House told budget plans too vague to assess

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 9:10 PM

Four health and human services proposals put forth by Republicans aim to cut about $1.6 billion of the state's projected $5 billion deficit.

Four major health and human services budget proposals by House Republicans -- designed to cut one-fourth of the state's projected $5.1 billion budget deficit -- are so vague that state agencies cannot assess actual savings, two state commissioners said Wednesday.

The warning from commissioners of human services and management and budget came while a House committee took testimony from 91 witnesses about the budget bill, which aims to cut $1.6 billion from projected health and human services spending.

One measure, to cut $483 million from projected costs to keep aged and disabled people out of institutions, may violate federal law, said Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, the first to testify.

"Passing legislation without a real understanding of the fiscal details related to such an enormous portion of spending puts the fiscal stability of our state in serious jeopardy," Jesson and Management and Budget Commissioner James Schowalter said in a letter to the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Minn.

Senate goes for deeper cuts

Separately, a Senate bill introduced Wednesday would cut $1.8 billion from health and human services spending, in part by converting Medicaid and MinnesotaCare, the state's major medical care programs for low-income people, into voucher systems so the poor could buy insurance on the open market.

DFLers said the bill would end health care coverage for thousands of low-income people who can't afford low-premium, high-deductible health plans.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, who heads the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. It also would limit required services for poor people, including eye care, dental care and occupational and physical therapy.

Like the House bill, the Senate bill would seek federal permission to cut people and services from state programs for the poor, sick and disabled and cut about $35 million from mental health services. Hann's bill also would not permit state funds to be used to implement the federal health care overhaul law.

"As a matter of principle, we think [federal officials] shouldn't be constraining us when we're trying to manage our budget and do what is best for the people of Minnesota," Hann said. "To me, the simple answer is, it's our money. I don't know why they think because they're in Washington that they're smarter than we are here."

'A moral document'

Legislative Republicans have pledged to balance the budget by cutting it and not raising taxes, as the governor has proposed.

At the House hearing, the Rev. Peter Rogness, bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was the first of many to thank Abeler for tackling the difficult budget job.

"But there is no way to say we are doing all we can unless we're willing to talk about revenue," Rogness said while urging shallower spending cuts for the sick and poor. The budget "is not just a balance sheet but a moral document."

The House committee is expected to approve the budget bill Thursday. The Senate committee may vote this weekend.

If the Legislature approves a bill similar to either the House or Senate versions, "it almost certainly faces a veto by the governor," said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, the senior Democrat on the House committee.

Abeler has acknowledged as much.

"This is the first round," he said earlier this week. "We'll do our part, the governor will do his part, then we'll try to see where we can meet."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

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