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Minnesotans Split on Surplus Money
By Martin Kaste
April 14, 1999
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A new Minnesota Public Radio/St. Paul Pioneer Press poll shows Minnesotans evenly divided over whether to return the state's entire budget surplus to taxpayers, or spend a big portion of the surplus on education, transportation and crime prevention. When it comes to the state's tobacco settlement, 72 percent of poll respondents support a plan to set aside $1.3 billion of the tobacco money in endowments for anti-smoking campaigns and other programs.

IF STATE LEGISLATORS TOOK ONE CLEAR MESSAGE from last fall's gubernatorial election, it was: "Give it back" , as in candidate Jesse Ventura's call to return the budget surplus to taxpayers. The politicians have assumed the overwhelming majority of Minnesotans want a rebate, and they've been doing what they can to deliver one. But a new MPR-Pioneer Press poll suggests public ambivalence over the rebate issue.

Ring: I could go either way on it. It really don't make that much difference to me.
John Ring in Little Falls was one of the 49 percent of poll respondents who said the state should put a big portion of the tax surplus into schools, highways, and other purposes. Ring says schools, especially, deserve the extra money, but he adds this caveat:
Ring: If they spend it foolishly, give us our damned money back.
St Paul State Representative Andy Dawkins welcomed the poll results, saying he hopes the numbers will give his DFL caucus the "backbone" to push for more surplus money for social programs.
Dawkins: I have felt all through this session that we've never taken the time to at least pause and think about should we be talking about surpluses and rebates when we still have waiting lists for sliding-fee child care, when we still have waiting lists to clean up our polluted lands, when we still have waiting lists for affordable housing, and so on.
DFL leaders are not about to back off their support for tax rebates; House DFL leader Tom Pugh says the split poll numbers come as a surprise to him, but as far as he's concerned, the debate on this issue is over. The House and Senate both passed rebate legislation two months ago, although differences between their bills have trapped rebates in conference-committee limbo.

Poll respondents sent a clearer message on the question of how to use the "one-time money" in the state's tobacco settlement - the $1.3 billion Democrats and Governor Ventura want to put into special endowments to benefit anti-smoking programs, medical research and social programs. 72 percent of respondents favor the endowments, while 23 percent support using the money for tax relief.

Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe calls the poll results an endorsement of the idea that the "one-time money" should be set aside.
Moe: I think the notion of creating endowments, not spending the money, not rebating the money, but putting the money aside to improve the public health of the state, to use the interest earned off the endowments, to keep kids from smoking, smoking prevention, medical research, that's what people want us to do.
House Republicans have been fighting a lonesome battle against the governor and the Senate to use the tobacco money for tax rebates. They're hoping to encourage public skepticism about the endowments, the kind of skepticism displayed by Jessie Anderson, a retiree in Brainerd, who told poll-takers she does not support tobacco endowments.
Anderson: I don't think they're going to stop anybody from smoking anyway. They might as well give it back to taxpayers if they don't have anything better to do with it, which they don't seem to have. Because people are going to smoke if they want to.
House Republican Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty says he thinks Minnesotans will change their minds about the endowments.
Pawlenty: We have found when you tell voters, "Hey did you know the court already ordered $200 million, and Blue Cross-Blue Shield is also going to spend $300 million, on top, for tobacco cessation and research, do you really want to spend more than half a billion on that in the coming years?" When you give voters that information, they say "no, " let's see how that money is going to be spent.
In the poll's third budget-related question, respondents were divided about which kind of tax cut they prefer. 32 percent said they wanted a cut in property taxes; 30 percent said a cut in income taxes; 21 percent said sales taxes and 15 percent said they'd prefer a reduction in state fees, such as car tabs.