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Published March 10, 2011, 03:52 PM

MN GOP Plans Hit Agencies, Social Services

Republicans striving to balance Minnesota's budget by reducing state spending offered a roadmap Thursday that would most acutely affect social service programs, aid to local governments, allowances for colleges and accounts for operating state agencies.

By: Brian Bakst, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Republicans striving to balance Minnesota's budget by reducing state spending offered a roadmap Thursday that would most acutely affect social service programs, aid to local governments, allowances for colleges and accounts for operating state agencies.

The broad targets produced by majority Republicans in the House and Senate leave questions about what specific things Minnesota will do without to meet the spending goals. The frameworks will be filled in as committees rush to assemble legislation over the next two weeks to set a new two-year budget and rid Minnesota of a $5 billion projected shortfall.

House GOP leaders added another layer of intrigue by saying they would push to provide $300 million in tax relief to low and middle-income residents. Details on the tax breaks will emerge as the bills come together, they said.

"If you let the taxpayers keep the money, they will spend it. They will do what, in their eyes, is the right thing with it, which is help their families," said House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove. "Maybe they've got a car that needs new tires. Now their car can have new tires."

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis Democrat, said the promise of tax relief was an empty one if spending cuts Republicans pursue put pressure on counties and cities to raise property taxes.

"They are putting money into the pockets of middle class Minnesotans with one hand while they are reaching into the other pocket of middle class Minnesota families with the other hand," Thissen said.

The legislative budget outlines differ slightly, but both would commit Minnesota to about $34 billion in overall spending during the next two years. Both plans also deviate considerably from budget recommendations made by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. He has proposed raising taxes on the most affluent residents to allow the state to spend about $3 billion more in total.

Deputy Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel said the targets show Republicans won't accept state tax increases sought by Dayton.

"We're going to build a budget based on what's in Minnesota's checking account — not what we wish is in the checking account," Michel said.

The Republican plans do rely on about $1 billion that will be left in the bank when this budget year ends in June — money they can only count on once.

The proposals largely leave spending for public schools intact, although they would continue a $1.3 billion state payment delay that gets checks to schools slower than usual.

Social service programs that serve the poor, elderly and disabled would have to get by with about $1.6 billion less than they were anticipating. Health and human service programs are among the fastest growing in state government.

Higher education, aid programs for local governments and state agency operations would receive hundreds of millions of dollars less compared with projected spending.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, a Democrat from Cook, said the tight turnaround for crafting bills will leave little time for the public to weigh in on the proposed changes. Legislative deadlines require committees to finish budget bills by March 25.

The spending targets, Bakk said, offer "much more you don't know than you do know."

Earlier Thursday, Dayton met with firefighters to keep pressing the case that cuts to local aid would lead to service reductions or property tax increases.

"This budget is about dollars and cents, but it's about our values and our priorities and then it's only about peoples' lives," Dayton said.

Republicans have argued that many programs will receive more state money than in the current budget. But that's partly a product of creative accounting used in the past couple of years to balance Minnesota's books.

To fix previous shortfalls, lawmakers plugged in soon-expiring federal stimulus dollars to pay for ongoing state expenses, delayed aid payments to schools and made temporary spending cuts without eliminating the long-term commitments.

Minnesota's $5 billion projected deficit is the difference between state tax dollars expected to come in and spending commitments built into current law.

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Associated Press writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.

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