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Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, center, who chairs the Senate Taxes Committee, listens to Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Superintendent Jim Hess of the Bemidji School District discuss school funding Monday afternoon during a education funding forum in the Bemidji High School Commons. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Bakk meets with area leaders in Bemidji

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School officials and other community leaders from the region met Monday in Bemidji with Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, to weigh in on Minnesota's budget challenges.

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Bakk, who chairs the Senate Taxes Committee and is a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2010, met with community leaders at a luncheon at Sparkling Waters and later held an education funding forum at Bemidji High School.

He also attended a Beltrami County DFL fundraiser Monday evening in Bemidji.

At the luncheon and later at the forum, Bakk said Gov. Tim Pawlenty's state budget proposal for the 2010-11 biennium would only offer a temporary deficit fix. While the governor's proposal would eliminate a $4.85 billion deficit in the 2010-11 biennium through spending cuts, one-time funding and other measures, the state would face a $2.5 million deficit in the 2012-13 biennium, Bakk said.

"And that assumes no inflation," he added.

Additionally, Bakk said the governor's proposal is hard on local governments, higher education and low-income people who need health care.

"He filled that $4.85 billion budget hole predominantly, I would argue, on the backs of local governments, higher ed and health care for low-income people," Bakk said. "That is where he found the overwhelming majority of his cuts."

He said the governor's budget proposal include three pieces of one-time funding to help balance the budget, including an education payment shift.

"He scores $1.3 billion by just changing the timing of when the state sends money out to school districts," Bakk said.

He said Pawlenty's budget also assumes $920 million in federal stimulus dollars and $983 million in tobacco appropriation bonds, both of which also would be one-time funding.

Bakk, meanwhile, said the Senate will try to balance the budget not only for the 2010-11 biennium, but for the next one.

"The tendency is to deal with the most immediate problem, which is the current biennium, but somewhere you have to resolve the ongoing structural problem," he said.

Bakk holds forum

One of Pawlenty's top priorities in his budget proposal for the 2010-11 biennium is improving K-12 education. For the two-year biennium, Pawlenty would increase K-12 education spending 1.9 percent to $14.06 billion of his $33.61 billion budget proposal.

As part of his proposal, he would link future funding increases to improved performance, requiring all school districts to use his teacher performance pay system, Q Comp.

At Monday's forum, Bakk discussed Q Comp and other education funding issues with 14 school officials and others from the region.

Ann Long Voelkner, a member of the Bemidji School Board, referred to the governor's Q Comp proposal.

"All around, it doesn't look like a good idea," she said.

"The Senate has never been an advocate for Q Comp," said Bakk, who suggested that Pawlenty wants Q Comp to be part of his legacy as governor.

An auditor's report that looked at Q Comp, Olson added, found that "it really has not been successful in doing what it was supposed to achieve for the most part."

At the forum, Bakk also noted the 2001 decision to remove seasonal recreation property from excess operating levies.

Some school districts, Bakk noted, have a limited tax capacity because they have a large amount of seasonal recreation property and/or public-owned property, while other districts have a large tax capacity.

"It creates a real disparity in education funding," said Bakk, adding that only a handful of school districts in the state don't have an excess operating levy.

Carl Remmers, superintendent of the Cass Lake-Bena School District, said the district is among those in the state with no excess operating levy.

"Even a very small one would put a tremendous burden on our few taxpayers we do have," said Remmers, noting that the school district has a total of $3 million of assessed valuation.

Most of the land within the district, he added, is in the Leech Lake Reservation or Chippewa National Forest.

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, who attended Monday's events, is the chief author of a bill that would place cabin owners on excess operating levies, but remove them from the state general tax, which goes to the state's general fund. Bakk is a co-author of the bill.

Bakk said the move would be a "pretty fair trade" for cabin owners and a "good thing" for school districts that have a lot of seasonal recreation property.

Also at the forum, Steve Howard, treasurer for the Cass Lake-Bena School Board, encouraged Bakk and Olson to look at state mandates for school districts and see if they still make sense financially.

"There's a lot of things out there that affect us that are probably revenue neutral for the state of Minnesota, but yet cost our districts a lot of money," Howard said.

Superintendent Jim Hess of the Bemidji School District noted that the district, Minnesota School Boards Association and Minnesota Association of School Administrators all have developed lists for state legislators of state mandates that "hamper or ... end up inhibiting what we do in K-12 schools."

"There's a lot of discussion about mandates," Bakk said.

Olson noted that "every committee of any substantial area of the budget" has set up special committees this legislative session to look specifically at state mandates.

"We're going to be having those conversations - going back, revisiting the reasons for them to begin with, taking a look at whether they still make sense or not," she said.

Lunch with leaders

Prior to the forum Monday, Olson hosted the luncheon for Bakk and community leaders.

Attending the luncheon were representatives of the city of Bemidji, Beltrami County, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota Indian Gambling Association, Bemidji State University, Northwest Technical College, North Country Health Services and Northern Dental Access Center.

As the community leaders met with Bakk, they voiced their concerns about budget issues ranging from Local Government Aid to financial aid for college students to health and human services funding.

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