Senate cuts $930 million from budget

Published 9:39 am Friday, February 4, 2011

By Albert Lea Tribune and Associated Press

ST. PAUL — Minnesota senators voted Thursday to slice $930 million from the state budget, a more modest cut than the House approved last week as the state tries to dig out from a massive deficit. The 37-27 party-line vote advances legislation reducing state aid to colleges, local governments and a range of public health programs. The two Republican-led chambers must negotiate a common plan before the bill gets to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Claire Robling, R-Jordan, described it as the first installment of a budget reckoning. Minnesota lawmakers are coping with a $6.2 billion budget deficit for the two-year budget that begins in July.

Email newsletter signup

“They’re not easy cuts. None of the work we do this year is easy, enjoyable,” Robling said. “It will certainly be painful to some.”

Many of the cuts mimic those enacted last year when Democrats ran the Legislature and a Republican was governor. The difference is those cuts were deemed temporary, and some were offset by federal stimulus dollars; these will stretch on unless reversed down the road.

While Dayton has objected to the chunk-at-a-time process, he hasn’t said whether the bill would get vetoed should it reach him.

Dayton presents his budget proposal on Feb. 15.

District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, D-Austin, who was one of the 27 Democrats who voted against the bill, said he is proud to have stood up against what he described as $322 million in property tax increases for state residents.

The bill reduces LGA by $487 million. That means Albert Lea’s reduction would be $597,729. Freeborn County’s reduction would be $44,062.

If the Senate budget passes, Albert Lea’s LGA next year would be $4.7 million, instead of $5.3 million.

“This legislation has gotten a lot of attention in our region,” Sparks said. “Cutting $487 million from state aids to local governments has been billed, by some, as a ‘responsible’ spending cut to state government. We know better.”

He said the councils, chambers and other organizations in Albert Lea, Austin and other cities have been vocal about the fact that state aid cuts are a direct cause to higher property taxes and reduced local services.

“Maybe big cities can absorb these kinds of cuts, but here in rural Minnesota, almost half of our local budgets are made up of state aids,” he said. “Without that money, we’d all be looking at a lot more property tax increases or a lot less fire and police protection, road maintenance, snow plowing and other services.”

He noted that the bill also asked for a nearly $1 million cut to Riverland Community College. He said this would be a “devastating blow” to the college and to the students and families who are struggling to pay for higher education costs.

The bill likewise included cuts to reimbursements to honor guard units at military funerals and cuts to repairs at the state’s veterans’ homes.

“I am fully committed to solving our state’s budget crisis, but absolutely not on the backs of veterans and the military, property tax payers or families paying tuition,” Sparks said.

The Department of Minnesota Management and Budget and other agencies analyzed the reductions in the Senate bill and found:

• A $40 million cut in children and community services assistance grants would require counties to pick up the slack for neglect, dependency, disability and poverty services for 435,000 people, or they’ll have to scale the programs back.

• About $90 million in aid withheld from the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which would prevent the schools from filling vacant faculty positions and stop them from offering more on-campus jobs to students as part of financial aid programs.

• Roughly $100 million would be taken from a property tax rebate program for renters. About 19,000 would lose their rebate eligibility and the average recipient would see their payback fall by $170.

The bill also orders Dayton’s executive branch to find $125 million in savings in the next five months, turning back previously allocated money they hadn’t spent yet. The House version sets the target for agency savings at $200 million.

Democrats argued that the Senate bill would have a more noticeable effect than Republicans let on. To meet the goal, they contend tax forms and refunds would take longer to process. They said there would be less state park upkeep, leading to a “rustic” camping experience in half of the parks. And they raised the prospect of financial squeezes at the state forensic lab and crime victim support offices.

Democrats attacked the bill on several fronts, from its priorities to the expedited process.

Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis said the GOP was of trying to “balance our budget on the backs more and more of those least able to afford it.”

Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka said consequences of the reductions needed more vetting before the vote. “What is the hurry?” Bonoff asked.

Republicans, including several in their first term, stood their ground and said urgent action was necessary.

“We were sent here to deal with this,” said Sen. David Brown of Becker. “We are all here to do a tough job of balancing the budget. We are not doing it on the backs of any single group. We’re not throwing anyone under the bus.”

As a sweetener, Republicans tacked on a package of tax measures that match up Minnesota’s tax code with recent federal changes.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said the changes will benefit 3.7 million taxpayers, including breaks for teachers for expenses they incur in connection with their jobs. The measure would cost the state about $10 million for the current tax year.