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Pawlenty wants more local aid and health cuts

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to cut local government payments and health care programs for the poor deeper because it appears Washington will not send Minnesota as much money as he expected.

Under his new plan, cities and counties would lose $176 million, an Iron Range economic development fund $95 million, unspecified health and human service programs $211 million, public schools $13 million and other programs $41 million.

Pawlenty called the Democratic-controlled Legislature "pathetic" for not doing more to balance the state budget in this legislative session, which must end by May 17. His proposals would cut $536 million, which he said would finish balancing the budget.

"We are cutting everything with the exception of military and public safety," the governor said. "Nothing is immune."

Democratic leaders rejected the Republican governor's proposal, saying lawmakers from both parties already have turned down $405 million of his proposed reductions.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said Pawlenty's plan "disproportionally affects rural Minnesota and our core cities."

Pawlenty said lawmakers have failed to take budget action beyond passing a bill cutting spending $313 million.

"They have spent all kinds of time doing a whole bunch of nothing," Pawlenty said.

A sagging economy has caused the state budget problems the last couple of years. The State Constitution requires the budget to be balanced, but revenues have lagged behind spending, forcing program cuts.

Last summer, Pawlenty chopped $2.7 billion out of what was a $34 billion, two-year budget. While the state Supreme Court decides whether his cuts are legal, more budget problems have surfaced.

Pawlenty and the House had counted on $408 million in federal funds, but the latest information out of Washington indicates the money will not be available by the time lawmakers have to adjourn for the year, if it ever is available. Pawlenty's proposed $536 million in cuts take into account the missing federal funds and the rest of the remaining deficit.

Cities and counties have lost state aid in many of the past seven years as Pawlenty and lawmakers look for places to trim so they can balance the budget. Local officials say they cannot handle more reductions.

"The proposed ... cut may be the worst blow ever dealt to rural Minnesota," said Glen Fladeboe, a Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities spokesman. "If enacted, it will break communities apart."

The coalition's executive director, Tim Flaherty, said that if the new cuts were enacted, local governments will have no choice but to raise property taxes and cut police, fire, street and other services.

Sertich and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said that lawmakers already rejected local cuts, so they are not likely to accept them now.

The two legislative leaders said they will come up with a plan to cover the $408 million gap before lawmakers leave St. Paul by their May 17 constitutionally required adjournment.

If lawmakers and Pawlenty do not agree, the governor may make unilateral cuts like he did last year.

When Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, was shown the cuts Pawlenty proposed to local governments, his reaction was: "Oh, my word."

But Marquart, chairman of the House committee that deals with local aids, said he thinks that the governor is positioning himself for the final budget talks of the session.

Marquart said the House does not yet know how it will deal with the failure of Congress to pass funds Pawlenty and House leaders expected.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, was especially upset with the $95 million cut Pawlenty wants in the Douglas J. Johnson Trust Fund for the Iron Range.

"Just because we did not vote for him doesn't mean he should hate us," Rukavina said.

Pogemiller said that Pawlenty is getting too excited about making cuts.

"He needs to focus on his calmness rather than the other part of his personality," Pogemiller said.

Sertich added that "any rational person" would not keep asking lawmakers to make the same cuts that they already have rejected.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.