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House Republicans split with Pawlenty on budget cuts
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Karen Kingsley of Affirmative Options thinks the House GOP cuts will undermine welfare-to-work goals, by limiting welfare recipients' education and training to one year instead of two. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Eight months before they stand for re-election, the Republicans who control the Minnesota House are working on their plan to resolve the latest state budget shortfall. Gov. Pawlenty has already released his plan to fill in the $160 million gap. It includes cuts to nursing homes, hospitals and pharmacies. The Republicans say they have a proposal to avoid those cuts, but some DFLers at the Capitol say the plan still unfairly hits welfare recipients.

St. Paul, Minn. — Last year, Minnesota lawmakers faced a projected $4.5 billion deficit. Abiding by Gov. Tim Pawlenty's pledge not to raise state taxes, they used a combination of budget reserves, accounting shifts and spending cuts to balance the budget. They cut about $1 billion in health and human services spending, the area of state government where costs are increasing at the fastest rate.

Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, chair of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, says since then, legislators have heard from many people affected by last year's cuts. He says the House Republican plan addresses many of those concerns.

"We have really made a considerable number of investments in trying to really surgically fix the things that were most difficult from the last session," says Bradley.

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Image Gov. Pawlenty

Bradley's health and human services bill would reduce fees paid by families who have children with disabilities, cover medical supplies for people with diabetes enrolled in the state's subsidized health insurance program, and remove a $500 cap on dental care for people on Medical Assistance.

Along with restoring those cuts, the bill does not make additional cuts Pawlenty has proposed this year. To resolve a new $160 million shortfall, the governor proposed cutting payments to nursing homes, hospitals and pharmacies. The House Republican plan uses money from expanded gambling to cushion some of the cuts recommended by Pawlenty.

But the bill isn't pain-free. It includes the governor's proposal to limit welfare recipients' education and training to one year instead of two. And it would further reduce the benefits received by welfare recipients who live in subsidized housing, cutting those benefits another $150 per month. Last year, that subsidy was cut by $50 per month.

Bradley says the cut is reasonable, especially when compared to people with disabled family members, who saw their benefits cut by more than that last year.

"I felt from the beginning that $50 was kind of ridiculous. I mean, we were cutting $125 of SSI people," Bradley says. "Why did we allow people who are healthy and well to take the rest of it to the bank?"

We've got a lot of families out there that are really suffering, and this is not what I call sharing the pain.
- Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis

Advocates for low-income Minnesotans say the House Republican proposal undermines the state's welfare-to-work goals, and could cause some families to lose their homes.

Samantha Turner of Burnsville says if her state assistance is cut by $200 a month, she won't be able to pay her bills. Turner lives in subsidized housing, and gets $386 a month in state assistance. She has a young son who has a disability. She says she's looking for work, but says that's much harder since the bus strike started.

"I am really concerned about the $200 cut that I heard about. It would really make it impossible for me to even pay rent and survive off of that. And I wouldn't have a roof over my head if this $200 cut would go into effect," says Turner.

State officials say about 8,200 families would be affected by the proposed cut.

Senate Democrats are unlikely to go along with the welfare cuts. The chair of the Senate health, human services and corrections budget division, Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, has proposed restoring last year's welfare cut. Berglin says she's surprised that House Republicans want to make deeper cuts.

"This doesn't look like a good move in the right direction to me," says Berglin. "We've got a lot of families out there that are really suffering, and this is not what I call sharing the pain."

Berglin hasn't released her budget proposal yet. She's held several days of hearings on Gov. Pawlenty's budget proposal, and has heard from dozens of people concerned about the governor's proposed health and human services cuts.

Pawlenty says he's not surprised the Legislature doesn't want to go along with his proposed cuts to nursing homes, hospitals and pharmacies. He says budget negotiations will be difficult.

"The House is going to duck real spending cuts for the most part by factoring in gambling. The Senate is not going to do gambling, or at least they seem to be signaling they won't do gambling, so they'll probably try to use some of the reserve and close tax loopholes, which may be tax increases, we'll see," says Pawlenty. "And in the end, we're going to have a collision."

Pawlenty sent a letter to legislators outlining his budget priorities. He says the Legislature shouldn't adjourn this year without balancing the budget, and without making some permanent spending cuts.

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