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House upholds health, tax vetoes

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ST. PAUL -- Money talk became emotional Sunday as Minnesota representatives sustained two vetoes -- one that ends a health program for the state's poorest and sickest residents and the other that would have raised taxes $1 billion.

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With the Legislature facing a midnight tonight deadline for adjourning, the House votes cement Gov. Tim Pawlenty's position that he will cut state programs on his own to balance the state budget. There were no signs late Sunday that any overall budget deal was forthcoming.

Tears were plentiful in a hushed House chamber during touching stories of near-death and poverty-laced childhood experiences during debate on Pawlenty's $381 million veto of the General Assistance Medical Care program. The veto would eliminate the program in 2011, ending state-funded health care for up to 35,000 poor, childless adult Minnesotans.

The 87-47 House vote fell three short of the number needed for an override. Immediately after losing the health-care vote, Democrats who control the House moved on to the tax decision, which fell five votes short of an override, 85-49. In both cases, only Democrats voted to overturn the vetoes.

Pawlenty's line-item GAMC veto was his biggest cut in what could end up being Minnesota's largest-ever budget-cutting exercise. If Democratic legislative leaders and Republican Pawlenty do not reach a budget deal tonight, the governor says he will cut budgets on his own.

The Legislature sent Pawlenty spending bills totaling $34 billion for the budget, when tax collections only are expected to reach $31 billion. With the GAMC and other cuts he already has made, Pawlenty still would need to cut more than $2.5 billion from the two-year budget beginning July 1.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said that people will die in the streets if they do not get medical and mental health care provided by GAMC.

However, Rep. Rob Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said Democrats in control of the Legislature give other items priority over health care for the poor.

"We are willing to build hockey arenas and bike trails and dog parks over your needs," Hamilton said, talking to three GAMC recipients in the House gallery.

"You should be outraged," he said.

One of the recipients is Robert Fischer, a 13-year Duluth resident who at one time operated a successful Twin Cities suburban business. But Fischer told a rally urging the health-care override that he lost his business, then his home and then his health. He lived on the streets for three years.

Fischer quietly told dozens of people outside the House chamber that that GAMC saved him. "I was able to completely turn my life around."

Huntley said that GAMC recipients, who earn $7,800 a year or less, need state help.

"They don't sleep under the bridge because they are lazy, they sleep under a bridge because they have serious problems in their life," Huntley said.

After the health-care debate, the House remained divided over raising taxes.

Democrats said that the tax bill would provide $1 billion to help fill the gap between spending and available money. They said the revenue would help the state's economy.

"We've got tough times," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth said, adding that a $1 billion tax increase is fair considering many programs will be cut

Marquart, chairman of the House property taxes committee, said lawmakers need to compromise between not cutting programs and not raising taxes.

"Both sides cannot have their way," he said.

If Pawlenty is allowed to make unilateral cuts, he added, local governments face big cuts in state payments. Especially hard hit will be rural communities, he said.

Republicans, however, countered that raising taxes hurts the economy.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, complained about the state's budget process, and raises taxes does not help.

"What we need is major reform," Lanning said. "We are on a spending course in this state that is not sustainable."

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said schools were supposed to get some of the money raised by new taxes, but the Legislature has done a good job providing for schools.

"I don't know what 'enough' is in education funding," Urdahl said.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said lawmakers have two choices: "Go it alone with the governor on these cuts to education, to health care, to nursing homes, to disabled Minnesotans - or a balanced approach, a compromise."

The tax bill would raise income taxes on wealthy Minnesotans, increase alcohol taxes and place a new tax on credit card companies that charge more than 15 percent interest.

While representatives were in closed-door meetings before the veto debates, state union workers rallied outside the House chamber with "override" chants.

Among those rallying was the John and Lori Westmoreland family from Moose Lake. Rural Minnesota, especially, is hurting because of state spending cuts, Lori Westmoreland said, watching daughters Lilly and Leah wave join the chants.

Democratic legislative leaders and Republican Pawlenty exchanged budget offers late Saturday and early Sunday, but there was no obvious activity toward a budget deal most of Sunday.

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House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said odds are against a budget deal, leaving Pawlenty the job of unilaterally cutting budgets.

Pawlenty signed into law bills funding all areas of state government, but used his line-item veto authority to eliminate $387 million in spending.

The governor late Saturday signed bills funding agriculture and veterans programs and public schools, the last of the budget bills funding state government.

Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would have funded state government services beginning July 1, when the new budget period begins, even if a balanced budget was not reached.

The health-care debate was unusually emotional.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, could not keep tears from filling his eyes. While he said that he planned to talk about there people close to him affected by health problems, he broke down and urged people to vote to override the veto. "This probably is the most important vote I have taken in my political career."

Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said he fears for the future of eight hospitals in his district. "These are our people."

Rep. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, told colleagues that the scripture he heard in church Sunday morning was: "Love each other as I have loved you." That is why, he said, he voted to restore the health program.

"I care about Minnesotans and Duluthians who I know are struggling," Reinert said.

On a practical level, he added, it would affect Duluth's three major hospitals, all in his House district. They would lose $20 million from the veto, he said.

"We are talking of hundreds of jobs," Reinert added.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said that a vote to override would show that health care is a priority.

"I hope the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick have health care," Sertich said.

People living on less than $8,000 a year cannot go to hospitals far away, Sertich said, so if rural hospitals fail, those on GAMC will not be able to receive health care.

"How long can they delay going to the emergency room?" Sertich said poor Minnesotans are asking.

Hamilton said that Democrats in charge of the Legislature have not set priorities.

"It shouldn't be about the money, it should be about priorities," he said of the debate. "If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority."

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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