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Education spending popular in Pawlenty's budget balancer
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Gov. Pawlenty lined up lots of computers when he announced his budget Web site last November (MPR file photo)
Last November, with much fanfare, Gov. Tim Pawlenty invited Minnesotans to suggest ways to balance the state budget without raising taxes by logging on to a new Web site. The governor's office has just released the results. More than 17,000 people responded, and most wanted the state to spend more money on education, both K-12 and higher ed. Democrats question whether Pawlenty is paying attention to the results of his own Web site.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty announced his citizen budget Web site right after Thanksgiving at the Mall of America, with a bank of computers set up for people to check out the site.

Over the course of a month, about 17,500 people did just that. They went through nine major areas of state spending, and decided whether they would spend more, less or the same amount in each area. Sixty-six percent of respondents wanted the state to spend more money on K-12 education, and just over half supported more money for higher education.

While the responses are not a scientific sample, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor did consider the feedback when putting his budget together.

"Education is a priority, and we know that," McClung said. "The governor feels the same way. That's why he's tried to focus our resources on boosting K-12 education, that schools could have up to an 8 percent increase if they do performance pay and some other things over the next two years in this budget. Higher education is extremely important. That was an area of high priority for the governor as well."

About a third of respondents wanted to spend more money on health and human services programs. But the budget exercise didn't allow respondents to raise taxes, so if they increased spending in one area, they had to cut spending in another. About 40 percent said they would cut agriculture spending, while about a third would cut local government aid.

One of the respondents, Tom Riddering of St. Paul, said he didn't like the fact that he couldn't choose to raise taxes on the governor's website.

"The governor may have made a commitment to not raise taxes, but I haven't."
- Tom Riddering of St. Paul

"I don't accept the dichotomy that if you're going to increase educational spending, or maintain it at what it has historically been at, that you have to cut something else," he said. "I think that's a false dichotomy. The governor may have made a commitment to not raise taxes, but I haven't."

Pawlenty spokesman McClung said the governor wanted citizens to try to balance the budget under the same parameters he used.

Pawlenty has pledged not to raise state taxes, and his budget proposal used a combination of spending cuts, gambling money and other revenues to erase a deficit now projected to be $466 million without inflation in the next two-year budget cycle.

Some Democrats say Pawlenty's budget doesn't reflect the priorities from his own Web site. Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said Pawlenty's budget falls short in the areas citizens listed as most important.

"The third issue here is human services and the governor is making substantial cut in human services," he said. "The governor is saying he wants to put more money into education, but it's a penny when he needs a dime."

Pawlenty's budget calls for a 2 percent increase in the state's basic education formula in each of the next two years, which is less than inflation. Some lawmakers have called for a 5 percent increase each year, but haven't said where they would get the money.

Johnson said Senate Democrats haven't prepared their budget yet, and he doesn't know if it will include a tax increase. He said their top priorities are education and health and human services, which also happen to be the most important issues listed by citizens on the governor's budget Web site.