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Governor gets a polite earful
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Tammie Pearce objected to some of Gov. Pawlenty's proposed budget cuts. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty took his budget proposal on the road Wednesday. The governor toured four northern Minnesota communities to promote his plan to fix the state's $4.2 billion budget deficit. At a community forum in International Falls Wednesday night, Pawlenty got a favorable response for his plan to create tax-free zones to promote business. But he also heard concerns over cuts to social programs and state aid to cities and counties.

International Falls, Minn. — Several hundred people packed a hotel meeting room in International Falls Wednesday night. The polite but anxious crowd gave the governor some cautious applause, but they really came to hear the governor explain how he plans to fix a huge budget deficit without raising taxes. Pawlenty told the crowd it's not going to be easy.

"In order to do that, it means we've got to make some tough decisions," Pawlenty said. "And believe me, it is no fun. I didn't want to be governor in these kind of times, where basically you're cutting stuff. It's no fun. I didn't run for governor to do that. But we've got a big mess ... and somebody's got to clean it up."

If there was good news in the governor's message, it came in a plan to create tax enterprise zones in rural Minnesota communities. The plan would allow cities to create tax-free districts to entice industry and create jobs. Jobs are sorely needed in International Falls and the rest of Koochiching County, where declining population and student enrollment are among the worst in the state.

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Image Gov. Pawlenty is greeted by area residents

"We've got to get serious about this job issue ... This job opportunity zone, it's not the only answer, it's not a silver bullet, it's not a panacea," the governor said. "We've got other ideas, too. But it's one thing that I'm pretty sure will work. And we can get it done relatively quickly if the Legislature will pass it this session."

Some audience members criticized Pawlenty for his plan to cut or eliminate some social programs. Tammie Pearce supervises the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs for Koochiching and Itasca counties. The programs provide a modest stipend to low income seniors willing to work with school kids and homebound seniors. Under Pawlenty's plan, both programs would be eliminated.

"You've said that you're targeting programs inefficient or not vital," Pearce said. "I don't know where the information you're getting is coming from, but these are not inefficient programs ... The programs you are cutting are targeting the most vulnerable people."

Pawlenty had a quick response to a criticism he's heard before about his budget proposals.

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Image International Falls Mayor Harry Swendsen

"Believe me, there are hundreds and thousands of programs, all of which sound really good," said Pawlenty. "Many of which are really good ... I don't deny that. I'm not trying to mislead you in any way. I stand before you and say, with the exception of K-12 education and a few other things, almost everything else is being cut ... I got no choice. I mean, I got no choice."

International Falls Mayor Harry Swendsen says he was glad to see a governor visit his city for something other than the opener of walleye fishing. But Swendsen says he's concerned about Pawlenty's plan to cut 20 percent from state aid to cities and counties. International Falls would lose more than $1 million in aid over the next two years. Swendsen says the governor's plan places an unfair burden on rural Minnesota.

"Are we going to have cuts? Yes," said Swendsen. "Are we going to share the pain? Yes... I'm concerned on a statewide level that this proposal, he's going to pit rural communities against suburbs. And I think he needs to be governor for the whole state."

Some rural lawmakers say they'll fight to reduce the impact government aid cuts will have on rural cities. Meanwhile, the governor's plan for creating tax-free business zones gets it's first hearing in the House Thursday.

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