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Former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, column: A way forward for Minnesota Republicans

By Arne Carlson ST. PAUL -- As governor, I inherited a large deficit and, therefore, want to be as helpful as possible in preparing the candidates and public for the hard choices ahead. The November forecast likely will restate the state's defici...

By Arne Carlson

ST. PAUL -- As governor, I inherited a large deficit and, therefore, want to be as helpful as possible in preparing the candidates and public for the hard choices ahead.

The November forecast likely will restate the state's deficit at between $5 billion and $7 billion. It also will likely verify an ongoing structural deficit of at least 1.5 percent (the gap between planned expenditures and likely revenues).

This means that we will not be going back to the "old norm" but will need to create a "new norm."

While this news may be dark and foreboding, it also gives Minnesotans a chance to rethink the size and scope of government and to focus on "smart and efficient" without getting endlessly bogged down by slogans about "conservative" and "liberal."


I would further submit that this transition gives Republicans a rare chance to redefine in an intelligent fashion the new shape of smart and efficient government.

If I may, allow me to suggest the following:

n Commit to balancing the budget without gimmicks.

Sadly, this has not been the case for the past eight years.

For instance, in this recent legislative session, the $3 billion deficit was dealt with by pushing off $2 billion of payments to the next fiscal year. Surprisingly, there was not a single bill submitted by Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Republican legislators that reduced the costs of government by $3 billion or even suggested a mix of cuts and modest revenue increases that eliminated the deficit.

Like prior budgets, the aim was to push the problem to the future.

In this context, it should be noted that while much of the impending $5 billion-$7 billion deficit is due to the economy, at least 40 percent of the red ink spills from the governor's postponements of payments.

In other words, failure to properly balance the budget in healthy years (2002-2007) has led to a huge deficit problem that will be inherited by our next leaders.


These concerns are not mine alone. Recall that Pawlenty's budgets already have cost Minnesota a downgrading from our AAA bond rating.

And recently, another Wall Street warning was issued about the state's financial management. That is not acceptable.

n Create a Republican policy unit.

Preparing a state budget is a complicated and massive undertaking.

In size alone, it comes in three volumes and covers over $30 billion in spending and revenues.

A new governor has less than 30 days from inauguration to prepare and submit these documents to the Legislature.

Considering the fact that the immediate deficit will be in the $5 billion to $7 billion range and that the ongoing structural deficit will be in the area of $450 to $550 million, one can soberly conclude that it cannot be properly handled in such a short period of time.

The time factor also limits the introduction of immediate reforms because a transition is required.


In brief, experts are needed. This means planning and planning now.

We should agree that good planning comes about when quality minds and sound research is utilized.

Instead of collecting a group of like minds, I would suggest that the chairman of the Republican Party bring together people who reflect wisdom, intelligence and independent thought along with the necessary skills sets involving expertise in management, finance, planning and so on.

In brief, let the GOP lead with a positive and thoughtful program that responds to the needs of Minnesotans.

We must be for something and demonstrate more depth than simple slogans and suggestions of disloyalty to those who disagree.

n Broaden the Republican Party.

The Republican Party used to be synonymous with fiscal discipline and a more limited government. In recent decades, it has drifted away from these principles.

I would strongly suggest that the Republican Party take the lead in advancing positive ideas and recognizing the historical chance this transition affords all us.


All of our institutions, private and public, will be compelled to creatively reinvent themselves in order to stay both affordable and able to execute their mission.

This is particularly true for younger people, because they're the ones who must live with these decisions and are the most willing to embrace new thoughts and new solutions.

A political party becomes a magnet when it casts out creative ways to govern that are aligned with the state's best interests.

Carlson served as governor of Minnesota from 1991 to 1999.

This column is an edited version of a longer letter that Carlson recently sent to Tony Sutton, chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.

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