GOP outlines cuts to human services, education

Published 10:27 am Wednesday, March 23, 2011


No matter which way you look at it, there are massive changes coming to Minnesota’s classrooms and human services.

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Minnesota House Republicans this week released portions of their budget plan for the next two years. While the proposal is mostly in line with the budget proposed by GOP senators two weeks ago, GOP representatives want to make large cuts to Health and Human Services and shuffle K-12 education funding.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, wants to see House and Senate Republicans exploring options for increased revenue since drastic cuts will raise prices and fees elsewhere and may affect Minnesota’s most financially vulnerable citizens.

“If you cut Local Government Aid, you’re going to increase property taxes. If you cut spending for higher ed, you will raise tuition,” Poppe said. “If you cut different things locally, you might have to increase taxes or fees if you don’t actually just do a tax proposal that is fair and responsible.”

Although K-12 education is largely unaffected by both bills, the GOP House proposal calls for shifts in categorical funding. The House budget plan increases per pupil funding, the state’s primary aid to school districts, while decreasing categorical funding used for specific district functions.

“It actually would give us a little more freedom for the school board,” said Mark Stotts, Austin Public Schools’ director of finance and operations. According to Stotts, the categorical funding shift means school boards around the state have a bit more flexibility when deciding their budgets.

One of the largest categorical funding shifts is in integration funding. GOP representatives want to replace integration funds with what they call innovation funding, which hasn’t been outlined. Districts would still receive the same amount of funding, but school officials aren’t sure what innovation funding would be used for.

Schools will still feel budget crunches when it comes to special education aid. The House plan calls for a freeze on state special ed funding, which means special ed state aid would remain at 2010 levels for the next two years.

The move impacts a district’s general fund more than its special ed funding, Stotts said. Districts are required to fund special ed programs and individualized education plans if a need exists, regardless of their special ed funding.

“If a student has an IEP, we have to provide that service,” Stotts said. “It doesn’t matter what our funding is. We’re serving the needs of our students.”

Moreover, districts receive state and federal special ed funding based on how much they’ve spent previously. A freeze to special ed funding levels means districts would provide special ed programs out of its general funds. While districts already have to provide some of its general fund money for special ed programs, an increase in special ed costs would mean larger deficits for districts statewide.

“We’ll do what we need to to do still to meet the needs to students with disabilties,” said Sherri Willrodt, Austin’s director of special education. “We want to meet the needs of our students.”

While the GOP House plan calls for almost $300 million in cuts, county governments wouldn’t bear the brunt of the budget changes, according to Margene Gunderson, director of Mower County’s Public Health department.

“The bill was … not as injurious to some of the public health activities,” she said.

The GOP House’s proposal doesn’t fund many preventative programs and cuts off funding to the State Health Improvement Project (SHIP), an initiative designed to get people healthier and prevent future health costs.

“That was disappointing,” Gunderson said.

Almost every Mower County elementary school benefits from SHIP, as County schools started a healthy snack program last fall where students can select fruits, vegetables, cereal and other healthy foods from a snack cart during the school day.

“It really pays in the long run to put prevention programs in place,” Gunderson said. “We focus on crisis, and it’s difficult in these times of economic downturn to pay for prevention programming but it’s the only thing that will keep us out of further debt.”

Although many department heads in the county and in the school districts are worried about funding changes, Mower County Human Services Director Julie Stevermer is apprehensive to make a judgment call on how the bill could affect local programs and services.

“You know they’re going to compromise,” Stevermer said, referring to the GOP-controlled Legislature and the liberal governor. “I’m not going to say yay or nay. I think we’ll have a combination of what the governor is proposing, and there will be a compromise.”

However, Stevermer said some increases on the county side of county-state cost sharing could negatively affect the county’s ability to provide certain services like chemical dependency treatment. Under the GOP’s plan, the county’s portion of inpatient and outpatient treatment bills will increase about 6 percent per person.

Sex offender treatment programs could be affected as well, since the new budget outline calls for counties to pay 20 percent more per person to send someone to the Moose Lake Regional Treatment Center.

Despite the fact that most legislators are sticking to their party’s beliefs regarding the budget, Rep. Poppe said she still hopes the Legislature can come to an agreement with the governor that raising revenue is imperative to balance the budget. Otherwise, she said programs people have been receiving for years will become too expensive or unavailable altogether.

“There’s got to be an awareness that if you do a cuts only scenario you’re going to see long-term damage to either infrastructure or services that people have been getting for decades or there’s going to be a drastic increase in tuition costs, or there’s going to be nursing homes that are going to have to close because they can’t provide servies to seniors,” she said. “We’re cutting services and programs and not having the shared sacrifice that most people would indicate is the way to go.”