Pop quiz: Is Minnesota's new budget $34.3B or $35.9B?by Catharine Richert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — If you guessed "all of the above," pat yourself on the back. Either figure is right depending on your math and your politics. And between now and the 2012 elections, you'll be hearing a lot about both of them.
Republicans lawmakers, like House Speaker Kurt Zellers, say the budget tops out at about $34 billion.
"The $34 billion budget is a balanced solution of revenue, spending cuts and structural reforms," Zellers wrote in an email to constituents the day the budget was approved.
But Gov. Mark Dayton's says it's more than that.
The agreement "preserved the $35.7 billion biennial budget...that protects essential services so many Minnesotans' lives depend upon," Dayton said during a press conference June 20 after signing the final budget.
After six months of bickering over what appeared to be one spending figure, it may seem confusing that Republicans and Democrats still can't agree on the size of the state's budget.
But both figures are correct because there are at least two ways to view the state's general fund budget. Democrats are taking into account two budget maneuvers that helped close the state's deficit and effectively allow the state to spend more than it has, while Republicans are not.
And conveniently, both numbers support each party's political aims: Republicans can claim they are not spending any more than the state has in its coffers, and Democrats can say they've increased funding for programs important to their party's constituents.
TWO WAYS TO LOOK AT THE BUDGET
"There's always multiple ways to look at the budget," said Tom Hanson, who was former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget chief.
A lot depends on how the parties viewed the previous budget.
Since the start of the budget battle, Republicans have argued Minnesota spent roughly $30.2 billion from the general fund, the state's primary pot of money, in fiscal years 2010 and 2011.
Back in January, the GOP started pushing for a new budget that didn't exceed the amount of money the state has this biennium - about $34 billion. Roughly $33.3 billion will arrive in the form of new revenue, an additional $450 million will be carried over from the last budget cycle, and the rest will come from the state's cash reserves and other savings.
Meanwhile, Democrats have argued that state spending in the last biennium was actually about $34.4 billion. That figure reflects two accounting measures used to balance the books: the acceptance of $2.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars to help pay for education and Medicaid, and a savings of $1.9 billion by promising to pay schools state aid later.
Both budget tricks allowed the state to support more programming than it had cash to pay for.
Similar savings are included in the new budget, and accounting for them allows Democrats to claim the budget is actually $35.9 billion. (According to Minnesota Management and Budget documents, Dayton was off by $200 million when he made his June 20 statement.)
First, the new budget delays additional school payments, saving the state $911 million. In addition, lawmakers agreed to raise $640 million in new revenue by issuing bonds against future tobacco settlement payments. That money will be used to pay down the state's debts — money that would typically come from the general fund.
Add those two numbers to the $34.3 billion budget Republicans are touting, and you've got a $35.9 billion budget.