Pawlenty wants constitutional amendment to limit spending

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Thursday called for an amendment to the state Constitution that would cap state spending at an amount equal to what is raised by revenue.

Pawlenty wants the proposed amendment, which he's calling the Spending Accountability Amendment, to go before Minnesota voters on Election Day of 2010.

During a news conference at the State Capitol, Pawlenty said two-year state budgets have increased by an average of 21 percent since 1960.

"This is an amazing, startling, frightening number. It is unsustainable going forward," Pawlenty said.

Instead of having the state Legislature and governor guess how much revenues will be in order to enact an upcoming two-year budget, Pawlenty said lawmakers would only be able to spend as much as was raised in the previous two-year budget cycle.

Pawlenty said his proposal would force future governors and state lawmakers to set spending priorities.

"We need to change the way that we budget in the state of Minnesota from what we want to spend to what we have brought in the door," he said. "Our proposal does exactly that. It is budgeting based on what is in the checkbook rather than what we hope is in the checkbook in the future."

Pawlenty said any revenues collected above the budgeted amount would be set aside for things like budget reserves, tax rebates or one-time capital expenditures.

Pawlenty said exceptions can be made for public safety and national emergencies.

He said his proposal would also change how governors and state lawmakers prepare for future budgets. State Finance officials currently release budget forecasts in November and February and serve as a blueprint for budget discussions. The governor said his amendment would reduce the scope of the forecast.

"One of the things it would do for sure is to move the budgeting process from one that is based on guesswork and projections and informed forecasting to something that is much closer to money brought in the door on a more reliable measurement of the revenues that we can expect to live on and that we can expect to receive," he said.

But there are questions about the proposal. For example, would future governors and Legislatures have the ability to shift school funding -- a tool Pawlenty used to balance the budget on his own in July?

The new standard would not apply to Pawlenty, because if it passes, it will be just months before he leaves office. Pawlenty has not ruled out a run for president in 2012, and the proposal could be attractive to conservative voters.

Minnesota governors can propose constitutional amendments but they don't have much to do with approving them.

Democrats control both houses of the state Legislature, and they are meeting the proposal with skepticism. They say Pawlenty's own budget proposals during his two terms in office would not have met his threshold.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said he's willing to consider the idea. But Pogemiller said he's skeptical because Pawlenty hasn't offered budgets that meet the new threshold he's proposing

"At first blush, it does seem odd, that on your way out the door, with a pending $5 to $7 billion deficit, you would now recommend something that you haven't even proposed to the Legislature," he said.

In fact, the four biennial budgets the governor has proposed raised spending an average of $1.8 billion above the previous biennium's available revenue.

DFLers in the House were even more negative, saying Pawlenty's plan would be a disaster for core government services. The chair of the Senate Tax Committee said he intends to hold a December hearing on the proposal.

The Legislature has the sole power to decide whether a proposed amendment should be on the ballot. A majority of those voting in the next statewide election have to approve the measure for it to be included in the constitution.

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