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Feature: Getting an earful

Published (2/27/2009)
By Sue Hegarty
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Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead speaks during a Feb. 24 Budget Listening Session at the Bloomington Community Center. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Solutions for solving the estimated $4.8 billion deficit next biennium were few and far between at more than 20 town hall meetings held across the state the past two weeks. However, there was plenty of hand-wringing over the impact of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget cuts.

Government workers and local taxpayers turned up in droves from Virginia to Albert Lea and from Moorhead to Winona and told a legislative panel how the proposed budget cuts would affect them. A few offered solutions, ranging from implementing a four-day work week to raising taxes.

“This illustrates that we’re not looking at numbers on a page and there are no easy answers,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr. (DFL-Winona). “There is no facet of life not touched by this crisis.”

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich (DFL-Chisholm) said it was important for legislators to get out of the State Capitol to learn what’s on Minnesotan’s minds and the “best way is to meet them where they live.” The nonpartisan takeaway was that taxpayers want there to be fairness when decisions are made, Sertich said. Pleased with the turnout at hearings, he added, “It’s rare that you’ll see a room full of politicians that did nothing but listen and didn’t talk.”

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R-Marshall) thought the meetings were a “mixed bag” that began heavy with testimony from government employees. “There were not a lot of voices from taxpayers or the business community,” Seifert said. “It was a way for people who spend tax dollars to reiterate their importance. We know a lot of that already.” Twin Cities metropolitan area meetings were more balanced, he said, but they were still “short on solutions.”

Ideas presented to solve the deficit will be brought back to the respective House and Senate committees and divisions for discussion.

Tina Welch, executive director of the Women’s Health Center in Duluth, leans on a railing as she listens to people testify at a Feb. 20 Budget Listening Session in the Twin Ports. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Great demand to be heard

An estimated 6,000 people attended the opening week of hearings and more than 1,200 spoke their minds, according to House DFL Media.

Court Administrator Hans Holland was unable to attend the Mankato meeting Feb. 19, where 91 of the estimated 300 people in attendance were registered to speak. So, Holland drove to Albert Lea the following morning, where the allotted time, 10 a.m. until noon, was not nearly enough to hear from 46 pre-registered testifiers. As the clock ticked closer to 1 p.m., Pelowski concluded the meeting because the panel needed to make its way to another hearing planned for Winona.

That angered the Rev. Reuben Unseth who accused meeting organizers of limiting testimony to “a preponderance of people representing the state.”

Some Republican legislators agreed with Unseth. “I’m troubled that the average taxpayer is not getting much of a chance to offer ideas,” Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Nelson Township) wrote in a later e-mail. “I heard from roughly 120 testifiers at the Mankato and Marshall meetings, and maybe eight people did not have a vested interest in state government funding. That’s not to say those folks shouldn’t have that right, because they should. But the overall lack of citizen and business input was disheartening to say the least.”

A much different crowd turned out Feb. 24 in Minneapolis, where legislators got an earful from both supporters and opponents of Pawlenty’s budget proposals.

That same night in Bloomington, 150 people pre-registered to speak. Several testifiers were met with hoots and hollers after speaking, much to the dismay of Rep. Ann Lenczewski (DFL-Bloomington), who repeatedly asked the audience not to clap or whistle in an effort to keep the line of testifiers moving forward.

Taxes

Amid pleas from health care workers, teachers and parents of disabled children not to cut the budget for programs they depend on, Minneapolis resident Jeff Rosenberg seized the opportunity to rail against the governor’s plan to cut state spending and raise one-time revenues through K-12 accounting shifts. Accusing Pawlenty of “budget gimmicks,” he urged lawmakers to raise taxes instead.

“The governor pledged not to raise taxes and we are all paying for it now,” Rosenberg said, adding, “Minnesotans will stand behind you if you make the tough choices.”

Taking the opposite position, Kris Broberg, another Minneapolitan, told legislators that it is their own fault for creating massive government programs that people now rely on to fulfill their needs. He accused lawmakers of trying to make citizens “pay homage” to them in order to get their piece of the taxpayer money/pie.

Brian Ducklinsky told Albert Lea attendees that proposed cuts have “not gone far enough in some areas.” He suggests selling some of the state’s assets to raise revenue.

David Culver of Hopkins gave legislators in Bloomington several suggestions on the tax front, such as rescinding the tax cuts of the Ventura administration. “Raise the taxes on the wealthy and businesses until they are paying their fair share.” He also said he wanted to see a permanent solution for the budget. “Don’t just go for the quick fix. Going for the quick fix in the past is one reason why we’re in this mess in the first place. Don’t flinch from dealing with long-term spending commitments and be courageous enough to raise taxes where required.”

Roger Janzig, a Bloomington resident and a member of AFSCME, said he’d like to see the rich and middle class taxed more proportionately.

“The trickledown effect doesn’t work,” he said. “You say, ‘If we give more money to the rich the economy gets stronger.’ When that happened, the state started collecting less revenue and more small businesses went out of business.”

Gambling was another remedy proposed to fight the deficit. “All I need to have you do is have video poker,” said Ken Leland of Albert Lea. Supporters of a racino at Canterbury Park also spoke in favor of expanded gambling opportunities.

Government

City and county workers objected to proposed cuts to local government agencies, many of whom are the delivery system for state and federally funded programs.

Albert Lea City Manager Victoria Simonsen said the city has worked to reduce its dependence on Local Government Aid, which now represents 35 percent of the city’s budget.The counter-fix is a huge local property tax increase, she said. “The citizens of Albert Lea cannot tolerate anymore.”

Richfield Mayor Debbie Goettel shared some of the same concerns. She said that because of the aid unallotment in December to help balance the state’s current biennial shortfall, the city had to dip into its reserves because money had already been spent in anticipation of that state payment.

“Most of our budget is for public services,” she said. “With a small budget like Richfield’s, we’ll have to cut public safety (if the aid isn’t there).”

Mower County employee Craig Oscarson suggested that counties be given the option of a four-day work week, which he estimated would save up to $75,000 in Mower County on fuel, staffing, utility and maintenance costs. Pelowski asked Oscarson to submit his idea to the Minnesota Association of Counties, who could research the concept on a statewide level.

At the Minneapolis meeting, one speaker suggested that the state save money by temporarily cutting wages for state employees; however, he warned against laying people off, saying they would just collect unemployment.

Health care

Reductions to health care services would also adversely affect rural communities, said Stephen Waldhoff, chief executive officer of the Albert Lea Medical Center, and Adam Rees, Austin Medical Center administrator. Both centers would face $4 million in service reductions at a time when their charity cases are rising.

Chuck Van Wey, a 14-year cancer survivor and patient advocate, worried that cuts would affect matching federal dollars. He urged legislators to maintain funding for cancer screenings because “the investment is minimal compared to treatment.”

Calling cuts to the mentally ill “penny wise and pound foolish,” social worker Tedd Baumgardt also said group homes and social workers cost far less than hospitalization.

Education

Higher education cuts couldn’t come at a worst time because many dislocated workers are returning to school to move into alternative careers, said Terry Leas, a Riverland Community College instructor. For every $1 million cut, the college would serve 400 fewer students, said Leas.

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