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Katie Sieben Viewpoint: A balanced budget with a lasting impact

The 2013 legislative session wrapped up on time last month with the passage of a balanced budget package that responsibly erases the state's $627 million deficit and makes long-overdue investments in education, job growth and stronger communities.

After a decade of near-constant budget deficits, we balanced the state's budget honestly. Regrettably, previous budgets were "balanced" with accounting gimmicks and one-time money for recurring obligations, leading to deeper deficits and harmful cuts to middle-class priorities. As a result, before we even got to work on balancing the budget this year, we were staring down another $627 million deficit on top of an $800 million I.O.U. to our K-12 schools left over from last year.

This year's budget moves us in a new direction.

By committing the state to a structurally balanced budget -- through 2016-17 -- we put Minnesota on a course for long-term growth and economic security. This forward-looking approach will provide our state solid financial footing to accelerate our recovery, invest in our future and free the next Legislature from paying off past debts.

I'm most proud of our historic $735 million investment in education, from preschool to college. For the first time, we funded free all-day kindergarten for every Minnesota student. In our community, where it costs as much as $2,600 per year to send a child to all-day kindergarten, this will eliminate the out-of-pocket cost to families and guarantee access for all.

This year's budget also reverses the alarming trend of disinvestment in Minnesota colleges that has led to skyrocketing tuition and a growing student debt crisis. We funded tuition freezes at the University of Minnesota and statewide MnSCU campuses while increasing financial aid for students -- including previously ineligible part-time students -- to help make a college degree more affordable for middle-income families.

These investments will not only provide our students with a world-class education, they will keep Minnesota's workforce competitive in the 21st century and keep our economy growing.

Yet, with too many still unemployed or underemployed, our budget also recognizes the need for job growth. We passed unprecedented investments in proven economic development tools to attract and retain good-paying jobs and spur private investment statewide. While a new partnership with the state's largest private employer, the Mayo Clinic, has won the most media attention, I was especially pleased to support a major investment in the expansion of 3M here in the east metro.

We also renewed the state's partnership with our cities and counties, who have endured massive cuts to their aid in recent years as the state continually passed its fiscal problems onto local units of government. Too often, these cuts to Local Government Aid (LGA) forced our cities and counties to compromise core services and raise property taxes. We invested over $440 million in property tax relief to ease tax burdens for homeowners and renters, and passed LGA reforms, including a new sales tax exemption for cities and counties that will save our local governments millions each year.

All of these investments are made possible -- and sustainable -- with long-overdue reforms to our tax system. Most notably, we asked the top 2 percent of the state's wage earners (who earn an average of $617,000/year) to pay 2 percentage points more in income taxes, representing the contribution most Minnesotans already pay. This reform has been publicly vetted over the past several legislative sessions and it is one that I supported as a step toward achieving tax fairness and a more stable revenue stream to fund key investments in our schools and our communities.

Together with Gov. Mark Dayton and my colleagues, I'm proud of the progress we made. From resolving the $627 million deficit in a fair and responsible way, to making targeted investments in Minnesota's shared priorities, we managed to find solutions that will work to grow our middle class and create more economic opportunities for all.