March 13, 2009
Senate Democrats Release Budget Proposal
Democrats in the Minnesota Senate released their budget proposal on Thursday. The Senate DFL plan is the first proposal from state lawmakers to erase Minnesota's projected $4.6 billion deficit for the next biennium. The plan would cut spending by 7 percent across all budget areas. The largest reductions are in programs for schools, health and human services, and aid to local government. In total, the plan cuts $2.4 billion in spending and relies on $2 billion in unspecified new revenue. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said the cuts are needed to stabilize the budget in the long-term. He said Governor Pawlenty's proposal to use one-time money, accounting shifts and spending cuts does not adequately address the budget problem.
In 2007, Senate Democrats initially proposed across-the-board cuts but later passed an income tax increase. Governor Pawlenty vetoed that bill. Senator Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) said they may try to raise income taxes again. Bakk, who chairs the Senate Tax Committee, said he's examining all options but that the proposed new revenue will include an income-tax hike. Bakk said he will oppose any attempts to expand the sales tax to services or clothing.
Republicans in both the House and Senate are criticizing the plan. Senator Geoff Michel (R-Edina) spoke against the proposal: "This is not the kind of a budget that gets us out of a jobs-deficit," Michel said. "A massive tax increase on our taxpayers in the midst of a recession. Cuts, actual cuts, of close to $1 billion in our education system. That's a double blow."
Republicans aren't the only ones complaining. DFL Senator and 2010 gubernatorial candidate John Marty (DFL-Roseville) said he hasn't seen a budget plan that he supports yet. He said both Governor Pawlenty's plan and the plan being considered by Senate Democrats make too many cuts to health care and education.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis) said there will also be deep cuts in spending in House Democrats' budget plan, but the cuts won't be across the board. She also said education is a priority for her caucus. Kelliher won't release the plan until next week but House Tax Chair Ann Lenczewski said earlier this week that some sort of new revenue will be on the table.
Senate Releases $367.4 Million Bonding Bill
On Tuesday, a Minnesota State Senate committee approved a $367 million public-works bill that could create hundreds of construction jobs quickly but also could provoke a confrontation with Governor Tim Pawlenty over how much money the state should borrow for construction projects this year.
Senator Keith Langseth (DFL-Glyndon) brought the bill before the Senate Capital Investment Committee on Tuesday. It is a $367.4 million plan to fix state-owned buildings, invest in new construction, transit options, and other public works projects that legislators say will create jobs during a time when unemployment is soaring.
State Economist Tom Stinson opened the meeting with a sobering report indicating an economy worsening faster than predicted at the time of the November budget forecast. The country's eight percent-and-rising unemployment rate is the worst in a quarter century, he said. He urged the panel to fund labor-intensive repair and renovation projects that can start immediately instead of new buildings that take longer to construct and finance. Langseth stated that more than half the money in the bill would go for replacing windows, roofs and plumbing and making other repairs.
The federal economic stimulus package, which will send billions of dollars to Minnesota, will help keep or create 45,000 Minnesota jobs, Stinson said. However, he encouraged senators to pass a public-works bill to preserve more jobs. "State government needs to help," he said. "We need funding that can start immediately.” The bill marks the first budget action this year in the Legislature, which is facing a $4.6 billion shortfall for the next two years. Langseth expects the full Senate to pass the bill early next week. He hopes to start funding construction projects in April.
Commissioner Sorel appointed to Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission
Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Thomas K. Sorel has been appointed to the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission by Governor Tim Pawlenty. Sorel, who has more than 30 years of experience in transportation and highway engineering, replaces Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau as Pawlenty's appointee on the Commission to complete a four-year term that expires Jan. 3, 2011.
The rail commission is a compact of twelve Midwestern states created to promote development and implementation of improvements to inter-city passenger rail and long-range plans for high-speed rail passenger service between the Midwest and other regions of the country.
Membership from each state includes the governor or the governor's appointee, one member of the private sector appointed by the governor, one state senator and one member of the state House.
Pawlenty Signs Radiation Therapy Moratorium Extension
Governor Tim Pawlenty has signed into law legislation that would restrict the construction of radiation-therapy facilities in Minnesota. The moratorium on new facilities will last through mid-2014 in 14 of Minnesota's more populated counties, including the expanded Twin Cities metro area. In other counties, such a facility can only be built if it is owned, operated or controlled by a State-licensed hospital.
Supporters have argued that restricting new radiation-therapy facilities could help hold down health care costs because building more of the facilities could encourage more use of the expensive treatments. They also said existing facilities are able to keep up with demand. Before the House approved the measure last week, some Republican members questioned the bill's motives, saying the state shouldn't be trying to control the private health-care market.
Oral Practitioners Could Replace Dentists Where Needed
A proposal in the Minnesota Legislature would create the dental equivalent of nurse practitioners to provide care in parts of the state where dentists are in high demand and low supply. The independence of these practitioners became the crux of disagreement on Wednesday in the Senate Committee on Health, Housing and Family Security. The Minnesota Dental Association insists that dentists must be on the premises to supervise the new clinicians, known as "oral health practitioners," or dental therapists. But a group called the Minnesota Safety Net Coalition says the new clinicians should be free to work in other settings in order to reach thousands of low-income children and adults who now get no dental care at all.
Dr. Scott Lingle, past president of the Dental Association, warned that even a simple tooth extraction can lead to serious complications and that dental therapists won't be able to handle them without a dentist present.
But Dr. Ron Nagel, a dentist from Alaska who was invited to testify by the Safety Net Coalition, said there's plenty of evidence that dental therapists operate safely on their own with supervising dentists off-site. "There is no evidence to support claims that the services provided by dental therapists are unsafe or of poor quality," Nagel said. "Virtually all of the existing literature suggests just the opposite."
The Senate Committee on Health, Housing and Family Security agreed to create two versions of dental therapists with different training requirements: one would require more oversight, the other could operate more independently. In both cases, they would be limited to working with low-income and "underserved" populations.
The proposal is supported by the Minnesota Hospital Association, the Minnesota Council of Health Plans and the Pew Center on the States, among other groups.
For up-to-date information about the Minnesota Legislature, tune into Almanac: At the Capitol. This lively and informative program is aired Wednesdays during the legislative session on Twin Cities Public Television at 7:00 PM on Channel 17 and at 10:00 PM on Channel 2.
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For more information and to see previous broadcasts, check out the Almanac: At the Capitol Web site at http://tpt.org/aatc/.