Gov. Jesse Ventura took aim at Republican and Democratic plans to correct the state's projected budget deficit. Ventura has called on lawmakers to address both the current biennium's deficit - estimated at $2 billion - as well as a future shortfall projected to reach $2.5 billion in fiscal years 2004 and 2005. The governor criticized legislators for not providing a long-term fix, but House and Senate leaders say they're committed to a responsible solution.
The looming fiscal battle may come down to a debate on how to frame the budget problem. A large portion - almost half - of the future deficits is composed of expected inflationary increases. And House and Senate leaders have said by excluding those built-in pressures, the problem becomes easier to resolve. But in remarks to reporters, Ventura called it irresponsible to pretend that the state won't have to worry about normal price increases.
"It seems that the centerpiece of Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and Speaker Steve Sviggum's solutions for our long-term budget problem is to gamble that there will be no inflation over the next three years," Ventura said.
Ventura declined to take questions after reading from a prepared statement. House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, however, defends the no-inflation approach. The Eagan Republican says including inflation estimates is a relatively new phenomenon originating in the mid-'90s, and he says it amounts to "cruise control" for automatic growth in state spending.
"It's the job of the legislators to come here and sort out which programs should get more money, which should get less, which might be eliminated, which might be created anew. And to simply say that all of state government's on an inflation auto-pilot, we think that needs to be revisited. And this is a good time to do it when you have a $2 billion budget deficit," Pawlenty said.
The House GOP budget-balancing act includes substantial spending cuts, use of reserve funds and part of the tobacco endowment, but no tax increases. Pawlenty says discounting inflation puts the plan within striking distance of long-term balance; close enough, he says, given the difficulty of forecasting economic conditions through 2005.
DFL Assistant Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger of Mankato says he, too, has concerns about the reliability of long-range predictions.
"We're talking about 41 months from now. Just go back 41 months. Go back 41 months and think what, had we rigidly adhered to projections, where we would be? In fact, we came close to adhering to projections of great surpluses forever into the future. And that's part of the reasons we're now dealing with a budget deficit," Hottinger said.
The Senate has not yet revealed plans for addressing projected long-term shortfalls. But their short-term fix draws down the state's various reserve funds and includes a limited amount of spending cuts. Like the House, the Senate has so far shied away from tax increases.
That leaves Ventura, who's proposed a nickel-a-gallon gas tax, a 29-cent increase in the cigarette tax, and a broadening of the sales tax, the odd-man out on tax hikes.
The governor says his program of government cutbacks and tax increases is meant to forestall more serious problems later. And he accused Democrats and Republicans of taking the easy way out.
"They remind me of the homeowner who makes those repairs on their house with cheap materials just to last long enough for them to sell the house to someone else. Then the new owner comes along and gets stuck with all the bills when the place falls apart. I don't want our citizens to get suckered into this cheap trick," he said.
Ventura has said if he isn't soon presented with a budget plan that meets his approval, he will take unilateral action to shrink government spending.More from MPR