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Lawmakers begin scrutiny of budget
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Members of the Welfare Rights Committee protested proposed cuts. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Minnesota lawmakers have begun scrutinizing Gov. Pawlenty's budget fix. The governor wants to cut higher education, state agencies, programs and grants and use one-time money to plug a projected $356 million gap in the current budget. Some lawmakers object to certain cuts, but the Pawlenty administration warns these cuts are just the tip of the iceberg.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty wants lawmakers to move quickly to erase the immediate deficit, and they're not wasting any time. Several legislative committees discussed pieces of Pawlenty's plan, and it could be ready for a vote next week.

But lawmakers aren't giving the plan a blanket endorsement. Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, says the Senate probably won't go along with the $3.5 million in cuts to the WIC program that provides food and nutritional information to low-income women and children.

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Image Kevin Goodno

"During times of economic setbacks, we have more people coming to these programs; it's the safety net that people rely on. And the issue about WIC is that it moves people into good nutrition that lasts their lifetime," she said.

Lawmakers have also questioned cuts in chemical dependency grants and ethanol subsidies, and an increase in nursing home surcharges.

Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says the Pawlenty administration will work with the Legislature if lawmakers have better ideas for cuts. But he says this is the easy part. Goodno says the challenge will be eliminating a deficit of more than $4 billion in the next two-year budget.

"Choices will have to be made not only now in the '03, the short term, but in the long term. And the cuts that we're talking about in '03 are relatively minor -- well, very minor -- compared to what we're going to have to look at in '04-'05 to balance the budget," according to Goodno.

Pawlenty's plan cuts $29 million from the Department of Human Services. Goodno says this first round of cuts in human services hits hospitals and pharmacies the hardest by reducing their payment rates. He says the cuts shouldn't affect services to low-income and vulnerable people.

But Goodno is warning lawmakers that all programs are on the table for the next round of cuts. He says the deficit is so massive that the state needs to redefine its core services.

"It's basically really close to zero-based budgeting where you just say, 'OK, if we wipe the slate clean, what are we providing? And what as a state and what as a government do we have an obligation to provide as a safety net for our people?'" Goodno said.

Lawmakers say they realize the cuts will be more severe in the next round. But Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Health, Human Services and Budget Division, says that's no reason to accept cuts they don't like in the short-term budget fix.

"I think it's a little hard to react to things that might be proposed in the future. I think it's difficult for the Legislature as well as the public. And that's why I think it would be better to have that discussion when the time comes for it. That's why I'm trying to stay focused, at least this week, on '03; that's our immediate problem," she said.

Berglin says the Senate will move quickly to pass a plan that she says won't have huge differences with Pawlenty's proposal. In the House, Pawlenty's plan will only be tweaked, according to Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum. He says the House may try to restore some ethanol funding. Sviggum says he understands that some people won't like the cuts.

"But the fact of the matter is that you need to balance those concerns versus raising taxes at a time we're at war on working people in the state. And we simply can't do the later. So we'll address the concerns up front, whether it be health and human services, whether it be economic development, whether it be state government, and we have to reduce spending," she said.

The reason lawmakers are moving so quickly to erase the short-term deficit is that the state has less than six months left in the two-year budget, and most of the money has been spent. Lawmakers say any delay makes the cuts more painful.

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