Senate passes unbalanced budget bill

The goal of this year’s legislative session is to solve Minnesota’s $5 billion budget deficit and create a budget our state can live on for the next two years. There’s a lot of disagreement about how to do this – cut spending, raise revenue, or a combination of both – but everyone has been in agreement that whatever plan we vote upon will solve that $5 billion problem. Minnesota is not like the federal government in that we cannot operate if our budget isn’t balanced; government will shut down.

This week, however, the Senate was asked to pass eight budget bills didn’t come close to solving the $5 billion deficit and would leave the state’s budget very unbalanced. The environment and natural resources bill, for instance, puts as many as 26 state parks at risk of closure and would force even more to provide rustic-only camping and services to visitors. The Department of Natural Resources said the resulting drop in tourism would actually cost the state and local economies money. At a time when state park attendance is up, it doesn’t make sense to take money out of local economies across the state just to pretend we’re balancing a budget.

The Health and Human Services budget claims to save $603 million by asking the federal government for a waiver on Medicaid coverage requirements. Right now, states get federal funds to help offer health coverage to residents below a certain income level. The Senate’s health care budget assumes we could forgo these federal funds and cut about 100,000 adults and children off the federal program, but Minnesota needs a federal waiver to make this change. Experts at the state and federal level have said this waiver is not legal, yet the savings are counted in this bill.

That health care budget also contains deep cuts to rural hospitals that would devastate the health care facilities we rely upon in Austin, Albert Lea and other Southern Minnesota cities. It also completely eliminates the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), which provides grants to communities and businesses to address chronic disease risk factors. Freeborn County has benefited greatly from these grants. Statewide, the program is projected to save almost $2 billion in prevention efforts by 2015. I’m not willing to support these types of illogical cuts that target our region.

The Senate’s State Government and Veterans budget is similarly off-balance. It counts on $217 million in savings that the state’s top, non-partisan financial experts do not validate. The bill has good intentions, seeking to save money by improving the way the state purchases goods and improving tax compliance methods. State agencies, however, said it’s unrealistic to believe the state could save anywhere near $217 million because Minnesota already is a national leader in these types of efficiencies. In addition, the same bill cuts the state workforce by 15%, eliminating the support staff that would be needed to actually increase tax audits and compliance efforts.

That 15% workforce reduction is another problem in itself. I absolutely agree that we need to streamline state government, but taking a broad, 15% sweep at government without thinking about who we’re cutting isn’t wise. For example, I supported an amendment to exempt nurses that staff our Veterans’ Homes because we need ample staff to support our aging service members, but that amendment was defeated. Saying you want to cut government is one thing; cutting critical state workers that support the health and safety of all Minnesotans is another.

All of this week’s actions amount to a budget that doesn’t add up. Governor Dayton has been very clear that he will not accept a budget without documented, sound numbers to support the savings. I am hopeful that we all can agree on this basic expectation very soon so we can begin debating an honest budget and finish our work in the next eight weeks, on time and without the need for a special session.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns at: sen.dan.sparks@senate.mn; 651-296-9248; Room 19 State Office Building, St. Paul, MN 55155.

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Senator Dan Sparks
Dan Sparks represents District 27, which includes all or portions of Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Mower, and Steele counties in the southeastern part of the state.

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