New legislative session begins Jan. 4

I am previewing the 2011 legislative session from a very different perspective this year. The November elections triggered big changes at the Capitol, meaning I am writing this column from a new office with new committee responsibilities and a whole slate of new colleagues.

They say change is good, and I do believe that will prove to be true for the 2011 legislature. Minnesotans sent a message that they wanted a change in how state business was handled, and I intend to heed that advice. However, I have no plans to change my priorities in this new role. I am returning to the Capitol just as intent on putting people back to work, getting more money in the pockets of middle-class Minnesotans, and standing up for our Southern Minnesota communities.

These are the priorities we have worked on together for the past several years, and I am honored to have the opportunity to continue in this role for another term. This year will present a whole new set of challenges in reaching these goals, however. The state is facing another budget deficit – a reality that, unfortunately, isn’t uncommon for Minnesota in recent years. What is uncommon is the huge size of the deficit, at an historic $6.2 billion, and the fact that most go-to budget-solving strategies already have been exhausted.

In the past, there have been one-time accounting shifts or federal dollars that ultimately have ended up helping the state dig out of budget holes. This year, those one-time options are gone. The only options left are the ones that hurt the most, including cuts to some of the core functions of government that all of us rely upon. I will be listening to what matters most to you and working to protect those priorities from devastating cuts. I’ll also be working hard to make sure spending cuts at the state level don’t trickle down and cost regular Minnesotans more money. That has been the trend of the past few years, with state costs being passed on in the form of property taxes and fees. We need to be honest about our budget process and make sure our decisions don’t cause more long-term harm.

I also believe we need to look at new ways to bring money into our state. These budget deficits are endemic problems that aren’t going away anytime soon, unless we make permanent fixes. I’ve authored the Racino bill in the past, looking for creative ways to inject some new money into the state. Governor-elect Dayton plans on taking advantage of early enrollment in a Medicaid program that will capture much-needed federal dollars for our hospitals and long-term care providers early in the year. In our region alone, Albert Lea Medical Center stands to gain about $800,000 from early enrollment participation, taking a big cost burden off care providers across the state.

This session will be reliant upon more creative thinking such as this. We all know deep spending reductions and government reforms are needed, but so are long-term solutions that react to the new landscape of Minnesota. Our economy has changed, we have an aging population that requires a new standard of care, and we have a different generation of young people who require a global education. The state must respond to these needs and focus our budget priorities accordingly.

Beginning Jan. 4, 2011, I will be a member of the Agriculture Committee, the Energy Committee, and the Commerce Committee. While those issue areas will demand much of my focus, I encourage you to contact me with any concerns or questions you may have.

My new office number is Room 19 State Office Building, St. Paul, MN 55155. My phone number and e-mail will remain the same: 651-296-9248 or sen.dan.sparks@senate.mn.

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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