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Legislative listening session draws many concerns, interests

Several dozen residents and professionals from in and around the east metro were given 1 minute, 30 seconds to address legislators with their concerns at a House and Senate listening session Monday in Woodbury.

Most Monday nights, it might be hard for politicians to attract a crowd of constituents to an event where many have to wait more than two hours to speak their mind.

But this was no ordinary Monday in Woodbury.

With Minnesota facing a projected budget deficit of $5 billion dollars, east metro residents came out in droves to a legislative listening session to testify their concerns on proposed solutions to solve pressing issues facing the Legislature.

More than 250 people from in and around the east metro filed into the Central Park amphitheater Monday night to give area legislators something to chew on in the midst of the state's current budget crisis.

The budget listening session was the 15th of 20 budget hearings scheduled to take place around the state. To date, more than 4,000 people have attended the town hall-style sessions, legislative aides said. More than 100 people were signed up to speak in advance of the Woodbury session's start, House legislative assistants said.

Wide range of interests

The meeting started at 6 p.m. with a state budget presentation by the Department of Revenue and then transitioned for the 2 ½ hours into a listening forum, where several residents and health care professionals pleaded with legislators not to cut state funding for disability programs.

Jackie Wagner, a mental health professional, was one of several speakers to ask legislators to reject any proposal to cut funding for rehabilitation therapy for those on state medical assistance.

A number of attendees and small business owners demanded that government take a note from the private sector and cut state spending to balance the budget.

Woodbury resident and small business owner Ted Harrison asked legislators "to balance the budget not on the back of business, especially small business."

Marisa Novak urged representatives and senators to pass legislation that would freeze government salaries as so many companies in the private industry have done.

"When will our government they make the same cuts and sacrifices they are asking others to make?" Novak said.

Others testified with special interest in topics such as maintaining funding for legal aid for low income residents and balancing the budget with an increase in sales tax on tobacco products.

"I do have a solution that might not be so popular, but will allow Minnesota to invest in cancer prevention, save Minnesota over a billion dollars and generate 91 million a year," said Woodbury resident Mary LaPrairie. "Please raise the tobacco tax."

Dr. Irving Lerner of United Hospital in St. Paul asked legislators to lift the moratorium on new outpatient radiation therapy centers in the metro area, which has kept a radiation clinic from opening in Woodbury.

"I have heard for years how patients from this area have resented that they do not have the opportunity for treatment in their own community," Lerner said.

Area legislators from both the House and Senate were present at the meeting, as well as tax committee chair Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington.

Several times Lenczewski was compelled to attempt to quiet members of the audience who applauded testimonies they agreed with. By the end of the session, several dozens of people had testified. Testimonies were limited to 1 minute, 30 seconds per person.

Similar listening sessions were scheduled for Thursday in White Bear Lake and Burnsville and Friday, Feb. 26 in St. Paul, Coon Rapids, Plymouth and Forest Lake.