DFLers face pent-up demand for spending requests in 2013

Published 7:18 pm Saturday, November 17, 2012

By Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio

ST. PAUL — As Democrats prepare to take control of the Minnesota Legislature, interest groups have started lining up with funding wish lists for the 2013 session.

A coalition of groups, for example, came to the State Capitol this week to warn of a looming crisis for elderly caregivers, if lawmakers don’t come through with an increase in state funding.

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Their visit with legislators spoke to the pent-up demand for spending after a series of budget deficits and two years of Republicans in charge.

Aware of that demand, incoming DFL leaders are trying to temper expectations with a warning that the state’s fiscal picture still isn’t healthy. But that isn’t likely to curtail the requests.

Without specifying how much money they need, advocates for the elderly urged Gov. Mark Dayton and newly elected DFL legislators to make senior care a budget priority in 2013.

“For four years we’ve had no increase,” said Jim Birchem of Little Falls, who owns several nursing homes and assisted living facilities in rural Minnesota. “Our expenses have gone up. We’ve reduced staff. We’ve had to make changes.

“We’re still surviving,” said Birchem, as he described his industry’s workforce problems. “Our employees haven’t gotten a raise. The employees and we are not going to do it anymore.”

Nursing homes are just one of the constituency groups making a case to lawmakers for a funding boost. The statewide teachers’ union is another. Acknowledging that even the “pro-education” DFL House and Senate majorities won’t be able to fix everything in one session, Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said it’s nevertheless time for Minnesota to invest in schools.

“A decade ago we were spending 14, 15 percent more,” Dooher said. “We need to start working incrementally back to that. We need to make early childhood [education] available to everybody, all-day kindergarten. We need to make sure higher education is affordable.”

Dooher said he expects legislators to work out the numbers on education spending in the next few weeks.

Local government officials hope state lawmakers will reverse another funding trend.

Gary Carlson, a lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities, said the state aid payments to cities, known as Local Government Aid, peaked in 2002 and are now frozen at a level significantly below where they were a decade ago.

“I know that a lot of city officials are interested in trying to increase or restore some of the recent funding cuts in the Local Government Aid program,” Carlson said.

Also optimistic about their prospects under a DFL Legislature are members of public employee unions. Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, said he believes lawmakers will quickly ratify the contract agreements that Republicans put on hold last summer.

Monroe said that contract will expire in June, so another round of contract talks will get underway soon.

“I think we’ve got to all be looking at how we take care of public employees,” Monroe said. “I’m not saying that they expect everything, but how we get some recognition for the work they do, and how we deal with what they’ve forgone over the last several contracts.”

However, Monroe said his enthusiasm is tempered by the knowledge that the state will likely face another budget deficit.

Senate Majority Leader-designate Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, offered a similar word of caution.

“There is no new money to spend on things,” he said.

Bakk has made it clear that his top priority will be balancing the budget.

Last March, state finance officials projected the next shortfall at $1.1 billion. Bakk predicts an even deeper hole, which he said could take several budget cycles to climb out of.

“I do think [for] people who now are looking at these DFL majorities in state government, the expectations are probably a little too high for most of the interest groups,” he said. “The state has serious financial challenges.”

Legislators will get a better idea of the financial challenges ahead on Dec. 5, when a new state economic forecast is released. The 2013 session begins Jan. 8.