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State budget war draws in veterans

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota veterans know about fighting, but on Friday witnessed something new to many of them: a fierce political battle over funding programs that serve them.

Dozens of veterans, many wearing American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars hats, packed a legislative committee room after Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito sent Gov. Mark Dayton a letter saying a veterans' home could close if the Republican-written budget is enacted.

Shellito told the committee that with 139 veterans' home employees, a 15 percent cut in workers as budget negotiators are discussing would leave him no choice.

Even if cuts are lower, Shellito said, "the homes are going to be affected. The homes are going to have to be looked at very, very seriously."

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, was upset with what his boyhood friend was saying. Lanning, chairman of the House State Government Finance Committee, said veterans' programs would be exempt from the 15 percent cut. The House bill does not specifically leave veterans out of the cuts, while the Senate bill does.

Lanning told reporters later that he would be willing to change the bill to make it clear that veterans' programs should not be cut. The Senate measure already exempts veterans, the military, law enforcement and corrections employees.

A spreadsheet Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's staff handed out at midday showed the Veterans' Affairs Department would sustain about a 10 percent cut. Commissioner Jim Showalter of Minnesota Management and Budget, whose agency produced the spreadsheet, said he needed to figure an across-the-board job cut since legislative bills do not specify where cuts should come.

Lanning was disappointed that Shellito did not call him before talking about closing a veterans' home.

"We have known each other since high school," Lanning told Shellito during House-Senate negotiations. "A simple phone call could have corrected some of the misunderstanding. ... Let this be a lesson to us all, before we start spouting off in a very public way."

Lanning's Senate counterpart was angry.

"It is time this administration quits using veterans as a political pawn," Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, said. "Stop it."

Shellito was far from the only commissioner who appeared wary about the legislative budget plans.

Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson has the only budget already approved, but faces a further cut if legislative budgets pass. He did not understand why if his budget already is law he would face further cuts.

"What more shall we do at the Department of Agriculture?" Frederickson asked.

Lanning's response: "You are going to have to wait and see what comes out of this process."

Lanning said he told Showalter that he owes budget negotiators an apology for misrepresenting the legislative budget.

"This information has hurt a ton of people," Parry said.

Dayton said he cannot accept legislative bills that make "very severe" cuts in agencies that would affect the public.

"I don't favor an all-cuts budget," he said.

In an unrelated meeting, Chairman Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said the health and human services budget will result in real cuts.

"If you are one of those who are banking for a $1 billion more, I would get another bank," he said.

Budget negotiators are trying to put finishing touches on a two-year budget by May 23. Dayton wants to spend $37 billion, while Republicans limit their plan to $34 billion.

Legislative redistricting plan approved by House

The Minnesota House passed 66-62 a Republican-written plan to draw new legislative district lines before next year's elections.

"We have had 15 hearings spanning four months," Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth said, although Democrats pleaded for more time to examine the map and suggest changes.

"Give us the time to make it better," Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, asked.

Anderson made several changes, mostly in the Twin Cities, after about 30 people testified in a Tuesday night committee meeting that specific district lines were not fair. Murphy said that proves the public needs more time to examine the plan and suggest changes, given the fact that the map was released just 24 hours before the Tuesday meeting.

The map is important because how districts are designed can determine which party has a better chance of winning.

A House committee will debate a congressional district map on Tuesday. Senators expect to release their proposals next week.

It has been more than 100 years since a Minnesota redistricting plan has been adopted without court intervention. A case already has been filed that could land this year's plan in court, too.

Anti-abortion bills pass

The House passed two bills restricting abortions.

One to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy passed 82-46, while another bill to end taxpayer funding for abortions succeeded 80-44.

Supporters of the 20-week bill said a fetus can feel pain then.

"Are we going to rip apart human lives that can feel pain?" asked Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud.

Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said abortions still may be carried out to protect the life of the mother.

However, Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, complained that "you think you know better than the mother. ... That's playing God."

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said abortions should be limited, but at times it seems like saving trees is more important to legislators than saving unborn children.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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.