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Minn. Senate budget cuts could lead to staff layoffs

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New Senate majority leader
Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, speaks to the press after he was chosen by the 37 members of the Minnesota Senate's Republic caucus to be their new majority leader Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011 at the Radisson Hotel Roseville.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

When the new legislative session starts in a couple of weeks, state lawmakers will turn their attention to Minnesota's spending priorities.

But leaders of the Minnesota Senate also must take aim at their budget, which must shrink by $2.1 million. That means cuts in the Senate's $43 million biennial operating budget could come soon, and likely will include some staff layoffs. 

The Senate's budget is shrinking because last summer's budget agreement that ended a state government shutdown required the Minnesota Legislature to share in the belt tightening. The deal forced the Senate to trim its operational expenses by 5 percent over the next year and a half.

A Senate Rules Committee meeting scheduled last month to address the budget issue was postponed in the wake of Republican Sen. Amy Koch's resignation as majority leader.

Koch's replacement, newly-elected Republican Majority Leader Dave Senjem of Rochester, said the reductions will also include some health care cuts, bringing the total to about $2.7 million. Senjem has not yet detailed how he'll approach the cuts, but he said since most of the budget goes toward the salaries of 194 employees, the solution will have to include some job losses. 

"Taking $2.7 million out the Senate will obviously -- you just don't do that with electricity and utilities and pencils and paper," he said. "Certainly there will be some people."

Senjem said the number of committee pages and interns will be reduced first. The Senate could have saved some money by not filling the post of majority caucus communication director, a $90,000-a-year job that Michael Brodkorb lost last month following Koch's resignation.

But the Senate is accepting applications for Brodkorb's replacement. There are also current postings for a committee administrator, a committee page and a leadership assistant. 

The Senate's top Democrat, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, said every day that passes makes a solution harder to find.

Bakk sent a letter to Senjem last month urging the new majority leader to take swift action.

"I've repeatedly over the fall expressed concerns about the Senate budget," Bakk said. "I continue to have those concerns, that's why I expressed it in the letter to Senator Senjem. Twice in the letter I asked for an opportunity to meet with him and discuss it. I have some ideas of where we can make some reductions."

In the letter, Bakk suggested a hiring freeze, as well as consolidating some unspecified services with the Minnesota House. Bakk said the Senate had to absorb a similar cut two years ago, when his party was in the majority. He said that switch in power is part of the reason the Senate is now short on cash.

"We used a lot of our carry forward, the unrestricted fund balance, in order to pay severance cost for the 40-some Senate employees that we laid off when the majority turned over," Bakk said. "So the cash balance has been taken down significantly." 

Senjem said he met with his newly assembled caucus leadership team last week to discuss the budget, and they plan to meet again this week to finalize a plan.

The matter must then go before the Senate Rules Committee. But no new meetings have been scheduled. Senjem said he's confident the Senate budget cuts won't be felt by average Minnesotans.

"I don't think the general public will necessarily notice them a lot," Senjem said. "I don't know why they would. It's pretty much inner-office stuff, and some people will obviously have to do more. But that's the way the world works right now." 

The Minnesota House was also required to reduce its operating budget by 5 percent. Those cuts, totaling $3.6 million, were detailed in a budget proposal finalized last year. The House cuts include the elimination of five full-time positions, a 50 percent cut in temporary staff, a salary freeze and the savings from limiting the 2012 session to 10 weeks.

A spokeswoman for the GOP caucus said House finances were in good shape to absorb the needed reductions.