What should we do with $1.23 billion?

Minnesota’s budget surplus is an opportunity to reinvest in education.

by Connor Nikolic

The state of Minnesota forecasted a $1.23 billion budget surplus last week. What can we do with that kind of money? Save it for a “rainy day” fund? I believe Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature should put some of the surplus into education and invest in our state’s young people.

Dayton has already called for state lawmakers to use at least $500 million of the surplus on levying and removing some of the harsher taxes that put Minnesota in the position to have a surplus, especially the taxes affecting small businesses and the middle class.

With budget projections showing more surpluses in the next few years, the state has too much funding to simply create a “rainy day” fund. It has the power to give funding to the groups who need it more than anyone else, including road construction projects, businesses and the education sector.

However, the state’s schools need money the most. Although last year’s state funding per pupil was the highest it had been since 2007, the state is still not at the level of funding the schools need. In fact, state data projects Minnesota per pupil funding to be lower in 2015 than it was in 2003, thanks to lower state assistance over the past decade.

Minnesota schools average 16 students for each instructor, which is higher than most states. Additionally, the average class size for elementary schools and high schools ranks 49th and 45th in the country, respectively. State funding is still lacking, but lawmakers could package this surplus to alleviate these problems.

These difficulties, after all, stem from a decade of state borrowing from schools, which the state government is just now paying back. Dayton’s office announced last December that the state will repay this debt in full, thanks to the budget surplus. He made the announcement when estimates had projected the surplus to be just less than $1.1 billion, so ideally the additional funds will also be available for schools.  Schools have waited through too many district levies for repayment on government debt. The state should make a gesture of good faith and reward schools with reinvestment.

In addition to K-12 education, higher education could use further state assistance. Tuition at public colleges and universities is still unaffordable for many Americans, and even in-state tuition is growing at a pace that is unacceptable for a land-grant institution like the University of Minnesota. Even with tuition freezes and additional spending on improving post-secondary education, the University could still benefit from additional funding for maintenance projects, research and financial aid.

We can’t afford to pool our resources into a “rainy day” fund. This hard-earned money will be best used in helping Minnesota students receive the best education possible, from kindergarten to their diploma and beyond.

Last week, Dayton requested for a budget surplus bill to be on his desk by March 14. One part of the plan will include tax relief for the middle class and businesses.

I hope that additional funding for Minnesota’s education system will show up in that plan. Opportunities to invest in young people do not come along regularly. The investment could continue to improve the state with skilled labor over time.