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Persell defends health care spending bill

Regional hospitals and nursing homes could see severe cuts under Gov. Tim Pawlenty's health and human services plan, says state Rep. John Persell.

Especially hit hard would be North County Regional Hospital, the Bemidji Democrat said Monday morning in a telephone interview. The parent organization, North Country Health Services, could see $14.3 million in cuts over the next two years.

"Some of those small hospitals can't take it," Persell said. "They'll just go out of business."

The House later Monday approved the health and human services omnibus spending bill in an 80-51 vote. Joining Persell in support was Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, while opposing it was Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker.

Health and human services spending was projected to increase to $11.3 billion if nothing was done by the Legislature by July 1. DFLers say their bill slows that growth by $500 million.

"Nobody loses health care," Persell said of the bill. "The cuts are somewhere between what the House and Senate were, and under the House, the cuts to (North Country Health Services) were shy of a million. ... It will be somewhere between $1 million and $14 million -- it's not the governor's proposal.."

No one will lose their access to medical care, he said, with DFLers projecting that 113,000 Minnesotans would lose it under Pawlenty's proposal.

He was leery of the prospects of an override of the governor's Saturday veto of the omnibus tax bill. That bill included $1 billion in income tax hikes to the wealthiest Minnesotans to pay for schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

Pawlenty has offered to scrap his proposal to borrow $1 billion in bonding, to be repaid annually by the state's tobacco settlement. Instead, he said he would agree to borrow half as much and would agree with the House DFL plan to shift school district payments to the next biennium, a figure higher than he proposed. But that still leaves $3.6 billion to fill in a $4.6 billion budget hole.

Legislators won't accept issuing bonds for state operations, Persell said, adding that the state would have $600 million in interest costs.

"If the governor's saying we'll do the shift in lieu of the taxes and we've got look at $3.4 billion in cuts, I don't know anybody that wants that $3.4 billion in cuts besides the governor," Persell said.

The Legislature could do a bill with $3.4 billion in cuts, "and then put that in front of the governor and let him take the heat, if he wants to sign it," the freshman Democrat said. "I don't know what strategy would work best."

Filling the $1 billion difference between the Legislature and Pawlenty may be simpler than deciding what to do about the remaining $3.6 billion hole," Persell said.

"The principle of it is what was being put to the governor," he said. "The principle between borrowing $1 billion and paying back $1.6 billion, or just raising some revenue that's dedicated, absolutely dedicated, to where we know that revenue's going to go."

Sending it to schools, hospitals and nursing homes "is very transparent and taxpayers know what they're getting for their money," Persell said. "Usually, that's all that taxpayers ask of us -- show us what we're getting for our money -- and we're trying to do that."

Four Republicans would need to side with Democrats to override the veto, and Persell said that "it would depend a lot on if you come up with $3.4 billion in cuts and it shuts the hospital in their district, I think it'll make people think different."

The Legislature can finish its work by next week's constitutionally mandated adjournment "if people come together," Persell said. "I'm the eternal optimist. ... Reasonable human beings should be able to come together around this."

The DFL-controlled Legislature has shown it is willing to compromise, he said. "But we just think, quite honesty, that $3.4 billion in cuts is too much. We're going to be laying people off, and laying people off is absolutely not what we want to do."