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Commentary -- Our state budget problems are obvious

By Phil Krinkie

The conclusion of the State Fair in Minnesota always signals several events in our state: the start of the school year, shorter days and cooler nights and a sharp increase in political rhetoric. Last Tuesday held true to these traditions, because as the school buses moved out, a group of former politicians moved in at the state capitol to share their views on Minnesota's economic ills.

It was a gathering called by Senate Majority Leader, Senator Larry Pogemiller (DFL-Minneapolis) and House Speaker Margaret Anderson-Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis), billed as the "Minnesota Leadership Summit." The "Summit" was called to highlight the state's economic woes and review the state's economic and demographic outlook.

Attending the closed-door Summit meeting was a long list of former state leaders: three former governors, three past Senate Majority Leaders, six prior House Speakers and a score of current and former state finance officials. It was an impressive collection of former state elected officials. While the meeting was closed to the public, it was aired via the internet for those who wished to hear the doom and gloom economic forecast.

During the three and a half hour meeting there was a mountain of economic data and statistics presented to the group, more than even the most ardent number cruncher could comprehend.

In the end, the list of revelations was mind numbing. Here is a sampling of some of the keen observations that were brought forth:

• Minnesota is in a really bad recession.

• Economic recovery is going to be slower than previous recessions.

• Minnesota is facing significant long term budget problems.

• Minnesota has an aging population and aging workforce.

• The legislature has used all the short term budget solutions.

• Fundamental changes are necessary.

• Revenue growth will be slow.

• Spending pressures for health care and education will continue.

• Health care costs more as the population ages.

From this great gathering of past state leaders you would expect something bold or something new to solve the state's budget problems. Yet all former Governor Arne Carlson could muster in a press conference following the "Summit" was that short-term fixes for the state budget have been exhausted and that the longer the legislature waits to deal with the budget problems the more difficult they will become.

Isn't this rather obvious? The state is spending money faster that it is taking it in. This has been our problem for a long time, and it is exacerbated by our current economic recession.

As I previously wrote in a commentary in May at the end of the 2009 session, the state's budget problems of this year were compounded because the legislature failed to truly balance the budget in 2008. And of course the problem will only grow worse in the next budget cycle of 2012-2013 because 40 percent of the dollars used to solve this year's $6.4 billion shortfall (Fiscal years 2010-2011) were one-time federal stimulus monies.

While I respect the former governors and legislative leaders who participated in this group, many of whom I served with, I question why anyone would believe that this group could provide any real insight toward a budget solution.

Most of them contributed to the problem during their tenure in public office --- believed the state could spend its way to prosperity, pushed for more and more spending, expanded the size and scope of state government and supported higher taxes to pay for double digit spending growth each biennium, over the last two decades.

These leaders should not all be painted with the same brush because each faced a different set of challenges and each had their own accomplishments. But to bring together a group of past leaders, who through their collective actions and inactions, did more to create the problem, than solve the problem, made the Summit more like a social reunion rather than a budget solving meeting. As the old axiom says, "If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always gotten." During their time in office the collective thought of these leaders was that Minnesota citizens and businesses could continue to support an excessive level of state spending decade after decade. They were wrong and our current budget problems make it obvious.

Phil Krinkie is a former Republican state representative from Lino Lakes and the president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. The eight-term lawmaker chaired the House Tax Committee and two other House panels.