Surplus could fund worthy programs

With Minnesota’s budget surplus estimated at $2.3 billion, Gov. Arne Carlson is kicking around the idea of giving some money back to taxpayers — $700 million, in fact. That works out to about $350 per taxpayer. Under Carlson’s plan, though, the money wouldn’t be distributed evenly. So before you get excited about the possibility of a windfall, remember that those of us on student budgets — say, under $20,000 a year — would get between $51 and $95 dollars each.
A different Republican proposal backs a $1.3 billion rebate in which each taxpayer, regardless of income, would receive $500. That might be enough to buy that new set of shocks for your car, but would that money be better spent fixing the roads that wrecked them in the first place? We should spend our budget surplus in ways that will benefit public life in Minnesota instead of providing a one-time bonus to individual taxpayers.Although a rebate sounds attractive, politicians should remember that, from an individual standpoint, the money has already been spent. Nobody is counting on a rebate to pay their rent. While tax rebates would generate great PR for the governor, such politicking seems like a mere gimmick when it could deprive worthy programs of much-needed funding.
Economists credit a strong national economy, job growth and higher wages with generating much of Minnesota’s projected surplus. But Carlson’s earlier cost-cutting measures have also helped build the reserves. Since he took office, the governor has vetoed more than $1 billion worth of spending. Keeping that in mind, the very idea of a surplus becomes problematic. Consider, for example, that part of the sum now being defined as excess money actually came from a $337 million cut to K-12 education. Carlson has restored that funding, and he is right to do so. Basic public resources such as schools shouldn’t suffer when the state has more than enough money to fund them at adequate levels.The University may also benefit from the restoration of some — but not all — of its funding shortfall. When Carlson announced his proposed 1998-99 budget in January, he did increase educational spending by 11.5 percent. But the University’s proposed funding from the Legislature was still about $100 million less than what it requested. With more than $2 billion in excess, granting that extra $100 million seems reasonable. The governor did propose giving $30 million of the surplus to the University, but that amount falls far short of meeting the school’s original request.
Carlson has taken a step in the right direction by allocating funds for Head Start, the preschool learning program, which will be fully funded for the first time ever in Minnesota. Now it’s time to take a look at funding some other worthy causes that have been feeling the squeeze. In the past, Carlson has vetoed funding for many programs, including flood relief for farmers, aid to children’s hospitals, home care for the disabled and cleaning lead-contaminated homes that are inhabited by children. These are the kinds of programs we should consider funding with the surplus. Before we give the money back, let’s be sure it’s not more urgently needed elsewhere.