A frosty, but civil, town hall for Rep. Keith Downey

Rep. Keith Downey
Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, used a chart to illustrate a point during a Wednesday night town hall meeting with his constituents.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Since adjourning last week without a budget deal, many state legislators have been holding town hall meetings in their districts to talk about the impasse and the possibility of a government shutdown.

Republican Rep. Keith Downey of Edina got an earful Wednesday night when he spoke to a roomful of public employees who could soon be out of work if lawmakers can't reach an agreement on erasing a projected $5 billion deficit.

Organized labor already had a bone to pick with Downey, who sponsored several measures this year to trim government spending, including a 15 percent reduction in the state workforce over four years. He also stood firm against Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal to raise income taxes on top earners to balance the state's budget.

Bill McCarthy of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, who hosted the Edina forum, suggested that compromising on taxes would help save state jobs.

"Losing funding for any of these front-line public servants will lower the quality of services we rely on. We need to look at where we can save money and cut spending but believe that we should take a balanced approach that includes new revenue," McCarthy said.

Other union workers took turns criticizing Downey and the Republican budget he supported. A teacher raised concerns about cuts in special education funding. A nurse took issue with cuts in health care and higher education. And folks in the building trades urged Downey to support a bonding bill to create thousands of construction jobs.

But for state workers like Jason Wiley of Edina, the main beef with Downey was his attempt to thin their ranks.

"You and I both know that payroll and benefits make up such a small percentage of the state's expenditures that they don't have a material effect on the current budget crisis," Wiley said. "Consequently, I have to conclude that your legislation -- thankfully vetoed by Gov. Dayton -- was a mean-spirited attempt to scapegoat state labor unions."

When Downey got his turn at the microphone, he pulled out a stack of charts to make a visual case for state spending run amok. The second-term Republican was standing firm by his initiatives to freeze public employee salaries, consolidate state government functions and shrink the roster of government employees. He warned that state spending cannot continue to rise.

"My own opinion is that we have backed ourselves into such a tough spot in terms of the cost and the scope and the role of the public sector in our society that we don't have too many options left."

Downey touched on many familiar GOP themes about the growth of the budget over current spending levels and the negative impact of a tax increase on businesses. It was a mostly respectful exchange of diametrically opposed viewpoints. But some of Downey's constituents pushed back when he blamed Dayton for no end-of-session budget agreement.

"My perspective is that the governor really was not interested in negotiating," Downey told this audience. When some laughed in response, he added, "I'm telling you what happened on the ground. I was there."

Downey went on to criticize Dayton for talking about a potential government shutdown the day after adjournment, and he challenged the governor to get serious about negotiating.

For his part, Downey isn't budging on taxes or any state spending above $34 billion for the next two years. He also is still pushing to reshape government.

"A lot of the stuff I've proposed, I grant you, is tough medicine. But this is the way I see it. I think we're in a tough spot and we're going to have to scratch and claw our way out of it. We've done it before as Minnesotans. We've done it before as a country. But it's not going to come just by throwing more money at the situation."

Despite the long list of disagreements, Downey and his union member constituents seemed to find some common ground on the Vikings stadium issue. They politely applauded their representative when he said that spending any energy right now on a stadium is a "huge mistake."

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