Property taxpayers have much a stake at the State Capitol next week

This week, the Minnesota Senate moved its first bill of the legislative session to the Senate Floor for consideration. As much as I am committed to working with the new majority party to do good work, I am very nervous about the implications of this bill. In the week before we’re scheduled to vote on the legislation, I want to make sure my constituents understand what, exactly, is being proposed in St. Paul.

The very first legislation that will be brought before the Minnesota Senate this year will cause a $322 million statewide property tax increase. It also will raise tuition at state colleges and universities, and eliminate services for the elderly, disabled, and children. That is not how we put Minnesota back on track.

The bill’s aim is to make some early spending cuts to start chipping away at the state’s $6.2 billion budget deficit. It does so by making permanent some of the temporary reductions we were forced to make at the end of the 2010 session to respond to a crisis that would have left the state, literally, out of money. The understanding was that these cuts would be made once, as an emergency, last-resort, and we’d revisit the entire state budget picture in 2011 to make more responsible decisions.

It’s important to consider the big picture when doing budget cuts, and here’s why: The proposed bill would cut about $600 million in state aid to cities and counties. Sounds good – we’d reduced the state’s budget problem by $600 million. The problem is that for every $1 cut in state aid, property taxes are increased 67 cents, according to the non-partisan Department of Revenue. That’s because Minnesota made a deal with cities and counties several years ago to help fund basic community services so local property tax payers wouldn’t bear the burden. When this state aid is cut, communities either have to look to the property tax or consider cutting basic services.

Just this winter, we witnessed the direct effect of these actions: Snow removal budgets have been reduced or strained in many communities, and when homeowners received property tax statements last fall, most saw increases. In Austin, for example, Local Government Aid makes up about half the city’s budget. City Council members recently said if all LGA funding was cut, property taxes in Austin would have to triple just to maintain basic services that residents have come to rely upon.

The bill we are being asked to vote on next week may just repeat a cut we made last year, but it will do so with a new, $322 million bill to property tax payers attached; with a new, $687,307 LGA cut for Austin; a new, $597,729 LGA cut for Albert Lea; and $54,000 worth of cuts for Freeborn, Fillmore and Mower counties. That’s not something I’m willing to force on my neighbors without allowing proper input.

And that’s the main problem: There was no time for people to come to the Capitol and have their voices heard. I know we must make significant spending reductions in order to solve Minnesota’s $6.2 billion budget deficit, but when we make these cuts, we need to have a thorough review process. That did not happen this week; the full bill only received one, 90-minute committee hearing. I won’t have a chance to discuss my thoughts on the bill until it reaches the Senate Floor.

I understand we have serious budget problems to solve, but simply reverting to the old way of doing things and asking our local units of government – or property tax payers – to pick up the slack isn’t going to cut it anymore. That’s the easy way out. I am very hopeful that the rest of this session will bode better for the public input process, allowing conversation about how the state’s budget and local budgets work together.

These are big issues being discussed so as always, please don’t hesitate to contact me with any concerns or questions you may have: sen.dan.sparks@senate.mn; 651-296-9248; Room 19 State Office Building, St. Paul, MN 55155.

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Senator Dan Sparks
Dan Sparks represents District 27, which includes all or portions of Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Mower, and Steele counties in the southeastern part of the state.

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