Citizens League analyzes state's budget deficit
Chatter filled the Heintz Center Monday night in Rochester as citizens sat together over a cup of coffee to offer their ideas on how to tackle the state’s looming $5.7 billion budget deficit.
There were no final recommendations made or budget solution presented — but that was never the goal.
"There is no way in an hour and a half we are going to come up with a solution. But there is a way that in an hour and a half we can have really good conversations with each other as citizens," said former state Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, who moderated the event.
The discussions were part of Coffee & Conversations, a series being hosted by the newly-formed Citizens League Rochester. It drew several candidates running for school board, city council, county board and the Minnesota Legislature eager to meet with potential voters.
Before residents began those conversations, they received a grim budget overview from the Minnesota House’s Chief Fiscal Analyst Bill Marx. Not only is the state facing a multi-billion dollar budget problem, it is also struggling for the first time in years to pay its bills on time. Millions of payments to schools and businesses have been delayed already this year.
Marx also offered a brief overview of the state’s budget. He showed the crowd a chart highlighting how total state spending has continued to rise from roughly $11 billion in 1991 to $30 billion in 2010. But then he showed the crowd a very different chart. It calculated the total cost of government for Minnesota taxpayers by taking into account receipts collected by city, county, schools and the state for public services. That total is then calculated as a percentage of statewide personal income.
Since 2002, that number has remained fairly constant hovering between 15 to 16 percent of personal income.
After the budget overview, residents got together in groups of eight to 10 to offer their ideas. Winona State University student Peter Moehnke told the residents gathered at his table that he is worried about the country’s massive debt problems.
"I am absolutely terrified of the deficit," Moehnke said.
When it comes to deciding what core values should be supported by government spending, Dave Griffin said he believes education should be at the top of the list.
"It seems to me the best investment is in things that are going to serve us well in the future," he said.
Retired Rochester police chief Pat Farrell said he believes protecting the environment for future generations also needs to a priority.
"I think we have a moral responsibility of stewardship of the environment," he said.
Others said solving these budget problems must involve a change in the behavior of everyday citizens. Rochester Tea Party Patriots Chairwoman Cindy Maves said she believes it is critical that everybody pay something toward their health care so they realize the true cost of care and can
make smart choices.
There was also plenty of frustration directed at politicians. Some participants said they feel like special interest groups, not citizens, are the ones being served. Peg Farrell said with state representatives facing re-election every two years, it makes solving the budget problems even more difficult adding, "they are afraid to make the hard choices."