Legislators reflect on session

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 13, 2003

Area state legislators and local officials talked about the recent legislative session and the effects it would have on Austin and Mower County

Thursday at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Rep. Jeff Anderson, R-Austin, and Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, both gave their opinions on the new budget package.

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The budget was balanced without raising state taxes, but for out-state cities, counties and other organizations, that means large cuts in aid from the state. Austin will lose $933,000 this year and $1.3 million next year.

Sparks said the Senate voted for the budget because both the governor and the House were not going to budge on their commitment to no new taxes. He said holding out for the other two branches would have led to a government shutdown.

"You need to count your votes," he said. "It didn't take long to figure out that two certainly beats one."

He said that the loss of state aid for the city would be tough to handle.

"These cuts could possibly threaten the way of life in Austin," he said.

Sparks said the budget favored the Twin Cities and suburbs, which have a larger tax base.

He also said reductions in funds to programs like Meals on Wheels and Senior Volunteers were not right.

Anderson said the session was "one of the most difficult sessions that any legislator has seen."

He focused his talk on the positive aspects of the budget.

He said the fact that taxes were not raised was a positive thing for citizens.

Also funding for nursing homes was not reduced at all, although the Senate leadership wanted to "dig into" that money, he said.

Health and human services were not cut, he said. They will get less of an increase next year, but it will still be 15 percent.

Anderson also said the tax-free job opportunity zones would "increase economic development in rural Minnesota."

He said the bill outlawing possession of the materials to make methamphetamines fills a great need in the area, citing figures putting Mower County at number two behind Hennepin County for meth lab busts in 2000.

Local officials then gave a run-down on the effects to their respective organizations.

County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said Mower County would lose $1 million this year and between $1.5 and $1.7 million next year.

He said that with 85 percent of the county's funds going to mandated programs, it is difficult to cut anything.

He said an increase in property taxes and fee increases would probably be necessary to make up for the loss.

Austin City Administrator Jim Hurm handed out graphs showing the past spending practices of Austin, hoping to demonstrate that the city has been fiscally responsible and does not need a management overhaul.

"While the needs for services have gone up, the taxes for municipal services have basically gone down," he said.

The graphs showed that since 1990, city facilities, land area and streets and trails have continuously increased while the means to maintain those things have decreased. The amount of employees and the city's levy have been reduced.

Corrine Johnson, Superintendent of Public Schools, said that while the schools were not hit as hard as other organizations, they will still feel the crunch.

She said the sources of revenue for schools are limited.

An increase in enrollment, an increase in state aid, or a local tax levy are the only ways to raise money, she said.

Since enrollment is declining and the state is not increasing funds, a local levy may be necessary next year, she said.

Legislators ended the speeches with some final comments.

Sparks said fee increases locally will amount to the same thing as an increase in taxes.

"I think you're still going to see more money coming out of your wallet," he said. "That's the bottom line."

Anderson said the situation is difficult, but the responsibility for dealing with the problem was spread out well.

"There's almost nowhere that the pain isn't felt," he said.

Matt Merritt can be reached at 434-2214 or by email at matt.merritt@austindailyherald.com