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Area lawmakers get lots of comments

WILLMAR -- Area lawmakers have received varied reactions from constituents to the $35.7 billion budget deal reached by the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton that ended the state shutdown last week.

"I have received a lot of comments: keep up the good work; you didn't raise taxes,'' said Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar. "But there are a number of people who are concerned about that shift in the education funding and we hear that and understand it and we're going to be working on that moving forward.''

Gimse said Republicans' budget was constantly mischaracterized as an all-cuts budget when it actually increased spending 6½ percent over the previous biennial budget.

He said the budget is "more than what we wanted to spend. I think all of the bills and in all of the areas moving forward we made some tremendous progress as far as what the expectations or the forecasts are going to be going forward.''

"But what we really accomplished I believe in all of our budget areas is an understanding that these unrealistic (spending) forecasts, which were calling for 14 to 20 percent increases, are not sustainable and being mischaracterized as an expectation of what the spending will be going forward,'' Gimse said.

"The reforms that we put in are actually a reduction in the expectation going forward, which will make for more realistic budgets in the out years,'' he said. "That was one the biggest highlights is that we will have better control over the expectations and what we will be spending going forward.''

Gimse did not like the shift in K-12 public education funding.

"That was one of the toughest sells for me to be able to vote for the budget,'' Gimse said. "But already even before the special session was over we have ideas and there's going to be initiatives on how we can actually pay that back. That gave me the confidence, I guess, going forward that we can do this budget today but there are opportunities and options going forward on how we can pay back that school shift.''

Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said people he's talked to "for the most part realize the Republican Party was unwilling to compromise at all."

He said Dayton "has been the utmost statesman," in accepting a less than ideal plan to end the state shutdown. "He realized that the shutdown would be detrimental."

Falk said he would have preferred a solution that didn't involve borrowing money from future tobacco settlement income and from public schools. The budget has not offered a final solution, though, and he finds that frustrating.

He also found the special session frustrating, where Republican leaders said that legislators could not be involved in negotiations if they weren't willing to vote for the bills.

"I'm thankful the shutdown has been resolved," he said. "I wish it would have been addressed in a more for fair and equitable way for all Minnesotans."

Falk said he received thousands of emails during the session and the shutdown. "I try to make sure to get back to people," he said, and he appreciates the dialogue with constituents.

He polled his email list before the shutdown and found overwhelming support for what he called a balanced approach to the budget. "There was so much support for what people saw as common sense," he said.

Falk said he saw a marked difference between his first session in St. Paul and this first year of his second term. In his first two years, the Democratic leadership passed budgets early and had time to negotiate with former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, he said.

The new Republican leadership this year spent too much time on divisive issues and not enough on the budget, in his opinion, Falk said.

Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, said he had sought and was glad that funding for the restoration of Grass Lake southeast of Willmar was included in the final bonding bill.

Ridgewater College had a major renovation and remodeling project that was not included. It had been approved a year ago and vetoed by Pawlenty. This year it was not included in the bill.

Vogel said he plans meetings with college and state level officials to find out why the highly ranked project was not included in the final list for the bonding bill.

"It's not what anybody really wanted," Vogel said of the final budget agreement, but "it was the best solution we could come to."

There were some good things in the bills, he said. One was repeal of a law that required school districts to reach contract agreements with teacher unions by Jan. 15.

Vogel said he wished there had been more time at the end of the session to work out a compromise with Dayton. Republicans were frustrated that they had trouble communicating with Dayton and his commissioners, Vogel said.

His constituents have been thanking him for his work in St. Paul and have teased him about his "tough initiation," he said. "Some aren't happy that we're still spending more than we're taking in," he said.

Some wanted to see more changes in education policy. He tells them that some of the changes are in the works but may take some time.

Vogel said he enjoyed his first session and felt he learned a lot.

"I knew there would be a learning curve," he said. "It was kinda like going back to college; a lot of studying and late-night reading."

Vogel said has not heard many people blaming one side or the other for the shutdown, despite a poll released Thursday by saying that Minnesotans blame legislative Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin. "Time will tell," he said.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said the shutdown was not needed and the state budget should have been passed by June 30.

But, "with the way things are worked out with people who are very disciplined on both sides, we weren't going to reach an agreement on June 30," he said.

It was frustrating it took so long, he said, but one of the only positive things that came out of the shutdown was that Republican Party goals were met. Those goals included not raising state taxes, not spending over $34 billion and instituting some reforms. But the reforms came with a high price tag, he said.

"The impact of reforms won't be felt until later on," Urdahl said. "We purchased the reforms by the increase in spending we had to do."

With the state's second shutdown now over, Urdahl said there was no precedent set and this should never happen again.

"There's a serious mood among legislators to never do this again," Urdahl said. "There will be bills proposed to deal with it and different pieces I'm sure will be coming out before the next session."

As part of a bi-partisan committee with Reps. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, and Carol McFarlane, R-White Bear Lake, Urdahl said the panel will gather ideas around the state for a redesign in state government.

One area that needs improvement, according to Urdahl, is the tax structure. He said the state needs to look at how it taxes Minnesotans.

"Are there some we don't need or some we can change?" he asked.

With just over five months until the 2012 legislative session, Urdahl said legislators have to keep in mind that this year was only a temporary budget fix.

"We just have to approach the next session with the will to make changes in how we budget so we don't have this situation again so we don't have to fix it in a temporary way," Urdahl said.