Greater Minnesota budget: from nursing homes to wolves
By Don Davis
This Minnesota legislative session is heavy on greater Minnesota topics, but the governor’s budget, which will be the base of whatever two-year spending plan that eventually passes, drew mixed reviews about how it would fund issues outside of the Twin Cities.
Officials representing Minnesota cities complained that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget did not provide more state money for them; nursing home advocates were upset that he did not boost their funding.
On the other hand, agriculture groups were happy that the governor proposes more money to reimburse farmers who lose livestock to wolves and others liked his plan to increase funding for mental health programs, a problem especially in rural areas.
As soon as Dayton released his budget proposal on Tuesday, the 201 legislators and all sorts of interest groups began sifting through it. The document eventually will be the basis for legislative budget plans, and conventional wisdom around the Capitol is that the governor gets 90 percent of what he wants in a budget.
Republicans took over House control this year by winning 10 rural seats previously held by Democrats, and the GOP has emphasized greater Minnesota issues. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, also is a rural guy, adding to the focus.
In proposing his $42 billion, two-year budget Tuesday, Dayton mentioned greater Minnesota several times, but the Twin Cities-greater Minnesota split was not a theme.
In some cases, the lack of a greater Minnesota mention fueled responses to his plan.
“I am disappointed that Gov. Dayton did not include any new funding that addresses the problems facing our nursing homes,” Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, said.
That was one of the biggest disappointments heard from greater Minnesota.
Minnesota increased nursing home funding last year, but a string of greater Minnesota and suburban nursing home administrators told a House committee this year that they still face major problems retaining employees. State funds largely determine how much they can pay nursing staffs, and administrators said that many of their employees spend a short time at their facilities before moving on to hospitals that pay much more.
A coalition of 131 groups dealing with the disabled and elderly said that state aid allowed 10.4 percent wage increases from 2006 through this year, while inflation rose by 23.3 percent.
Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, introduced legislation to raise nursing home payments 5 percent. Many rural legislators place nursing home state payment increases at the top of their priority lists.
Dayton said that nursing homes received a 5 percent increase last year, with a $93 million funding boost over four years, and he placed emphasis on education and other youth-oriented programs as he decided how to spend a projected $1 billion budget surplus. However, he said in response to a reporter’s question, if a Feb. 27 state revenue report shows a larger surplus, help for nursing homes and a college tuition freeze will be at the top of the list for more money.
While the tuition freeze would affect all students, rural residents generally are poorer than those in the Twin Cities and there are more colleges and universities away from the urban area.
The governor proposed to give the University of Minnesota $32.6 million more to continue a two-year tuition freeze (a third of what some media outlets earlier reported). That is half of what the university requested.
However, he proposed no new funding for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system until faculty members and the administration can solve a dispute. Seven faculty organizations have cast “no confidence votes” against MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone after he launched an initiative aimed at streamlining the system, which has 31 institutions on 54 campuses in 47 communities.
MnSCU and faculty representatives issued a statement during Dayton’s budget rollout saying they are trying to work out a compromise.
The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities complained that Dayton did not call for more Local Government Aid, a program to help cities that have little taxable property value.
“Gov. Dayton’s budget represents a missed opportunity to bring economic growth to greater Minnesota,” said Ely City Council member Heidi Omerza, who is coalition president. “It’s stunning that with a $1 billion surplus, the governor couldn’t put one dime toward restoring the Local Government Aid program back to its 2002 level.”
Omerza also said that his budget plan “also fails to adequately address important economic development issues like job training, workforce housing and broadband.”
Dayton suggested spending $30 million to improve rural high-speed Internet, known a broadband. Estimates put the need at more than $200 million.
One issue rural groups cheered was something most Minnesotans know nothing about: a state program to reimburse farmers who lose livestock to wolves.
Dayton proposes upping the money available from $25,000 a year now available to $125,000. The budget item was especially noteworthy since a federal judge late last year returned Minnesota wolves to the endangered list, eliminating a hunting season that farmers said helped control the wolf population.
Dayton emphasized strengthening mental health programs around the state, and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said they are especially “fragile” in greater Minnesota.
Dayton’s budget documents say there are “too many gaps and insufficient services available in many parts of the state.” His plan calls for closing or reducing the number of beds in some state mental health facilities, while using private facilities more.
Rail safety has been one of the most discussed issues in recent months, and most of the state’s 4,444 miles of track used by 20 Minnesota railroads are in rural areas.
Dayton wants to tax more railroad property and to add an assessment to railroads to pay for safety measures. He said 700 miles of tracks are at risk because they carry North Dakota crude oil, passing 683 road crossings and he recommends nearly $43 million to be spent on crossings in Moorhead, Willmar and the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing.
With most American Indian reservations in rural Minnesota, Dayton seeks $4.5 million to cut the dropout rate and improve learning climate in schools with high Indian populations.
State parks and forests, mostly in rural Minnesota, would get more money from the Dayton proposal.
Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said parks and trails would get a $7.2 million boost to improve customer service and add facilities.
The commissioner said that a $4 million increase would help better manage forests to keep them healthier. Forest roads and bridges also would be better maintained, he said, and forest health concerns such as infestations of emerald ash borer and gypsy month would be addressed quickly.