ST. PAUL — Minnesota Senate Republicans on Friday, Aug. 7, asked Minnesota voters to consider who should be at the table deciding difficult budgeting decisions over the next several years when they go to the polls in November.
At a Capitol news conference, GOP Senate leaders pointed to projections for the next several years that show a previously forecast $1.5 billion budget surplus had been erased by the COVID-19 pandemic and replaced by a $4.7 billion gap in the next two-year budget. Lower than expected revenue and higher than anticipated spending fueled the disparity.
And as the governor and lawmakers consider the next state budget, taxes and possible steps to right Minnesota's financial situation, the Republican leaders said they should be in the room to help prevent tax increases and limit state spending.
“We have a number of the people who were here before but we have to be in the majority to bring balance to what’s going to be going on next year,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. “It’s critical for us that the Senate Republican majority stays intact so we can be at the table balancing that extremely difficult budget.”
The call to keep Republicans in office comes days after Democrats laid out their plans for a post-pandemic response that included providing paid sick and safe time to workers, boosting funding for schools and combating climate change. And they made the case that those goals wouldn't get done with Republicans controlling the Senate.
Voters in November will decide whether to keep the split Legislature in place or to shake up the power dynamics at the Capitol. And they'll weigh in next week on which candidates advance to the general election.
The state has begun hiring freezes and commissioner pay cuts, as well as layoffs at the Department of Corrections and Minnesota Zoo. And last week, the Department of Corrections announced it would close two small prisons in Togo and Willow River. The Walz administration has asked agencies to consider additional operating expenses they could cut.
The state also has a $2 billion rainy day fund it could tap into to ease the financial hit from COVID-19 and government actions to limit its spread. Congress could also provide financial support in future relief funding packages.
But Gov. Tim Walz on Friday morning said lawmakers and the governor would have to consider broader actions.
"The idea that you’re gonna fix it with a tax increase alone is not going to work. And the idea that you’re gonna fix it just by cutting instantly cuts off your growth for the future," the governor told WCCO Radio, noting that the administration is not considering tax increases to close the deficit at this time.
Gazelka on Friday urged state agencies to begin paring spending by at least 5% to limit the damage to the existing budget and upcoming one. And Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said commissioners had met prior calls to cut with reluctance.
“Everyone should be trying to find a way to reduce expenses long term going forward because the decisions get harder the longer we wait,” said Benson, who chairs the Senate Health Committee.
Republicans also knocked the Walz administration for granting state employee salary raises that were negotiated prior to the pandemic. The Senate had asked that employees receive the raises for the first year, but not the second, in the budget cycle.
They also urged Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans to issue an August economic forecast to give a clearer idea of what the state's financial state looked like.
“This isn’t just about legislators; the public deserves to know the state’s budget situation,” Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said in a news release. “Going from $1.5 billion in surplus to nearly $5 billion in deficit has serious consequences. We have to be ready on day one when we come back to a regular session to deal with the budget."
Frans said the state planned to provide the next forecast in December but would consider earlier updates if necessary.