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House focuses on human services cuts in budget battle
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Members of the Welfare Rights Committee protested proposed cuts to the poor. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
The Minnesota House on Monday evening passed its version of a short-term budget fix. The Republican-sponsored bill would erase a projected $356 million deficit in the current fiscal year, and leave a financial cushion in case the state's economy worsens. The plan must now be reconciled with a DFL-sponsored Senate plan. DFL leaders say House Republicans moved too quickly to cut programs without considering the impact of the cuts.

St. Paul, Minn. — House Republican leaders say they made some tough decisions in their $468 million bill. But they say the state needs to reduce spending to balance the budget. Majority Leader Eric Paulsen of Eden Prairie says lawmakers were elected to deal with the deficit quickly and boldly.

"The job that we were sent here to do is no different, no different than what Minnesota families have had to go through, what Minnesota businesses have had to go through, as they look to downsizing," he said. The House voted 77-50 for the bill. No Democrats voted for it. The bill uses one-time money and cuts state agencies, programs and higher education. DFL lawmakers criticized some of the cuts, saying they were made in the dark of night with little public input.

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Image Senate Republicans have their own idea

The bill ends the Cover All Kids health insurance program, and raises fees for subsidized child care. It also eliminates state-funded health coverage for about 5,000 non-citizens, including 3,000 pregnant women.

Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba,DFL-Long Prairie, challenged lawmakers who rallied against legalized abortion on the steps of the Capitol last week. "There wasn't one person standing on the steps on January 22 who said, 'let's just protect the unborn that are white and citizens.' They said 'let's protect all the unborn,'" she said.

The chair of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, defended the cuts. He says many of the pregnant non-citizens who have been receiving health benefits are in the country illegally. Bradley says neighboring states don't offer such coverage.

"And members, we have to start comparing where we are, because Minnesota in many respects is a magnet and we have to think about fairness," Bradley said.

Bradley says the Cover All Kids health insurance program was started last year when the state was flush with cash. He says the state can no longer afford the program, and some of the children in Cover All Kids would qualify for another medical assistance program.

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Image The opposing view

Democrats also blasted cuts to an Iron Range development fund. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty told House Republicans before the vote that they'd be criticized for their proposed cuts.

"I told 'em to strap on their helmets, put in their mouthguards, they're going to get whacked around a bit, but this is just the beginning of a very difficult challenge, but I also encouraged them to think about the opportunity, the silver lining, which is, we can now reform government in ways we couldn't five years ago because the situation demands it now," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty says he generally supports the House bill, but he considers the Senate budget fix unacceptable. The plan the Senate passed last week is smaller than the House bill or the governor's proposal. The $384 million package uses more accounting shifts and makes fewer permanent spending cuts.

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Image A post-vote chat

Senate Finance Committee Chair Dick Cohen, a St. Paul DFLer, says Senate Democrats are concerned about some of the House cuts such as ending Cover All Kids.

"And it's one thing to talk about some of the dollars, but where you start to plug in new policy into these dollars, I think, gets to be very dangerous, without any full opportunity for hearings, trying to get some better sense of how this impacts people in the state. That's the wrong way to do it," Cohen said.

House and Senate leaders plan to start working out their differences immediately. Gov. Pawlenty has told them if they don't agree on a bill by the end of next week, he will start cutting spending on his own.

Once lawmakers resolve this year's deficit, they must tackle a deficit ten times as large in the next two-year budget.

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