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Bachmann, conservatives eye spending cap amendment

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann points to an American flag in the state Capitol Monday, while speaking in support of a Minnesota constitutional amendment that would limit state spending. Photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Conservative Republicans hope enough Minnesotans are tired of high taxes that they will support a proposal to limit state spending.

It is a tall order, given the fact that Democrats control the state Legislature and most of them prefer raising taxes to help plug a budget deficit. But the chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee is ready to consider something to limit taxes, even if it is not the state constitutional amendment Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed last month.

"We all are going to have to help with this," Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Monday of the $1.2 billion deficit in the current state budget.

However, Bakk said Pawlenty's proposal is like "Swiss cheese," full of holes. "It was not fully vetted."

When he announced the proposed amendment, Pawlenty said that "state government has been on a spending binge."

Pawlenty's amendment plan, which would require legislative and public approval, calls for limiting spending during a two-year budget to the amount of revenue the state received during the previous two years.

The GOP governor, who is on a South American trade mission this week, said that for 40 years one budget has not been smaller than a previous budget, until this year.

"We need to budget not what we want to spend, but what is brought in the door," he said.

He received a vocal supporter on Monday.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a frequently quoted national Republican spokeswoman, pledged to work for the Pawlenty amendment.

The Minnesota congresswoman capped a Monday rally in favor of Pawlenty's amendment proposal. Her comments came moments before Bakk's Democratic-controlled Senate committee began to consider the plan.

Bachmann said government debt is doubling and tripling.

"This is fantasy economics and won't work," Bachmann said.

Bachmann four years ago proposed a similar spending cap when she was a Minnesota state senator.

This, however, is the time for a spending cap, she said. "We have never seen the public at the level where they are, where they oppose tax increases and where they oppose high spending."

Still, she said, passing the measure will be tough in DFL Legislature.

Bakk complained that Pawlenty has not submitted a formal proposal to lawmakers, who come into their 2010 session on Feb. 4.

However, Bakk did not rule out some type of spending cap.

Bakk, running for governor, refused to dismiss Pawlenty's plan out of hand, and said he could see an amendment getting traction to limit how much of each Minnesotan's income could be spent on state and local taxes.

Kelly Cobb of Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform told Bakk's committee that many state programs "that are not being talked about" could be cut. He also said that since Colorado enacted a similar spending cap, its spending has grown only at the same rate as the economy.

Commissioner Tom Hanson of Minnesota Management and Budget said the amendment would force the state to prioritize its spending. But Nan Madden of the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits' Minnesota Budget Project said the amendment would limit state spending flexibility.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, worried the amendment would hurt education spending.

"It is a real limiting idea here that would restrict our ability to invest in our children," Skoe said.

Executive Director Jim Monroe of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees told Pawlenty to "put the citizens of this great state ahead of the national conservative movement you've been courting. Minnesotans need you to fulfill your duties as a statesman in the tradition of our great leaders, and work with the leadership of the House and Senate to solve our budget deficit now."

With a $1.2 billion deficit in the current two-year budget and $5.4 billion in the next budget, Monroe said, "we need action now. In the past, plenty of elected officials put their political philosophies aside and placed the needs of the state before their own because it was the right choice to make."

Davis works for Forum Communications, which owns the Woodbury Bulletin.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.