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Commentary: State budget pact that all can support

As the 2008 legislative session heads into the homestretch, many of the goals set at the start of the session have already been accomplished. In a little over two months, we've passed the first comprehensive transportation funding package in 20 y...

As the 2008 legislative session heads into the homestretch, many of the goals set at the start of the session have already been accomplished. In a little over two months, we've passed the first comprehensive transportation funding package in 20 years, a statewide capital investment bill, which focused on higher education projects, the 2008 Legacy bill, and a tax conformity bill that provided millions of dollars in tax relief to Minnesota taxpayers.

The one major piece of unfinished business is agreeing on a plan to balance the state's budget. So far, the House, Senate and governor have submitted their own plans to address the $935 million deficit and we're trying to sort through the differences right now.

Early negotiations have been slow - we're still trying to agree on a basic framework -- but it's clear that coming to an agreement is in everyone's best interest.

If we can't reach a compromise with the governor, he'll have to make any budget cuts on his own, but only after the state's budget reserves have been drained. Based on past actions, the governor is likely to target state health care programs for cuts and again shift costs onto local city, county, townships and school districts. He's also likely to wipe any of the progress we made a year ago on slowing the rise in college tuition.

If he does do that, we are going to find ourselves where we were four years ago, with rising property taxes, more Minnesotans going without health care and fewer young people opting for college. We also won't have solved the budget mess. We will have merely put off the hard decisions for another year.

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The House is willing to use our rainy day funds to address a portion of the deficit -- it is raining after all -- but we also want to make sure that at least a portion of the reserves are held back in case the state's economy continues to struggle.

One of the key priorities for the House in addressing the deficit was that any budget fix had to be responsible and balanced. That meant no budget sleight-of-hand or accounting gimmicks and no more shifting of state costs onto local governments and schools. We also don't want to leave a bigger mess in the next biennium.

Right now, the major sticking point is use of the Health Care Access Fund. This important fund was created on a bipartisan basis back in the early 1990s as a way to provide more Minnesotans with access to affordable health care. The governor has proposed using nearly $400 million from the Health Care Access Fund to make up for lower than expected state tax revenues. Unfortunately, this action amounts to a broken promise.

At time when affordable health care is slipping out of reach for so many Minnesotans, House and Senate Democrats believe that raiding the Health Care Access Fund to balance the budget is not only wrong, but shortsighted.

Our plan allows us to continue moving forward on health care reform and eliminates the governor's proposed cuts to nursing homes and the disabled. It also provides a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustments to the nursing home reimbursement rate, which will ensure that our seniors will continue to get the care they deserve.

Another sticking point is our proposal to use some of the reserve and the surplus portion of funds going to Q-Comp to pay for an additional 1 percent increase to the K-12 school funding formula. The governor objects because the Q-Comp teacher pay program is one of his pet projects.

We believe reallocating those unused funds is a better use of taxpayer resources, particularly at time when so many school districts across the state are struggling financially.

There is a consensus that significant cuts to the state budget need to take place. All of us have proposed cuts to various state agencies in the 3-4 percent range - including a corresponding cut to the Legislature's budget. There are differences on which programs can and should be cut.

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We've said all along that balancing the budget isn't going to be easy. However, we need to use the remaining weeks of session to put the state back on solid financial footing and at the same time invest in a better future. We hope the governor will join us in making that happen.

Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, is majority leader of the Minnesota House.

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