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Paynesville Press - March 12, 2003

Legislators hold town meeting in Paynesville

By Michael Jacobson

Just like the current legislative session itself, questions about the state deficit and the governor's proposed budget that deals with it dominated a town meeting hosted by Senator Michelle Fischbach and Representative Doug Stang on Saturday.

Nearly 20 local residents attended the noon town meeting at city hall in Paynesville on Saturday and engaged in a friendly hour-long discussion with Fischbach and Stang, who also held meetings in Kimball and Cold Spring on Friday afternoon and in Avon and St. Joseph on Saturday morning.

Attendees included representatives from city and township government, from the Paynesville Area Health Care System, and from the general public. Concerns ranged from the fate of specific programs to ideas for revenue generation for the state, notably a state casino.

"Obviously, the deficit has been the big issue so far this year," said Fischbach (R-Paynesville). Both the Senate and the House are looking at the governor's budget proposals now and most likely there will be changes as the proposal moves through the legislative process, she said.

In response to a question about Market Value Credit, a state aid that helps reduce local property taxes, Stang noted that it faced only a slight cut. "Nothing is going up this year," he said, "except the budget."

Despite all the talk about the deficit, the state will have the largest budget in its history this year, up four percent from last year, he said. "It's really not so much a revenue issue as a spending issue," he added. Ralph Hennen, a supervisor for Eden Lake Township, asked where the increases are. "Primarily, it's to maintain what we have now and to fund the programs we have now," answered Stang. Spending for health and human services was expected to increase 14 percent but the governor's proposal tries to limit that increase to 8.8 percent.

Fischbach and Stang said now - as the Legislature starts to consider aspects of the governor's budget proposal - is a great time for input from the public on proposed measures. After hearing a concern from PAHCS administrator Bev Mueller that a state health program would no longer allow retroactive entry, Fischbach said, "That's good to know that that is an issue."

Specific concerns included the elimination of the living-at-home grants (which fund the local R.O.S.E. Center). Joyce Spaulding, the local volunteer coordinator for the center, was concerned that these were going to be cut completely.

Lois Roback, a social worker at PAHCS, was similarly concerned that alternative care grants would be shut down.

Mueller added a concern that a five percent cut in Medical Assistance from the state would result in another five percent cut in matching federal funds. This would result in a 10 percent cut, she said, with health care providers receiving 40 for every dollar of care, instead of 50.

Stang said the Legislature is aware of the possible loss in matching federal dollars and will try to be creative in an effort to get as much federal money as possible. But, since most federal programs rely on matching state funds, the state will not be able to afford everything. If the state tried to get all the federal "carrots," the state would go broke, he said.

Dave Peschong, a city council member for the city of Paynesville, asked how cast in stone are the cuts in Local Government Aid (LGA).

Stang said there will be cuts, they will be painful, and the Legislature will try to do them in the most fair way. This is difficult, he said, because LGA is not given fairly now, with some cities relying on LGA for 90 percent of their budgets. (The city of Paynesville gets about 40 percent of its budget from LGA.)

"When you're not spreading it out evenly to begin with, it's going to be uneven when you take it away," said Stang. "It's going to be a challenge." There is an effort to revise the formulas for LGA, Stang and Fischbach said, in part because the current proposal of LGA cuts seems to hit rural Minnesota harder.

Stang predicted that LGA would be the most contentious issue in the session.

Another proposed cut is the freezing of wages for public servants, a bill that Fischbach co-authored in the Senate. Her bill is in committee, she said. Peschong asked what right the state has to dictate to local governments to institute a pay freeze.

Fischbach and Stang agreed that a wage freeze for state employees is most likely while a pay freeze for county, city, and school employees is less likely.

They also discussed the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), prompted by a question from Mayor Jeff Thompson as to whether MnDOT had to return federal aid due to a failure of completing projects.

Stang said Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau, who is also acting as the Secretary of Transportation, has her hands full in battling the bureaucracy at MnDOT. Someone in Cold Spring had noted that it took longer to build two new lanes for Highway 23 than it did to build the original two lanes, said Stang. "I think MnDOT's inefficiencies are well known by the general public," said Stang.

One suggestion for increasing revenue, specifically for transportation, was raising the gas tax by five cents per gallon. John Atwood, a supervisor from Paynesville Township, asked if this would be done.

Fischbach said that any new tax this year will be difficult, since many legislators have signed a no-new-tax pledge. Even if the Legislature would pass a gas tax increase, it would face a possible veto, since Governor Tim Pawlenty signed the no-new-tax pledge.

Passing a gas tax would also start a fight between those who support road construction and those who want light rail, said Stang. "We might see less money out here," he said.

Hennen wondered if a state-owned casino had any chance of happening as a revenue source, citing a survey where three-quarters of the public supported this idea.

Fischbach said there is a proposal in the Legislature for a "racino" at Canterbury Downs, adding slot machines, etc. A state-owned casino would also be an option, but both Fischbach and Stang prefer selling a license for a state casino and getting part of the profits rather than having the state run a casino itself.

"We have to acknowledge at some point that there is an expense to the state for these casinos," said Stang, who noted that the expansion of Highway 169 to four lanes was needed primarily for a casino. The state needs to look at ways to get some revenue from this, he added.

Fischbach and Stang encouraged the public to contact them during the session with concerns or comments on the issues.

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