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Legislators agree: jobs are key in economic crisis, budget situation

WILLMAR -- Local legislators agree that keeping people working is a key for the state to successfully maneuver through the current national economic situation and the state's $4.57 billion budget deficit.

"Clearly, clearly across the state, across the country, jobs are the key," Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said Saturday morning at a legislative breakfast. The event, at the Oaks at Eagle Creek, was sponsored by the Willmar Area Chamber of Commerce and Heritage Bank.

Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, noted that the 28,000 people lost their jobs in Minnesota in February. Estimates, he said, suggest that between 70,000 and 90,000 more workers will lose employment this year.

Gimse cited several legislative actions, a pay freeze at all levels of state government and a five percent pay cut for legislators and constitutional officers, as actions that can help workers keep their jobs.

"If we can keep people working, we can turn things around," Gimse said, noting that at every level, less money is following into the state coffers.

As part of the discussion, both legislators were asked to discuss revenue legislation they could support. Gimse declined to speak specifically, not until both Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget and the DFL budget are both available.

"It's premature to talk about tax increases," he said. "We have yet to lay out our priorities."

DFL'er Juhnke countered. "The budgets will be forthcoming," he said, explaining that the governor starts on his budget in August, presents it to the legislature during the last week of January. Legislators have 25 days after the budget forecast, which was Tuesday, to present their budget.

Juhnke laid out a long list of options for raising revenue, including electronic pull tab gaming, a casino at the MSP airport, reversing state tax policy to 1998 laws, income tax surcharges, sales tax on clothing, borrowing money.

"We are sorting through the options," he said. "Everything's on the table."

Gimse focused on his efforts to distribute transit funding to school districts. "Our school bus system is a transit system," he said, noting that there are 1.4 million boardings of school buses each day, compared to 240,000 boardings of metro area transit buses and trains each day. He estimated that $2.3 million in transit money would flow into his district if his student transit initiative was passed.

Read more about the legislative breakfast and topics discussed in Monday's West Central Tribune.