Posted: 12/04/06 16:00
By Christopher Truscott
With the state projected to run a $1 billion surplus through the end of the current fiscal year, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has conceded there will be a big debate on how to spend the extra cash, with "three times as much requests as there is money."
While the governor's political calculations are probably accurate and there's no way to please absolutely everyone in the upcoming budget talks, there is room for the governor and legislators to keep two key campaign promises: property tax relief and increased education funding.
In last month's elections, voters across Minnesota rejected property tax levies put forward by their local school boards ? including locally in Districts 191 and 197. It's not that voters don't care about education. They're simply fed up with the constant barrage of requests in the face of property taxes that have increased at a staggering rate in recent years.
There was also another clear message voters sent to elected leaders: Education funding is a state issue and a state responsibility. The Minnesota Constitution is unambiguous on this. It's the state's job to provide a " thorough and efficient system of public schools."
Ever since the bipartisan "Minnesota Miracle" of the 1970s, property tax levies were supposed to be a means for communities to invest in "extras" for their school districts ? like an expansion to the auditorium, new computers in classrooms, lights for the baseball stadium, etc. But in the wake of increased mandates and rising expenses (like health insurance and heating/transportation oil), school districts have been forced to use levies for basic operating expenses in the absence of adequate and consistent funding from the state.
In 1986, according to state figures, 47 percent of Minnesota school districts had a tax levy in place, generating about $87 million in revenue statewide. Today, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association and state documents, about 90 percent of districts have at least one levy in place, generating well over $400 million statewide.
Part of this year's surplus ? 40 percent ? should be earmarked toward levy retirement, relieving taxpayers of a significant burden. Another third can be used so school districts can take care of expenses that were deferred over the last four years. (If we don't take care of maintenance needs, for instance, they'll only be more expensive to handle in a few years.)
Finally, the remaining third or so of the surplus should be used to lower the other staggering tax assessed against students and families: college tuition hikes. Since 2002, tuition at the University of Minnesota has jumped 27.8 percent and in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System it's up 28.4 percent.
While $300 million (give or take) isn't going to erase these increases, it can be used to reduce the burden on students and their parents. Pricing Minnesotans out of higher education isn't just immoral; it's also bad for our state's long-term economic health. Think about it from a business perspective: If we don't keep education affordable at the U or M and MnSCU, we'll have serious problems competing for the jobs of the new economy.
Four years ago, Pawlenty took office facing an epic budget deficit. He made a lot of bad moves to erase it, including gimmicky accounting shifts, increased fees and short-sighted cuts. Despite the governor's worst efforts, however, the state appears to have turned the corner. As he begins his second term next month, let's hope Pawlenty takes advantage of this opportunity to make things right and move Minnesota forward.
Christopher Truscott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .