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Commentary: Budget debate misses point Minnesotans want

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By now we are used to the grim economic news that fills our newspapers and airwaves on a daily basis. What people are interested in is a plan to move forward toward economic recovery. On this question, however, two very different conversations are unfolding.

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In Washington, the conversation is about how to get our national economy moving again, how to create jobs, save homes, provide health care and help people get back on their feet. At the center of these questions is the role of government. In tough times, what can government do for people that people cannot otherwise do on their own?

In St. Paul, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has shaped the debate squarely on cuts, cuts and more cuts. He has focused on tax cuts for corporations as well as deep cuts to essential public services that Minnesotans need now more than ever due to job losses and home foreclosures. Cutting the jobs of public employees who provide the vital services we all depend on and who are themselves essential to our economic and social well-being.

At his inauguration, President Obama said that the question we should ask "is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." So why is the debate here in Minnesota about how best to shrink government, as though small government were the solution to an economic crisis of this depth?

The Minnesota State Constitution mandates that the state budget be balanced by June 30. While this provision is bad public policy (nearly all economists agree that measured deficit spending is prudent in tough economic times), our budget will be balanced by either difficult legislative compromise or gubernatorial fiat (also known as unallotment). But a debate only about how to balance the books, with the needs of one neighbor pitted against the other, misses the point entirely. In this economic climate, Minnesotans expect more from state leaders than "balancing the budget" and "ending on time."

People are concerned about how the economy impacts their own bottom line -- not just the state ledger. State leaders should be debating how our budget will restore economic security, fairness and opportunity for all Minnesota families.

That means jobs, access to health care and the ability for families to remain in their homes. That's really what Minnesotans are asking for. And that's what we expect the governor and Legislature to figure out through whatever mix of revenue increases and program restructuring are necessary.

Our state history shows us how state leaders are instrumental for economic recovery. In the early 1930s, our economic outlook was much more dire than today. Gov. Floyd B. Olson's response was to create the state's progressive income tax structure, institute a minimum wage, propose a statewide unemployment insurance system and direct significant state funds to public works programs. He used the resources of the state to address the immediate crisis of its residents and put in place a sustainable path for economic recovery.

Gov. Olson did not achieve such transformational change on his own.

He was the state's first Farmer-Labor governor, and as such was accountable to a base of people who created the political space for bold change to happen.

Making government disappear isn't going to help our state. We are economically and morally obligated to get people back on their feet and to provide a sustainable path for economic recovery for future generations. To that end, a different conversation is needed up at the Capitol. I hope the governor and state leaders are ready to talk.

Dan McGrath is the executive director of TakeAction Minnesota.

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