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House passes GOP’s first ‘budget fix’ — but only by 5 votes

 Republican legislation that slashes roughly $1 billion from Minnesota’s projected $6.2 billion budget deficit passed through the House of Representatives today by only five votes.
A handful of Republican lawmakers — including freshman Rep.

 Republican legislation that slashes roughly $1 billion from Minnesota’s projected $6.2 billion budget deficit passed through the House of Representatives today by only five votes.

A handful of Republican lawmakers — including freshman Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston — voted against the measure (PDF) which would continue one-time cuts totaling $840 million into the state’s next budget cycle.

By continuing current funding levels, the bill erases projected increases in state money for higher education, health and human services and Local Government Aid, in the process trimming about one-sixth of Minnesota’s projected budget deficit.

“I’m hoping that we can do some other things, maybe with communities that aren’t relying on Local Government Aid,” said Kiel, whose district contains areas that would see LGA cuts if the bill becomes law.

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Also included in the measure is a mandate for state agencies to cut $200 million from their budgets by the end of the fiscal year and a wage freeze for state employees.

The GOP-controlled House on Wednesday blocked two attempts by Democrats to refer the bill ­to different committees, following nasty but short-lived debate.

Floor debate today was lengthier and more civil.

House Democrats stuck to their message that the budget-cutting measures represent a “reckless, high-property-tax, high-tuition bill.”

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, again called for its defeat but reduced his estimates of local government property tax increases from about $400 million to the $300 million range.

The Republican opposition that fired into action Wednesday against DFL claims of tax increases and service cuts presented a calmer front when making its case: The legislation doesn’t represent a cut as much as an admission that the state doesn’t have as much to spend as previously thought.

The message that state government must live within its means was repeated by Republican lawmakers, who said most local governments planned to receive flat funding next biennium.

But DFLers also raised concerns over how quickly Republicans were moving to push the bill through the House without giving the public enough time to weigh in.

“We’re not elected to play budget Whack-A-Mole, to swing cuts around willy-nilly,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said.

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Thissen and Gov. Mark Dayton – who is scheduled to release his own budget plan Feb. 15 — have criticized the legislation as a “piecemeal” solution to the mountainous shortfall facing the state.

 Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, the bill’s chief author, responded to those concerns by saying, “The only way to eat a hippo is one piece at a time.”

The measure passed 68 to 63, a much smaller margin than Wednesday’s 56-to-71 vote not to send it back to committee. The Senate is currently working on a bill that contains different provisions that would have to be reconciled in a conference committee. 

James Nord,  a University of Minnesota student, is a MinnPost intern.