Oh, That Surplus

Minnesota is looking at a $17 billion surplus as they begin work in the 2023 legislative session. Oh what to do, what to do? Nothing riles people up like the possibility of some money burning a hole in their pocket.

To be clear, as a professor at Bemidji State University I’m a state employee–so I’m hardly an unbiased voice in this rabble rousing that is winding up over this pot of money. The spectrum of course runs from give it all back to spend it all on physical and social infrastructure.

I’m not a fan of the give it all back end of the spectrum. Shocking I’m sure. But here’s why from two perspectives. First is the perspective of a taxpayer and “consumer” of government services. I suspect the give it all back folks look at it like consumers. If I paid too much for services (like handing the cashier a $20 for a $15 item, I should get $5 back) but it doesn’t work that way. It’s not that simple. Plus government services are not an individual pay as you go service.

We have fallen prey to the government finances should run like a business or family finances logic before. Has Amazon given back millions of dollars in “excess” profits to it’s customers because, “oops we charged more than we needed too and made too much money.” Nope. Primarily they’ve reinvested it in growing their brand.

We have a rare opportunity in this state to do some much needed reinvestment in our brand as a great place to live. You’ll notice the places that people like to move to and visit have great parks, great art, great education, great infrastructure such as mass transit and so on. If you want nice things, you gotta pay for it.

Here’s my second perspective as someone working for the government we all pay for with our taxes. Here’s what I see looming. We have a significant teacher shortage, a nurse shortage, a police officer shortage, to name a few. While that is developing we also have a state university system that has seen declining public investment in the past 25 years. It is also seeing declining enrollment, partly from a shift in demographics. Difficult choices may be half to be made in terms of combining programs, reducing campus size/programs etc., as a response to that demographic shift. That’s expected as the system evolves and society changes.

But, we’re not there yet. We’re looking at issues due primarily from lack of public investment and funding. At one time something like 70% of the budget for the state universities came from state budget and about 30% from tuition. Now, those numbers are almost reversed. During that time, to keep tuition somewhat reasonable the state university system has scrimped and saved elsewhere. The system is now facing significant financial issues and budget cuts which will result in layoffs and reduction of programs. The state university system is the training ground for these kinds of public service professions.

Our K-12 system is still recovering from Covid-19 pandemic impacts and we are seeing an ever increasing need for additional support for students and families, and hte schools are always the front line for this necessary community health intervention.

I’ve been an educator (20 years K-12 and 10 higher ed) for my entire career, most of it at public institutions. During that time, not one time have I ever gotten more than a 2% increase to my base salary. I’ve increased my salary by investing in advanced degrees and increases for longevity. But the base salary for teachers (and I suspect most public servant professions) has not kept up with inflation for the past 30+ years. It’s getting more difficult to convince individuals to go into a profession that requires investing in advanced degrees to get the job when they could go do something else for more money and less financial investment to get there.

How are roads, bridges, electrical grid, and mass transit infrastructure looking to you? We’ve underinvested in this for, well since we made the big initial investment 70 years ago.

If only there was a way we could all pitch in and pool our resources so everyone was healthy, could contribute, and benefit from living in our great (just ask anyone who lives here) state? That’s what government can be about. We invest in each other and in the place we live.

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