Budget debate pits schools against health care
By Martiga Lohn
ST. PAUL -- When $380 million in proposed cigarette fees hit the negotiating table last week, it set off a scramble between public schools boosters and supporters of MinnesotaCare and other state health programs.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty earmarked $100 million for health care and the rest for schools. Education Commissioner Alice Seagren climbed into a small plane Monday and Wednesday, landing in Rochester and Austin as she crisscrossed the state promoting the plan, which she said would increase school funding by more than 9 percent over two years.
"I'm concerned that the more that money sits out there on the table, the more health and human services is going to be interested in grabbing that money," she said Tuesday at a Capitol news conference. "Linda Berglin is a terrifically tenacious senator."
She was talking about the Senate's lead negotiator on health care issues.
Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, has held out all year against the Republican governor's proposed cuts to the MinnesotaCare program, which would eliminate health insurance for 22,000 to 50,000 adults, depending on who does the math.
An outgunned Berglin sat through special session negotiations with Pawlenty, two commissioners and two House GOP leaders Wednesday. When the Republican team implied more health spending would come at the expense of schools, Berglin had enough.
"This whole budget discussion has pitted these two against each other. I don't believe we should be doing that," she said.
That provoked a sharp retort from House Speaker Steve Sviggum. "I'm unwilling and the House is unwilling to move any money from education to welfare," he said.
At last count, Senate Democrats wanted to spend about $210 million more on health programs than the governor and House Republicans.
Berglin hasn't budged on any reductions in eligibility for subsidized insurance programs. She has kept up a steady drumbeat of opposition to the proposed cuts, scheduling hearing after hearing where potential victims of the cuts have poured out their problems and fears.
She presided over another such session Wednesday, where a lineup of speakers said Pawlenty's latest offer was still too stingy on health care.
"It's kind of like putting a Band-Aid over a big gaping hole that needs to be stitched up," said Angel Buechner of the Welfare Rights Committee. "And the ooze and the blood is coming out, and we're that ooze and that blood."
Many at the hearing said Pawlenty's proposed 75-cent-a-pack increase in cigarette fees should cover medical costs. The state's costs for smoking-related illnesses top $400 million a year, according to the Department of Human Services.
Berglin, however, said she doesn't care where the cigarette money goes, as long as the Minnesota preserves health care for people who need it.
"When you need health care, you need health care, and knowing that education is funded adequately is not going to do you much good if the health care isn't there for you," she said. "We need both. The idea that we're pitting them against each other is just totally wrong."
Schools and health care are the two biggest ticket items in the state's $30 billion budget.
Pawlenty dropped the cigarette money into negotiations Friday as he sought to loosen up an end-of-session stalemate. He said he wasn't breaking a pledge against state tax increases, and insisted the charge was a fee, not a tax.
Pawlenty called the Legislature into a special session immediately after the regular session ended at midnight Monday without a budget deal.
All session long, both parties tried to appear more generous to education, the largest portion of the state budget. Schools receive roughly 40 cents out of every dollar in the budget, but parent groups, teachers and others say money is still too tight.
Pawlenty's latest offer would mean back-to-back 4.5 percent increases and give even more to school districts that experiment with merit-based pay for teachers.