VIDEO: A Way Forward Can’t Wait

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Minnesota’s Legislature has a rare opportunity to reverse the damage caused by years of budget cuts, and instead rebuild the economy so everyone has a chance to get ahead. “The race to the bottom is over,” Council 5 executive director Eliot Seide said at a Capitol news conference Thursday. Front-line AFSCME members highlighted three ways the new DFL majorities can begin restoring what the state has lost: 1) reinvest in higher education, 2) invest in early learning for children before they reach kindergarten, and 3) restore state aid to cities to provide property tax relief and keep communities strong.

Republicans cut nearly $4.3 billion in the last four fiscal years and left a $3 billion structural gap for the next budget, Seide says. First, it was former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotments. Then it was the Republican majority’s tactics in the last Legislature. Worse yet, Seide says, Republicans also refused to raise the revenue necessary to make crucial investments for the state’s future. “We’ve had enough cuts. We have a revenue problem, not a spending problem, and it’s time to address the revenue side of the problem.”

Higher education is a prime example, Seide says. “Minnesota has succeeded when it has led the world in access to college and technical training. To compete in the global economy, we must ensure that training and education are affordable and accessible.”

Instead, Republicans cut $314 million in support to the University of Minnesota system, and cut $272 million in support for MnSCU.

Higher tuition, less access
The MnSCU system is supposed to train workers for the new economy, but instead is raising tuition and is unable to supply enough slots in the classes that adult students need, says Erica Kantola, of Local 4001, who works at Inver Hills Community College.

“Minnesota soldiers, like my brother, are returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they need training to land their next job,” she says. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s private-sector employers say they have 65,000 job openings for which they can’t find workers with the right skills, Kantola says.

At the University of Minnesota, tuition and fees have doubled in the last decade, says Cherrene Horazuk, president of Local 3800, which represents clerical workers on campus. “That makes it very difficult for working people to send our children to our university.”

While students pay more, the university is cutting the faculty and front-line staff jobs that actually make the university function, she says. The Legislature needs to restore the university’s land-grant mission, Horazuk says, while also holding administrators accountable to spend state and student money wisely.

State cuts to MnSCU mean students pay higher tuition but have less access to classes they need, says Local 4001’s Erica KantolaState cuts to MnSCU mean students pay higher tuition but have less access to classes they need, says Local 4001’s Erica KantolaWhere’s the investment in kids?
The higher-education cuts are part of a $1.7 billion hole Republicans have left in education funding overall (including the $1.1 billion the Legislature still owes public schools around the state).

The state has also directly cut $35 million from early childhood care and education at a time when half the state’s children are not prepared to succeed in kindergarten.

“Minnesota can do better,” says Lisa Thompson, a home child-care provider in St. Paul who is president of Local 3400, Child Care Providers Together. And Minnesota must do better, she says, because “the development of Minnesota’s workforce starts in early childhood. We already know that 90 percent of brain development happens before their fifth birthday,”

Cuts to child-care investment also mean 7,000 parents can’t get the assistance they need “to make sure their children are in good care while they work,” Thompson says.

Communities can’t hide the cuts anymore
The third area to restore is Local Government Aid. The state has cut aid to cities by $315 million, in just the past four years. That is money local communities rely on for basic services such as police and fire protection; plowing streets; maintaining parks and community centers; keeping libraries open; and providing the licenses and safety inspections businesses need to operate and expand, says Thomas Ferrara, of St. Paul Technical Local 1842. Whether it is seniors, youth, or citizens in between, “they’re losing basic services that protect their quality of life,” he says.

Statewide, the ongoing cuts in LGA have forced local units of government to cut nearly $1 billion worth of services in the past decade. But the cuts also forced those same communities to raise property taxes by more than 30 percent in that same period. That puts an extra burden on people who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Communities “can no longer play the shell game to conceal the cuts that have already been made over the past few years,” Ferrara says.

“Budgets aren’t only about numbers, they’re about our values,” Seide says. “As Minnesotans, we expect fairness, responsibility and honesty – and we expect a growing economy and a prosperous middle class. Voters rejected tea party extremists who raided middle-class wallets to protect tax breaks for millionaires and big corporations. Now, it’s time to show Minnesota what real progress looks like when everyone pays their fair share.”

As Democrats retake control of the state Legislature, it is Minnesota’s moment to finally fix the budget, raise fair revenue, and build an economy that gives everyone a chance to get ahead.