Lawmakers can help people who need it, or squander a huge opportunity | Opinion

April 29, 2022 5:47 am

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated long-standing challenges, and the fragile child care system is now deeper in crisis. Photo courtesy of Bright Future Child Care in Brooklyn Center.

In the final weeks of Minnesota’s legislative session, policymakers have a clear choice. They can rise to this moment and take bold action to solve significant challenges average Minnesotans face. Or they can squander our state’s resources — either on large, unfair and permanent tax cuts, or by failing to get much done.

With a historic $9.3 billion state budget surplus, the time to act is now. Minnesotans expect policymakers to solve problems, like addressing the severe lack of affordable housing; ensuring all of our K-12 students have the teachers, resources and supports they need; expanding access to mental health care; and strengthening services for people living with disabilities.

Too many Minnesotans are still encountering challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and grappling with barriers to economic security in place long before the pandemic.

Minnesota can make transformational changes that address those challenges and barriers. Two specific proposals that deserve to become law this year would make it easier for Minnesotans struggling to pay rent and afford child care.

In their package of proposals to address Minnesota’s housing crisis, the Minnesota House includes a game-changing reform to the state’s property tax refund for renters. The renters’ credit reaches Minnesotans in every part of the state, refunding a portion of the property taxes they pay through their rents. Nearly one-third of the modest-income households that receive it include seniors or people living with severe disabilities.

By making the renters’ credit simpler to calculate and apply for, the House proposal would reach more renters — including an estimated 120,000 households who currently qualify but don’t receive it. It would also boost the credit amount that many Minnesotans receive and get refunds into renters’ bank accounts sooner.  

The bottom line? The expanded renters’ credit would mean an additional $150 million for Minnesotans struggling to pay rent.

Along with housing, child care is one of Minnesotans’ highest household expenses. Affordable, dependable child care helps children to thrive, parents to go to work or school and employers to find and retain essential workers. 

Gov. Tim Walz’s budget proposes giant steps toward all families being able to afford the child care options that are right for them. His budget would fully fund child care assistance that brings down the cost of care, ending waiting lists and serving all eligible families, as well as increase the availability of other early learning options. 

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated long-standing challenges, and the fragile child care system is now deeper in crisis. Walz’s proposal would increase state reimbursement rates paid to child care providers to better match the value of their services, and provide additional resources to stabilize and build capacity in the child care system.

In today’s economy, we can’t leave working parents on the sidelines because they can’t afford child care.

The funding for these and other bold solutions is available — now.

Minnesota policymakers should not waste this opportunity by enacting costly, permanent tax cuts that give the biggest benefits to the highest-income people and siphon funding away from solving our collective challenges.

Rather than invest the surplus in real solutions that make life better for everyday Minnesotans, the Senate would spend $8.4 billion over three years, mainly on income tax cuts and Social Security exemptions.    

About two-thirds of Social Security income going to Minnesota residents is already exempt from the state income tax. The Senate would expand Minnesota’s Social Security exemption to include higher-income people and all Social Security income at a cost of more than $500 million a year. More than half of the resulting tax cuts would go to households with incomes above $134,000.

Similarly, the Senate’s plan to cut the rate in the first income tax bracket provides the biggest benefits to those with the most resources. The highest-income Minnesotans would receive average tax cuts of more than $1,000 each year, while about one in five Minnesota households would see no benefit, and lower-income Minnesotans would be most likely to be left out.

Policymakers having such different policy priorities raises the specter of a stalemate. But we all lose if little gets done this session. 

Lawmakers will have thrown away this moment if the gavel comes down on May 23 without having taken action to ensure children have safe, welcoming care while their parents are at work; to make it easier for folks to afford a home; to ease the hunger pangs of hundreds of thousands of our neighbors; and to erase the chasms in opportunity and security between white Minnesotans and people of color.

We have the means. Now is the time.

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