MN House GOP eyes deficit; bill seeks to trim state budget
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota House Republicans found no Democrats willing to join their first 2011 attempt at trimming the state budget.
The bill that passed Thursday night would order Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton to cut nearly $200 million from the state's $30-billion-plus budget by June 30. It also would trim about $800 million from what had been expected to be spent in the next two-year budget.
Even if the bill becomes law, which Dayton makes sound doubtful, plenty of work remains before a projected $6.2 billion budget hole is filled.
"Minnesota is a state in challenge and we are up to that challenge," House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said moments before the House voted 68-63 for the measure.
All Democratic-Farmer-Labor representatives opposed the bill, joined by four Republicans in the House less than a month: Deb Kiel of Crookston, John Kriesel of Cottage Grove, King Banaian of St. Cloud, and Rich Murray of Albert Lea.
Hours before the vote, Dayton repeated his opposition to the bill, which he said takes a piecemeal approach to fixing the budget problem.
Senators are expected to pass a slightly different budget bill next week, which would send the issue to a conference committee. House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said the Dayton administration would be asked to participate in crafting a compromise in that committee.
The GOP bill would reduce below expectations aid to local governments $487 million in the next two years, lower expected higher education spending $185 million and trim health-care spending plans $47 million.
The current cuts created the most controversy, with Democrats saying that eliminating $200 million spending by June 30 would hurt critical services such as those for veterans and ones guaranteeing food safety.
Chairwoman Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said that the $200 million is only a quarter of the state's unspent money.
However, she said, Republicans have heard that bureaucrats are spending money left in their budgets as quickly as they can, before cuts take place. Holberg plans to file paperwork demanding internal state documents to see if that is true.
"The bureaucrats are much better than we are about hiding money," she said.
Zellers said Republicans are willing to be flexible in talks with Dayton about how much can be cut from the current budget. Senators will consider a bill with a smaller slice removed.
Reducing Local Government Aid and other programs designed for local governments below earlier projections are among the most controversial actions. Some cities already have budgeted for the higher amount, but others decided to prepare for a smaller-than-predicted amount.
Tax Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said that when the final budget bill is approved late this legislative session more aid cuts are possible.
Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, called the measure a "reckless tax increase on every Minnesotan." Marquart claimed that cuts in local aids, which would extend into the next budget, could lead to a $300 million property tax increase by local governments.
Added Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji: "Property taxes have increased by 85 percent over the past few years; we cannot ask some of the most vulnerable members of our community to bear the burden of our state budget crisis."
Several Democrats complained that tuitions would increase because of cuts to state-run colleges and universities.
"You and I don't know what those cuts will result in," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.
The bill even puts disaster relief money approved in a special October legislative session, for 2010 floods and tornadoes, in peril Rep. Kory Kath, DFL-Owatonna, warned. Holberg did not argue.
Persell worried that veterans' programs would be cut this spring.
"Where's the shared burden in this budget solution?" Persell asked. "We continue to ask working families, students, senior citizens and even our veterans to pay more than their fair share."
Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, blasted Republicans.
"Raising taxes, cutting wages, slashing veterans' services - these are the budget priorities for the new Republican majority," Anzelc said. "They are not my priorities or those of the hardworking Minnesotans I represent. That is why I voted no."
Rukavina agreed with other Democrats that wealthy Minnesotans would feel little from the cuts.
"Why are you attacking the middle class in this bill?" he asked. "It's a game, members. And I don't think our constituents want to see a game this early in the session."
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.