PoliGraph: Johnson’s numbers on state spending


In their fourth head-to-head debate, Republican candidate Jeff Johnson criticized Gov. Mark Dayton for needlessly ramping up state spending during the last four years of his tenure.

“We have increased spending in this state in the last four years from $30 billion to almost $40 billion dollars. In four years. That is not sustainable and it certainly suggests to me that we are not short of money,” Johnson said.

This is a tricky claim to sort out because there are different ways to look at state spending.

The Evidence

If Johnson is elected governor, he says he wants to reform Minnesota's tax code because other nearby states have lower taxes.

Johnson argues that the state doesn’t need the extra money because spending has increased by billions over the last four years.

By one measure he's right about the amount of the spending increase, but if you look deeper you'll find that the increase isn't quite as much as Johnson claims.

According to Minnesota Management and Budget, state general fund spending increased from $29 billion in the 2010-2011 biennium to roughly $35 billion in the 2012-2013 fiscal year. The most recent budget for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 increased state spending to $39.5 billion.

But Johnson's claim masks spending that was essentially hidden in the final budget of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration - right around the time Pawlenty launched his bid for president.

In fact, spending for fiscal year 2010-2011 was more like $33 billion for the biennium if you count a one-time $2.3 billion windfall in federal stimulus money and a delay of   $1.9 billion in payments to schools - an accounting trick used to balance the budget.

That said, Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature used similar accounting tools to balance the 2012-2013 budget, delaying more money for schools into the next biennium and issuing bonds against future tobacco settlement payments.

That’s the budget that ultimately ended the state’s government shutdown. At the time, Republicans and Democrats argued over how much the state was spending; Republicans picked the lower number of $34 billion, while Democrats said it was more like $35 billion, which reflected the costs of shifting school payments and the tobacco bonds.

The Verdict

If you ignore two accounting tricks that made spending look lower than it was three budget cycles ago, Johnson is correct that state spending increased by $10 billion in four years.

But $2.3 billion in federal dollars and a $1.9 billion spending shift is hard to ignore, and including them in Pawlenty's last budget bumps state spending up to $33 billion.

And that means state spending has increased by about $7 billion in the last four years. That's a big number, but not as big as the one Johnson used.

For picking the higher number - and leaving out some key details about budget gimmicks used by the previous administration - Johnson's claim leans toward misleading.

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