State should look for ways to invest its budget surplus

Whenever there’s a government budget surplus like Minnesota’s in 2022, there’s the question of what to do with it.

The idea of giving money back to taxpayers is almost always suggested. There’s some logic behind it. People reason that it’s taxpayer money and that taxpayers should therefore get it back.

They could do whatever they want with it. They might put it toward a long range investment like a down payment on a home or a college education.

Then again they might just spend it on something like a bigger home entertainment center or a vacation to a distant city. They might blow it at a casino.

Why should public officials concern themselves with how people might spend a tax refund?

They should because of the multitude of good ways the money could be spent if it gets held over. There are many unmet needs in society, needs that could be addressed with money from a surplus.

One valuable place to invest money would be public education. Schools have to depend strongly on their local tax bases, which can make it difficult to keep down class sizes, offer more elective courses and replace old buildings.

When something is good for kids, we should spend money on it if there’s any way to afford the cost.

Kids are the future. They’re the ones who will take care of us someday when we’re in assisted living or nursing homes. There’s nothing more important than kids.

A second idea for investment, one that could also help children and families, is affordable housing.

More should be done to empower cities and towns to build new housing additions with affordable homes. There should be a return to the mid 20th century standard of three bedroom ramblers, ones that measure about 1,200 square feet on the main floor.

A basement with escape windows could be used to create a fourth bedroom, maybe even a fifth. It could be a comfortable family sized home for people with moderate expectations who focus on needs rather than wants.

That could be encouraged through housing grants for affordable home construction. Another possibility would be to expand state programs under which agencies buy homes, fix them up and sell them to low to moderate income owners.

Education and housing are just two of many ways to invest surplus dollars. There’s also something to be said for not spending the surplus all at once, for simply holding onto it and gradually spending it down.

A true fiscal conservative should see value to having a tax levy that remains stable over the long term. That can happen by factoring in a surplus. It could lead to a series of very minimal tax increases.

We have to ask what’s worse. Is it worse to deny tax relief?

Or is it worse to give it out and then have to take it back through higher taxes when budget factors swing the other way?

A strong case can be made that it’s better if taxpayers never see the money. It means that they’re less likely to be burdened later with substantial tax increases.

Minnesota’s state officials should carefully weight all options for the current budget surplus. They shouldn’t automatically cave in to short term public opinion.

— Jim Muchlinski is a longtime reporter and contributor to the Marshall Independent


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