ST. PAUL -- Moving with uncharacteristic speed, a plan to patch a big hole in the state budget is a step away from a vote by the full Senate after gaining the endorsement of the Finance Committee on Wednesday night.
Only eight days into the 2002 session, the measure intended to wipe out a $1.95 billion projected deficit must only clear the Senate Tax Committee before reaching the floor. Normally, budget bills take months to wind up on the Senate floor.
"We've met the challenge of the governor," said Finance Committee Chairman Doug Johnson, DFL-Tower. "He said move quickly and the Senate is moving quickly."
But the plan is markedly different than one Gov. Jesse Ventura put on the table in early January, which recommended $700 million in cuts, use of a $653 million reserve account and increased cigarette, gasoline and sales taxes.
The proposal pushed by the Senate DFL majority avoids tax increases, cuts spending by $200 million, exhausts rainy-day reserves and employs accounting shifts.
On a 21-13 party-line vote, the committee defeated a proposal by Senate Minority Leader Dick Day to repair the budget by dipping into endowments funded by the state's tobacco lawsuit settlement and by imposing a blanket hiring freeze.
Republicans who run the House intend to detail their own proposal Thursday. House Speaker Steve Sviggum said the no-new-taxes package will contain spending cuts 2 1/2 to three times the amount in the Senate bill.
Finding even $200 million to cut proved painful for senators. The bill approved on a split voice vote in committee Wednesday would take:
-- $75 million from programs administered by the departments of health, human services and corrections.
-- $50 million from state colleges, including about $25.5 million from the University of Minnesota and $24.5 million from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
-- $15 million from early childhood and K-12 education, much of it from the Department of Children, Families and Learning's operating budget.
-- $10 million from transportation and public safety, including a reduction in some security funds for the governor.
-- $10 million from the departments of environment and agriculture, accomplished through reduced grants for things like snowmobile enforcement and the Minnesota Conservation Corps.
-- $38 million from other state agency budgets.
"This round of cuts, as tough as it is, the next round is going to be tougher," Johnson said.
Indeed, this budget fix is only temporary. Economic forecasts show another deficit for 2004-05, in excess of $2.5 billion if inflation is factored in.
Ventura wants fiscal years 2002 through 2005 dealt with at once. For now, Senate and House leaders are focusing their attention on reconciling this two-year budget. A longer-term solution would likely require tax increases, a tough sell in an election year.
Ventura warned again Wednesday that a short-term fix won't cut it.
"They're elected to make hard decisions," he said. "If they don't want to make hard decisions they shouldn't run for office. If you can't get the job done, then don't be here."
He added, "If they are just going to sit there and do gimmicks to get them through an election, that doesn't solve the problem. Then the new administration, if there is one, or a new Legislature next year would be faced with monumental problems."
The Tax Committee hearing on the Senate budget bill is scheduled for Thursday; leaders say a floor vote should come Monday.
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