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VIEWPOINT: Budget surplus creates opportunity to deliver on Minnesota values

Viewpoint

At the end of February, Minnesota Management and Budget announced a projected budget surplus of $1.65 billion for the upcoming biennium, an increase from the $1.4 billion forecasted last December. The February Economic Forecast revealed that Minnesota continues to have low unemployment and a stable, improved economy. In fact, recently, U.S. News and World Report named Minnesota the third-best state in the nation citing economic opportunities and great educational opportunities as a couple contributing factors.

To truly validate this success, it's essential that all Minnesotans feel these economic benefits in their families' pocketbooks. We need to continue to build on policies that help Minnesotans get ahead and secure long-term economic security.

With a projected surplus opportunity comes the responsibility to budget wisely and exercise caution in the face of uncertainty. A new presidential administration could mean several restructured fiscal policies, in addition to other unknown variables. Keeping this in mind, and while interest rates are low, it is important to act now on making improvements to Minnesotans' lives, not only in our community but across the state. We can achieve this through investments to strong public schools, affordable college and job training, and increasing access to good jobs. Minnesotans expect and deserve value for these investments.

Justifiably, K-12 education makes up a significant portion of the state budget. Our Minnesota State Constitution says it is our duty to "establish a general and uniform system of public schools." Parents choose to raise their families here due in large part to our outstanding public schools.

One renewed bipartisan proposal at the Legislature would enact a 2 percent per pupil increase in K-12 education funding to approach inflation costs. This has also been a priority of Gov. Mark Dayton's budget plan.

Other areas of K-12 education desperately need attention: significant teacher shortages; greater access to critical personnel such as counselors, psychologists and social workers; and of course, closing the achievement gap.

While there have been a few bills introduced to address these issues, disappointingly, a key priority of the House Majority is to provide tax breaks for wealthy donors of private schools.

Differences between education philosophies are always highlighted in the political arena.

However, the end goal should always be to improve on and work toward delivering a quality education to all of our kids without creating a system of winners and losers. When all of our kids have the opportunity to succeed in school, they are prepared for career, and college.

A highly educated workforce is another value we pride ourselves on in Minnesota, but the crushing burden of student debt is preventing Minnesota families from getting ahead. This endemic is dual-folded; parents struggle to help their child financially with college costs, if they are able, and the student is faced with the strong likelihood of incurring permanent financial hardship post-graduation. In 2013, after balancing the budget, House Democrats took action in holding down debt by freezing tuition for students attending state colleges and universities. A continuation of this model is something we should consider again this year. Constituents have asked for this.

In order to improve economic outcomes for all Minnesotans, we must reinvest in the priorities that have made Minnesota a leader. We must ask ourselves: what are our core values? Something we can all agree on is that our Minnesota is a great state, and the priority should be to make it even better.

JoAnn Ward represents District 53A in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She can be reached at 651-296-7807 or rep.joann.ward@house.mn.

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