ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — On its current trajectory, Minnesota's next two-year state budget will top the $40 billion mark. The Republicans seeking to defeat Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton say they would slam the brakes on spending if they're put in charge.
Ahead of the Aug. 12 primary that will determine the GOP nominee, the candidates are offering broad ideas that range from pay freezes for state employees to agency consolidations to cutbacks on subsidized health care.
The governor's budget must be proposed within two months of taking office. Neither Dayton nor his challengers will know until after the election if they have a projected deficit to fix or a surplus to work with next year.
Dayton enacted new taxes in his first term to close a budget gap while also boosting spending on schools, health programs and other government functions he considers important.
Forty-two cents of every state tax dollar goes toward public education. Safety-net social programs consume about 30 cents, money often used to match federal dollars.
The former investment firm executive is the only candidate in the field who hasn't helped write a government budget before. Honour said that gives him the fresh perspective needed to dramatically change course.
Honour, a first-time candidate, said he would cut administrative expenses across the board by 10 percent, in part by slicing employee salary and benefit costs and laying off some workers.
"We'll let some people go because they need to be let go. Our job is to not have the most number of people employed by the government," Honour said.
He said he would cut public health program costs by turning more duties to the private sector and by trimming eligibility for subsidized care through the state's version of the Medicaid program.
If lawmakers buck his budget advice, Honour said he would use the governor's line-item veto authority to cut spending aggressively. Overall, he said his first budget would be at least 5 percent smaller than the $39.6 billion budget currently in force.
"I want to spend fewer dollars, not change the rate of increase or all that other gobbledygook you get from politicians," he said.
As a legislator, Seifert was known for promoting ideas for saving taxpayer money that sometimes generated more attention than actual savings — like that time he pushed state prison leaders, unsuccessfully, to end dessert and institute a "brunch" dining schedule on weekends.
Back in politics after a four-year break, Seifert is thinking bigger when it comes to squeezing costs from the budget.
He wants to merge state agencies: the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services would be folded into one; Public Safety and Corrections would be combined; Commerce would be paired with Labor and Industry.
And he would make it tougher to get welfare checks, with enhanced work requirements for able-bodied recipients and scaled-back benefits tied to those public programs. Seifert proposes making people moving into the state wait a year to qualify for welfare or be disqualified entirely if they're a violent felon.
"None of this is sexy, but they make a much bigger difference on the size and scope of the state budget than what agency consolidations do," he said.
Johnson sees the state budget like a mechanic assessing whether a car needs a tune-up or a whole new engine. In other words, he's reluctant to offer estimates before getting under the hood.
The Hennepin County commissioner and former legislator insists state government could be smaller, but argues it's premature to say how much. He says he's no fan of across-the-board cuts because prioritization matters.
"If you're looking for specific things of we would eliminate I can't do that right now because I don't know what the numbers will look like," he said in a recent interview. "I'm a believer that you look at everything and you figure out how to make government work better."
Johnson said he'll move to audit agencies, consolidate state departments and examine grants to weed out those that are ineffective or overlap similar programs. He said it is likely that some jobs training programs in Dayton's Department of Employment and Economic Development would be pared back.
Johnson, the endorsed Republican, said the short window between inauguration and submittal of budget would make it difficult for any new governor to pursue sweeping change in every corner of state government.
"We're just not going to have a lot of time to formulate where we're going long term," he said. "That's probably more likely going to be addressed in the second biennial budget."
The former House speaker wears the 2011 partial government shutdown as a badge of honor, saying it shows he would stand his ground against tax hikes even in the face of intense political pressure.
That year the GOP-led Legislature, steered partly by Zellers, refused to accept income tax increases sought by Dayton. The standoff triggered a shutdown that lasted for weeks. In the end, the sides agreed to delay payments to schools and borrow against recurring payments from a tobacco lawsuit settlement while curbing other state costs.
"I've proven I can balance a budget with a Democratic administration — a Democrat governor far more liberal than anything the state has seen in 30 years," Zellers said. "As governor, I will be coming at it from a conservative Republican standpoint."
Zellers said he would consider freezing pay for state workers, merging agencies and undertaking audits of safety net programs such as Medical Assistance to determine if there are ineligible recipients and whether benefits are out of whack with neighboring states. He said he would steer clear of tax increases and wouldn't resort to higher fees as a backstop.
Of fees, Zellers said, "most Minnesotans see it for what it is, it's just another hidden tax."
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