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Pioneer Editorial: State union budget idea unheeded

Much has been said about Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unilateral move to balance the state budget to close a $3 billion budget gap with line-time vetoes, delayed payments and unallotments. He called for public input on how to close that gap, and presumably had many suggestions from Minnesotans.

Still, we can't help but believe that he essentially ruled as out of hand a significant suggestion by state union workers that could cut as much as $350 million from state spending -- savings that wouldn't have put more Minnesotans in jeopardy of losing their health insurance, or local governments scrambling to make up state aid losses by cutting essential services or raising property taxes or forcing program decisions that affect the state's most vulnerable citizens.

As early as last May, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, as outlined elsewhere in this edition, proposed savings in state spending without raising taxes that would have prevented Gov. Pawlenty from unalloting $350 million elsewhere in the budget. Union officials hand-delivered the pitch to the governor's office, but as yet have not heard from him.

As a result, MAPE officials are taking their case to the public, meeting last week with the Bemidji Pioneer Editorial Board. It's not too late to make those changes, they argue.

What spurred them on were comments the Republican governor made during his April 10 radio show that "the public employee unions, and the spenders and the DFL should quit coming up with the tax increase of the week or the day idea and focus on how we can reduce our spending."

They did.

Among the highlights:

E State agencies fail to collect an average of $30 million a quarter, or $120 million a year, or $240 million for the biennium. It's not uncollected income and corporate taxes for which the state Revenue Department continues to root out, but accounts receivable by the state agencies themselves. It ranges from county payments owed the Department of Human Services to uncollected unemployment compensation payments from businesses, the latter an $18 million item.

E Cutting the size of state government by instituting the same recommended management-to-staff ratio of 15 percent used by the state for grants non-profit organization. That move could save $110 million over the biennium.

E Replace outside contractors with state workers. For example, MAPE looked at 60 different electrical inspection contractors in 2008 who were paid $9.5 million by the state Department of Labor and Industry. That same work done by union state electrical inspectors would have cost $6.1 million, saving the state $3.4 million. The state paid $1.9 billion in outside contracts in 2008.

E Curb out-of-state travel by state workers, a $13 million item in 2008.

Instead of seeking ways to cut or furlough state workers, the Pawlenty administration should be listening to them as they offer ways to reform state government without placing the burden on vulnerable Minnesotans or property taxpayers.