Minnesota lawmakers are moving forward early in their 2012 legislative session, hoping they do not need to revisit divisive budget decisions made last year while plugging a $5 billion deficit.
Republicans say they hear few complaints about the two-year budget they passed in July, to end a 20-day government shutdown, while Democrats say the mostly Republican-written spending plan hurts Minnesotans.
“We’ve been able to get control of some of the costs of government,” Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said. “People are generally happy with the direction we’ve taken.”
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, agreed: “We cut some pretty significant budget last year. We are still here. I don’t think a lot of government has been hurt.”
Democrats heard things differently since leaving St. Paul last summer.
The budget deal “caused major problems in so many parts of the state,” Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said.
Falk said Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton was forced to sign Republican-written bills that forced property tax increases and delayed payments to schools. “He was left in a no-win situation.”
“I get a significant amount of comments,” Falk said, especially from cities and counties whose leaders say they have been forced to make “significant reductions in staff. They are trying to do more. And I think people are seeing a reduction in the quality of services provided.”
Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said he is surprised he heard few comments from the public.
“You would have thought that with the noise we heard here in St. Paul that the impact would have been great enough that we would have heard a lot,” Gimse said. “People are moving forward.”
But Gimse heard complaints at a New London-Spicer school board meeting last month about a problem that still bothers schools: a delay in state payments to districts.
Board Chairman Robert Moller told Gimse: “You have a surplus because you borrowed from the schools.”
“Your job, constitutionally, is to adequately and fairly fund education,” Moller told Gimse and other legislators at the meeting. “Borrowing from our schools is not adequate or fair. Even if we regain that money, we’ve lost the opportunity for those students.”
One issue being discussed in this legislative session is the 2011 elimination of the Market Value Homestead Credit, which many local officials say forced them to raise homeowners’ property taxes.
Businesses also ended up paying more taxes, Rep. David Dill, DLF-Crane Lake, said.
Dill said he is working on a bill to reestablish the Market Value Homestead Credit, but admitted it is an unlikely sell to the Republican majority.
House Taxes Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, is pushing a property tax cap in answer to the higher taxes.
The July budget also created issues in health care by cutting back on funding for personal care attendants, Dill said.
“People can’t stay at home and take care of the folks that are in need of help. They have to go outside the home and get work to pay the bills,” he said. “If they can’t be taken care of with those limited resources they end up going into a facility that costs way more than a (personal care attendant) anyway.”
Stevens Community Medical Center, serving more than 15,000 residents in Stevens County and west central Minnesota, has a small percentage of patients that rely on state-funded health care programs but still feels the impact of changes to health policies and procedures at the state level.
Medical Assistance, Minnesota’s Medicaid program, reimburses the medical center 38 cents on the dollar for the billed charges.
Medical center President and CEO John Rau said his organization is helped by serving a patient base that has insurance, as well as a large elderly population that relies on federal health care programs.
Still, the medical center last year wrote off $750,000 for patients who were unable to pay their bills. This number is on top of writing off what medical programs don’t reimburse, said Kerrie McEvilly, director of finance-information systems.
The state government shutdown lasted just three weeks, but on the north edge of Hastings, its impact will be far greater. The project manager for the new U.S. 61 bridge said the shutdown will result in a delay of at least six months.
The bridge had been scheduled to be completed by May 31, 2013. Now, it appears that the earliest the project will be finished is November 2013. The more likely scenario puts completion at May 2014.
The three-week state shutdown meant Minnesota Department of Transportation inspectors could not be at the steel mill where the main span of the bridge was being built, so the mill moved other projects moved ahead of the Hastings bridge.
Gimse, the Senate transportation chairman, said the Hastings bridge is a rare exception. Nearly all other road and bridge projects are back on schedule, he said.
Gretchen Schlosser of the West Central Tribune in Willmar, Chad Richardson of the Hastings Star Gazette, Kim Ukura of the Morris Sun Tribune and Danielle Nordine of the state Capitol bureau contributed to this story.