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Behind the budget debate at the Capitol, there's a human face waiting for the outcome
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If the House plan becomes law, Bonita Hughes would lose her entire child care subsidy, which is about $700 a month. She would also have to pay about $500 a month more so her family of four could afford MinnesotaCare, (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
One of the major budget differences between Senate DFLers and House Republicans is the health and human services budget. The two sides are hundreds of millions of dollars apart and differ on several policy issues. The House is proposing cuts to state subsidized health insurance programs and childcare assistance to help balance the budget. Senate DFLers are proposing a cigarette tax increase to offset the proposed cuts.

St. Paul, Minn. — Bonita Hughes is at the center of the budget battle between House Republicans and Senate DFLers. If the House plan becomes law, Hughes would lose her entire child care subsidy, which is about $700 a month. She would also have to pay about $500 a month more so her family of four could afford MinnesotaCare, the state's subsidized health insurance program. "It's a juggle between daycare, health care and other bills. Do you pay your mortgage? Do you pay your car insurance? Do you pay your NSP? And all of those are important too and they all have to be paid, so which one do you give up?" she says.

Hughes says she and her husband have a combined income of about $50,000 a year. She's a finance manager at the High School for the Recording Arts in St. Paul. Her husband works in construction. Hughes says the proposed cuts would make it difficult for her to manage the family finances. She says she'd consider dropping her health insurance in order to pay for daycare for her two kids.

"We really actually don't know what we're going to do. We've already been discussing this and we don't know what to do. There's not that many choices, that's the problem too. Those programs were there to help. And if they're taken away, there's no other choices for us personally. We have to work and someone has to watch the kids. We don't have the income to pay for it," she says.

Senate DFLers say they're working to ensure that Hughes and others continue to receive subsidized daycare. They also say they want to ensure that the state continues to provide health insurance for low income people.

Sixty-eight thousand people are expected to lose their state subsidized health insurance by 2007 if the House plan goes through.

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, says the Senate would use a dollar-a-pack cigarette tax increase to continue paying for health programs. The Minneapolis DFLer says the Senate is cutting the overall health and human services budget, but she thinks there needs to be a stronger safety net than Republicans in the House and the governor would provide.

"The cigarette tax increase that's in this bill certainly is being used to support what many on both sides of the aisle consider to be important. Keeping our services for long term care, keeping our meals on wheels programs. Keeping our services for pregnant women. Keeping our access to health care for low income people without health care covereage. These are important things that need to be maintained in this state," she says.

House Republicans and Gov. Pawlenty agree the cuts are difficult. But they say state spending for health and human services is growing much too fast and needs to be reigned in.

We have gone from number one in the country for child care, number one by a country mile to number one by a half mile.
- House Speaker Steve Sviggum

House Republicans and Gov. Pawlenty say they won't raise taxes to balance the budget.

Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, says lawmakers need to consider the sacrifices that taxpayers would have to make if taxes were raised.

"I'm a compassionate person and I understand that some people are going to be having a little bit harder time paying for their child care, but I think if you examine the absolute numbers, I think most people would say that's not unfair but it's going to be a little more for them. Some of the insured situations, certainly," Bradley says.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum goes one step further. He says lawmakers made a significant commitment to child care when there was a budget surplus in the late '90s. He says the deficit is forcing lawmakers to reconsider spending increases from earlier sessions, especially since he says the state still will be providing adequate services after the cuts.

"It is true that we have reduced some assistance for child care, but when you look at the system and who is receiving those child care assistance, we've gone from number one in subsidies to child care in our bill; we have gone from number one in the country for child care, number one by a country mile to number one by a half mile," Sviggum says.

Advocates for the poor say cutbacks in state subsidized child care will have another impact. They say the increased child care funding was meant to help the state's welfare recipients move from welfare to work. They say cutbacks to the program could force people who have found jobs to move back onto the state's welfare rolls.

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