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At Issue: Budget cuts for state government

Published (5/15/2009)
By Nick Busse
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Sen. Don Betzold and Rep. Phyllis Kahn share a light moment during a May 1 meeting of the omnibus state government finance conference committee. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)According to its sponsor, the state government finance bill now awaiting action by Gov. Tim Pawlenty has one important virtue: it has “the benefits of being a really dull bill.”

“When the bill went out of here (to conference committee), it had some controversial positions such as domestic partner benefits, cuts to gubernatorial appointees — and those have all been removed from the bill,” said Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Mpls).

What remains in the conference report on SF2082*/HF1781, sponsored by Kahn and Sen. Don Betzold (DFL-Fridley) is a series of budget cuts and new measures to strengthen accountability in state government.

The bill would fund the Legislature, the state’s constitutional offices and several state agencies, including Minnesota Management and Budget and the Department of Revenue for the 2010-2011 biennium.

Under the bill, the Legislature and the governor’s office would receive 3 percent cuts from their forecasted base funding. The Office of the State Auditor would not see any funding reduction, while the Office of the Secretary of State and the Office of the Attorney General would be reduced 5 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively. Most executive agencies funded in the bill would get 5 percent cuts.

The funding provided for in the bill accounts for approximately 2.8 percent of the total state budget; however, at least one lawmaker said the cuts in the bill should have been deeper.

“We’re not going to share in the pain, according to the DFL majority,” said Rep. Mark Buesgens (R-Jordan), noting that the 3 percent budget cuts for the Legislature and governor’s office are less than the cuts to other agencies.

Rep. Keith Downey (R-Edina), the bill’s lone House Republican conferee, expressed support for the bill, arguing it represented a good compromise that funded some important information technology initiatives and accountability measures.

“I do think that in a really tough budget year, we did find a way … to really advance some strategic initiatives,” Downey said.

The bill includes funding, in whole or in part, for completion of an integrated tax system for the Revenue Department, replacement of the state’s accounting and procurement system, and preliminary planning to consolidate the state’s data centers. It also includes a governor’s initiative to establish a statewide electronic licensing system for commercial and professional licenses, and raises certain business fees to fund it.

A number of provisions designed to strengthen accountability in state government are included in the bill. A provision sponsored by Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) would clarify that knowingly misappropriating state funds is a gross misdemeanor and grounds for job termination; currently, statutes are unclear on whether misusing state funds is actually a crime.

Legislation sponsored by Winkler and Downey that would strengthen the state’s internal financial controls has been included in the bill. The provisions would require Minnesota Management and Budget to take responsibility for internal controls across the executive branch, and also direct the Legislative Audit Commission to make recommendations on improving internal controls. A provision that would have created a new financial controls council for the state was not included in the conference report.

Provisions sponsored by Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park) that would establish a false claims act for Minnesota are also included. The act would impose penalties on those who make false claims against the state, allow the state to recover damages, and establish protections for whistleblowers.

Other policy provisions include:

• granting preferences to certain veteran-owned small businesses in regard to bids on state contracts;

• requiring municipalities to consider using the state’s cooperative purchasing venture for contracts larger than $25,000;

• officially changing the name of the Department of Finance to the Department of Management and Budget, which may also be referred to as Minnesota Management and Budget;

• requiring the creation of a Web site with a searchable database of information on state contracts, expenditures and appropriations;

• establishing a central Geospatial Information Office within the Department of Administration that consolidates a number of existing state geographic information services; and

• requiring occupants of state-owned buildings to try to turn off building lights between midnight and dawn during bird migration seasons (the “bird-safe buildings” provision).

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