Column: Session jam-packed with key decisions

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 19, 2002

By all accounts, it seems the session will leap to a swift start Jan.

Saturday, January 19, 2002

By all accounts, it seems the session will leap to a swift start Jan. 29. This non-budget setting year is typically considered the &uot;short session,&uot; and is anticipated to last only eight to ten weeks. However, with a nearly $2 billion budget deficit, pressing homeland security issues and renewed talk of a Twins stadium, those weeks will be filled with contentious issues and tough decisions.

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The top concern facing our state is the $1.953 billion budget shortfall. Gov. Jesse Ventura recently laid out his preferred remedy: a combination that spends reserve accounts, raises dozens of taxes, and cuts funding in hundreds of areas including K-12 and higher education, city and county aid, and the senior prescription drug program.

The governor should be commended for leading on this issue and for coming out early with a plan; however I object to quite a bit of his recommendations. To ease the pain on Minnesota’s families, I am looking at other plans to balance the budget. The plan I currently favor would not raise taxes or cut services, but would rely on three simple parts: imposing a hiring freeze on state workers, using reserve accounts, and dipping into part of the state’s tobacco-settlement funds.

A hiring freeze will save the state approximately $333 million just by leaving 3,950 non-essential state jobs unfilled throughout the next year and a half. The second part of our plan uses approximately $1.2 billion in budget reserve accounts that Minnesota has set aside for a rainy day. Finally, our proposal relies on $500 million of the state’s one-time tobacco settlement award – leaving $689 million for medical research and $54 million for anti-smoking efforts completely untouched. Several other states have used similar plans to help deal with their state’s budget shortfalls.

While budget woes will undoubtedly monopolize much of this session, public safety will also demand attention. I believe that Minnesota is better prepared to deal with terrorist threats than most states, but there is still room for improvement. We will need to find funding for equipment and personnel to deal with biohazard events, more training for emergency response teams, and increased communication systems. In my opinion one of our chief goals should be approving $200 million in bonding to further implement Minnesota’s CriMNet system, a criminal database of offenders that can be accessed by law enforcement and courts throughout the state.

The biggest challenge in the area of transportation is finding a significant new source of funding for our highways and bridges. I strongly object to Ventura’s plan to raise the gas tax by five cents, however, because it is used to balance the budget and will not provide any new money for transportation needs. It is not fair to ask our taxpayers to swallow a gas tax hike unless we spend the revenue to help repair and expand our dangerous outstate roads.

Education is a key issue year in and year out. While we do not have the funds to debate spending increases this session, we will have to work diligently to prevent the governor from cutting current funding.

In odd numbered years, the legislature’s work focuses on setting a two-year budget. In even years like this one, we approve bonding (low interest, long-term loans) for state building or repair projects. This year’s bill is likely to fall around $1 billion, and I will work to ensure that it includes highway construction, crime prevention, flood and tornado relief, school buildings and local projects like the Blazing Star Trail.

Beyond a doubt, 2002 promises to be a jam-packed session. If you have any questions or comments on these or any issues, please feel free to contact my office at 651-296-9248.

Sen. Grace Schwab (R-Albert Lea) represents Freeborn and Mower counties in the Minnesota Senate.