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Minn. Bill Advances Without Cuts To Disaster Aid

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(credit: Jupiter Images)

(credit: Jupiter Images)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Popular programs including college financial aid and flood and tornado relief wouldn’t be at risk of budget cuts before July under a Senate version of a $1 billion deficit-reduction bill that advanced Wednesday.

The bill’s author, Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, changed the legislation so that Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration would be required to reduce state agency budgets by $125 million, instead of $200 million.

Her amendment put items including prison repairs, National Guard tuition reimbursement, emergency grants for veterans and job training programs off limits for short-term cutting. Public schools and higher education systems were already protected.

“There were some things that we really didn’t want them to have to go in and cut,” Robling told the Senate Finance Committee, which she heads.

She added: “We are asking, with five months remaining in the fiscal cycle, for them to find $125 million, and we think it’s possible.”

A companion House bill that would still require $200 million in immediate cuts is slated for a floor vote this week. The cuts would come by targeting unspent and unobligated funds before the state’s fiscal year ends in June.

The GOP bills don’t say what they would cut. But The Associated Press got information Tuesday from six state agencies with nearly $70 million in unspent money set aside for programs including disaster aid to communities ravaged by floods and tornadoes last year, emergency grants for veterans and financial aid for college students, including National Guard members, already starting their spring semesters.

Democrats said it was unclear which programs would be cut under the bill.

“I’m very concerned about randomly throwing cuts out there,” said Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights.

Figures from Minnesota Management and Budget show that slightly less than $195 million in unspent and unencumbered funds remained in the state’s general fund as of last week. Funds are considered encumbered when a state agency obligates the money for a specific purpose in the state accounting system.

The proposal is the majority Republicans’ first major attempt to whittle down a $6.2 billion budget shortfall projected for the next two years.

Dayton has said he doesn’t want to erase the deficit in “piecemeal” fashion.

State agencies including the departments of Veterans Affairs, Employment and Economic Development, and Corrections confirmed they have unspent funds. Amounts include $2.7 million for the State Soldiers Assistance Program, $10 million in flood disaster assistance grants for businesses and $11.6 million for prison utilities, repairs and supplies such as toilet paper and inmate clothing.

The Minnesota National Guard has not yet spent almost $2.4 million for tuition reimbursement and another $900,000 for the “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon” reintegration program, Lt. Col. Kevin Olson said.

Also unspent: $12 million for flood and tornado disaster aid to local governments.

That money will cover the state’s portion of disaster grants, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency paying three-quarters of the cost, said Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Kris Eide. Hundreds of local governments have applied for cash to repair roads, bridges, buildings, parks and utilities.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education had yet to spend about $27 million for student grants as of Tuesday. Spokeswoman Barb Schlaefer said the state doesn’t pay the awards until colleges and universities draw the money.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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