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First budget cuts head to negotiations; Sieben opposes Senate bill

ST. PAUL -- A controversial first step to solve Minnesota's $6.2 billion budget problem is in negotiators' hands.

Minnesota senators voted to trim $830 million out of the next state budget and $125 million from the current one Thursday, a bill similar to what House members already passed.

In the next step of the budget process, Republican leaders say they will invite Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's administration to negotiations with lawmakers. Dayton has criticized the GOP budget bills for being piecemeal and urged lawmakers hold off on their budget plan until after he presents his proposal on Feb. 15.

"We know we are going to have to make hard choices like this," Senate Finance Chairwoman Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said, "so we might as well get started today."

Thursday's 37-27 Senate vote was strictly party-line, with Republicans on the winning side. Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, voted against the bill.

Legislative leaders hope to hammer out a compromise within a week.

The House and Senate bills make similar cuts for the next two-year budget, which starts July 1. But the House bill orders Dayton to trim $200 million by June 30, $75 million more than the Senate.

"We think it is entirely possible to find $125 million left," Robling said, adding that state agencies have funds left this year and they may spend them even if purchases are not needed. "It's our tendency to think we need to spend it or we are going to lose it."

Democrats said just $110 million remains available this year, less than the amount the bill orders Dayton to cut.

In an interview, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, agreed there likely is money available.

"I come from county government where we did the very same thing," the former Douglas County sheriff said.

Democrats complained that the budget-cut bill did not go through all the committees that needed to hear it. When Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, asked Ingebrigtsen and a handful of other committee chairmen questions about cuts in their areas, they refused to answer.

Ingebrigtsen, chairman of a natural resources committee, said Cohen was grandstanding when he asked his questions.

"I'm not going to micromanage the flow," Ingebrigtsen said.

The measure includes permanent cuts beginning in the next two-year budget of $300 million from what cities had expected and $186 million from counties.

"Most of our cities and counties really did anticipate this ... and budgeted wisely," Robling said.

But the Revenue Department says that for every $1 of Local Government Aid that is cut, cities raise local property taxes 67 cents, said Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, did not like $47 million that would be cut from health-care programs.

"Don't throw vulnerable senior citizens and children under the bus first," she pleaded.

In a passionate speech, Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said that health-care cuts bothered him, too. "This bill with draconian cuts to the people of Minnesota was not heard in (a health) committee. ... It is a disgrace to this body."

Skoe said a $185 million cut to state colleges and universities would drive up tuitions at a time when Minnesota students already carry the sixth-highest debt load in the country.

"We're going to make it harder to go to college and graduate," Skoe said.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, complained about a nearly $24 million cut in a program that pays landowners to keep sustainable forests.

"It threatens our forest industry," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he would expect drastic changes in the Department of Natural Resources if the bill passes. For instance, he said, there may not be full services available for campers, shelter buildings may close and no firewood may be available.

Bakk said Republicans broke their promises to not raise taxes, protect the state's most vulnerable and protecting public safety.

Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, was like other Democrats, not happy with the bill.

"This is not a balanced approach," Reinert said. "It leaves property taxpayers, students and low-income Duluthians footing the bill."

Reinert said the bill includes many cuts to Duluth programs, including $3.8 million in Local Government Aid, roughly equivalent to the budget for the city library system. Also, he said, the measure would trim $1.1 million from Lake Superior College and $3 million cut from the University of Minnesota Duluth.

In his first major Senate speech, new Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo, said many in the body were elected because Minnesotans were not happy that previous lawmakers did not control expenses.

"We act immediately or we will be out of business," he said of how businesses work and how government must do things, too.

Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said he likes the $106 million cut made in a renters' property tax credit.

Renters receive higher tax credits than they pay via rent, he said, and it does not encourage Minnesotans to buy homes.

"This is actually is encouraging people to stay in renters' mode," he said.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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