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Paynesville Press - March 17, 2004

Legislators face smaller budget deficit this session

By Sarah Arnquist

While making decisions on controversial issues such as lowering the drunken driving limit and proposing a referendum to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage, lawmakers in St. Paul face tough fiscal decisions as a result of a $160 million budget shortfall.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty released his budget forecast in early March. The governor plans to resolve the $160 million deficit without raising taxes. His proposal includes $70 million in program reductions, $25 million in operating cuts, $50 million in revenue adjustments, and $77 million in fund transfers, offset by $62 million in spending increases.

After solving a $4 billion budget deficit during last year's session, without raising taxes, this year's budget deficit is much more modest.

A key component of the governor's budget is to increase funding for public safety, specifically in harsher punishments for sex offenders. Funding for higher education and health and human services programs take the deepest cuts.

The house will tweak the budget some, but Rep. Doug Stang (R-Cold Spring) said he is pleased overall with the budget the governor presented, calling it realistic. It is important to manage costs before raising taxes, which should always be a last resort, he said.

Nursing home and hospital funding is one area that will directly affect the Paynesville area, he said. The cuts in these areas face strong opposition in the DFL-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House, he added.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar) and other DFLers were critical of the governor's proposal. "Senate Democrats will propose a budget plan in the near future that isÉfair and balanced," Johnson said. "We will not make further cuts to nursing homes, hospitals, and pharmacies. Finally, unlike this Republican plan, we will not jeopardize the state's credit rating and financial stability."

Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) supports funding that would come from opening a racino, a combination horse track and casino, at Canterbury Park. "It offers $100 million upfront to balance the budget," she said.

Fischbach said she has particular issues with the cuts to nursing homes and hospitals, and she is waiting to see the budget that Senate Republicans present.

Johnson is not in favor of solving the budget deficit through gambling money. "Gambling revenue remains an unsound mechanism to balance the state budget," he said. "Economists, experts, and financial advisers all agree on this fact."

Another important budgetary item before the legislature this year is the bonding bill. Traditionally, the second year of a legislative biennium is the bonding year, when legislators weigh capital improvement projects funded by selling state bonds.

Gov. Pawlenty has recommended a $760 million bonding package that includes building projects at the University of Minnesota, a new school in Red Lake, and the extension of the Northstar Commuter Rail Line to Big Lake.

Stang and Fischbach have co-drafted a bill that calls for the allotment of bonding funds to complete the Lake Koronis Recreation Trail from Paynesville to Lake Koronis. Stang is pessimistic that the bill will be included in the House package. Trail funding was included in the bonding bill in 2002, but was vetoed by then Gov. Jessie Ventura. Typically, something such as trail funding has one shot at getting included in the bonding bill, he said. "It's going to be a tough sell," Stang said, of the chances for trail funding this year.

(The Lake Koronis Recreational Trail seems likely to receive federal funding in July 2006, but this would be a 80-20 match, with federal funds covering $261,189 and the local match being $65,297 to bring the trail from the city to the beach. State bonding would not include a local match.)

Other controversial bills to follow this session include lowering the legal limit for alcohol consumption while driving (HF97/SF58); setting and passing K-12 education standards (HF2558/SF2780); adopting or opting out of the Federal No Child Left Behind guidelines; requiring school attendance for possession of a drivers' license (HF1986/SF2036); and holding a statewide referendum to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and woman (HF2798).

(Editor's Note: Arnquist is a senior journalism major at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. She is covering the 2004 legislative session for the Paynesville Press.)

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