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Pawlenty to seek input on cuts from local officials

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Thursday that small cities will be protected from upcoming state budget cuts he will make on his own. Pioneer Photo/ Scott Wente

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty said small cities will be protected when he cuts spending to balance the state budget, but he wants other cities and counties to say how much state aid they can live without.

Minnesota's smallest counties and cities may not see a loss in state aid when Pawlenty cuts spending himself, the governor and his staff said Thursday, but other local governments should expect less.

"What (funding) cut level can they take and not complain?" Pawlenty said he will ask local officials and other interest groups. "That's what we'd like to hear from them."

Lawmakers ended their 2009 legislative session Monday without reaching agreement with Pawlenty on a new two-year state budget. A $2.7 billion gap exists between the spending Pawlenty signed into law and the revenue the state expects to collect, so the governor says he must use a process called unallotment to cut spending. He could have a plan to trim the state budget and delay some state payment to schools by July 1, when the new budget period begins.

Following a meeting with his agency commissioners, Pawlenty said wherever possible his administration will cut spending in the second year of the two-year budget, beginning July 1, 2010. That would allow time for budget work during the 2010 legislative session.

The governor sent a letter to all 201 state legislators asking for their suggestions on possible budget cuts. Pawlenty said he would write a similar letter to interest groups that could be affected, such as health-care and local-government organizations, and will meet with them.

Also Thursday, the governor vetoed a tax bill that the Democrats in control of the Legislature passed in the session's final minutes Monday. It raised taxes by $1 billion, but did not include any Local Government Aid cuts.

"They have taken their hit," Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, said of cities and counties.

Pawlenty cut state aid to local governments through unallotment in December to help balance the current state budget, but spared small cities and counties.

Local government organizations have lobbied hard against budget cuts that they will hurt basic services, including public safety. Officials plan a Capitol news conference today to discuss Local Government Aid cuts.

People, businesses and organizations across the state are tightening their fiscal belts in light of the economic recession, Pawlenty said.

"To have cities come forward and say we can't take any cut at all is hogwash," Pawlenty said. "It's hogwash. And they need to get their head into the reality of these times."

Also Thursday, Pawlenty signed a bill making a seat belt violation a primary offense. The new law allows law enforcement officers to pull over a motorist for a seat belt violation. Current law does not allow officers to stop motorists only for seat belt violations.

Supporters have fought years for the change and say it will save lives. Opponents called it an unnecessary level of government intrusion.

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.