Dayton Called It Right: Budget Does Not Please

Minnesotans knew, or should have known, that the final state budget would not please people.

“My proposed budget solution will be reasonable, balanced – and painful – because I see no easy alternative,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in his inaugural address Jan. 3.

After that, he repeatedly said that he himself would not vote for his budget plan, but with a $5 billion deficit there was no choice but to make deep cuts in some state programs.

Legislators knew agreeing on a budget would take a long time.

“I’m not making any summer plans,” Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said when he took office Jan. 4.

Even on the Legislature’s first day, it was easy to find people like Reinert who predicted, or accepted the possibility, that passing a budget by a May 23 deadline was not possible.

They were right. When Dayton and legislative leaders came out of his office on July 14 to announce their final budget deal, calling it an “all-frowns budget” was easy.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said accepting a plan no one like was the “essence of compromise.”

“I told the Republican leaders in January that we are joined at the political hip,” Dayton said in a Forum Communications interview. “We could either make each other look good or make each other look bad. We made each other look bad.”

He was right about looking bad. Reactions in recent days have been overwhelmingly negative.

Since a special legislative ended with the budget approved at 3:40 a.m. Wednesday, one of the most positive reactions came from Gayle Kvenvold, Aging Services of Minnesota president: “This budget delivers mixed messages and mixed results for Minnesota seniors. While efforts were made to shield some seniors from the most drastic cuts, this budget also includes disturbing policy changes and cuts that will seriously impact seniors who need access to a full continuum of care options and deserve the freedom to make their own choices.”

State-funded health-care and education spending earned some of the sharpest criticism.

The budget that ended on June 30 would have resulted in Minnesota spending $39 billion in the next two years. Money coming in was expected to be a bit more than $34 billion.

That left a $5 billion deficit. Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature bridged that gap by using two forms of borrowing that gave the state almost $1.4 billion more money to spend and cut planned spending by a little more than that.

Education spending news was mixed. Most discussed was a $700 million delay in state payments to schools. But at the same time, the $14 billion school budget bill increases spending 5 percent.

The bill also reduces some requirements, such as eliminating a Jan. 15 deadline for reaching a deal with employee unions. If that date is missed, schools were forced to pay a penalty. The bill, now law, also forbids the state from directly borrowing from school districts, although delaying payments is allowed.

”This bill contains significant mandate relief,” said Chairman Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, of the House Education Committee.

Garofalo called his measure “a big win for rural Minnesota,” in part because schools with 1,000 or fewer students will receive more state money.

Still, the House’s top Democratic-Farmer-Laborite education funding member could not shake the payment delay.

“This bill … steals money from children,” Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said.

If education is the biggest state expense, the health and human services bill is the most controversial.

“There was a lot of need to find ways to compromise,” said Chairman David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.

But Democrats said that did not happen.

“DFL members were locked out of the room, Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said. “We did not participate in the negotiations. … The process, basically, stinks.”

Huntley warned that the measure chops $500 million out of what hospitals should receive, and takes $133 million away from nursing homes. He warned that hospitals “are either going to go out of business or raise rates for everyone else.”

Even Dayton, a strong proponent of state-funded health care, said cuts were needed.

The problem, first emphasized by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is that health-care costs are soaring far more than other expenses and people’s income. It is the biggest cost problem the state faces, leaving state leaders to say they have no choice but to cut from what health-care advocates say is needed.

The disabled are especially hard hit by the new budget, according to Pat Mellenthin of the Arc Minnesota.

“The budget that was just approved cuts services that make life possible for people with disabilities and their families, makes reforms in some areas but goes backwards in others, and puts much of the cost on the state credit card,” Millenthin said.

Personal care attendant wages are cut 20 percent by the budget, Millenthen added, and other state rates also are lower.

The Minnesota Medical Association found a positive aspect of the budget: continuing Medical Assistance coverage for adults without children.

However, the medical group was not happy that the budget cuts many other payments.

Dayton said health issues will be a priority discussion before the next Legislature convenes on Jan. 24.