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House plan uses cuts, shifts and new funding

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- House Republicans added some detail to their budget plan last week, outlining what they plan to spend and cut in areas such as education and transportation.

The proposal erases a deficit of about $160 million through a series of cuts, shifts and new funding. The House is counting on about $36 million from proposed casino-style gambling at the Canterbury Park horse track to avoid some of the least-popular cuts in Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget proposal.

"We've taken care of what most people would consider the most objectionable," said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud.

Pawlenty's plan would cut roughly $40 million in health and welfare programs, largely by cutting payments to hospitals, pharmacists and nursing homes. The House plan would avoid most of those cuts in payments to health care providers.

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But the health and human services bill sponsored by Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, mirrors Pawlenty's in other important ways. It would:

Reduce the amount of time welfare recipients can spend enrolled in college or other training programs from two years to one. Either way, they'd have to work at least 20 hours per week under a requirement imposed last year. About 5 percent of welfare recipients are in such educational programs.

Transfer $70 million from a fund that pays for Minnesota's subsidized insurance program, MinnesotaCare, to the state's general fund. That money ultimately comes from taxes on health care services.

Have MinnesotaCare again pay for the test strips diabetics need to keep their disease under control.

The Legislature passed the state's main two-year budget bill last year. This year lawmakers are making minor modifications to erase the deficit and fund a few programs they say can't wait until the next budget is crafted in 2005.

House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, said the House plan didn't do enough to create jobs and improve education.

And, he said, the figures Republicans are using for the Canterbury Park plan is too fluid to base a budget on.

"They bounce around quicker than a roulette ball," he said.

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The Democratic-led Senate has yet to propose a budget plan, but leaders there have said they won't include any gambling money in their solution.

Rising speed limits

The House voted March 25 to raise the speed limit to 60 mph on some two-lane highways now capped at 55 mph.

If the Senate and Gov. Tim Pawlenty go along, the state's transportation department would be free to boost the limit after conducting a road safety study on those stretches. The bill passed 109-22.

Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said many people aren't abiding by the lower limit in the first place.

"At some point, members, we need to recognize reality," Seifert said.

But Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said the bill sends the wrong message and could lead to more accidents and fatalities.

"When the speed limit is 55 people go 60, when the speed limit is 60 people go 65," she said.

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The bill includes a provision that prevents authorities from notifying insurance companies if a driver is cited for going less than 10 mph over the limit.

Ag legalese updated

A bill to clarify legal definitions and terms of family farm trusts was proposed by Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, and passed the Senate Agriculture, Veterans and Gaming Committee March 17. It was then included in the omnibus ag policy bill.

SF2741 would allow family farm trusts to lease agricultural land, after complaints that a widow or widower might not be able to keep farming, yet wants to keep the land in the family farm trust.

The bill also adds family farm trusts in the language dealing with authorized farm corporations. Doug Spanier, with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, testified and said the key point of this bill is simply to clean up the language and make it uniform.

Fair play

Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, proposed SF2481 to restructure organizational rules for county agricultural societies. It passed the Senate Agriculture, Veterans and Gaming Committee March 17 and was attached to Vickerman's big bill.

A witness testified that many of the current statutes were written in the 1900s and needed to be made more realistic.

Among the key changes: Ag societies that can receive money would no longer have to hold an annual membership of 25, ag societies no longer would be required to keep financial records on a form provided by the agricultural commissioner, cash prizes would be allowed to be granted for "products of a creative nature" to include more modern technology, and a treasurer would no longer be required to make a comprehensive report on funds, as in some societies the secretary or other member does this.

"The big bill"

The Omnibus Agriculture bill, SF2428, proposed by Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, passed the Senate ag committee March 17.

The bill contains an amendment allowing beef cattle producers to purchase live vaccinations from sources other than veterinarians. Tom Hagerty, previous director the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, testified along with Steve Brake from the Minnesota Cattlemen's Association, in support of this amendment.

A second amendment, proposed by Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, includes expanding financing for agriculture loans to adjust for inflation.

A third amendment, proposed by Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, aims to increase livestock in the state.

A final amendment from Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, mandates that public meetings for notice of mosquito and pesticide sprays be amply publicized and held in a public-accessible location.

CREP allocations

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, proposed SF2145 regarding the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. This bill would appropriate $23.2 million to the Board of Soil and Water Resources for CREP. Of that amount, $20 million is to come from the bond proceeds fund and be used for acquiring 35-year easements or permanent easements, at the choice of the landowner (wetlands would be an exception.) The rest of the money, to be put toward technical or professional services, would come from the general fund.

Nuisance laws

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, also proposed SF2866 in regards to animal operations nuisance claims. Under his bill, ag operations would not be considered nuisances or negligent if they are located in an area zoned for agriculture and are complying with all federal, state and county laws.

Outdoors funding

A bill to boost natural resources funding by dedicating a portion of the sales tax to those needs moved through a Senate committee March 25.

The Senate Environment, Agriculture, and Economic Development Budget Committee approved a proposed constitutional amendment that voters could see on the November ballot.

If it ultimately passes, voters could decide whether to channel roughly $170 million a year toward environmental and natural resources programs.

Supporters, including sponsoring DFL Sen. Dallas Sams of Staples, said it would ensure that the state's environment and parks don't fall into disrepair.

Opponents say they appreciate the need to protect the state's natural heritage, but they fear constitutionally dedicating those funds to the environment will starve other programs, including education, health care and transportation.

Warren Offeldt, chair of the Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus, said local governments will be further burdened by the diversion of resources.

"The shell game has been played long enough and we're into our third, fourth, fifth year," he said. "And I think the residents of the state of Minnesota need to hear this message. And if we want all this, we've got to start paying for it."

Companion legislation also is moving through the House committee process.

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