A balanced budget should leave health care fund intact

The Legislature is constitutionally required to adjourn the 2008 session by May 19, 2008. That’s less than a month away, and budget talks are continuing in earnest at the Capitol. Although we’ve made progress on a wealth of bills already this year, such as the transportation and bonding packages, the more complicated item of how to fill the $935 million budget deficit remains.

Each budget division in the Senate and the House recommended a budget-cut proposal that was included in a large Finance Bill and passed off the floor of both bodies.

Initially, the Senate’s bill recommended $232 million in budget cuts; the governor recommended $236 million in cuts; the House plan proposed $155 million in budget cuts. The rest of the money needed to fill the budget gap came from the budget reserves, increased revenue, the Health Care Access Fund, or a combination of all of those sources, depending on which budget you looked at.

Now those bills are in a conference committee where a compromise between the House plan, the Senate plan and the Governor’s proposal can be reached. The conference committee is meeting daily to sift through each body’s budget proposals and compare them to the Governor’s.

The House, Senate and governor all want to reach an agreement that cuts spending in every budget area, raises revenue where it’s possible, and avoids harming our state’s economic future. It’s not an easy goal.


The state does have a fairly healthy budget reserve account, but the Senate is reluctant to use much of that money. The most recent economic forecast predicted a $2.1 billion budget deficit for the 2010-2011 biennium, which we will have to budget for next spring. Since our economy isn’t showing signs of recovering any time soon, we’re all concerned that budget deficit will grow, making the need for a strong rainy day account even more important in the future.

The governor is interested in using money from the Health Care Access Fund, the account that funds working Minnesotans’ health care insurance program. He did make a new offer this week, however, which included a concession to only use $125 million out of the Health Care Access Fund — about half of the original amount he wanted to use.

That’s a big step forward, and the Senate appreciates his willingness to retain the integrity of that account.

Still, we are aiming for an agreement that does not strip any money out of the health care fund. It holds the money that pays for state-sponsored insurance program that working adults and their children can purchase when employers don’t offer health insurance. In this day and age, it’s unfortunately becoming more common for employers to strip health benefits from their workers.

We need to maintain a strong health care fund to make sure this insurance alternative remains available to Minnesotans that truly need it. After all, leaving more people without health care only causes larger budget problems in other areas.

The governor’s plan also includes cuts to long-term care programs and nursing home workers, something that those of us in Greater Minnesota have an especially hard time accepting. We have watched more and more of our nursing homes struggle to stay in business, even under the current level of state funding. Cutting more from their budgets is not the direction Minnesota should be heading.

Even with these differences, I’m very hopeful that we will be able to reach agreement before May 19. These end-of-session negotiations happen every year, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It gives lawmakers the chance to thoroughly examine every possible solution to our problems, and it gives Minnesotans a chance to learn what is at stake.

I’m hopeful we can continue the cooperative tone of the session and keep working toward a solution that will responsibly balance the budget.


Sparks, DFL-Austin, represents District 27 in the Minnesota Senate.

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