Minnesota has the highest per capita debt in the nation, so it is no surprise that members of the state legislature in the Minneapolis area told Tristate Industrial the main priority for the first session of 2011 will be the budget. The Republican majority will have an opportunity to show how they are going to increase revenue without increasing taxes while avoiding the temptation to shift state debt on to local municipalities.
Peter Wienicke, legislative assistant for Sen. David Hann (R) 42, said “This is the first time in 38 years that the Republicans have had the majority in the Minnesota Senate, so at the moment our plate is pretty full.”
Hann has served on education and environmental budgeting subcommittees and was assistant Minority whip for a period in 2009. He also made a brief run in the last Governor’s race, and this year he will be serving as chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.
Government panels have received a lot of attention from the majority in the two weeks since the election, and Republican leaders have already slashed the number of committees that hear issues and hold votes by a third. This will eliminate hundreds of thousands in overhead, the majority stated.
“Eliminating government officials are very modest cuts, and there will be temptation to shove it off on property tax,” said Rep. John Benson (DFL) 43-B. “Or they’ll have to cut Health and Human Services, which means no state assistance for the indigent. That will put people into the emergency wards-three times the cost of preventative care.”
On that issue, Sen. Terri Bonoff said she was relieved that Gov. Dayton has moved to access $1.4 billion of Medicare funding available for Minnesota.
“That money is essential to health and well being and the governor will not stand for those who are the most vulnerable being hurt,” she said. Mark Dayton (DFL) will be the next governor of Minnesota, so the executive and legislative branches of the state legislature will remain divided.
“That means that there will have to be compromise on both sides,” Benson said. To balance the budget, officials often engage in what are called “shifts.”
Last year, as part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s “unallotments,” $1.9 billion was slated to be permanently taken out of school budgets. The legislature, however, stepped in and guaranteed paying back those funds. Last time, though, it took over 10 years and hurt state credit rating.
“The statute provides that we have enough in reserves before we pay that money back,” Bonoff said. ” I don’t think that will be as quick as the majority has forecasted.”
Even newcomers still learning the ropes, like Rep. Kirk Stensrud (R) 42A- who won by the slim margin of 100 votes-knows that finance is going to dominate the agenda.
“This Friday I will get some official business done in St. Paul- I will get an ID Pass and learn where all the bathrooms are as I tour the capitol with my wife, Wendy,” Stensrud wrote on Facebook. “First the basics, then we’ll roll up our sleeves and get to work, the budget will be our major focus.”
Several calls to Stensrud’s home and office in St. Paul, along with an e-mail, were not returned.
Rep. Connie Doepke (R) 33B, also did not return phone calls or an e-mail , but summed up the issues when she addressed her constituents after the November elections.
“Your number one priority in this election cycle is our economy, closely followed by the needs of our schools, and the quality of our lake environment ,” she said on her website. The Minnesota House of Representatives will reconvene at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2011.