'All-cuts' plan is disastrous for Minnesota
Maybe the Wizard of Oz had it right when he warned Dorothy not to look behind the curtain. He didn’t want to ruin the facade of a gleaming Emerald City.
Seventy-two years after L. Frank Baum’s cinematic tale, the same misdirection is taking place in St. Paul. Some in the Legislature don’t want to ruin the image of the land of sky-blue waters. Fortunately, some of us in St. Paul are looking behind the curtain. And it isn’t pretty.
Minnesotans began to learn this week what an "all-cuts budget" looks like. By April 8 the House will pass seven budget bills, funding everything from schools and parks to the roads and bridges we take to get there. The state bank account is projected to have $34 billion to fund our priorities in 2012 and 2013.
Following are highlights of how the majority party has proposed to get us there:
In the Environment and Natural Resources budget, a $195 million cut means the DNR could reduce services at upward of 19 state parks, including mothballing up to seven. This bill takes money from the lottery funds and uses it to fill holes in the budget. There are legitimate questions if this is even constitutional. The bill rolls back protections to water and natural resources. There was even a proposal to log walnut trees in state parks, although that was removed from the final bill.
The budget for the state's public K-12 schools contained smaller cuts than other budget areas. However, there are a number of policy changes that gave some legislators pause. Minnesota’s integration aid has been shown to cut the achievement gap. This bill eliminates the rule requiring integration and redirects the funding.
It also freezes funding for special education, one of the biggest cost drivers for schools districts. Vouchers also appear in this bill, setting up pilot projects in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, sending public dollars to private and parochial schools. A study was released last week looking into the effectiveness of vouchers in Milwaukee-area public schools. The study showed students who received vouchers performed worse than public school students on math and reading tests.
The state’s two higher education systems will be cut by over $400 million. The bill asks MnSCU and the University of Minnesota to serve tens of thousands more students at 1998 funding levels. The bill places a tuition cap on both systems. That can mean lower increases in tuition but the schools warn the tradeoff is fewer departments, fewer course sections, loss of top faculty, and making it more difficult to complete a degree in two or four years.
The public safety bill cuts funds to public safety programs across the state and continues the underfunding of Minnesota’s courts. The bill reduces funding for victims of child sex abuse, services for battered women, sexual assault providers, community crime prevention and gang and drug task forces. It continues to fund the courts at reduced levels, making cuts to Civil Legal Services and advocates for children. Public defenders have taken large cuts in past years and asked for a 5% increase; the increase was also requested by the Governor. This bill keeps their funding flat.
During the first week of April the budget bills of health and human services and jobs and economic development will be voted on. These proposals will include cuts to nursing homes and long term care as well as reducing eligibility for MinnesotaCare, the state’s health insurance program for low income individuals.
The state has specialized accounts with dedicated funding streams which fund specific projects such as fire safety, 911 infrastructure and regional economic development. Money from many of these funds has been targeted and used to backfill cuts in other areas. Tapping these funds is admission that Minnesota faces a revenue problem, not a spending problem.
If we are not careful, Minnesota can quickly fall into a two-tiered state: the have-some and the have-less. Local government aid payments to some cities will be reallocated based on political calculations, not by need. School payments to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth will be cut, further weakening urban schools. For more than 150 years we have built ourselves as one state, one Minnesota. It is as true today as when Paul Wellstone said, "We all do better when we all do better."
It is time to start putting forth the real proposals and the real solutions to move our great state forward. Just like Dorothy said, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home," let us hope when this session is all said and done, we can all tap our heels and say the same thing.
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