ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Lawmakers’ fight over taxes and spending spilled out during a contentious committee hearing Wednesday that demonstrated the wide divide between Republicans and Democrats working to plug a $5 billion deficit in Minnesota’s state budget.
Their arguments over Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan to raise income taxes on Minnesota’s top earners dominated a short hearing of the House Taxes Committee, leaving time for only four of the 42 people who signed up to testify.
“This was all a sham,” Rep. Michael Paymar, a St. Paul Democrat who introduced Dayton’s plan as a bill, said at the end of the hearing.
The meeting reflected what has become the defining divide of this year’s legislative session: whether to erase the deficit with a Republican-backed plan that clamps down on state spending or through a mix of spending cuts and reductions with Dayton’s income tax hike plan.
With only about 40 days left in the regular legislative session, Dayton and the GOP don’t just lack accord on a budget-balancing approach, they can’t even agree on a set of numbers on which to base their negotiations.
Earlier this week, several Dayton budget officials notified Republican leaders that the series of budget bills making up the GOP plan don’t actually amount to a balanced budget. The Republican bills are based on “incomplete information, unsubstantiated assumptions, and inaccurate fiscal estimates,” wrote Budget Commissioner Jim Showalter and Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans.
In all, they wrote, the Republican bills fall $1.2 billion short of erasing the $5 billion deficit.
Republicans counter that the financial analyses are underestimating the amount that can be saved by government efficiencies and freedom from federal spending mandates that they hope Dayton will seek.
The four people who got time to testify during Wednesday’s committee hearing said cuts and spending reductions in the GOP proposals would wipe out the state’s social safety net.
Cindy Johnson, a real estate agent and advocate for the disabled from Woodbury, said the GOP plan would take away the state services that her 26-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy relies on to live a semi-independent life.
“Why every year are we back to this point: that it’s the people who can speak up the least that are asked to bear the biggest burden?” Johnson asked, as her daughter sat beside her in a wheelchair.
Republicans have stuck to an argument that increasing income taxes would give Minnesota one of the nation’s highest tax rates, which they call poisonous to attracting and keeping new businesses.
“It looks really good to demagogue the rich,” said Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina. His comments drew shouts of opposition from a woman in the audience at the hearing, prompting committee chairman Rep. Greg Davids to ask security officers to remove that person from the hearing.
Davids said afterwards that members of the public would be allowed to comment on Dayton’s tax plan at future hearings. But, he said, there’s not the votes to get an income-tax hike through his committee or the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Davids said he believes Dayton and Republicans can get over the current stalemate. “I’m the eternal optimist,” Davids said.
Dayton, speaking with reporters after a St. Paul roundtable meant to highlight proposed Republican higher education cuts, reaffirmed the message in the letter from his commissioners that it’s difficult to engage the Republican budget proposal because they see it as incomplete.
“There were over 919,000 votes for my tax proposal last November from the people of Minnesota, and that’s why I’m here today,” Dayton said. “They understood what I’m proposing. And I got more votes than anybody else in that election. So I think my mandate is not from 201 legislators, with all due respect. My mandate is from the people of Minnesota.”
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