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Guest Columnist: Governor's budget proposal needs overhaul

The 2005 legislative session is under way and there is a new spirit of cooperation and bi-partisan compromise on important issues facing our state. Even though it is relatively early in the session, in the Senate we have already passed several bi...

The 2005 legislative session is under way and there is a new spirit of cooperation and bi-partisan compromise on important issues facing our state. Even though it is relatively early in the session, in the Senate we have already passed several bills, including a capital bonding bill, a proposal to increase the minimum wage and a measure to include inflation projections in our state budgets.

In tough economic times, it is important that the Legislature work together, and this session, legislators are making a marked effort to do just that. In the last general election, citizens across the state sent a message loud and clear -- gridlock and partisan bickering is unacceptable.

However, dealing with budget shortfalls has become a common struggle for legislative leaders at all levels of government recently. In the 2005 legislative session, we are facing a $1.4 billion dollar shortfall. Last week, Gov. Pawlenty released his 2006-2007 biennial budget proposal. I applaud the governor for establishing increased funding for K-12 education, higher education institutions, more funding for cracking down on sexual offenders, and additional resources to curb the manufacturing of methamphetamines.

But with growing deficits and a general unwillingness to look at tax adjustments and other bold solutions to our budget crisis, Minnesota leaders will again be forced to debate cuts to services and programs. Solutions to our economic recovery and a course for balanced budgets do not rest in additional cuts to vital programs.

As a Legislature, we must be concerned about the long-term fiscal stability of our state. Cutting programs for low income families is simply not the solution.

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I am concerned that the proposal before the Legislature is fiscally unsound. For example, the budget relies on over $200 million in gambling licensing fees and more than $100 million in revenue from a new Twin Cities casino. Counting on revenue from a gambling facility that doesn't exist currently is not fiscally responsible. The budget also relies on increased "fees" and other revenue.

Health care is the fastest growing sector of our state budget. The skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs and health care insurance have surged the cost of state healthcare programs. As a result, under the governor's proposal, health care faces substantial cuts in the 2006-2007 biennium -- in fact more than $274 million is projected to be cut.

By shifting the General Assistance Medical Care from the General Fund to the Health Care Access Fund, funds specifically set up to fund working individuals and family health care coverage under MinnesotaCare will be significantly reduced. Likewise, under this budget proposal, more than $70 million in cuts will be seen by child care providers due to a freeze in reimbursement. Also, there is a $51 million reduction in funds for people with disabilities, which will result in serious cuts to programs that allow disabled Minnesotans to remain in their own homes rather than expensive healthcare facilities.

The budget requires community hospitals to absorb roughly $55 million in direct funding reductions through a 5 percent reimbursement rate reduction and pharmacies will lose $28 million. This will be a devastating blow to some rural hospitals and pharmacies that are already operating on razor-thin margins.

The budget also cuts health care from more than 41,000 low-income parents and working single adults. This proposal hurts working people -- those Minnesotans who pay their taxes and support themselves and their families but need some help getting adequate health care coverage.

Invariably, general economic understanding will lead you to the awareness that cutting health care programs will result in added emergency medical costs for the state and increased charity care absorbed by local health care facilities. Therefore, by trimming around the corners on these important programs, our state essentially triggers higher government costs down the road. This is simply not fiscally responsible and will lead to future budget problems.

I look forward to the budget debate. I will continue to fight for a balanced, fair and progressive budget proposal. Our state cannot afford to cut vital programs. With fiscal leadership and tough choices about the quality state we envision, the legislature can work together to plan for a solid fiscal future that makes Minnesota proud.

Yvonne Prettner Solon represents most of Duluth in the Minnesota Senate. She may be reached during the session by calling (651) 296-4188.

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