ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota House ignored Gov. Mark Dayton’s objections and approved $1 billion in state budget cuts Thursday that would affect aid payments for local governments, colleges and community health programs.
The House voted 68 to 63 — the bare minimum for passage in the 134-member body — for the bill that also would freeze pay to state workers in upcoming contract negotiations. Four Republicans freshmen from swing districts joined all Democrats in opposition.
It’s the opening salvo in a budget debate between Republicans who control the Legislature and the Democratic governor. Ultimately, they must find a way to close a $6.2 billion budget gap.
Dayton is resisting a piece-by-piece approach although he has stopped short of saying he’d veto the bill if it gets to him. The Senate intends to act on a slightly different version next week, which means lawmakers will have to merge the plans before Dayton can weigh in.
“I think it’s avoiding the scope of the hard decisions that I’m going to have to make and they’ll have to make,” Dayton said of the House GOP bill.
Dayton will lay out his budget plan Feb. 15.
House Ways and Means Chairwoman Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said she hoped Dayton would come around before a bill hits his desk.
“The only way to eat a hippo is a piece at a time,” she said. “We have a big problem in front of us. To start working on it now makes sense.”
There was a rancorous run-up to the House debate, with Democrats accusing Republicans of pushing through a plan without being fully aware of the consequences. Republicans countered that most of the savings come by taking last year’s temporary spending cuts and making them permanent. Those cuts were adopted as part of a deal struck between the then-Democratic majorities and then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
This bill scales back aid to cities and counties by $487 million in the next two fiscal years. A program that provides tax rebates to renters would be cut by $106 million. Public colleges would see a combined $185 million reduction. Spending on various community health grants would drop by $47 million.
Some of the affected safety-net grants prop up county programs for assisting children and disabled adults in danger of maltreatment. Democratic Rep. Diane Loeffler seized on those cuts as “risky and reckless.”
“We haven’t stepped up to our moral obligation to look out for vulnerable children, vulnerable adults, battered women and other people who really count on the most basic of social services we provide,” she said.
Dayton’s executive agencies would be under orders to find another $200 million in cuts by turning back dollars they had yet to spend for the year. Only education would be exempt.
House Democrats offered no amendments to change the bill, but they spent more than an hour railing against it. They argued the bill could force local governments to turn to higher property taxes, colleges to resort to tuition hikes and programs designed to prevent child abuse to suffer.
“We’re not elected to play budget Whack-A-Mole, swinging cuts around willy nilly without any prioritization or thought behind it,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis Democrat.
Dayton said he intends to seek tax increases as part of his budget fix. Republicans insist they’ll plug the hole without touching taxes.
But all sides say they’ll be working to pare back spending, making Thursday’s debate a preview of the tussle to come.
“If anyone thinks we’re going to balance this budget without making some reductions, you’re not living in reality,” said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie. “It’s not going to get any easier.”
The Republicans who broke ranks were: Rep. King Banaian of St. Cloud, Rep. Debra Kiel of Crookston, Rep. John Kriesel of Cottage Grove and Rep. Rich Murray of Albert Lea. Two Democrats, Rep. David Dill of Crane Lake and Rep. Carolyn Laine of Columbia Heights, were absent and one seat is vacant.
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