Lawmakers move across Minn. to listen to budget concernsby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
Hundreds of people showed up at the first meetings lawmakers held around the state to collect ideas on how to address the state's $4.8 billion budget deficit.
Town hall meetings were held last night in Mankato, Rochester, Willmar, and St. Cloud.
St. Cloud, Minn. — In St. Cloud, more than 200 people filled the City Hall Council Chambers, and about a dozen legislators carefully took down notes as people lined up to share their suggestions.
There wasn't much in the way of consensus. Some urged lawmakers to cut taxes. Others said taxes needed to be raised to balance the budget. Many sought protection for programs they considered vital.
Amy Danielson didn't get a chance to speak during the two-plus hours of public testimony, but approached the legislators at the end of the session in tears. She wanted to make sure the legislators took down her suggestions around health care.
"We absolutely need... It's crucial that we have waivered programs, we have PCA services, we have physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and audiology services and that there's dental coverage," she said.
Under the governor's plan, only pregnant women and children will be eligible for dental coverage.
Danielson's husband Scott relies on this dental coverage. A breathing ventilator ruined his teeth while he was in a coma after suffering a brain injury. His health care provider kicked him off his insurance, so he relies on state funded assistance.
Danielson said the cuts would make her family struggle even more than they already are as her husband battles health problems.
These concerns around cuts to health care were echoed by several others. But others said areas like health care and education are too expensive and need to be cut.
Employees in the state's judicial and education systems also stepped up to the podium. Steve Ludwig, the administrative vice president at St. Cloud State University, said the university is planning to budget around the governor's suggestions.
"If we balanced the budget entirely on tuition, it would mean approximately a 14 percent increase. If it was entirely on faculty positions with no tuition change, it would entail about 135 positions, or 15 percent of our faculty," he said. "If we balanced it entirely on classified staff positions with no tuition increase, we would eliminated about 210 positions, or about 35 percent of our staff."
Ludwig said he wanted to give the legislators these figures to give them a feel for the scale of budget cuts the university has to manage. He said decisions will be tough and he wants the legislators to keep those scenarios in mind.
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said he'd like to see a reduction in costly mandates.
"We have some mandates that we could save hundreds of thousands of dollars and we're giving our list. And one that comes to mind is the fact that we have to make all of our street signs bigger," he said. "We already spent $100,000 -- it's going to be several hundred thousand dollars to do that. It's a mandate that we're required to do. Eliminate something like that and allow us to replace as they get old would save us significant amount of money."
Kleis said all the stories the legislators heard emphasize the difficult and challenging task to balance the budget. He said no matter how the state deals with the budget problems, the pain will be shared by many.
Legislators say the purpose of these listening sessions is to hear from Minnesotans instead of lobbyists in St. Paul.
Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, says they will strongly consider these ideas, but she's also realistic.
"And what we're hearing tonight, no matter what the political philosophy, wouldn't go very far to solve the budget problem, but it does reinforce -- and hopefully people are listening to each other -- about how we're all part of a community and we really are going to have to share in this pain together and work together to figure it out," Clark said.
Many people in St. Cloud illustrated what potential budget cuts would mean for their families, and in John Scherer's case, what that would mean for the judicial branch.
Scherer is a Stearns County District Court Judge. He said the court system is already hurting, and will suffer more with either a 5, 10, or 14 percent budget cut.
But before Scherer could share his ideas, Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, told him he was out of time.
"Judge, I hate to cut you off in case I appear before you some time," Solberg said.
"Well, if you're willing to take out one-third of your employees like some people are expecting us (to do), good luck functioning! Thank you," Scherer responded.
Solberg said these meetings are not a DFL attempt to bash Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget, as a conservative group has claimed.
"The process is...after the governor submits his budget, we're trying our best to look at some of the things that are in the governor's budget that makes sense," he said. "This is an opportunity to come here and talk about those issues as opposed to coming into St. Paul and relying on just lobbyists to be able to respond to the governor's budgets."
Many St. Cloud residents were upset they didn't get to testify during the two-plus hours of the meeting.
Ten more hearings will be held today across the state.