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Legislators Say Budget Reform Top Of Their Session Agenda

Transportation plans could get boost.

The state's recurring fiscal woes look set to get center stage at the state's 2013-2014 legislative session, which opens Tuesday.

"First and foremost, we're going to take a hard look at the [state's] fiscal situation, and this kind of year-to-year, artificially-created deficit situation we find ourselves in," said Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-61) in an interview last week.

What should the legislature focus on this year? Have your say in our forum.

Legislators will have to figure out how to plug a $1.1 billion gap in between the state's commitments and its finances. It is the smallest deficit in several years, but still yawns at a time when many of the obvious cuts and accounting tricks used to close the deficit in years past have already been used by past legislatures hoping for a rapid return to economic boom times.

According to Minnesota Public Radio, on Tuesday Dibble said he would be pushing for legailization of same-sex marriage, but that would have to take a back seat to addressing the budget.

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Dibble and other members of the Southwest Minneapolis delegation said they would push for structural reforms that solved the state's recurring budget shortfalls once and for all.

"We have to solve this so future legislatures don’t have to deal with this," Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-61A) said.

"The level of revenue is less than what’s needed for the most basic delivery of basic public services like education, transportation, and health care," Dibble said.

Hornstein and Dibble said they wanted to support proposals from their colleagues that restructured state income taxes based on what Dibble called "ability to pay." Dibble said he believed a recent report by the Itasca Project 

However, soaking the rich won't entirely solve the whole arithmetic problem, Hornstein acknowledged. A complete solution needs more in-depth tax reform, he said, perhaps including a broadening and lowering of the state sales tax.

"This is going to be where we spend most of our time and energy in our session," he said.

A push for higher taxes on any group of Minnesotans could be complicated, Rep. Susan Allen (DFL-62B) said, by more conservative members of the DFL majority.

"In both parties, there are members who are fiscally conservative or ran on  a platform where they were going to reduce red tape," she said. "It's going to be interesting."

Dibble agreed that new tax and spending proposals would have to win over legislators from across the party's ideologically diverse majorities in both houses in order to pass. Using the University of Minnesota as an example of how these members could be won over, Dibble criticized leaders there for adding scores of administrative positions while the state cut its funding in previous years

Starving the university of funds would have “huge negative consequences” by preventing investments for the future, he said, "but I'm not supportive of putting more dollars into a system that's just going to hire a bunch of bureaucrats."

Overhauling the state's tax structure while assembling a budget for the next biennium may seem like a very tall order for a legislature that's only in session until the end of May, but all three lawmakers Patch spoke with said they thought the legislature could rack up several more policy changes before it adjourns.

"There's plenty of time to deal with plenty of issues around here," Hornstein said. "There are a lot of individual legislators who have issues they care about."

Off the top of his head, Hornstein rattled off the names of several legislators who might bring up policy issues like gun control.

Allen said she would be leading the charge to pass tenants' rights measures and serving on a task force looking for ways to help retrain the long-term unemployed or underemployed. Dibble said he would be bringing forward an anti-bullying bill based on recomendations from a recent gubernatorial task. And as leads on their respective chambers' transportation finance committees, Dibble and Hornstein both said they would be working hand in hand to craft a transportation bill, perhaps based on recent investment recommendations from The Itasca Project (PDF).

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