Governor Tim Pawlenty on Friday announced cuts – known as unallotments – to the state budget in order to close the yawning $428 million deficit this fiscal year. The move left some legislators and public officials worried, and one advocate for the poor called it “an assault on the underclass.”
Two weeks ago, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson announced Minnesota faced a dramatic shortfall in revenues, meaning the 2008-2009 state budget would have to be cut back before the current fiscal year ends in June of next year.
Part of the deficit will be closed with $155 million from the state’s budget reserves, and the remaining cuts will come from a number of sources, most notably $110 million from local government aid and $73 million from human services spending.
“Are there a few things we can cut?” asked Blaine Hill, the city manager in Morris, MN. “Probably, but not many.”
Hill said after Pawlenty cut $35 million in local aid in the 2003 budget crisis, many cities, including Morris, had to re-organize and dramatically streamline their operations. Efficiencies and extraneous programs, he said, were few and far between.
Mayor R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis issued a statement hinting at cuts to fire and police departments – frequently the largest departments in a city’s budget – and Mayor Chris Coleman of St Paul said in a statement that all city departments would be taking a 20% budget cut, including the police and fire departments. Minneapolis will lose $13.1 million and St Paul will lose $5.6 million, representing 4.08% of each city’s funding base.
While most of the cuts to state human services spending came from unspent grant money for programs like chemical dependency treatment, mental health grant programs, and state Medicaid programs, many of these programs are already under-funded, said Chris Stewart, a member of the Minneapolis Board of Education.
“This is balancing the budget on the backs of the underclass,” Stewart said. “The budget shortfall has to be made up somewhere, but this looks like a worst-case scenario” for agencies that serve the poor.
Earlier in the week, state representatives had accused Pawlenty of not sharing information about possible unallotments, and suggested he was trying to freeze them out of a consultative role in the process. This week, though, the Governor has been much more responsive to the legislature, said Representative Mindy Greiling, chair of the K-12 Education Finance Committee.
“I’m concerned that [Pawlenty] will treat the next budget cycle as another unallotment process” and not work more closely with the legislature,” she said. “If he tries to do that, he’s got another thing coming!”
James Sanna is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.