Business leaders: Start with state spending

FAIRMONT – While there is uncertainty about several political issues that will affect the state and local economies, business leaders on both levels feel encouraged about the legislative session.

“The budget forecast is out, and next week the governor is set to release his budget and tax reform,” said Minnesota Chamber of Commerce communications director Jim Pumarlo, who visited Fairmont on Thursday. “But everyone was running for office on a jobs platform, and we are ready to be engaged in that debate. I’m optimistic that no legislator [in St. Paul] wants to harm the economy. There will be some agreements and some challenges. Our big thing is that while there is good news on the economy, it is still fragile out there and we want to keep Minnesota competitive.”

Pumarlo and Fairmont Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Wallace hope Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget and tax reform will concentrate on state spending first, instead of fixating on a dollar amount needed in revenue.

“With the uncertainty of what the tax makeup will be, it’s best to focus on how to be more efficient first,” Wallace said. “There is a lot of uncertainty at the federal level, and that ends up affecting the state and local levels. So we try to address the things where we have some level of control.”

“We’re also hoping any tax reform won’t hurt businesses; if they address the structure, then figure out a number,” Pumarlo said. “That will be our biggest challenge, the issue of a fourth-tier income tax on the high end. For one, it could hit small company owners who run their business to their personal income tax; and two, it could affect the state’s ability to bring in high-end talent.”

Both men believe the spending and tax systems need to encourage the expansion of the state’s economy, allowing for the creation and retention of jobs, while maintaining a high quality of life for Minnesota residents.

“If the state is going to take away [aid to local governments], perhaps they should give the communities the ability to raise their own local sales tax,” Pumarlo suggested. “Expand the tax base to help the entire economy. … Take all these policies together, and it could help expand and not deter job growth, and keep us competitive.”

But employers still need to have the right people with the right training to fill those jobs.

“We need to educate the workforce,” Pumarlo said. “There is a lot of agreement that even with a down economy, there are jobs available but there are workforce gaps because they can’t find people with the skills they need. … We want to make Minnesota the skilled workforce state.”

Some other issues the Chamber of Commerce is speaking out on include health care; energy and the environment; and election reform. Pumarlo said the Chamber hopes to move primary elections back to June, instead of August.

“It’s not a Republican, Democratic or independent issue,” he said. “In the last primaries, less than one out of 10 Minnesotans came out to vote. The idea behind this is not only getting more people to come out to vote, but also a chance to develop better candidates. They battle through primaries, and when you have a newcomer against a longtime incumbent, they only have 10 weeks to get their name out there.”