With great surplus comes great responsibility
We are eight weeks into an 18-week legislative session. With the release of the February forecast showing yet another strong set of financial signs that Minnesota's economy is recovering and improving, there will be a flurry of activity as the Legislature works to finalize the state's two-year budget. That forecast indicates a budget surplus of nearly $1.9 billion and rest assured, everyone has ideas about how to spend it.
But a word of caution to citizens and lawmakers alike: While the surplus is one of many positive indicators that our budget is finally structurally balanced, there is not the excess of revenue there that you may think. Keep in mind, the forecasted surplus does not account for inflation, so in reality the actual surplus is between $500 million and $900 million. Not a surplus to sneeze at, but rather one to be thoughtful about. There is a long and growing list of advocates who need and deserve additional funding. And there is always merit in setting more aside as a reserve.
The trap to avoid falling into is the idea that a one-time investment of a few hundred million dollars into a vital transportation network is even remotely adequate. If the Legislature fails to account for inflation into the "out" biennium (2018-19) and it shortchanges a much-needed investment into transportation, we will end up right back where we came from. We will face repeated deficits and fall further behind in efforts to actually grow our economy. Have we forgotten the collapse of the I-35W bridge? Or have we in Duluth forgotten the bridge that was closed for immediate repair on I-35, disrupting traffic and commerce for weeks? If we don't take needed steps now, that will become the norm.
The difficult decision has to be made. It will be incredibly popular with the average voter to not raise gasoline taxes or to give money back in the form of a refund. That is a reelection ploy of the most irresponsible kind. Minnesota has an opportunity to promote its own future. The question remains, will we have the courage? In 10 more weeks, we will have our answer.
Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, is the Minnesota state representative for District 7B.