For weeks now, Republicans in the House and Senate have criticized DFL Gov. Mark Dayton for not putting his budget plan into bill form. Without those specifics, lawmakers say it's hard to delve into the details.
But when the House Tax Committee got a chance to discuss the particulars of Dayton's tax plan Wednesday, some of those same lawmakers spent more time criticizing Dayton's plan than listening to the 40 people who came to talk about it.
Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, is sponsoring Dayton's tax bill. As he spoke to the tax committee, Paymar tried to contrast Dayton's budget with plans put forward by Republicans in the House and Senate.
"The defining issue of this legislative session is what kind of state will we be living in when we adjourn, and what kind of state will we be leaving our children?" said Paymar. "The proposed cuts embedded in your omnibus bill will jeopardize public safety, decimate our institutions of higher education, make transit unaffordable, harm those most in need like the poor, the disabled, the elderly and shortchange our environment and natural resources."
Republicans are backing a plan that doesn't increase taxes. Democrats have criticized the Republican spending cuts and their reliance on budget figures that can't be verified.
Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans told the committee that Dayton's plan protects some of those services. But he said Dayton's budget also makes cuts, and called the governor's budget "balanced."
"It is the governor's belief that this is the fair way to balance this difficult situation," said Frans, "that we need to provide increased revenue over time to deal with the fact that we do not generate enough revenue that the citizens of Minnesota have come to expect."
Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, took issue with that statement. He said Dayton's plan relies too heavily on taxes.
"To come out here and pretend by any definition that what is being proposed is balanced goes beyond any definition of what any one of us would accept," said Downey.
Throughout the committee hearing, supporters of Dayton's tax plan watched in the audience. Some wore yellow "Invest in Minnesota" stickers. As many as 42 people signed in to testify, but only three got the chance.
Mary Cecconi of Stillwater is with a group called Parents United for Public Schools. She told the committee that she's concerned education funding is at risk if taxes aren't raised.
"While it looks like our schools have received money, it has actually been the local property tax levies that have kept our schools afloat," said Cecconi. "Today, 92 percent of our schools have local levies in play, and in many cases those levies account for up to 20 percent of a school's budget."
The hearing wrapped up after an hour and 15 minutes, upsetting several people who hoped to testify. Rep. Paymar said the hearing was a "sham" because the committee chair didn't schedule more time, especially because the GOP has repeatedly called for Dayton's plan on the House floor.
"The Republicans get up and say, 'Where's your plan? Where's the Democrat plan? How come no one is bringing forward the Dayton plan?' Here we are. It's here. We didn't have an opportunity to discuss it," said Paymar.
Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, who chairs the tax committee, said he intended to allow everyone to testify but didn't want to cut off the members of the committee.
"Obviously we overbooked. We had too many folks to come and testify today," said Davids. "We'll use as much committee time as we can to hear from the citizens of this state."
As committee members argued, Gov. Dayton was being praised at a higher education roundtable for proposing significantly smaller cuts than Republicans. After the event, he told reporters that he's standing firm on his tax plan.
"There were over 919,000 votes for my tax proposal last November from the people of Minnesota. That's why I'm here today," said Dayton, referring to his victory in the November 2010 election. "They understood what I was proposing, and I got more votes than anyone else in that election. So I think my mandate is not from 201 legislators, with all due respect. My mandate was from the people of Minnesota."
Dayton is scheduled to hold several more meetings over the next two weeks to highlight the differences between his budget and the Republican plan.