Senate committee to review Governor's proposed constitutional amendment

The Senate Tax Committee is holding a hearing today about the recent November Forecast and the Governor’s proposed constitutional amendment to limit spending.

This Spending Limit Amendment is an extreme and inflexible tool that takes decision-making power out of the hands of the people and their representatives. I’m planning to testify, and here’s the gist of what I’ll be saying.

This constitutional amendment will create long-term harm to services needed by businesses, communities and families. Public investments in education, health care, workforce development, transportation and services for seniors and people with disabilities help build our state’s infrastructure and quality of life. Under this amendment, the legislature and governor will be powerless to maintain adequate funding for these services and invest in the future needs of our state. As a result, this amendment will make it harder to give businesses the tools they need to prosper, and limit opportunities for our families and workers.

This constitutional amendment tears down the foundations of our representative democracy. Minnesota has a proud tradition of strong civic engagement. Our elected representatives must constantly weigh public expectations for things such as a quality educational system, uncongested roads and safe and healthy communities, against concerns about the level of taxation. This amendment would hand this essential decision over to a formula instead of permitting a meaningful public debate to decide the appropriate balance.

This constitutional amendment undermines accountability. A representative system of government delegates authority to make the tough decisions, so they are clearly accountable for budget decisions. Under this constitutional amendment, lines of accountability are  stripped away. The constitutional amendment forfeits the authority to determine the size of the budget to a formula, making it difficult to identify who should be held responsible for the outcomes of budget decisions.

This constitutional amendment is unnecessary. Governor Pawlenty has described his success in slowing government spending to just over 2 percent a year and cutting spending for the first time in the state’s history. That demonstrates that this amendment is not necessary: the Governor has achieved his desired outcome without this amendment. It is not appropriate, however, to require all future governors and legislatures to achieve a similar result, regardless of what the desires of the public or the state’s needs may be.

Similar proposals have been defeated throughout the country. Since 2004, there have been serious efforts to enact strict spending and revenue limits based on rigid, arbitrary formulas in 25 states — and they have failed every time. These measures are modeled after Colorado’s so-called “Taxpayer Bill of Rights,” or TABOR. Colorado, the only state ever to adopt TABOR, suffered a serious deterioration in education, health care, and other services due to its rigid spending limits. That’s why a broad coalition of residents — including business leaders — came together to suspend it in 2005.

As Minnesota emerges from the current economic crisis, it will need the flexibility to make much-needed investments in education, health care, roads and bridges, and other areas. If adopted, the TABOR-like limits in the proposed constitutional amendment would prevent our state from making those investments, and leave it without the skilled workforce and solid infrastructure needed to prosper. The bottom line is that it’s never a good time to adopt rigid, arbitrary limits on our budget.

-Nan Madden

About Nan Madden

Nan Madden is director of the Minnesota Budget Project.
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