Minn. House passes $1 billion state budget cut

Republicans in the Minnesota House took quick action on addressing at least part of the state's $6.2 billion projected budget deficit, but it's unlikely that those savings will materialize anytime soon.

By a vote of 68-63, the House passed a bill that cuts about $1 billion in spending for aid to cities and counties, the state's colleges and universities and Health and Human Services programs.

The bill would essentially makes permanent former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unilateral cuts from last year that the previous Legislature approved as one-time cuts.

The bill's chief author, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said cutting at least $1 billion now will make things easier on the Legislature and the governor as they tackle the rest of the deficit.

"The only way to eat a hippo is a piece at a time," she said. "We've got a big problem in front of us; to start working on this now makes sense."

But some Democrats argue that the real bite is to core state programs. Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, criticized Republicans for cutting $185 million in funding to the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. Rukavina said the bill would force those schools to raise tuition.

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"It's a real turkey and it's just a shotgun approach and there's really been no thought," he said. "There's been no real critical thinking about this bill and how it's going to affect people and how it even beings to approach solving our budget crisis."

Other Democrats said cuts in state aid to cities and counties will mean property tax hikes.

The rancor over $1 billion in budget cuts shows how difficult the choices will be for the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton.

Dayton, who has argued for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, has been warning the public that the cuts will be painful.

But Republicans in both the House and Senate oppose any tax hikes and say they can erase the $6.2 billion budget deficit with cuts alone.

Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, said it's time for the governor and Legislature to make difficult choices.

"We have been making promises we cannot keep with money we do not have and that is the reason that we have a $6.2 billion deficit for the great state of Minnesota," he said.

The House bill also does something unique -- it gives up the power of the purse strings to Gov. Dayton. The bill requires Dayton to cut $200 million, but it doesn't specify where.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said he's worried the bill could set a bad precedent for future legislators who are worried about making cuts.

"As soon as you do that, then future legislative bodies that don't want to make the tough choices might just simply turn it over to the administration and then you're abdicating your responsibility," he said.

Carlson also said Dayton can't cut $200 million in this year's budget without affecting programs Republicans have promised to protect.

In fact, earlier this week Republicans in the Minnesota Senate dialed back their level of unspecified cuts to $125 million to spare cuts to military and veterans programs.

Senate leaders say they want to pass their version of the budget bill next week. House and Senate negotiators would then have to reconcile their differences before it goes to the governor.

Meanwhile, Dayton doesn't support either bill. He says he wants a budget deal that tackles the entire $6.2 billion budget deficit.

"I won't agree to any piecemeal approach to this. I'm going to submit a budget on Feb. 15 that is going to be reasonable, it will be balanced in terms of revenue and cuts and it's going to be fair," he said. "I think they need to do the same."

Dayton stopped short of saying he would veto the measure.