City Pages: So there seems to be a general consensus that the basics--education, health care, transportation, and property tax reform--will be the focus this budget year. How do you see them shaping up?
Margaret Anderson Kelliher: I think for a long time we've been talking about three of the four--education, health care and attacking the increases in property taxes--and of course transportation is a pressing need in the state and I know something will need to be getting done there is a bipartisan way too. Actually, I'm glad to see the way the governor has reached out already on some of these things, particularly on [providing] children with health care issue. I think there is a lot of room to get things done in this legislative session.
CP: While there is agreement on what the issues are, won't getting all the priorities settled with what, after inflation, seems like limited dollars, be a problem when it comes down to the details? For example, the governor vetoed a gas tax two years ago to fund transportation. And on health care, I know Senator Linda Berglin believes that restoring health insurance to the working poor is as important to controlling health care costs as insuring children.
Kelliher: I think there are always hard choices in the legislative process. You have to look at the long view in making sure kids have health care so we can reduce the adverse effects later on and decrease the likelihood of negative outcomes. That is a ten to twenty to thirty year view, but we have heard from voters that they want us to take that view. I respect Senator Berglin's views as well and we will certainly want to take a look at what she has to offer. We are looking at covering 68,000 more kids with health care. Many of them may be eligible already for [publicly supported] health care so I think that is a reasonable goal, to have that ready to go by end of session, implementing outreach on that. With the current projected surplus, we think there is a way to do that within the existing budget and for that and other things we are looking toward a couple of other revenue options. One would be the tax compliance issue, which the legislative auditor has talked about. I think a good conservative estimate is that there is probably $200 or $300 million in uncollected taxes that might be possible to get if we put in the effort.
I think the biggest thing that folks have to remember is this is place where they elect folks to come and work in a civil manner to settle these thorny debates. We think it is very important to keep that on a respectful level and keep the civility in the process. That said, transportation is obviously the place where nobody is quite sure where the governor is going to come at it from.
CP: What about education and property tax reform?
Kelliher: First of all we would like to focus on all-day voluntary kindergarten. Many districts are that now as a way to boost kids' success in school. People are doing bake sales and finding ways to fund it, or charging parents for it, but frankly if it is a proven way to make gains that we need to make, it should be funded on state level. We will also push for more money on the school funding formula, but we also want to use that money wisely by promoting innovative ways to improve. There are innovations like the electronic grade books that are used in St. Paul, where the parents and the child can check on how kids are doing. So innovation is important as well as just the money, and there are partnerships that we can go after in these areas. I think part of everybody's priority is settling on what is sustainable.
I think property tax reform will be done in different ways for different communities. Certainly an adjustment in the local government aid is important in some areas around the state, as well as things like circuit breakers on senior citizens, which helps put the brakes on property taxes when the income isn't keeping up. There is the long proven way of giving property tax refunds when property taxes spike up. We also like the idea of taking over some of the education levies across the state. This was an issue at the end of the last session and the governor and speaker wanted to choose the wealthiest districts for relief. We want to look all around the state when we do this. I can’t say exactly what is going to be done but there are a lot of different issues that affect property taxes and we have a committee set up by Representative Marquart [DFL-Dilworth] that will be looking carefully at those issues.