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Local legislators: Jobs are key in current economic situation

State Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, right, answers a question from the audience during a Saturday morning legislative breakfast at The Oaks at Eagle Creek in Willmar as Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, left, and moderator Bob Mathiasen listen. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

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 28,000 people lost their jobs in February in Minnesota. Estimates, he said, suggest that between 70,000 and 90,000 more workers will lose employment this year. Juhnke said that Kandiyohi County's unemployment rate matches the state average, which was 7.6 percent in January. February unemployment numbers are not yet available, but that national percentage is 8.1 percent.

Gimse cited several legislative actions, a pay freeze at all levels of state government, limiting committee meetings when the Legislature is not in session and a 5 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 flowing 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 available for review.

"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 and presents it to the Legislature during the last week of January. Legislators have 25 days after the budget forecast announcement, 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 Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, reversing state tax policy to 1998 laws, income tax surcharges, sales tax on clothing or borrowing the 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 Senate District 13 alone if his student transit initiative was passed. That includes an estimated $530,000 to Willmar and $360,000 to the New London-Spicer districts.

Dr. Doug Allen, president of Ridgewater College, asked the legislators to allow the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities board of trustees to decide how state funding cuts to the 32-college MnSCU system will be handled.

'We will do it locally," he said, and added a warning: "It will cost jobs and cost programs."

New London City Administrator Trudie Guptill inquired about legislative review of the local government aid formula. The city of New London is facing the loss of thousands of dollars in LGA and may have to raise taxes to cover the losses, which could reach $75,000 over the next two years.

"The formula needs a look," Gimse said, noting that state funding cuts have left small cities on the brink, while larger cities are sitting on surpluses. "There will be a discussion moving forward, I'm sure."