Republican rush to cut spending could put some in party at risk

Rep. Jim Knoblach
Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015 during the state House session at the Capitol in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

When the state budget forecast was released in February, the collective wisdom around the state Capitol was that the spending cuts that were common over the last decade or so would end for at least a year.

But even though the state budget forecast projected a surplus of nearly $2 billion, House Republicans are still pushing for cuts. The biggest target is Health and Human Services programs which are facing a cut of more than $1 billion.

"It is the taxpayers' money," said state Rep. Jim Knoblach, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. "Where we think money needs to be spent, we're spending it."

Critics call the budget mean-spirited, given the state surplus. But Republicans are making a political calculation that tax cuts will be more popular than spending increases among Minnesota voters.

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Knoblach, the chief architect of the Republican budget plan, said the top priority is cutting taxes by $2 billion.

"We thought the big tax increases the Democrats passed last year were excessive, that we didn't need $2 billion of extra revenue," said Knoblach, R-St. Cloud. "Now fancy this, we got a $2 billion surplus. So we're saying we didn't need all of that revenue, and so we should be cutting taxes to return that revenue to Minnesota taxpayers."

House Republicans haven't released the details of their tax bill yet, but the push to cut taxes with the surplus rather than spend it is putting many committee chairs and politically vulnerable Republican House members in a tough spot. They could be held accountable by voters and groups who wonder why they're cutting spending to some popular programs in rosy budget times.

Take Higher Education Committee Chair Bud Nornes. His budget bill doesn't give any new state money to the University of Minnesota.

"None of us are really excited about what we have here," said Nornes, R-Fergus Falls. "But as a former chair, who has always had to deal with negative targets, to me this is pretty good."

By contrast, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed using part of the surplus to increase spending for both the U of M and the Minnesota Colleges and University system to continue tuition freezes for another two years. The House plan assumes the U of M and four year MnSCU schools will raise tuition.

House Republican Committee chairs overseeing state government and the environment also are making cuts. Funding for K-12 schools and early childhood education would see less than a 1 percent increase under the House plan. Dayton's budget would increase school funding by more than 4 percent over the biennium, which includes making state-funded preschool available for every four-year-old in Minnesota.

State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said the Republican strategy is to go low on all areas of government spending to set a tone for budget negotiations with Dayton and Senate Democrats.

"I think it's folly to think you're going to keep your target right at what you want. I expect it to go up," said Cornish, who chairs the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee. "It will just be our job to keep that target as low as possible because that's our whole emphasis on the session — spend as little money to satisfy the most people."

But the GOP plan is creating the equivalent of a budget crisis for several groups who rely on state funding.

Rep. Paul Thissen
Minority leader Rep. Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, during a state House session Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015 at the Capitol in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Democrats say the budget cuts are unnecessary when the state has a surplus. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen added that even some of the cuts Republicans are proposing rely on payment delays and other moves that seek to cushion the political impact of what they're doing.

"In a time of a surplus, they're resorting to the same old deficit tricks that they did in 2011 and 2012 that led to the state government shutdown," said Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. "There's no need to do it. We should be honestly budgeting like we did for the last two years. The Republicans just can't seem to do that."

Dayton also has blasted many portions of the Republican budget. He said he won't start negotiating until Republicans get more serious about their spending.