Deficit looms over legislative session


“The deficit is so overwhelming that it’s hard to even think about what the other issues would be,” said Senator Sandy Pappas (D-St. Paul), expressing what might be the only easy consensus about the legislative session that begins January 6. From higher education to green jobs to child care to roads and bridges, the deficit looms over all other issues.

Pappas said that an emergency bonding bill for infrastructure will be on the agenda, either to provide a match for federal economic stimulus dollars, if that is requried, or to do infrastructure repair and replacement. As chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Pappas noted that both the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) and the University of Minnesota have “a huge backlog” for infrastructure projects such as energy-efficient HVAC systems and new roofs. Other bonding may provide for highways, transit and schools. “If we do our own economic stimulus package,” Pappas said, “it would include bonding for capital investment.”

“Investments in infrastructure and renewable energy that stimulate the economy, provide living wage jobs, and protect the environment,” should be a priority, according to Russ Adams, director of the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability. “We have a battle to prioritize the spending of federal dollars.”

Adams explained that the emphasis on the federal level seems to be on funding “shovel-ready” projects, such as roads and bridges. That de-emphasizes projects such as mass transit, which may need more planning, studies and fiscal analysis before start-up. He says the Obama administration “is doing a balancing act between ready-to-go work and work to shift to a new, greener economy.”

Top priority, according to Adams, should go to green jobs for low income people and people of color, such as building retrofitting for energy efficiency.

“There’s a shortage of workers to do it,” he said. “We know how to create job training programs to teach people how to do the retrofitting. It pays for itself in about three years. This could be a green pathway out of poverty.”

Job training for unemployed workers is a key concern for higher education, too, according to Pappas, who expressed concern that cuts in funding would mean higher tuition. “In an economic downturn,” she said, “a lot of people go back to school to upgrade skills, learn a new profession, or go to graduate school. If tuition rises, people could be squeezed out.”

Jeff Bauer, director of public policy for Family and Children’s Services, said he is hearing legislators and advocates express concern about identifying areas where people in need are most vulnerable to budget cuts, and trying to make sure that cuts are made in a fair and equitable fashion.

“The other message we are hearing loud and clear,” said Bauer, “is that just saying ‘please don’t make cuts’ isn’t going to cut it this year. The two numbers — $4.8 billion and $5.2 billion — are just a massive amount of money to find somewhere.”

Bauer said that advocates have to wait and see what is in the governor’s budget, when it comes out later in January or in early February.