Week 2: How to Solve (yes another) Budget Deficit

I got a chance to sit down with three local legislators on October 16th.  Hayfield Republican Representative Randy Demmer, and Rochester lawmakers Democrat Representative Kim Norton and Republican Senator Dave Senjem.  (I contacted other Democrats to balance the panel but they weren’t available on the morning we did this.)

In the next 1-2 years the Minnesota legislature will have to deal with another gigantic (estimated 4.5 – 7 Billion) budget deficit.  

The initial goal in gathering these legislators was to learn their insights on what could be done to balance the budget.  We got into that, and more. 

All three agree: healthcare occupies the largest growing area of the budget.

Senator Dave Senjem says our health and human services program is the 3rd largest (or most generous) in the country.  He says it needs to be trimmed significantly to bring our budget in line over the long-haul.  

Senjem on Health and Human Services and MN state budget:

Randy Demmer points out that GAMC, or the general assistance medical program – is growing at an unsustainable pace.  (The program was cut through unallotment by Governor Tim Pawlenty after the 2009 legislative session.)

Demmer on GAMC:

But Kim Norton says even when we cut health care programs, as a state we’ll still end up paying for the health care, we’ll just do it in different ways.

Norton on Paying for Healthcare:

Kim Norton says legislators have toured the state and people say they want a balanced approach to balancing the budget;  a combination of cuts and tax increases.  She says there are many exemptions that benefit specific businesses and industries.  “We pick winners and losers in the Minnesota legislature,” Norton says. 

Norton on Winners and Losers:

Norton says Minnesota’s population is aging, more people are on fixed incomes than in the past and that will hurt state revenues, and that trend will only worsen in coming years. 

Randy Demmer says our government spending increases about 19 percent every two years.  He says to balance the budget we need to focus on high growth areas of government and require the heads of those departments to make whatever cuts are necessary to bring the budget into balance.  It needs to be demanded because “necessity is the mother of invention,” Demmer says.  Demmer and Norton agree that it’s nearly impossible to get department heads to volunteer things to cut. 

Demmer says people always want services, but don’t always want to pay for them.  He also says politicians need to grow the courage to say no sometimes.

Demmer on peoples’ views toward taxes and services:

We asked them how good a job they feel Minnesota lawmakers have done the past few years in terms of working together to solve problems.  They gave these grades, with some qualifications listed.

Randy Demmer – Gives MN legislature a C+ to B- he says lawmakers can do a good job of working together.  Some of the reason for the relatively low grade is the damage Demmer says Minnesota business policies are doing to Minnesota businesses, which hurt our economy.

Kim Norton gives a C +.   She says MN legislators are capable of bipartisan cooperation but that too often partisanship takes over and prevents compromise and problem-solving.

Dave Senjem gives Minnesota a B and says when comparing Minnesota to California, Minnesota is doing very well. 

Senjem on MN/CA comparison:

Tidbit: Senjem and Norton both think 20 years from now we’ll have state hospitals again as a necessary means of reigning in healthcare costs for the elderly.  Right now many people receive home health care, which is extremely expensive.

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