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Rural communities worry about budget cuts
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Gov. Pawlenty on the road in Moorhead Tuesday, touting his administration's budget plan for the next two years. He's telling local communities the budget cuts they face are necessary. (MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)
Minnesota Republicans and Democrats are traveling the state telling their side of the legislative story. Gov. Tim Pawlenty explains that cuts were necessary to balance the state budget. Democrats argue the cuts were too deep. Local officials are still trying to filter the facts from the rhetoric, but many in rural Minnesota feel unfairly targeted by budget cuts.

Moorhead, Minn. — Moorhead City Manager Bruce Messelt isn't particularly happy with Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But he wants to work with the governor. When Gov. Pawlenty brought his post-legislative tour to the Moorhead airport this week, Messelt offered a challenge -- and an invitation.

He asked the governor to return to Moorhead this summer to discuss issues such as taxes and economic development. Gov. Pawlenty said he would be happy to meet with local officials.

Now that the Legislature and governor have made their choices, city and county officials face some tough decisions.

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Image DFL Sen. Keith Langseth

Messelt said the city of Moorhead, population 32,000, cut $700,000 from its budget already in anticipation of reduced state aid to local governments. Now the city has to cut an additional $1.5 million. Messelt said the cuts to local governments are unfair and inequitable. He said rural communities were hit much harder than Twin Cities suburbs.

Messelt said there are clear differences of opinion about what kind of services local governments should provide.

"For instance, we're standing in a non-essential airport, according to the state auditor. Moorhead shouldn't have an airport. Is that fair? Is that the right direction for this community? I don't know," said Messelt.

"The governor was here six weeks ago and said Moorhead's paid fire department was non-essential, we could do with a volunteer fire department. Those will be community decisions. If we decide we like paid fire departments, maybe we cut park programs to compensate for that," Messelt said.

City and county officials across the state will be wrestling with those questions in the next few months. Joe Pederson, director of the Clay Wilkin Opportunity Council, is dealing with budget cuts on a more personal level. His non-profit agency provides social programs in west central Minnesota. Pederson said he's already laid off staff. He told Gov. Pawlenty that working families are already feeling the effects of state budget cuts.

"In many cases we've seen co-payments for child care go from $200 to $375," said Pederson. "Those are very difficult for families. I understand the need for cuts, but I wonder if you can give us some idea if -- for the next session -- some of those funds might be restored."

The governor ... said Moorhead's paid fire department was non-essential, we could do with a volunteer fire department. Those will be community decisions. If we decide we like paid fire departments, maybe we cut park programs to compensate for that.
- Moorhead City Manager Bruce Messelt

"If we have some change in our pocket one of the first places I would put the money is health and human services," Pawlenty responded, "because those are some of the most difficult decisions we made."

Pederson believes some of the budget cuts may well cost the state money in the long run. He said if low-income families can't afford child care, they may go back on welfare.

Gov. Pawlenty said the budget cuts are painful, but necessary.

"The belt had to be tightened. Spending had to be reined in," said Pawlenty. "We had a mess. Somebody had to clean it up. That came to be my job. I expect cities and counties to take the same approach for now." Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, says there's little doubt the Republican budget is a giant step backward for Minnesota. Langseth has been in the state Legislature since 1974.

"The governor was 12 years old when I came to the Legislature," said Langseth. "A lot of times you can learn something from people who've been around a long time."

Langseth said in the past, when state budgets needed cutting, it was done in a bipartisan manner. He said this was the most partisan legislative session he's seen in nearly 30 years.

"As I look back at the early '80s and early '90s, we did it right. We did it in a way that did share the pain," said Langseth. "We didn't do that this time, and I feel badly about that. I think it really did hurt Minnesota, particularly rural Minnesota."

Gov. Pawlenty says the state will be stronger in the long run, because government spending has been reduced. Rural Minnesota leaders say budget cuts may create two starkly different Minnesotas -- wealthy, growing metro suburbs, and struggling, impoverished rural communities.

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