GOP proposes major slashes to address state’s deficit

Published 10:17 am Friday, March 11, 2011

By TREY MEWES and AMANDA LILLIE

State Republicans have brought down the ax on Minnesota’s budget in hopes of finding a solution to the deficit.

Minnesota’s Republican senators released their budget proposal for the 2012-2013 biennial budget Thursday. It would make cuts to higher education, social service programs, local governments, jobs and economic development, and would affect state government innovations and veterans.

The plan aims to correct the state’s $5 billion budget shortfall. Republicans propose reducing higher education funding, which is at $2.98 billion this year, to $2.5 billion in 2012.

Higher education funding was widely expected to be cut anyway, as Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan, released last month, proposed cutting it to about $2.75 billion in 2012.

“The first thing it’s going to do, unfortunately, is we may have to look at raising tuition to make up the difference in the gap,” said Dr. Terrence Leas, Riverland Community College’s president.

Leas said it’s too early to tell how budget cuts will affect public universities or colleges, as legislators haven’t finalized a state budget. When the cuts do come, they’ll be divided between the University of Minnesota and MnSCU school systems, which will trickle down to Riverland.

If the GOP cuts pass, Riverland could face a deficit of more than $1 million, according to Leas’ rough estimate. In recent years, Riverland officials have trimmed several staff and reduced course sections to balance the budget, but further cuts could mean higher tuition, a shrinking course list or worse.

“There are some who claim that public higher education is too fat and needs to be trimmed,” Leas said. “I challenge them to come to Riverland and find where to trim. We’ve been trimming already, and we’re down to cutting muscle.”

The GOP plan leaves K-12 education funding largely unharmed, as Republicans advocate increasing K-12 funding to about $14.3 billion in 2012, slightly lower than what spending forecasts predict the state would need to spend next year anyway.

The plan calls for a continued delay of state aid payments to school districts, something lawmakers decided on during the last budget session to help balance the state’s budget. This comes as no surprise to local school officials.

“I guess, really this is the best-case scenario given the state budget deficit,” said Mark Stotts, Austin Public Schools director of finance and operations.

“The state legislature is recognizing that cutting education would be devastating, given the fact that we’ve had a per pupil funding freeze for the past five years,” he added.

One of the largest cuts comes to Health and Human Services, which would be cut by $1.6 billion in 2012. Health and Human Services currently receives about $10.1 billion and spending forecasts call for $12.3 billion to be spent in 2012 to maintain its services. The GOP plan would give $10.7 billion to the agency in the 2012-2013 biennium.

Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, said he is hoping the Republican majority can find a way to compromise with Dayton’s budget outlook so the two parties and entities can meet in the middle.

“Even the governor, when we got his February forecast, kind of moved off of some of his tax increases,” Sparks said. “He’s shown some of his willingness to compromise.”

Sparks said the state economist found that an all-cuts budget, which is what Republicans are pushing for as opposed to increasing taxes, would harm the state’s economy more than a budget with both cuts and revenue increases.

However, GOP leaders said their plan is more than just cuts.

“There’s legitimate growth areas in this budget,” said Michael Brodkorb, the state GOP deputy chair. “It’s not all cuts.”

The Republican senators’ plan also includes at least a 50 percent cut in Local Government Aid and a 47 percent reduction to sectors of the budget dealing with jobs and economic growth, according to Sparks.

“We have to be very careful of some of the hidden taxes on some of the middle class families,” he said.

Senate committees are set to tackle the Republicans’ budget outlook next week in a more broken down form.