The 2013 legislative session kicks off next week, and there’s a long list of things that the newly-minted Democratic majorities should look at as their top priorities.
#1: Fix the budget. It’s long past time for the folks in St. Paul to get on with it and take care of the structural problems in the state budget. No more stalling, no more half-measures, no more one-time fixes or gimmicks to solve this year’s $1.1 billion projected deficit. This means:
1a.) Get a plan in place to pay back the school shifts. My talks with local school district officials indicate that they are more interested in certainty at this point, so we need not necessarily pay back the entire $1.1 billion still remaining (this is on top of the $1.1 billion deficit) in one budget cycle. A bipartisan commitment, though, to repaying $275 million a year for the next four years should be sufficient.
1b.) Real tax reform. The elements required here are pretty simple, but the devil is in the details. First, broaden the base of the sales tax by removing distorting exemptions on some categories of goods and services — it should be possible to broaden the base, lower the rate, and still end up revenue-neutral to revenue-positive. Second, recognize that the sales tax changes are regressive, so cut income taxes on lower- and middle-income taxpayers. Third, remove unnecessary tax expenditures (credits and deductions) that essentially function as handouts via the tax code. This should free up additional revenue that can be applied to across-the-board rate reductions in both the individual income and corporate income taxes. And that’s all before addressing our overly complex property tax system. It may be too much to ask legislators to fix that in 2013, too, but we can hope.
1c.) Accountability in state spending. State government needs to do a much better job of measuring effectiveness of state programs, and requiring reforms for programs that don’t measure up. Additionally, there are programs that just aren’t needed any more. It’s time to end them, now. That said, we should be wary of sound-bite proposals like legislative Republicans proposed last session that imposed across-the-board cuts without an analysis of the work required.
#2: Improve the job-creation environment in the state. An odd-year bonding bill seems unlikely at this point, but the Legislature can take some concrete steps to improve conditions for job creation in the state. A commitment to infrastructure is paramount. For starters, the legislature can begin indexing the gasoline tax to inflation in order to maintain its buying power. (Minnesota’s gasoline tax, even with the increase passed after the 35W bridge collapse, has less purchasing power than it did 20 years ago and our road and bridge construction needs are much more significant.) Renewing our commitment to our public universities is vital as well. Even though enrollment is up 23,000 over that time, funding for the University of Minnesota system and MnSCU has declined back to Ventura Administration levels. This is a significant factor in the doubling of college tuition over the last decade. In return, those institutions should provide concrete plans on how they can reform their operations and become more efficient. The U of M, in particular, has some administrative bloat that needs to be addressed.
#3: Support implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Minnesota’s health insurance exchange, required as part of the Affordable Care Act, is scheduled to go live in October to enable enrollment in plans starting on January 1, 2014. It is critical that the Department of Commerce have the necessary resources to finish development and provide ongoing support for the exchange.
#4: Government accountability, campaign finance and election reform. There’s a gaping hole in the finance disclosures that our elected officials have to provide. If they work as an independent contractor or consultant, legislators don’t have to disclose who they work for. That’s a problem, as demonstrated during the campaign in the case of Senator David Hann. Unlike some, I don’t have a problem with Hann chairing the committee with critical oversight on health insurance while being licensed to sell it. But I do have a problem with not knowing who’s paying Hann’s salary outside of the Capitol so I can fairly judge his actions in the legislature. Same goes for anyone else. It’s time to require folks in those categories to disclose who they’re getting paid by (over a limit, say $2,500). From a campaign finance perspective, it’s time to bring some additional sunshine into the process and require additional disclosures. I would recommend moving to a four times per year model (quarterly in odd years, then Q1, pre-primary, pre-general, and year-end in even years). Finally, even though the Voter ID constitutional amendment failed, there are things that can be done in the realm of election law to improve perceptions of fraud incidence and improve access to the polls. Such provisions should include the introduction of early voting (how about the two Saturdays before Election Day), automatic voter registration of holders of drivers licenses and identification cards, and a close look at the electronic poll book concept as an alternative to voter ID requirements.
Certainly, these won’t be the only items that come up — social issues like a push for recognition of same-sex marriage will undoubtedly be discussed (and eventually, I believe it should and will be passed) — but these are what should be at the top of the list.
[UPDATE, 1/4]: Let me clarify a few points regarding Hann’s relationship with Boys & Tyler Financial. Hann has completed his licensing requirements with the state of Minnesota, but has not been enrolled as an agent by an insurance company. Until that has been completed, Hann cannot sell insurance in the state. Hann works on a contract basis with Boys & Tyler, and claims to earn no compensation for that relationship. (Under current law, Hann would not be required to disclose any income earned on a contract basis.) This seems to be an arrangement designed to fight efforts at disclosure, and leads me to believe that all contract employment/consulting relationships should be disclosed instead of those surpassing the dollar limit originally indicated in the post.
[State Capitol picture courtesy of Minnesota House of Representatives Public Information Services.]