As state leaders try to come to agreement on a budget, lawmakers are hearing from constituents. At a town hall forum Monday night near St. Cloud, three Republican legislators took heavy criticism for Minnesota's budget impasse.
State Sen. John Pederson held the event along with Reps. Steve Gottwalt and King Banaian. The audience was filled with state workers, university employees and union members concerned about a possible government shutdown next week.
The tiny meeting room at the Haven Township Hall just outside St. Cloud filled quickly to standing room only. There was no formal agenda; the three GOP lawmakers held the event to hear from their constituents about the budget crisis in St. Paul, and to counter what they say is misinformation from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
Dozens of people lined up at the two microphones, including many employees of St. Cloud State University — part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System. MnSCU is expecting $65 million in cuts over the next two years, something history professor and faculty senate president Mark Jaede called unconscionable. Jaede said with a Republican Legislature and DFL governor, there's a mandate to meet in the middle.
"I believe that the Republican caucus, in good faith believes, that a zero tax-increase budget is the right way to go. I accept that," Jaede said. "But you were elected to serve the whole state and the governor was also elected to serve the whole state."
MnSCU officials have said they're confident the schools would stay open amid a shutdown, but state employees and people in the building trades who do business with the state expressed deep fears about missing paychecks.
"I have four kids at home and my wife and they're dependent on my income," said Nicholas Snavely, a wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources. "She also works part time to help out. We need those benefits. We need that job. And we're scratching by."
While most at the town hall hoped to change the minds of their lawmakers, none of the three Republicans was swayed. Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, defended his party's efforts to limit the growth of state government. He said not doing that now would mean another budget crisis two years down the line. And Gottwalt told the audience the shutdown threat is a cynical political ploy.
"If you're going to challenge us to work together to get something done, challenge your governor to get something done too," he said.
The three Republican lawmakers who hosted the event did hear some friendly voices. St. Cloud resident Ruth Wollum is unemployed and said she sympathizes with state workers who fear being laid off. But after the event, Wollum said she opposes Dayton's plan to raise income taxes on top earners, because it would keep business owners from creating jobs.
"I really do think the Democrats have driven us to these $5 billion deficits. And if Dayton doesn't find this out, and realize that they are thinking it through clearer than he is, it's not going to help the state at all," Wollum said.
The Republicans say budget meetings with the governor have made little progress because they said Dayton was not negotiating in good faith.
Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, said the DFL governor should hold a town hall forum of his own so he could take his share of the blame for the impasse.