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House passes budget-balancing bill

ST. PAUL -- Nursing home residents, illegal residents and farmers are among thousands of Minnesotans who would lose state funding under a budget-balancing bill House members passed Monday.

ST. PAUL -- Nursing home residents, illegal residents and farmers are among thousands of Minnesotans who would lose state funding under a budget-balancing bill House members passed Monday.

The Republican-authored bill finds $468 million to balance this year's $356 million budget deficit, plus adds a bit for a reserve fund.

A House-Senate conference committee could begin to work out differences between their budget plans as early as today.

There isn't much time: Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Monday he must have a Legislature-passed budget bill by the end of next week or he will make his own cuts.

The House budget fix passed 77-50 on a mostly party-line vote.


Despite 3½ hours of debate Monday, the budget bill is just 10 percent of a nearly $4.6 billion budget deficit that must be fixed this year.

"The state is going to run out of money before June 30 if we don't do something like passing this bill," said Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Pawlenty, who was in the House the past decade, said he liked the House plan much better than the Senate-passed bill.

The House and Pawlenty each propose $468 million in cuts and other savings. The Senate passed a $384 million measure.

The Senate's plan does not cut as deep as the House, relying more on delays in state payments to balance the budget.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, cast his first major legislative vote on the House budget bill, making cuts to state programs.

"We needed to take this action," Lanning said. "This is the tip of the iceberg."

Lanning and Rep. Doug Fuller, R-Bemidji, said their biggest concern was $81.5 million in higher education cuts.


Fuller said Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College officials assured him they can live with this round of cuts, so he felt better voting for the measure.

Rural Minnesota needs jobs, Fuller said, and a way to do that is to keep taxes in check, as House Republicans want.

"When Marvin Windows expanded the second time in North Dakota, that bothered me," he said, indicating lower taxes was a reason.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said the House bill cheats rural Minnesotans. While most agencies sustained cuts of about 4 percent, "why did we hit rural initiatives at 20 percent plus, plus, plus?" he asked.

In the House 2003 budget-fix bill, the Agriculture Department would lose $8.3 million, compared with the $29 million Pawlenty wanted to trim. The Senate proposes $3.2 million in cuts.

Ethanol subsidy payments this year would take a 20 percent hit under the House bill and funding was chopped for other programs.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, agreed with other Democrats that the House bill was not fair.

"The pain should be shared more fairly," Eken said.


The rookie lawmaker said past legislatures cut taxes too deeply, especially for the rich, and sent too many tax rebate checks back to Minnesotans. Those actions, he said, cut the state's budget reserve too much.

While House members prepared for Monday's debate, Senate Republicans proposed freezing salaries of all state and local employees for the next two years, saving an estimated $1 billion.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, said about 365,000 Minnesotans are on the public payroll -- everyone from firefighters and police officers to snow-plow operators and legislators.

Under the GOP plan, Day said, they would at least keep their jobs. If normal raises are given, he added, some people may be laid off.

Pawlenty said he would consider the Senate GOP proposal, but did not lend his support to it.

Day said the freeze would not help this year's budget problem, but would kick in for 2004-2005.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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