Minnesota lawmakers plan 3-part fix for budget deficit

Published 8:54 am Monday, March 22, 2010

Think of the Minnesota Legislature’s budget fix as a three-act play with the final scenes yet to be written.

Part I hits the stage Monday when lawmakers vote on $314 million in spending cuts affecting colleges, prisons, courts and local government allowances. But that only gets them one-third of the way to erasing a $1 billion deficit.

The play’s next two acts are still developing, as state leaders wait for help from Washington and figure out whether public schools will share in the squeeze.

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“This is the easy one. The next two are hard,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said of Monday’s vote on the first budget bill. “That’s not to say this bill doesn’t create difficulty. It definitely does.”

The Democratic-led House is looking at slightly different spending reductions in a bill also due for a vote on Monday. The two chambers plan to merge their bills and send the combination to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty before the end of March. The final two pieces won’t be ready until mid-April or possibly even May.

Pawlenty and GOP lawmakers say they could do without the intermission.

“We can’t make them present a comprehensive budget solution, but it would be better if they did,” the governor said Friday. “It would be more responsible. It would give the people of Minnesota a chance to see it in its full version.”

Senate Democrats hope to show that even Republicans disagree with Pawlenty’s recommendations by putting them up for a vote along with their plan. Even if Republicans back the governor, they don’t have enough votes to get his plan passed. But Democrats believe Pawlenty’s cuts are so drastic, even his own party won’t support them.

The billion-dollar shortfall covers the next 14 months, with a deeper hole foreseen in the following budget cycle. The Minnesota’s two-year budget adds up to $31 billion.

Pawlenty and lawmakers alike are counting on $400 million from the federal government to help eat away at the problem. A bill with extra Medicaid money for states is pending in Congress.

And Monday’s bills don’t even touch the two biggest areas of the Minnesota budget: public health and welfare programs and money for kindergarten through high school. Cuts to those areas, if necessary, will be addressed in separate bills. Together, they comprise 70 percent of state spending.

Democrats’ first round of proposed cuts are as small as a $14,000 reduction to a native grass research program and as large as a $105 million whack at payments local governments use to hold down property taxes. Pawlenty wants to cut aid to local governments even more, by $250 million. But Democrats say that other than that, their cuts and the governor’s add up to roughly the same amount.

A small number of programs would receive more money. For instance, $100,000 more is set aside to help pay for honor guards at veterans’ funerals.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said the cuts are difficult because government has been trimming for a few years already. She predicted fresh reductions could result in shorter hours at court counters and fewer college degree programs, including an early education master’s program being considered for elimination at St. Cloud State University.

“This is not going to help,” said Kelliher, who is among a crop of Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

Pawlenty hasn’t said whether he will sign off on the three-piece approach or veto bills until he gets a full budget. He said he will consider the package but remains wary of the details. He is particularly concerned about the amount Democrats want to take from prisons and public safety.

“We’re going to be looking at the public safety area real carefully to see if they’ve done anything that is reckless or misplaced priorities,” he said.

GOP Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem expects Pawlenty to be dissatisfied. He’s predicting a veto.

“I think it’s frankly just destined for failure,” Senjem said. “It’s not going to go anywhere.”