At an “Eggs and Issues” meeting sponsored by the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce held last month, legislators were invited to give those in attendance an update on what is happening at the Capitol.
Curiously, we received essentially the same message from both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, who is never shy about speaking his mind, and rarely coy, as some politicians can be, expressed his frustration at the state legislature for spending valuable session time addressing social issues in great detail, but leaving the setting of a budget for later on in the session.
“All social issues should be off the table until the budget is done,” said Pelowski. He said that social issues such as gay marriage, unions for child care workers, and gun control can wait until next year. (It might also behoove the state to delay decisions until the federal government has weighed in, or not, on these issues. Being first is not always better than being right.) What the legislative session is supposed to be accomplishing, he said, is establishing a budget.
Gov. Mark Dayton delivered and withdrew an ill-received budget plan this year, which the legislators were supposed to be working on now. There is supposed to be a budget delivered to the public in May. The middle of April is uncomfortably close.
The last time the House debated gay marriage, Pelowski pointed out, it took up an entire day, and as a result, a budget was not ready, and we had the biggest shutdown in the state’s history.
Sen. Jeremy Miller agreed that legislators should be concentrating on the budget, especially considering that a deficit is projected.
Both Miller and Pelowski remarked that they felt that the budget process is approached in a cart-before-the-horse manner in the state. The spending bill is completed before the budget bill, they pointed out. “This is backwards, and this is dangerous,” said Pelowski. Miller remarked that the process was very “political,” and would not be the way a business or household would approached budget-setting.
Miller stressed that legislators should focus on the deficit and paying back the remainder of the school funding shifts. He cautioned that balancing a budget by heavily taxing the top 2 percent of earners was an onerous burden on small business owners, whose personal and business income are one and the same, and could affect those businesses’ ability to continue.
“Please focus on what we need to do, not what we want to do,” was Pelowski’s message to his fellow legislators. He added that he felt there should be a limit on the number of bills that can be brought to the legislature. He said that there are currently 1,600 bills before the House.
Miller suggested that perhaps the governor was right when he proposed two sessions for the legislature: one regular and one to use to clean up contradictory bills, and excess rules and regulations.
I applaud both legislators for speaking up about the factors that clog the legislative sessions and result in shut-downs. I am apprehensive about adding sessions, however, as it would seem to invite spending more on government without guaranteed results. An ad hoc bi-partisan committee might be a better way to fix state government. A limit on bills would be welcome, as would be a hard and fast rule to address budget before spending.
There is an unfortunate propensity for public employees and politicians to want to spend without regard to where the money is coming from. “Tax the rich” has practically become the state motto. Taxing the poor and uneducated through fees, sales taxes, and “sin” taxes is too often slipped through without anyone noticing. As taxing at the ends of the economic spectrum increases, those of us in the middle will find that we are unwittingly being pulled in both directions.
Miller is right that spending needs to be reined in. Pelowski is right that fixing unfunded mandates is of utmost importance. Both of them realize that with more careful budgeting, the state can do its job better and leave its citizens with enough to support a happy and fruitful life.