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Cities say cuts would hit police

Park Rapids Mayor Nancy Carroll and Mankato City Administrator Patrick Hentges listen Thursday to other city officials say that further state aid cuts will begin to chip away at public safety spending. Carroll said Park Rapids has few other places to cut. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- City leaders say they probably would have no choice other than to reduce police forces if Gov. Tim Pawlenty's latest budget-cut proposal is enacted.

Democratic legislative leaders, however, say they have no intention of cutting the $176 million the GOP governor wants to disappear. Pawlenty on Tuesday recommended cutting those local aid payments from cities across the state and another $95 million from the Douglas J. Johnson economic development fund for Iron Range cities.

Park Rapids Mayor Nancy Carroll said that most departments in her community, for instance, are staffed by a single person, so the seven-member police force is one of the few places left to cut if state aid falls.

"Our No. 1 goal has been to protect our staff," she said, but that no longer will be possible if more cuts come down. "The only thing left for us is public safety."

Finance Director Marshall Hallock of Red Wing was upset that Pawlenty has tried to control how cities spend money.

Hallock said his city has trimmed more than two dozen of its 207 positions in recent years, including two from the Police Department. Further cuts would hit public safety again, he added.

Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren said his council has yet to decide what would happen if the cuts come, but "there is nothing more to cut."

Added Ahlgren: "We don't have fluff out there in the cities."

Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities officials say the local aids would be cut 43 percent in a year if Pawlenty gets his way.

The state faces a budget deficit and Pawlenty has frequently has gone to local payments as a place to cut state spending.

Health bill cuts

The Senate passed 42-19 a bill that would cut the state's budget deficit by $114 million and replace a newly enacted health care program for the poor.

The bill, passed late Wednesday, would eliminate the state-funded General Assistance Medical Care program over time and move its recipients to an expanded Medicaid program that became available through recently passed federal health care reform.

Senators passed the bill despite Gov. Tim Pawlenty veto threat.

Costs for care would be split equally between the state and federal governments under the Medicaid program.

The House had previously passed a similar health care bill. Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, said she expects a House-Senate conference committee to reconcile the two bills by late Sunday.

In his veto letter, Pawlenty expressed concern that the House and Senate health care bills are too expensive and are compromising negotiations with care providers regarding a compromise GAMC program passed this session.

Berglin said most care providers have already opted out of that program because "that bill was woefully underfunded."

'Keep right'

A House-Senate conference committee has moved close to agreeing to a bill saying that drivers should be encouraged, but not required, to drive in the right lane of multi-lane highways.

The bill, written by Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, and Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, also contains a provision that allows school bus drivers to not wear seat belts.

The right-lane provision originally would have required drivers to be in the right lane unless they are passing a vehicle. However, law enforcement personnel suggested a softer approach.

Under the bill, which still needs House and Senate final passage, the state drivers' manual and other educational opportunities would encourage right-lane driving.

As the bill advanced through committees in recent weeks, its proponents said that drivers in left-hand lanes tie up traffic.

Enhanced DL OK'd

Legislation to enhance Minnesota driver's licenses so they are acceptable documents for crossing Canadian and Mexican borders is headed to the governor's desk.

An enhanced license would cost $15 more than a normal one and could be used at international border crossing instead of a passport or passport card. Both of those federal documents cost more than the license would

"This legislation is all about making it more convenient for Minnesotans to produce proof of citizenship, and it is hoped that enhanced driver's licenses will make it easier for Minnesotans to travel to Canada and Mexico in these times of heightened border security," said Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids. "It's important to note that this is a voluntary program and we're sensitive to privacy concerns, as the data contained on an enhanced driver's license will not be shared with any other agencies."

Saxhaug and Rep. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, wrote the legislation.

Andrew Tellijohn of the State Capitol Bureau contributed to this story. Tellijohn and Don Davis report for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.