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Spending cuts have GOP legislators worried — about reaction in their own districts

As curious as it may seem, legislative Republicans are on defense. Even with majorities in both the House and Senate, a well-defined and disciplined agenda and public relations that go toe-to-toe with the bully pulpit of the governor’s office, Republicans are paying attention to the land mines buried on the paths back to their legislative districts.

Case in point: the Republican Rural Caucus that meets every Tuesday to hear from experts about public policy viewed through the lens of agriculture and small-town economies.

State Sen. Doug Magnus of Slayton acknowledges the pressure, if not pain, districts like his will experience, particularly from the budget cuts in local government aid and human services.

“With aging population and population declines, can we support the traditional health care industry?” he wonders. “And in my area, the southwest sector, nursing homes are keys to us because people want to come back and spend their final days.” 

The policy sessions will touch on demographics, energy, business and health care. “I’m telling the members to keep this stuff in the file and look at it as you hear the discussion in the session,” Magnus said.  “This will help you make some decisions down the road.”  

The sessions also give rural Republican members a fighting chance for fair representation in the budget process. Dave Senjem, assistant majority leader who represents the Rochester area, uses school funding as an example. He notes that per pupil funding can be $2,000 to $3,000 less in rural Minnesota than in urban areas, often to compensate for diversity.

“But these formulas do not reflect the evening out of diversity,” he said. “Just look at Willmar, Worthington, Albert Lea. Times have changed since these formulas have been put into place. It’s worth looking at these changes.”    

Dust-up over teacher pay

Changes in K-12 education always provoke strong response. State Rep. Keith Downey had one such dust-up in his legislative district in Edina, which prides itself on support of its K-12 school system. Downey was forced to respond to a district-wide email that he intended to introduce a bill to freeze teachers’ salaries. (That bill was introduced in the Senate by Dave Thompson of Lakeville.) 

Downey, viewed as one of the keener minds on reform legislation, has authored several bills to modify controls on K-12 education, including one that prompted the email alert. The bill would prohibit teachers from striking over contract negotiations if the school board has offered a contract increase equal to the percentage increase in state funding to the school district.

“It was misrepresented as offering a teacher-pay freeze,” he said. “This just goes to show the communication problems.”

Downey responded with his own email in which he commented “how difficult it can be to pass fiscally sound legislation.”

Downey is aware of the major disagreements that loom as the session progresses and anticipates that “the governor and Democrats [will] portray what’s going on as cuts only,” he said.

So Downey, Magnus and other Republicans are arming themselves. “We are doing as a good a job as we possibly can to put the facts and true stories behind our bills,” Downey said.

Magnus said when he hears from voters who believe the solutions lie in tax increases, he tells them: “We’d be OK now, but what do we do in two or four years? There has to be a lot of reform. We just cannot sustain this level of spending.”

Downey calls it all “the pre-budget release messaging battle,” referring to the governor’s budget, which will be released Feb. 15.

Magnus, for one, is confident. “With that knowledge, we can sit down and have a discussion,” he said.

Downey agrees. “We honestly believe if people understand that, we will win.”

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/04/2011 - 08:42 am.

    Minnesota’s problems, unlike the legislature’s committee structure, cannot be streamlined. The GOP’s recent electoral success was a measure of their success in avoiding issues, not dealing with them. Now that they are in the majority, it will be a lot harder to duck the issues as successfully as they have in the past.

  2. Submitted by Tim Walker on 02/04/2011 - 08:50 am.

    I guess this is in the eye of the beholder, but where Cindy sees GOPers with “a well-defined and disciplined agenda” I see quite a few of them quite happy to stray from their promise to focus (like a laser!) on jobs, jobs, jobs.

    To name just two wanderings: A voter ID proposal, and a loosening of gun permitting rules.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/04/2011 - 09:29 am.

    It’s very hard, if not impossible, to reconcile a “jobs, jobs, jobs” agenda with a “cuts only” approach.

    Each dollar of state spending supports jobs. Nurses, doctors, drivers, janitors, plumbers, clerks, construction workers, grocery store workers–all up and down the economy.

    Tell me where the economic incentive for job creation is in that program?

    Cutting spending is cutting jobs. No way around that.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/04/2011 - 10:00 am.

    There’s nothing particularly curious about this, it’s completely predictable. The Republican economic theory is infantile, and they’re approach to government spending and budgets simply incoherent. Such insanities are easy to endorse as long as they cannot become a reality, but now that they can actually pass this stuff the people will see it for what it really is.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/04/2011 - 11:47 am.

    Hear, hear, to #1 through #4.

    Republicans are now discovering that, gasp, actual governing can be rather more difficult than merely criticizing, and that it might have political consequences that don’t have to be dealt with by the minority in recent years. It might even require what the true believer on both sides of the aisle loathes the most – compromise.

  6. Submitted by Roger Smith on 02/04/2011 - 01:01 pm.

    I am surprised that this kind of piece made it into Mrs. Brucato’s article manages to simultaneously gloss over any real consequences that the legislature’s budget proposals would have on rural Minnesota; it also accomplishes the omission that the budget proposals of the GOP are so extreme that HF 130 had four GOP house members vote against it.

    This article is not analysis or coverage of the issues at hand in St. Paul. This is banal, aggressively mediocre writing and far below the usual quality we see here.

  7. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 02/04/2011 - 02:01 pm.

    I repeat: The Republican legislators are dogs that caught a car. They have no idea what to do with it.

    They have no specfic agenda to fix the state budget woes. They cut a billion dollars, haphazardly, and already people are screaming. They have $5.2 more to go in their “cuts only” approach. People have been claiming it will move Minnesota to worse than Mississippi. I think it will make Minnesota appear worse than Cote d’Ivoire.

  8. Submitted by Ellen Wolfson on 02/04/2011 - 02:05 pm.

    How wonderful to have the naysayers confront reality.

  9. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 02/04/2011 - 02:28 pm.

    Since conservatives “love” “pay based on performance”, let’s impose a state law tying *individual* legislator pay to how well the programs they vote for (and against) perform. THAT will tell us which ones vote “for” policies that are GOOD and those that do NOT. Experts are irrelevant–ONLY performance. Voting AGAINST a bill that passes anyway is fine–but if that new law FAILS to live up to its alleged benefits–it would penalize those who voted FOR that new law by reducing their pay. And the pluses/minuses would apply to the elected POSITION (i.e., Rep from Como, for example–not “John Smith” who was the elected Rep from Como). So, if Smith died or was voted out, his successor inherits the higher/lower pay rate (because the Rep voted on behalf of the voters who elected him/her). This is FAIR–because the penalty is actually against the VOTERS who chose to make bad choices in the first place (i.e. who they elected). So, choosing to represent stupid voters who want to do stupid things contrary to the rest of the (state/ country/world/universe) DOES have a penalty. And THAT would make things SO much more interesting !!

  10. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/04/2011 - 04:56 pm.

    Why would this come as a revelation to anyone who thought the matter through? Every nickel in the state budget has a constituency behind it, and it’s there because elected representatives put it there on behalf of the people they represent. The voters like government spending when it’s money spent on them, personally. It’s always money spent elsewhere that’s the wasteful, pork barrel stuff. Cutting spending is great in the abstract, but when it gets down to “what are YOU going to give up?”, the conversation turns less fun. This is why Pawlenty could weasel out of the consequences of his budget cuts for so long: all he had to do was say “Nope, I won’t sign it,” and leave the details for others to clean up.

  11. Submitted by Michael Zalar on 02/05/2011 - 04:33 am.

    NIMBY at work. People are all for spending cuts, as long as the cuts dont affect them personally.
    If the cut means the pothole in front of their house is not going to be filled this year, then its not the cuts they were looking for. And everyone has some pothole that needs to be filled.

    Revenues will start to come back as the economy recovers. Cuts should be looked at as short term, as well as any tax increases or borrowing needed to cover the shortfall. Put, say, a five year cap on any action taken, and reassess at then end of that period when things are (hopefully) back to normal.

  12. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/05/2011 - 10:40 am.

    1) I agree with everyone who has already posted, but also think that Republican legislators who actually see how bad cuts are for their districts may be able to help stop some of the awful ideas coming from the far-right side of the legislature’s aisle.

    2) “It was misrepresented as offering a teacher pay freeze, he [Keith Downey, R-Edina] said. “This just goes to show the communication problems.”

    Yes. More accurately, it should have been described as an anti-teacher and all public employees, anti-union, anti-workers’ rights to organize and negotiate effort.

  13. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 02/06/2011 - 10:04 pm.

    “He notes that per pupil funding can be $2,000 to $3,000 less in rural Minnesota than in urban areas, often to compensate for diversity.”

    What would MLK Jr. say about valuing one student over another based on the color of their skin? This must end.

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