Beyond the budget: education, health, jobs


It’s hard to imagine House members looking beyond the budget crisis when asked to name their goals for the 2009 session, but they say certain priorities remain high on their agendas including education, health care and job creation.

As the 86th legislative session opened Jan. 6, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Mpls) said the $4.85 billion budget deficit looms over all other priorities, but she has faith in the ability of the people to resolve differences in times of great difficulty.

Leaders from both parties agree they hope to engage citizens and local governments in problem solving.

“We’re visiting all corners of the state to talk to and get input from people to get solutions,” said Assistant Majority Leader Andy Welti (DFL-Plainview).

“I know this is going to be a horrendous year and I’m not trying to be idealistic about it, but we can’t be paralyzed by this,” said Assistant Minority Leader Carol McFarlane (R-White Bear Lake). “I hope we use this time efficiently and that all voices are heard and respected. We have to look long term, not biennium to biennium.”

Perennial concerns top personal lists

Perennial concerns about health care and education remain on the top of some agendas.

Assistant Majority Leader Diane Loeffler (DFL-Mpls) would stabilize cost increases by promoting preventive health care, such as early cancer screening and stemming childhood obesity. Preserving “affordability and access” to health care is a top concern of Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park), another assistant majority leader. But he knows “the name of the game is reform” rather than “reaching for the stars.”

McFarlane intends to work toward providing the best education to the people of the state. She said now is the time that different avenues should be explored, noting there’s been discussion on having shared services between districts. “We need to have a vision of what a 21st century school looks like. How should we be delivering the services in an efficient way for today’s learners? We need to keep the children engaged and wanting to learn.”

Steadying the impact of budget cuts

Leaders want to steady the impact of budget cuts with new revenue sources and by finding cost efficiencies in current programs.

New revenue sources could include such diverse ideas as Simon’s suggestion to establish a false claims act that would provide incentives to whistleblowers who expose fraud in companies contracted by the state. Simon said that a single settlement netted $40 million for Illinois, one of 21 states with such a law.

Meanwhile, Loeffler wants to make sure the state is prepared for a full and accurate population count in the 2010 census with the hope of preserving a U.S. congressional seat and to ensure maximum eligibility for federal funding linked to census numbers. Reports have suggested that Minnesota could lose one of its eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives because its population is increasing slower than other states.

Rep. Steve Smith (R-Mound), deputy minority leader, suggested new programs that began two years ago should be unallotted. “We need to first look at those programs across the board to start the process.” A major decision will also be if “we’re going to raise taxes or cut back,” he said. “I told the speaker that short of a tax increase, I will do whatever I can to find fiscally responsible solutions.”

Assistant Minority Leader Bob Gunther (R-Fairmont) said that when he was first elected in 1995, the state had surpluses. “Jobs are the things that create the surpluses. I don’t ever think it’s going to be in the mindset of this Legislature to save money for a rainy day, so to speak. I think jobs are going to be the thing we’re looking at.”

Welti also said job creation and funding is one of his priorities. He hopes to comb the Department of Employment and Economic Development to see if current projects could operate more efficiently.

He acknowledges the House will need to do more than examine certain mandates, such as annual travel policy reviews, publication update practices and proposed school food concession upgrades that cost local government units staff time and money.