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Citizens' Forum Addresses Taxes
By Brent Wolfe
May 4, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

People participating in a recent Minnesota Citizens' Forum don't want any "no new taxes" pledges from the candidates running for governor. They recognize tax policy is complex and developed questions for the candidates that seek to get them to expound on how they might change the state's tax system.

Minnesota Public Radio, the Star Tribune, and Twin Cities Public Television gathered citizens at conference sites in St. Paul, Rochester, and Duluth to discuss tax policy and develop tax questions for the gubernatorial candidates. As lawmakers and speakers from the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce made presentations on tax policy, eyes began to glaze over. At previous forums, citizens were animated about whether the state should adopt new high school graduation standards or provide financing for sports stadiums. Fred Buse of Winona says he's just looking for a little simplicity.

Buse: Well, I do most of my own taxes, and there's such a preponderance of forms that I'm working through that I no longer can handle the actual number, the difficulty, and the hours in doing them. And I want simplification.
Most citizens at the forum wanted to talk more about how state tax money is spent than about how its raised. People were quick to point out ways they feel state government is wasting money. Gordon Hovde of Albert Lea brought along a newspaper article that listed projects funded in the just-completed legislative session.

Hovde: The Humbolt Avenue Greenway in Minneapolis for $7 million, the, in Owatonna, the Heritage Halls Museum in Owatonna for 500,000, the Green Institute in Minneapolis for 1.5 million, the Montevidio downtown revitalization for 1.5 million, Hutchinson Center for 1 million. I do not believe that state government should take over local funding for local capital outlay expenditures.
Hovde says if a local community needs to build something, it should raise the money through local taxes.

Patricia Ketterling of Rochester was focused on why the state had so much extra cash to spend on local capital projects. A booming economy means people and businesses are making more money and sending more tax revenue to St. Paul.

Ketterling: Just very simply, I feel the giant surpluses should not be, and how would the Governor correct this in future years?
The discussion at the forum mirrored the legislative debate over what to do with the budget surpluses. Citizens debated whether they'd prefer to see surpluses used for one-time tax rebates or permanent tax cuts. As enthusiasm was building for permanent cuts, Sue Bateman of Rochester reminded the group that the economy won't always be strong and causing lots of tax revenue to roll in.
Bateman: What about the time when you get a downturn and you don't get enough money? You can't take a permanent tax cut and have those years come through.
Bob Marnocha of Plainview wanted to expand the discussion and pointed out that lawmakers are really expressing their priorities when they decide where to spend tax money.
Marnocha: I see taxes serving two purposes - providing services, roads, police; and using taxes to further social improvements and goals. When the downturn does come, which one does get cut first? Which one is going to go on the block?
Gordon Hovde countered that it doesn't have to be a matter of what goes on the chopping block especially if state government is looking for a way to finance programs the public identifies as important.
Hovde: What's wrong with having our legislators come back to us like they did in the past and say we need more money?
The question quickly brought the group back to the assertion that lawmakers aren't spending tax money well and can't be trusted to do so. As one participant said, it would be political suicide, and no one who wants to be re-elected should be expected to vote for a tax increase.