ST. PAUL -- Lawmakers began sampling Gov. Tim Pawlenty's appetizer of a budget fix Wednesday. For the most part they declared it distasteful but edible.
Pawlenty's plan cuts $468 million from the budget before June. He still has the main course ahead of him, though, when he must cut nearly 10 times as much to balance the budget through the next two years. His plan for that is expected next month.
Some of the harshest scrutiny came in the Senate budget committee that oversees the Department of Human Services. Most of the department's budget goes to nursing homes and social welfare programs, and under Pawlenty's plan it takes the biggest hit, with $29 million trimmed.
Democratic chairwoman Sen. Linda Berglin of Minneapolis differed with DHS Commissioner Kevin Goodno on several specific cuts, including an attempt to gain more federal nursing home dollars that would end up costing people who pay their own costs about $180 more per month.
As Berglin and other senators questioned the administration's plans, Goodno repeatedly stressed that the problem is so big it can't be solved without some pain.
"This is just the beginning and these are the easy ones," he said. "This is phase one, and phase two is going to be a lot more severe."
The department's plan comes up with $12 million from maximizing nursing home payments by the federal government. It also cuts payments to pharmacists and wipes out a yearly increase that was to go to hospitals. And it delays starting to pay for medical coverage for some autistic children.
Legislators didn't waste time getting started. Several committees convened by 8 a.m. to begin consideration of Pawlenty's plan. Committee votes will start as soon as Thursday.
One lawmaker said he understands the need for speed but suggested it would be wise to back off the throttle a bit.
"It's our job to understand the ripple effects of what we are doing," said Rep. John Dorn, DFL-Mankato.
Testifying before the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee, steel industry lobbyist Ron Dicklich said draining $39 million from a $59 million Iron Range fund would hurt efforts to build a 1,000-job steel mill. Dicklich, a former legislator, said if the mill ever gets built it would also generate 3,000 spinoff jobs.
"By cutting something like the 21st Century Fund, it weighs against that ever happening," he said.
In the Senate State Government Budget Committee, Sen. Jim Vickerman lashed out over a proposed $27 million cut in ethanol subsidies that would wipe out all remaining payments for 2003.
"You're going to have a hard time getting it through the body I represent," Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, told state budget director Peggy Ingison. "I'm not going to let ag take the biggest hit."
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