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Providing for the poor: Lawmaker describes how GOP Legislature will approach spending

Republicans soon will take control of the Legislature facing a $6 billion biennial budget deficit, and spending cuts are in the offing, including possible reductions in so-called “safety-net” programs.

These programs are intended to help the poor, jobless, hungry, homeless and ill, and the state’s safety net is expensive.

For example, Medicaid, MinnesotaCare and the other major health programs for the poor alone consume roughly one-fifth of state spending.

On top of that, the number of people eligible for state help is growing in this distressed economy. A few indicators:

* The number of homeless, according to Wilder Research’s most recent count last fall, rose about 25 percent compared to three years previously.

* Changes in eligibility guidelines for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is known in Minnesota as the Food Support Program, this month made tens of thousands more Minnesotans eligible for help.

* This fall about 4,000 low income families statewide faced a waiting list for Child Care Assistance from the state to help them pay for childcare, enabling them to go off to work.

What will a Republican-led Legislature do with these safety-net programs?

MinnPost turned to GOP Rep. Morrie Lanning from Moorhead, an eight-year veteran of the state House who has taken a close look at poverty and the poor.

Rep. Morrie Lanning
Rep. Morrie Lanning

Lanning served on the bi-partisan Legislative Commission to End Poverty by 2020. He also co-authored with Republican Sen. Michael Jungbauer, East Bethel, a bill last session to create the Ladder Out of Poverty Task Force, which met for the first time in October.

The commission finished up last year after presenting recommendations to legislators. The task force is concerned with efforts such as mentoring the poor, teaching them financial literacy and enabling them to accumulate financial assets. Lanning and Jungbauer co-chair the bi-partisan task force.

Lanning wouldn’t discuss specific spending cuts — although he did indicate lawmakers may tighten eligibility requirements for some programs — and instead outlined a general approach to dealing with safety-net spending.

Here are excerpts from my interview with Lanning:

MP: First, do you anticipate cutting safety-net programs? Which?

Undoubtedly as we face the budget shortfall we’re looking at here, the Legislature is going to have to take a look at spending across the board, where our costs are going up and to try to get a control on it. Right now health and human services costs are going up at an unsustainable rate. The state economist is saying right now the average annual increase is more than 8.5 percent. In reality, we have had some double digit annual increases.

MP: What is the answer?

The answer is to grow the economy. The main reason why Minnesota’s economy is struggling is tied to jobs. We don’t have enough people working and have people working in under-employed situations. That results in less revenue to the state. In order to grow our economy, we have to grow jobs.

MP: What about those Minnesotans who cannot work because of disability, illness or age? Are they in danger of losing financial support?

We have to maintain programs that are for people unable to care for themselves. For those who cannot take care of themselves, the state has to have a safety net. For those who can take care of themselves or assume responsibility to take more care of themselves they’re going to have to do so or we won’t have resources to take care of those who really need it.

MP: Are you suggesting different ways of determining who needs help?

Yes, we have to look at eligibility. If someone is making good money, we can’t afford to subsidize them.

MP: You think there are people out there who are receiving money they should not be?

We have various programs that provide support to people making over $50,000 a year.

MP: Can you give examples?

I don’t want to start picking on individual programs. If we are going to have resources for people who can’t take care of themselves, we’re going to have to look at eligibility levels. We have to look at that across the board.

MP: Will you accept more money from the federal government to help pay for social services?

It’s all going to depend on the governor. [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty has indicated he’s not going to go down that road.…The new governor will have an opportunity to weigh in on that.

MP: What about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that replaced food stamps? Is that one of the programs you would look at cutting?

Let me make clear: I’m not on the health and human services committees. People on those committees will have to look at all that. The basic message I want to communicate is we absolutely want to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves, but given our budget situation, we’re going to have to take a good hard look. That’s not going to be an easy process. The reality is the road we are on now is a dead-end road. What we’re trying to do with the poverty initiative is to help people climb out of poverty, to help people become taxpayers.

MP: Some in the Republican Party have pledged no new taxes. Is that your position?
I have never been one to subscribe to that kind of a pledge. What I have said is our spending patterns are not sustainable. We need to take a good hard look at our spending patterns and look at ways we can lower our costs and do a good and thorough job of that before we could look at new spending revenues.

Comments (8)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/12/2010 - 09:37 am.

    What was the point of this “interview”? Mr Lanning said absolutely nothing.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/12/2010 - 09:39 am.

    One of the programs Lanning was referring to is MNCare, which recently expanded elegibility to middle class families with kids.

    It’s a form of the “anchor babies” concept; get the kids enrolled to pave the way for everyone else. I’m guessing it’s coming to a halt and in line for a reversal.

    People that are genuinely in need of a “safety net” will find one. For everyone playing the system; the party’s over.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/12/2010 - 10:29 am.


    MNCare has programs for those making over 50K based on coverage for a family that has 3 or more children and who cannot get insurance elsewhere. It’s a program used by many citizens of the US, not the illegals that you imply. A premium is charged for the coverage, it’s not a “free ride”.

    Without insurance and access to normal health care providers, the care dumps onto emergency rooms with usually higher costs due to emergency room charges and delay of care worsening the status of the ill person. In the end, the taxpayer is responsible for these higher costs.

    So is it fiscally responsible to pay more later because you wanted to pay less now? Is it morally responsible?

    As for finding a safety net elsewhere, what charity out there is willing to assume to the cost of medical care for a person who has been denied insurance because of previously existing condition? Is there anyone or any charity willing to assume potentially 10’s or 100’s of thousands of dollars of care? Perhaps you will open up your own wallet for a few thousand?

    Or is it better to let someone live without insurance, potentially losing all assets and deteriorating enough to lose a job and income, ultimately ending up on welfare, again a higher cost option?

    If you are so concerned about fiscal responsibility I assume you are vociferously for health care reform and single-payer system–after all, if we can drive down our costs to that of the the next country (with “socialized” medicine, I might add), we would be the equivalent of $6.00 per hour per worker more competitive in the world market.

    That’s where the job growth will come from. Not from booting a few people off of the only insurance they can get.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/12/2010 - 11:08 am.

    I used the term “anchor babies” to describe the goal, not the participants citizenship status…but most people got that, probably.

    And if I left anyone under the impression that *anything* the government does constitutes a “free ride”, let me assure all that I’m fully aware that *everything* the government does comes with a very hefty price tag; for someone.

  5. Submitted by Duke Powell on 11/12/2010 - 03:55 pm.

    Rep Lanning states:

    “The basic message I want to communicate is we absolutely want to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves…”

    Let me finish that thought for him. “We are going to have to take a very close look at those who ‘won’t’ take care of themselves”

  6. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 11/12/2010 - 04:13 pm.

    Census: Minnesota among leaders in welfare spending
    Wed, 09/30/2009 – 1:34pm Government (MN) Minnesota

    MINNEAPOLIS (AP) New figures from the Census Bureau show that Minnesota governments spend a greater share of their money on welfare programs than most other states.
    Nearly 23 percent of all spending by state and local governments in Minnesota went toward what the bureau calls public welfare during fiscal 2007.
    Among states, that share ranked behind only Maine and Rhode Island at about 24 percent. It was also higher than Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas.
    Under the census definition, welfare includes everything from direct payments to the poor to most state-funded health care programs for the needy and elderly.
    State officials say it’s those generous health programs that put Minnesota near the top of the rankings and increased the share of government spending on them from 17 percent in 1997.

  7. Submitted by Annie Grandy on 11/12/2010 - 07:33 pm.

    Duke Powell re your comment: “We are going to have to take a very close look at those who ‘won’t’ take care of themselves”
    I hope you have a failsafe way to identify those people. I have a lovely relative, looks perfectly healthy, talks well, is well educated but is borderline schizophrenic. Because of the illness, will not take medication or seek help but cannot, I repeat, cannot hold a job, cannot take care of self. What about those working at jobs, often multiple jobs, which do not pay well enough or provide benefits so they can “take care of themselves”? Luck plays a significant part in anyone’s ability to “take care of themself” – energy level, mental stability, health, are all factors. Aren’t you lucky you never contracted cancer? Aren’t you lucky you never had an incapacitating accident? Aren’t you lucky your brain chemistry never went haywire? Aren’t you lucky…?

  8. Submitted by Ellen Lafans on 11/14/2010 - 09:25 am.

    I’m an RN and it saddens me to see how broken and unsustainable our health care system is. It is not just our health care system that is broken, it is our entire political system.

    Beware of those that want to deregulate big business at the cost of the middle class. We have seen how that played out on wall street and the health care industry who has cheer picked and denied us our care. And don’t be fooled into thinking that losing your health care can’t happen to you or someone you love. It doesn’t matter what side of the political fence that you are on. No one is truly protected in this country in terms of their health care and we are all paying the price. We have all heard that story played out in too many ways. People in Canada or other countries look at us as fools because they are not going broke, losing their homes and dying because of their health care. Their satisfaction surveys are actually near 90%. The special interests would like to have your believe that the Canada system is “bad” and that they come here for their health care. Actual studies do not support those facts.

    Our health care has become something other than it was meant to be and the profiteers and special interests are holding us at bay. People are losing their jobs and losing their health care and we have got to do something. In terms of balancing our budgets and keeping us healthy I suggest the single payer – Minnesota Health Plan. After all, your health may depend on it! This plan lets you pick your doctor and puts you in the driver seat, not the health insurance industry!

    Ellen “the Nurse” not Joe “the Plumber”

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