from reform nor of what that would mean.

  • howard

    put higher taxes on the rich and cut taxes on poorer people