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Lawmakers moving quickly to slash budget
Budget work continues at a fast pace at the state Capitol. Lawmakers hopes to finish work in the next week or two on plans for covering the projected $356 million deficit for the fiscal year that ends in June. Gov. Pawlenty has proposed a combination of cuts and one-time money to cover the gap. Several special interest groups told House members on Thursday that Pawlenty's proposals will have a dramatic impact on the poor. Meanwhile, a key lawmaker in the Senate Health, Family Security and Corrections Budget division proposed an alternative to Pawlenty's plan.

St. Paul, Minn. — Representatives of several groups testified at the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee about the impact of Pawlenty's budget fix. Many said the plan would harm hospitals, pharmacies, and the poor.

Mary Peick, the coordinator of the St. Paul/Ramsey County Women, Infants and Children program, says her organization would have to turn away a third of the people it serves if the cuts go through.

The program provides food and nutritional information to women and children. Pawlenty has proposed cutting $3.5 million from the program statewide. Peick says 5,000 people in her region would have to go somewhere else.

"If we drop folks from the WIC program, they are going to go to the food shelves. They have to feed their children. And the food shelf system is already struggling to keep up with demand. Also they are not set up to do heights and weights. To check blood values. To make referrals to medical and dental care," she said.

Others say they're concerned about cutbacks to programs to help battered women and job training grants. The Welfare Rights Committee's Trishalla Bell says Pawlenty's plan will harm the poor.

"You guys say you don't want to hurt families. I've heard that you don't want to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Well don't do it. You have to find another way," she said.

Bell suggested, among other things, that lawmakers repeal property tax reform they enacted in 2001. Those comments drew the ire of Rep. Tim Wilkin, R-Eagan, who said the state can no longer afford many of its current programs. Wilkin says he won't go back to his constituents and tell them he's raising taxes.

"If we sit here and we raise taxes, we're making cuts. Raising taxes is cutting. What you're doing is you're cutting the family budget. We're the highest taxed state in the nation in the last three quarters. We have the highest tax collection rate," he said.

The House committee didn't take any action on the plan. House Chair Fran Bradley says he intends to make $39 million in cuts to health and human services; that's the same amount Pawlenty is proposing in his package.

Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Family Security and Corrections Budget division approved an alternative to Pawlenty's proposed cuts to health and human services.

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, proposed $82 million in cuts, payments shifts and policy changes. The major change would require county jails to house short-term offenders rather than sending them to state prison. Berglin says the state would provide money to assist the counties.

"We're trying to not have people be transferred for sometimes as little as a week to the state corrections system. And we avoid a lot of paper costs for the state and the local governments when we do that," Berglin said.

Unlike the governor's proposal, Berglin's plan doesn't make significant cuts to the state's WIC program or reduce payment rates to hospitals. However, it would shift some costs from the current budget to the next one. She says permanent reductions in her proposal will carry over into the next cycle to the amount of $100 million.

The state faces a projected $4.2 billion shortfall in the budget that starts in July.

Sen. Brian LeClair, R-Woodbury, was the only committee member to vote against Berglin's plan. He says the proposed shifts will increase the deficit in the next budget cycle. He favors Pawlenty's plan because it makes more permanent reductions.

"As we're working on the '03 budget we can't make the problem any worse in the coming fiscal years. I think Chairman Berglin's budget does do that by shifting costs that are supposed to be paid in '03 and now we're going to be making those payments in the next biennium. That makes the problem worse," he said.

The bill now moves on to the Senate Finance Committee. Committees in both the House and Senate will hold budget hearings again on Friday. Legislative leaders hope to vote on their budget plans for the current fiscal year in the next couple of weeks.

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