Minn. Dems ask public for ideas to fix $5B deficit

DFL leaders respond
DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher is joined by Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, left, and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, as they respond to Gov. Pawlenty's budget. DFLers are holding a series of town hall meetings around the state to get public comments about the budget.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

(AP) - The state of Minnesota is broke and there's not enough money coming in to cover spending for the next 28 months.

Time for a road trip.

Democrats who control the Legislature are taking the state's problems to the people in a series of town hall meetings that begin Thursday in Mankato, Rochester, St. Cloud and Willmar.

They are seeking reaction to GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed fix for a deficit currently measured at almost $5 billion through mid-2011, but potentially as big as $7 billion. The federal stimulus package will pour in more than $4 billion, but not all of it goes to the deficit.

Some lawmakers are hoping for inspiration.

"We need all the help we can get. ... We are all looking for ideas."

"We need all the help we can get," said Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar. "Seriously, if anyone can tell me today how the legislative session is going to end at the end of May, tell me right now. But no one has yet. We are all looking for ideas."

Republicans fear the meetings will turn into a trashing of Pawlenty's budget, even as strings attached to the stimulus force him to back off on some proposed cuts to health and welfare programs.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert said critics of the cuts are lining up to speak, encouraged by some DFL lawmakers.

"That raises my suspicions," said Seifert, R-Marshall.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung called the meetings a "road show" building up to a call for higher taxes.

Pawlenty isn't sending anyone to monitor the meetings. He has taken his own tour of chambers of commerce and rotary clubs from Anoka to Winona this month and will visit Willmar and St. Cloud next week.

"The governor is asking state government to do what most people in businesses are doing -- tightening its belt. And that's what he hears from people," McClung said.

About 400 people have contacted Pawlenty's resident outreach office this month to oppose the proposed health and welfare cuts, compared to about 30 who called or e-mailed to express support for them, McClung said.

Another 30 people told the office they supported Pawlenty's budget in general, compared with 16 who called or e-mailed to oppose it.

Groups from the Minnesota Coalition of the Homeless to the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Minnesota are urging people to open their mouths at the legislative town hall meetings.

So is the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota - even as the group bills the meetings as a "misery tour" featuring "an endless parade of pre-selected folks whine about the horrible impact the Governor's proposed budget will have on their schools, their cities, their government jobs, you fill in the blank."

Mayors, county commissioners, hospital administrators, nonprofit leaders and others worried about budget cuts are expected to show up, along with people who just want to weigh in.

Willmar Mayor Les Heitke said people are less inclined to make the trip to St. Paul this year because of the economy, so the local meeting is helpful.

"I just think rural communities are taking it on the chin," said Heitke, who plans to speak at the Willmar town hall on Thursday.

Rep. Dean Urdahl will be among those listening.

"It's a good thing to do," said Urdahl, R-Grove City. "I think that it's always important to go out firsthand and hear what people are thinking."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)