Republicans in the Minnesota Senate passed a bill Thursday that would cut nearly $1 billion in state spending. It's the first vote the Senate has taken to deal with the a $6.2 billion projected budget deficit. Based on the debate, Democrats intend to force Republicans to account for every dollar they cut.
A question heading into the 2011 legislative session was how Democrats would handle their new role in the Senate minority. It became very clear once the debate over the budget bill started.
Democrats, like Sen. Linda Berglin of Minneapolis, questioned each spending cut, the impact on the state's residents and the process used to get the bill to the floor.
Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, responded by saying Republicans were taking quick action on the bill because they want to start tackling the state budget deficit right away.
"We have to be responsible members, and we should start now, making sure that we're going to get to a balanced budget," said Robling.
The bill makes $830 million in permanent spending cuts. It also requires state finance officials to find another $125 million in unspecified cuts in this year's budget by March 31. The cuts impact state aid to cities, higher education and health and human services programs.
Democrats argued heavily against all of the cuts, but keyed in on Children and Community Services Grants. That money is targeted at protecting abuse victims, the disabled, neglected children and those with mental health problems.
DFLer Berglin failed in her bid to protect funding that includes child protection services.
"I have cut the Health and Human Services area in the last seven or eight years in the Minnesota Senate. So I'm not standing here saying, 'no cuts,'" she said. "What I am saying is, don't throw vulnerable children and senior citizens under the bus first."
Republicans argued that they weren't throwing anyone under the bus, and suggested that other local programs will protect those in need.
But Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said Republicans are going back on their word to protect funding for the the state's most vulnerable residents.
"Why are we in a hurry to make these cuts? To make these cuts on people who are most in need," said Bonoff.
Other Democrats wanted to know why only one committee took public testimony on the budget bill.
Republicans noted that many Democrats already voted for the cuts in the bill last year. That was a part of a budget agreement between Gov. Pawlenty and the Legislature. Democrats said those cuts were one-time only, and were backfilled by federal stimulus money.
Sen. David Brown, R-Becker, said if last year's Legislature had done a better job, the cuts wouldn't be necessary now.
"If the Legislature last year hadn't waited until the last week of the session to deal with budget issues, we wouldn't be dealing with some of the issues we are today," said Brown. "So there is an urgency in dealing with this. We've been sent here to deal with this."
Democrats also criticized Republicans for making $185 million in cuts to the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL- Clearbrook, said the result will be cuts to staff and faculty, higher tuition for students and a possible cap on the number of students accepted to certain programs.
"So as we enter this global, knowledge-based economy that we all recognize that Minnesota is going to have to compete in, is it really right here in the first week of February that we're going to make it harder for our students to go to college, and to graduate, and to deal with the debt that they have to incur to do that?" Skoe asked.
But John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, said the cuts to higher education are manageable, and that the economy is forcing everyone to make difficult business decisions.
"I think a 3 percent cut to St. Cloud State is reasonable. I think a 2.5 percent cut to their total budget to St. Cloud Technical College is reasonable," said Pederson. "I would simply ask this body to put that into perspective. I have dozens of examples of where private sector employers made double-digit cuts."
The Senate passed the bill on a party-line vote of 37-27.
The bill has to be reconciled with one passed by the House last week, which calls for deeper cuts. The two Republican-led chambers must negotiate a common plan before the bill is sent to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton for action.
Dayton has questioned the level of cuts in the measures, and has also said he wants a comprehensive budget fix, not a "piecemeal approach." But he has not explicitly stated whether he would veto the Republican proposal.