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It's a good start'

Lawmakers appreciate plan as a place to begin their work

By Lenora Chu

lchu@postbulletin.com

Southeastern Minnesota lawmakers are reacting cautiously to Gov. Jesse Ventura's plan to deal with the nearly $2 billion shortfall in the 2002-03 state budget.

Ventura released his budget proposal Thursday, calling for $700 million in spending cuts and $397 million in tax increases, plus taking $653 million from the state's budget reserve.

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The tax increases include a 5-cent increase in the gasoline tax and a 29-cent increase in the cigarette tax. Ventura also wants to eliminate the sales-tax exemption for schools, which would put an additional financial burden on public schools.

Area lawmakers refrained from criticizing Ventura's plan Thursday, promising instead to have public hearings on the issues and offer their own budget fixes a few weeks into the upcoming legislative session.

"For us to sit back and fire bullets at (his proposal) without having our own recommendations isn't exactly fair," said Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester. "I'm not going to start busting the governor because he's at least put a plan on the table."

"It's a good start," said Rep. Rob Leighton, DFL-Austin. "Somebody had to throw a proposal on the table."

Ventura left no part of the state budget untouched, saying he will consider his plan successful if he hears "across-the-board complaints."

"The best way to handle the pain is to spread it out," Ventura said. "Everyone gets a mild headache, rather than a few get an impacted wisdom tooth."

On the spending side, state aid to local government takes the biggest hit, with a cut of $146 million, or 5.2 percent. Ventura said he expects local governments to tap their budget reserves as part of the fix until they can "make their own permanent decisions about taxes and spending -- just as the state will be doing."

Health and human services will take the next largest cut at $98 million, or 1.5 percent of its two-year budget. The reduction will come primarily from closing two state-operated health care facilities in Walker and Fergus Falls, and a rolling back of "lower-priority" services. Ventura said an increase in nursing home workers' cost-of-living pay adjustments were enacted last year will stand.

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The governor expects his reductions of $92 million in K-12 education spending to be the most contested part of his proposal.

"Like everything we do with education, it will be controversial," he said. "But I will not be deterred."

The governor said there will be a number of state layoffs, and his office budget alone will be cut 5 percent to 10 percent, with permanent staff positions left unfilled.

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